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Your dance studio’s biggest problem? Needing foreign workers

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A complex business case mixed in with a pinch of foreign double-cross has North Carolina’s highest court resolving a dispute over talented employees in sequins and skin-tight gowns.

The talent involves a pair of ballroom dancing instructors from Eastern Europe and a struggle over profits that, just as the Katy Perry-Taylor Swift feud, started with hard feelings about poaching away dancers. The case offers a glimpse into the immigrant labor crucial to dance studios dotted across most U.S. cities that have enjoyed more attention with the TV popularity of “Dancing With the Stars.”

Just as professional dancers on that show learned their steps in places like Ukraine and Russia, competitive ballroom or Latin dancers from the poorer half of Europe have snagged U.S. work visas since the 1990s. They’re often the ones twirling customers who swell studios ahead of wedding season each year.

Studio owners have turned to a steady flow of foreign workers from places where dance is as routinely part of childhood as football in the United States, said Lee Fox, president of National Dance Teachers of America and South Florida dance instructor.

Most dance instructors enter the U.S. under temporary work visas issued to persons who show “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, art, education, business, or athletics. The government issued 15,918 of these O-1 visas in 2016 — 50 percent more than five years previously. The State Department and Department of Homeland Security said this week they couldn’t provide figures for a subcategory of the visa that applies to artists.

But studios are still so short of dance instructors that pros competing at events like next week’s United States Dance Championships in Orlando, Florida, are sure to be wooed by offers of better pay if they’ll move, North Carolina studio owner Michael Krawiec.

“It is very cut-throat,” he said in an interview.

Krawiec and his wife, Jennifer, contend in a lawsuit heard by North Carolina’s Supreme Court this week that they are victims of a rival’s unfair trade practices, unjust enrichment, and infliction of emotional distress.

The Krawiecs say they invested time and money into wrangling work visas for dance instructors Ranko Bogosavac of Bosnia and Darinka Divljak of Serbia on the condition each would work exclusively for their Fred Astaire dance studio near Winston-Salem.

But within a few months of their 2011 deal the dance partners from the former Yugoslavia were gliding over to Metropolitan Ballroom, a Charlotte dance studio owned by Jim and Monette Manly. The Krawiecs and their company, Happy Dance Inc., had paid airfare, visa costs, and room and board for the exclusivity of their smiles and spins, the lawsuit said.

A special state court for complex business disputes last year dismissed the allegations against the Manlys and their business, but left some in place against the dancers. A Supreme Court ruling on how the case proceeds is expected in a few months.

The Krawiecs haven’t produced a signed employment contract that includes a noncompete clause, the attorney representing the Manlys and the dancers said. The rival studios are separated by 75 miles and three counties, too far for a reasonable noncompete provision, and the only terms outlined for the dancers employment in visa applications was a promise of $1,700 a month in wages, the Manlys lawyer said. That is about three times the monthly average wage in Serbia and Bosnia, according to statistical offices in both countries.

That base pay was sweetened by incentives and paid even during the months Michael Krawiec said he spent shaping dancers into customer-focused teachers able to please American customers. While Bogosavac and Divljak couldn’t be forced to work to the end of the limited-term visas the Krawiecs pushed through for them, they should be held liable for his losses, Krawiecs’s lawyer said.

Divljak declined to discuss what motivated her to work in America. Bogosavac had no listed phone number and didn’t respond to an email.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio

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