Mary Murphy’s uninhibited laughter and excited screams have made her a fan favorite on the judging panel of Fox’s Monday night competition “So You Think You Can Dance,’’ but she started honing that personality very early. As the youngest of four siblings, and the only girl, she was an unapologetic tomboy as a kid.
“I like to say that I was the fourth boy in my family, and I did everything they wanted to do,” she says. “If they went muskrat hunting, I went along. I was Huckleberry Mary!”
She’s had an impressive career in ballroom dance, but she didn’t develop that passion until after college, when the manager of a dance studio where she was working noticed her potential and took her to see the U.S. Ballroom Championships in New York.
“I walked into the Waldorf Astoria with that three-tiered balcony and the crystal chandeliers and it was like a movie,” she recalls. “I saw about 20 couples swooping across the floor in a waltz in all these costumes and makeup and rhinestones and hair. You have to remember, that was so totally foreign to who I was at that time, but it was like a lightning bolt hit me and I knew on a cellular level that I wanted to be a professional ballroom dancer.”
When she’s not working on her Fox series, you’re most likely to find her at Mary Murphy’s Champion Ballroom Academy, her San Diego studio, where she periodically offers free classes to Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.
“Ballroom dancing affects five out of six areas of the brain, because there are so many things going on at one time,” explains Murphy, whose mother died of the illness. “There are few other things that can reduce your risk as much.”
Born: March 9, 1958, in Lancaster, Ohio.
Education: A bachelor’s degree in physical education, with a minor in modern dance, from Ohio University.
Nickname: The Queen of Scream.
Early dreams: Before falling in love with ballroom dance, Murphy originally planned to be a track coach, and teach P.E. to children with learning disabilities.
Personal best: She considers the high point of her competitive dance career to be a waltz she performed at the World 10-Dance Championship in Innsbruck, Austria.