Sport dancing Ballroom: It's graceful and lovely, but it's not the genteel pastime it used to be. Today it's a competitive sport and it's headed for the Olympics.

June 10, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

For 25 years, Bob Hofmann from Perry Hall went fishing. Betty Hofmann went bowling, or tended her garden.

In 1975, on the occasion of their silver wedding anniversary, Bob decided they should do something together.

"Let's dance!" he said, or words to that effect.

"Let's," she answered, but then sadly pointed out that they didn't know how.

So off they went to the Fred Astaire dance studio in Towson. Thus began a beautiful relationship.

Bob and Betty have been dancing ever since. But they only dance together socially. In competition, they dance with their respective teachers.

They compete a lot. It's what they did all weekend, at the Eighth Annual Maryland Invitational Dance Championship at the BWI Marriott. At least Betty danced. Bob, who is 70 now, was sidelined. Not for any physical reason. It's just that this is a "pro-am" affair, where students dance with their teachers, and Bob's teacher just got married and probably has other things to do.

"But I'll be back," he said with evident determination. As soon as he gets a coach.

The Invitational drew about 500 dancers from all over the country. They danced stately waltzes, sinuous sambas, tango, jive, cha-cha. The professionals -- dance teachers mainly -- shared some $22,000 in cash prizes. The amateurs -- butchers, bakers, accountants, lawyers, etc. -- got plaques attesting to their improvement.

They danced the American style and the International style.

"The differences between the two," said Lister Chua, a CPA from Reisterstown whose wife, Carol, started him dancing about six years ago, "is in the details."

This is ballroom dancing, though didn't the vocabulary of the organizers and the aspirations of the dancers suggest a sporting event?

But, of course. That's exactly what it was. Those whose references to ballroom dancing are derived from "The Merry Widow" or "Gone With the Wind" might ask, whatever happened to the romance of the dance?

Who knows? Nobody whirling around under the subdued light of 12 Marriott chandeliers, gliding lightly over the parquet, seemed to miss it much.

"It is a sport. It is very similar to gymnastics and ice dancing," said David Creger, a dance teacher who, with his wife Glenis Dee, runs First Step dance studio in Towson. More and more people are getting into it. Dance contests such as the Maryland Invitational are held every weekend somewhere in the country, Creger said. They've begun to appear on public television. He estimates maybe 60,000 people are into it.

"In Europe, it is considered a highly competitive sport," Creger said.

So it is in Taiwan, Japan and Singapore. Ballroom dancing is big in Canada, England, Germany, Scandinavia and Italy.

The Latin Americans, who invented so many of the world's dances, are less interested. Two of Creger's friends opened a studio in Brazil, he said, but it closed for want of interest among Brazilians.

"To Latins, it is not a sport. They just like to dance."

Most people encountered here are more than happy that ballroom dancing will be a demonstration sport at the Olympics four years from now, and a medal sport at the games in 2004.

Athletic bodies

Many are drawn to it as an exercise, one considerably more challenging than aerobics. Bodies are hard and taut. The dancers, especially the women, keep in shape. It shows: They wear skimpy dresses when doing the "rhythm" or "Latin" dances. The diaphanous ball gowns, with their sequins and ostrich feathers floating like motes from sleeve and hem, are reserved for the "smooth" dances.

Ballroom dancing has an array of categories that makes the multiple weight divisions of professional boxing simple to grasp by comparison. The dancers themselves are divided by age and ability. Their levels express, perhaps, their Olympic yearnings. There are bronze, silver and gold dancers -- good, better, best.

The six age categories run from below 12 years to over 65.

"After that, you got to dig 'em up to get them on the floor," said Creger, a trim 65 himself.

Within the American style, the dances are grouped into "smooth" and "rhythm" categories and within the International, there are the "standard" and "Latin" dances.

The "smooth" dances are the waltz, foxtrot, tango and the Viennese waltz. The "standard" dances are the same, with one added -- the quickstep. The American "rhythm" dances are the rumba, cha-cha, samba, swing, West Coast swing, mambo, meringue and the Peabody. The International "Latin" category lists the rumba, cha-cha, samba, jive and the paso doble.

Despite the reference to gymnastics, hard work and muscle pulls, and the fact that no flushed maidens are pulling dainty hankies from their sleeves as they might have in the ballroom of Tara, much of the original aura of social dancing remains.

It is the music that makes it so, though contestants dance only to quick snatches of it. Each of these brief forays onto the floor is called a "heat," and there were 441 of them before the last dancer packed up his or her shoes last night and headed home.

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