Mike Nawrocki is counting. It's a natural instinct for the CPA who heads Nawrocki Smith LLP, an accounting firm in Melville with 53 employees. But this counting has nothing to do with the ledgers of school districts, municipalities, nonprofits and individuals who are clients.
On a break from work, Nawrocki is counting to himself: Slow-quick-quick, slow-quick-quick, slow-quick-quick. It's a dancer's count, the rhythm of a rumba Nawrocki is demonstrating with his partner, instructor Kimberly Schwartz, 31, of Deer Park.
They move in sync, incorporating "Cuban motion," a fluid coordination of hips, legs and arms. Nawrocki, 58, says it wasn't easy to learn, but it adds a professional polish to his Latin ballroom numbers.
What started as a charitable gesture has evolved into a serious activity for Nawrocki. For years, he turned down requests to be in the "Dancin' for Kids Showcase," but in 2011, he finally agreed to be one of the 10 dancing business executives to compete. The annual fundraising event is run by a Nawrocki Smith client, The Safe Center LI in Bethpage, a nonprofit advocacy organization for victims of abuse.
Nawrocki assumed he'd be dancing with his wife, Kathie, who also is 58, so the Syosset couple signed up for lessons at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Plainview. When they learned the event's rules required amateur dancers to pair with professionals, she partnered with the dance studio owner and placed as a semifinalist in the competition.
Nawrocki hired Schwartz. A strong competitor, he started preparing three months before the event, taking hourlong lessons with Schwartz three times a week. Other days, he practiced in his living room. He mastered the 90-second swing and samba routines, aced the competition with Schwartz and took home his prized mirror ball trophy.
"When it was over," Nawrocki says, "I didn't want it to end." So he continued to take two lessons a week. "When I'm doing the fox-trot and flying across the floor, and the air is going past you, it's exhilarating," he says.
Besides the trophy, Nawrocki has one more souvenir that has come to represent his passion for dancing. On the wall of his modest corner office, there's a vibrant painting of tango dancers by artist John Clancy. It was commissioned by Safe Center LI and has been used every year as the art for its "Dancin' for Kids Showcase" program covers.
At the 2011 fundraiser, the painting was put up for auction, but Nawrocki couldn't bid on it because he was busy with the competition. After he took first place and realized how important dancing was to him, the painting became more meaningful. So the person who won the bid for the painting gave it to him, and Nawrocki made another donation to Safe Center LI.
A flair for performing
Some who are new to dancing might shy away from performing before strangers. But Nawrocki earned his stage chops years earlier with the Darby Players at Chaminade High School in Mineola. At Hofstra University in Hempstead, he joined the Spectrum Players. "I would try out for musicals and would get the parts, and drama majors would be upset that an accounting major could tap dance," he says.
And while many, like Nawrocki, take ballroom dancing lessons later in life, he kicked up his commitment quotient higher than most could imagine. Two years ago, he leased 2,500 square feet in the basement of the Broadhollow Road office building, one floor below Nawrocki Smith, and built the Excalibur Dance Studio.
"My dream of building a dance studio had nothing to do with turning a profit and all to do with my passion for dancing," he says. "Having a chance to dance each day, whether at lunch time or before or after work, is worth my investment."
While he wasn't looking to make money, word-of-mouth referrals and the studio's website (excaliburdancestudio.com) have drawn paying patrons. Charging $60 an hour, the studio generates a weekly revenue of $500 to $1,000, "enough to cover expenses," Nawrocki says. Schwartz, who is also Nawrocki's studio business partner, teaches as many as 15 patrons a week. Many of them are couples readying to wow guests on their wedding day. She also gives ballet lessons to youngsters.
Nawrocki says it cost $15,000 to convert the space, including an $8,000 oak dance floor from Utah. The place was gutted and painted, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors were installed; there's also the obligatory disco ball.
The centerpiece art is an oversized picture of Nawrocki and his wife of 36 years. It was taken at the 2012 "Dancin' for Kids" fundraiser, when they opened the event as noncompetitors, dancing a tango to "Por Una Cabeza," the song featured in the movie, "Scent of a Woman." The spotlight dance was an honor bestowed on Nawrocki because of his win the previous year.
Nawrocki calls his wife a "natural dancer," and she applauds his commitment to dancing. "It's a healthy outlet," says Kathie, a travel agent. "He's lost weight, and I always know where he is -- on the dance floor or at work."
Motivation to dance
Surviving colon cancer in 2001 motivates Nawrocki to work less and dance more, he says. He performs in about four dance competitions and charitable shows a year, but he still puts in at least 50 hours a week at work -- about 10 less than in his pre-dancing days.
Ernie Smith, 54, co-founder of Nawrocki Smith, has known his business partner since 1984, when Nawrocki hired him at the now-defunct CPA firm Arthur Andersen. "He works so hard and the fact that he found something that he is passionate about, you have to let him do it -- and it's changed him," Smith says. "He is much more balanced and calm."
Now, as Nawrocki inches toward his firm's mandatory retirement age of 65, he is preparing for his next number. "Throughout the process," he says, "I always thought in the back of my mind that when I retired someday from my CPA practice, I would love to become a dance instructor." Make that a bronze-level certified dance instructor.
Since January 2013, he has logged more than 500 hours finessing "not just steps but form and function," he says. Nawrocki is also studying the syllabi of "American Style Rhythm" and "American Style Smooth," from the U.S. Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, a certifying organization.
Similar to various belts in karate, there are levels of certification for dance instructors, according to Hunter Johnson, a spokesman for the National Dance Council of America. The majority of ballroom dance students range between 40 and 60 years old, but Nawrocki is an anomaly in his pursuit of certification, Johnson says. "It's abnormal for a teacher to start in his 50s."
The test for certification won't be easy because of the intricate steps for both men and women that have to be memorized, but Nawrocki, who became a grandfather in early July, is dancing toward his goal. For this year's Dancin' for Kids event in April, Nawrocki recruited Jan Barbieri, 63, to be his partner. She's the executive director for Childcare Council of Nassau Inc., a nonprofit based in Stewart Manor and a client of Nawrocki Smith.
This time, Nawrocki was the professional half of the dance team, officially dubbed the "student instructor." He proved to be "a fabulous teacher," Barbieri says, "so supportive and encouraging that you want to do even better and succeed." They didn't place in the contest, but Nawrocki says, "I told Jan that we were winners the minute we walked on the floor because she had never danced [competitively] before."
He also draws high praise from one of his three sons, Daniel Nawrocki, 29, who is an executive director at Morgan Stanley in Manhattan. Daniel attends his dad's performances whenever he can. It's easy, he says, to be a fan of "a 58-year-old, cancer-surviving accountant dancing his heart out and moving like a gazelle, right out of the wild."
BECOMING A CERTIFIED DANCE TEACHER
Becoming a certified dance instructor is no cakewalk, whether going for the bronze, silver or gold levels.
The U.S. Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, one of the country's nine major certification groups, requires mastering at least one dance style, such as American Style Smooth, which includes the waltz, tango, fox-trot and Viennese waltz, or American Style Rhythm, which encompasses the rumba, cha-cha, bolero and mambo swing. Other styles include International Standard and International Latin. Instructors must know all the dances in a category to pass the certification exam.
"Most [instructors] are not certified in every style," said Mandy Ball, the society's examinations director in Orlando, Florida. "It all depends on your interests."
Candidates also must also demonstrate different steps for men or women, depending on the test examiner's request. While some certification groups include oral and written components in their exams, the society asks candidates to respond verbally to such theoretical questions as the feet positions, number of turns and number of beats in specific dances.
Generally, candidates take a year to prepare for certification.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, accounting firm Nawrocki Smith LLP in Melville was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.