Faith and Benny Agbayani celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary this year, and both agree that the success of their partnership is doing things together. Maintaining a close relationship is more than saying, “I love you;” it’s taking on challenges as a team, mastering new skills and learning together. Overcoming obstacles in life requires commitment, sacrifice and a willingness to cooperate. The Agbayanis do all these things well, but simply call it “sticking together.”
The Agbayanis serve as Dance Director and Associate Dance Director of the Hawaii Ballroom Dance Association (HBDA), which has chapters throughout Hawai‘i where people may learn ballroom dances and participate at social dances at their Dance Studio or Balls at the Ala Wai Golf Course Palladium in Honolulu. Faith and Benny began at the HBDA Pearlridge Chapter. Then they became dance instructors with Arthur Murray Dance Studio in ‘Aiea, and competed in ballroom dancing competitions in Las Vegas. Later, they returned to HBDA as Rotating Instructors — demonstrating new dances to all the HBDA chapters. Now, they direct 53 volunteer Telemark instructors, who encourage ballroom dancing students throughout Hawai‘i to reach for the stars.
“Telemark” is the name of a fundamental turn used in Waltz double-reverse turns and Foxtrot reverse turns. Mastery of the telemark is so essential to ballroom dancing that HBDA uses “telemark” to brand its Telemark Corps of Instructors, annual Telemark Ball and Telemark Queen.
HBDA students normally start with the Foxtrot and Waltz, but before long, they step up to a full repertoire — Merengue, Rumba, Paso Doble, Argentine Tango, Mambo and West Coast Swing — to name a few.
The Agbayanis successfully waltzed through many projects and challenges before they knew anything about ballroom dancing. Says Faith, “I think it’s the power of love and partnership that makes our marriage strong and helped us raise our family.”
Benny agrees. “When you make sticking together a priority, you are going to stay together and enjoy a nice life,” he says.
Ballroom dancing is partnership — an activity that can only be done perfectly when both partners work together, focus on every step and synchronize to the beat of the music. One leads, and the other follows. Both roles must be performed expertly. Mastery means learning the steps, working out the kinks, and lots of practice.
How did Faith and Benny first get involved in dancing? We might imagine them coming from society families who danced at grand parties and taught their children to dance. Not so.
They both came from big working families. Faith is part Portuguese, German, Samoan, Chinese and part what Benny calls “poi.” Benny’s family is Filipino and Spanish. They learned the necessity for hard work, teamwork, cooperation, and helping with family chores.
Benny grew up on an animal farm in Wahiawā and never even attended his high school prom. Farm work prevented him from participating in sports after school. At 17, he joined the U.S. Marine Corp Reserves and tried his hand at non-farm jobs — gas station attendant, fry cook. In 1967, he became the manager of Heights Drive Inn and Coffee Shop (now The Alley at Aiea Bowl). One of his first hires was a counter girl named Faith. She was a good worker. Benny took up bowling and softball in his off hours and found out that he was pretty good at athletics.
Faith and Benny had a good work relationship based on mutual respect. One day, Benny asked, “Eh, can you count money?” Soon Faith was doing the daily accounting as well as serving food in the coffee shop and drive-in.
Benny left the coffee shop for a maintenance mechanic job with the U.S. Coast Guard but kept coming back to visit Faith. On their first date in 1968, a drive-in movie and dinner, Faith asked Benny to swing by her home to meet her father.
“I was a little nervous; then her dad showed up at the door with a pipe wrench in his hand! It kind of spooked me,” says Benny.
Faith’s dad had been trying to unclog the kitchen sink, and Benny offered his assistance. “Faith’s mom liked me right away, and I was OK with her. I hoped he would like me too,” says Benny.
Before long, he and Faith were making plans for the future. “I remember telling Faith that with my Coast Guard job we would be ‘all set.’” They were engaged in 1968 and married at Kawaihao Church on April 3, 1971.
In the ’70s, Benny organized a bowling league at Aiea Bowling Center with guys from the U.S. Coast Guard. Faith was secretary for the Monday night “Tired Weekenders” league, which grew from 10 to 24 teams. Organizing groups became the first step for this couple’s dance through life.
One day in 1979, Faith told Benny that she knew of a fun activity that they could do together. Sticking together was their way of doing things, so Benny asked, “Yes, Honey. What is it?”
Faith said, “Ballroom dancing.”
“Whoa!” said Benny, “Dancing is not for me!” He was fine with any athletic sport or game, but not dancing. Despite his protest, he attended the first class.
“I still didn’t think much of it until I saw a Telemark Instructor demonstrate professional dancing and all I wanted to do was learn how to do that. So I kept going to class and began to figure it out. We joined the Hawaii Ballroom Dance Association (HBDA) classes, directed by Eugene Ichinose. He and his wife Harriet founded the association in 1959. Ichinose was a serious man, a shogun, an able director and a perfectionist. I could relate to that. Sports take precision and mastery. You have to practice to learn how to cook, pitch, bowl, even how to run fast. Dancing took a lot of energy too, and I got into it.”
Faith and Benny had been a team for a decade: working out plans, negotiating roles and responsibilities, and reaching their goals with perfect synchronization. Benny was leading, Faith was following, and outcomes required both of them to perform. But this time, Faith chose the game.
When the boys came along, Benny and Faith encouraged them to play the team sports that Dad was never able to play when he was young.
Faith was all in. “My boys were active rascals; they loved releasing energy on the ball field.”
Aiea National Little League games became social events for all the parents. Benny says, “It was a pleasant family atmosphere in those days, and we bonded over potlucks at the field after the games. The men enjoyed a couple of beers at the park before going home. Can’t do that anymore.”
The Agbayanis’ organizational skills came into play again when the boys got interested in baseball and soccer, where Benny coached in the Aiea National Little League, AYSO and HYSA; Faith was the Business Manager and team mother. When Benny Jr. and Brendyn were at Saint Louis School, Benny coached intermediate baseball and Faith became the Saint Louis Division Mother for the Class of 1993. This is a family sticking together.
During the years when son Benny played major league baseball for the New York Mets was a valuable clutch hitter in the 2000 National League Division Series and World Series, Faith and Benny and the family became proud cheerleaders.
Ballroom dancing only looks easy because the couples practice hard to make it look that way. Every graceful movement represents focused learning and endless rehearsal with the music. Togetherness and respect have to be strong enough to survive the hard work of learning and executing each step perfectly. On the dance floor, your partner’s moves are your moves.
Soon after joining the Hawaii Ballroom Dance Association, the Agbayanis were instructing other students. “Eugene Ichinose asked us to be Rotating Instructors, teaching at all the O‘ahu chapters. We declined because Faith and I both felt that we should first learn more dance skills, traditional dance terminology and steps. So we joined an Arthur Murray dance class and paid for lessons for the next eight years.”
Their Arthur Murray instructors encouraged them to compete in a national ballroom dancing competition at Las Vegas, Nevada. “In 1980, we won several medals, gold, silver and bronze! In 1982, we came back with gold, silver, bronze again!” says Benny.
In the ’90s, “Mr. Ben and Miss Faith” were Arthur Murray instructors in ‘Aiea, and when the studio moved to Florida, they returned to HBDA, with full credentials. Eugene Ichinose was happy to have the Agbayanis back, now with the confidence to share their knowledge with others. His only advice to Benny was to be a “little less agreeable.” He said, “Benny, as director, you have to have a thick skin and cannot say yes all the time.”
There isn’t much Benny could do about his amiable temperament, but with help from Faith he found a way to be more firm. “When disputes arise, Faith talks to the people and finds out what the problem is. She understands Hawai‘i cultures, personalities and how things work. After she and I discuss the issue quietly, I can kindly say no if I have to. Working together is what we do best,” says Benny.
HBDA has eight chapters throughout the State. Its mission is to provide dance experience for the people of Hawai‘i that is fun, affordable and promotes healthy minds and bodies. The association’s performance venue is the Palladium, an 11,000 square-foot polished eucalyptus dance floor upstairs at the Ala Wai Golf Course clubhouse. Each month, on the 1st Saturday, HBDA has a dinner dance event at the Palladium. Monday through Thursday, from 7 pm to 9 pm, Basic Bronze I/II, Bronze II/Silver intermediate and advanced students gather at the Dance Studio to practice an extensive repertoire of dances including Tango, Swing, Samba, Rumba and Merengue. Classes for Novice Beginner students are held at The Dance Studio in ‘Aiea Saturday mornings, from 8 am to 10 am. Line Dance/fitness/Hot Hula takes place at The Dance Studio Saturday, from 10 am to Noon.
For seniors, ballroom dancing has many benefits: aerobic exercise, mental exercise and socialization all improve and sustain good health. Learning new dances and keeping to the rhythm of the music are proven to support thinking and mood. And dancing is fun — laughter is a powerful medicine!
Every November, HBDA holds the Telemark Ball, a fundraiser that supports the HBDA’s Telemark corps of non-salaried volunteer instructors. Proceeds from event ticket sales will fund annual membership dues for the instructors. This gala event qualifies as a “three-shirt” event for the men, counts as low-impact aerobic exercise. The reigning Telemark Queen of 2017–18 is Rotating Telemark Instructor Elsa Navares. She and her escort, Romeo Navares, thrilled the guests by dancing the Viennese Waltz.
If you are thinking, “I want to dance like that,” the Telemark instructors
at HBDA will act as mentors, instruct you, and give you an opportunity
to practice so that you and your dance partner may develop confidence and experience the joy of dancing.
Benny recently celebrated his 75th birthday, and looks forward to seeing the grandchildren graduate. At HBDA, Benny and Faith are proud of the students and grateful for the instructors, who are his backbone, and the legacy of Eugene and Harriet Ichinose. Sticking together leads to success and happiness. The Agbayani secret is out!