Tony Lesakowski finished his dinner at the Chinese restaurant in the plaza by his West Seneca house and saw a dance studio he hadn’t noticed before. As he headed for the lights and a sign that said “Buffalo Ballroom Dance Center Iliana,” he stepped through the front door and began to change his life for the second time in a decade.
It was in December a few years ago. His wife, Geraldine, had been dead for a little more than a year. He’d been feeling low. She was the one who had cared for him when his heart had begun to fail. Then about eight years ago, when he was turning 60, he got a heart transplant from a stranger in his 30s. Lesakowski felt so good, he went back to being an athlete. He and Geraldine started to take short trips.
But now, with her gone, he knew he needed something to fill all the space she left behind. Inside the dance studio, owner Iliana Kaneva gave Lesakowski a list of dances to choose from. He checked every one. Rhumba. Cha cha. Waltz. Tango. Foxtrot.
“That’s my biggest problem. I want to learn them all,” said Lesakowski.
In the last two years, he has won so many dance contests that the plaques help fill the length of the studio’s front window.
“I dance six days a week ... I can do almost anything. It’s incredible,” he said.
Lesakowski’s original heart might have begun to fail 14 years ago because of a virus. The left ventricle wasn’t pumping enough blood. He had so little energy that he ended his career with a management consulting firm.
Instead of doing the technical support and supervision work he was used to, he spent a lot of time around the house. Life was tough.
“I could hardly walk across my living room,” he said in a video posted on YouTube. “I was exhausted.”
By the time of the transplant surgery, his organs were shutting down. He had weeks to live.
Change was dramatic with a new heart. Right away, his ashen skin turned rosy. Within months, he felt great. He started to cycle, swim and play basketball for the Transplant Games in Pittsburgh. He and his wife spent a week there together during the competitions.
Then, in 2009, just weeks short of their 41st anniversary, Geraldine died from a stroke after surgery.
“And I was the guy that was supposed to be dying,” he said. “In one month, she was gone.”
By that evening in December when he stepped out of that Chinese restaurant, he had spent more than a year recovering from losing her. He did things around the house and finished a kitchen renovation they started. He knew he had to find something else.
That’s when he entered the dance studio and met Kaneva.
They liked each other right away. A fond, but professional friendship began. He told her about his heart. She admired his athletic talent. As they danced, she could tell he was good at picking up the steps, and getting his body to move with the music.
“He puts emotion into dancing,” Kaneva said. “I think this is his second chance in life, and he has to make the most of it.”
They’ve been entering the “pro-am” category of dance contests with Kaneva as the professional and Lesakowski as the amateur. They compete in places like Miami and Puerto Rico. Next month, they’re headed to Toronto.
“We are just very impressed with him,” said Dr. Leway Chen, medical director of the University of Rochester’s heart transplant program. “When he lost his wife, things were pretty bleak.”
People with transplants can have more limitations than people with “native” hearts, Chen said.
“It’s unusual to be as functional as he’s been,” the doctor said of Lesakowski.
While it’s hard to know exactly how long a transplanted heart will last, the average time is 11 years. A man in England has gone for 31 years. Exercise makes a difference.
“They tend to be the ones that do better longer,” Chen said.
Now Lesakowski jokingly asks if he can get the warranty on his heart extended. He does what he can to take extremely good care of himself, and to dance.
“You gotta move to stay alive,” he says in the YouTube video of him dancing, proudly posted by the U of R. “I never thought at this age I would have so much energy and desire to do something.”
“After I had my transplant, I recommended that everyone should have one,” he joked, “just to build up their energy.”
He adds strength training and workouts to lessons and rehearsals. He eats a lot of vegetable and grain meals. Steak dinners are an occasional thing.
He takes group lessons three times a week. On Tuesday evenings, he goes to dances at the veteran’s hall in Williamsville. Some Friday nights, he heads to Buffalo for salsa dancing at Epic restaurant.
Then, three days a week, he rehearses for competitions with Kaneva. They’re working on a trip to a competition in Mexico.
“I’m learning four new dances,” Lesakowski said, looking happy after spinning with Kaneva through Latin twirls during an afternoon rehearsal at the studio on Orchard Park Road. “She drives me crazy with this stuff.”
He admits he’s addicted. Dance, he said, is like playing golf. It’s hard to get really good at it. The more he does, the more he has to learn. And the more incentive he has to keep going on.