James Eisman toiled at UCI on and off during the 1990s, “majoring in everything” until one pivotal day when he decided to take ballet.

His reason for enrolling: “I met a couple girls and wanted to get to know them better, so when they said they were taking ballet, I said, ‘Oh, me too.’” The women dropped out, but Eisman stayed – inspired by his instructor, Israel Gabriel.

“At first I thought, ‘Ballet? It’s going to be a bunch of guys in tights.’ But after a few classes I felt as if I had just undergone martial arts or military training; our instructor would tease and mock us with comments like, ‘Why are you sweating?’”

With Gabriel enforcing pliés and pointes, Eisman switched from academia to the barre. He began dancing at UCI, and for local companies like Anaheim Ballet and Newport Dance Academy. He expanded his repertoire to jazz and other styles. In 1996, he started teaching ballet, swing, salsa, tango and other dance at Anteater Recreation Center; he’s now head dance instructor for Campus Recreation.

His students want to learn whatever dance is currently in vogue in movies, TV shows and pop culture; “Dancing with the Stars” has given a lift to ballroom. They soon discover Eisman isn’t a typical Arthur Murray-style teacher. He’s part instructor, comedian, drill sergeant and coach.

“I yell. I’m in their face, but most importantly, I keep it fun” he says. “I want them to enjoy learning, and I want them to go to a club and have all the tools they need to have a great time rather than feel embarrassed or uncomfortable.”

Eisman, whose wife Eve received her M.B.A. from UCI, helps raise the couple’s two young children in their Tustin home while working at the ARC. He also teaches Campus Recreation’s indoor rock-climbing classes and facilitates Team Up!, the high ropes challenge course. Mostly, though, he’s teaching students how to have the “home field advantage” on the dance floor.

“There are a lot of things dance can fix. Dance instills a sense of confidence because you have control of your body, and you can do things others can’t,” he says. “Low self-esteem, social problems – if you learn to dance well, those vanish.”