‘Dance’ judge raises awareness about domestic violence

On the popular FOX show “So You Think You Can Dance,” Mary Murphy is the loud, bubbly judge who expresses approval with a scream and books dancers passage on her “Hot Tamale Train.”

In Murphy’s nontelevised life, her Champion Ballroom Academy in downtown San Diego just celebrated its 20th anniversary, she has danced on Broadway, and she is becoming a more vocal advocate for victims of domestic violence.

Last year, Murphy broke her silence about being physically abused by her husband of nine years and it has become an important step for her to raise awareness about the issue.

Murphy will be the keynote speaker at the Center for Community Solutions’ 11th annual “Tea on the Town,” which will be held from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. June 4 at the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley. The Center for Community Solutions, which has an Escondido location, hopes to raise awareness and funds for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“People look at me and see me always laughing, carrying on and screaming, and they need to know that this happened to me in my life and you can get past it,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t have to own you or define your life. ... Abuse still grows in silence, and as long as I kept silent, it still had power over me.”

Murphy said it’s important to have the resources for women that CCS provides because she said if she had that kind of support, she might have left her abusive husband a lot earlier. The center gives abused women a place to run to, a place that can help — something she did not have.

Murphy originally landed in San Diego 23 years ago when she drove her car cross country from her native Ohio for a dance partnership. The dance partnership didn’t work for her, but she loved San Diego and decided to stay — opening up her Champion Ballroom downtown in 1990.

Surprisingly, Murphy didn’t start dancing until she was 19 years old.

She grew up in a very rural town that was more like “Footloose,” the 1980s movie about a town without dancing. Even if there had been dancing, Murphy isn’t so sure she would’ve tried it. She was much more into sports, such as track and field, basketball and volleyball.

The transformation happened when she was around 21 years old, attending the U.S. Ballroom Championships in New York. She fell in love with the entire profession — the magnificent dancers and unbelievable costumes.

“I knew in that instant I wanted to be a dancer,” Murphy said.

Though she had just earned her degree in physical education, she threw it all away on a new goal: to become a champion ballroom dancer.

She became the Austrian National Champion first, then moved back to the United States, found a new partner and became the U.S. National Champion four years later, retiring from competition the next day because she’d accomplished what she’d set out to do.

“So You Think You Can Dance” came along at a perfect time, when Murphy was looking to find something else she could become involved in with dance, she said.

To learn more about the Center for Community Solutions event, visit

In the six seasons the show has been on, her favorite performance was last year by Melissa Sandvig and Ade Obayomi, a dance that was a powerful tribute to women who have suffered from breast cancer.
“The dancing was as spectacular as it could have possibly been, I don’t know how they could’ve done it better — it was absolutely beauty dancing,” she said.

Murphy said she has respect for what the dancers accomplish on the show, with only 5 1/2 hours to learn each routine. Around season two of the show’s seven seasons, she started to try other styles of dance, such as African and hip-hop to see how tough it was.

She said her body felt like a 2-year-old, relearning how to move because she was so set in the ballroom style.

“What happens on that show is extraordinary,” Murphy said. “I still don’t believe sometimes what some of them are capable of.”

A perfect example was last year’s winner, Russell Ferguson, who had no formal training and held his own against some of the best dancers in the country.

“He had opportunity and had heart, and that’s how I felt, too,” Murphy said.

She said a lot of people probably said she wouldn’t make it as a professional dancer but she would not quit — this year, she accomplished the pinnacle of her career, dancing on Broadway in “Burn the Floor.”

“It was one of my favorite dance moments in my life for sure,” Murphy said. “There was never a show on Broadway with ballroom dancers in my day, when I was younger and would have liked to be on there. It wasn’t even a dream that was possible.”

The judge’s table on “So You Think You Can Dance” will be noticeably quieter this year as Murphy and her “Hot Tamale Train” will not be permanently on the panel. Murphy will be doing more choreography on the show, which premieres on May 27.

As is Murphy’s style, she is looking forward, seeing what she can do next. She is working on developing a project all her own.

“I want to try something new, I want to learn the other side now, I want to be an executive producer of my own show,” Murphy said. “It’s just the way I am. I want to keep growing. I feel alive when I’m learning.”

Find out more about Champion Ballroom Academy at