The Next Dance

Hit TV show, movies fuel the ballroom craze

July 17, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

So you think you can't dance? Well, you're not alone, but your numbers are getting smaller.

Americans have rediscovered the pleasures of gliding around the floor in the arms of a partner. As a result, interest in ballroom dancing is greater than it has been at any time since the middle of the last century, say dance professionals.

The reasons vary. People are looking for new ways to stay fit, and ballroom is a good way to meet people. But maybe it's something as simple as the fact that people are tired of dancing by themselves, as Thomas Murdock, vice president of marketing for Arthur Murray International, suggests.

Membership in the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association has jumped from 10,000 to 25,000 in the last six or seven years, says its spokesman, Ken Richards. "We're seeing younger people coming into studios in droves."

The youth movement may be because of the growing recognition of competitive ballroom dancing as a sport; dance is even being considered for inclusion in 2008's Olympic Games in Beijing. Or it may be because almost every college and university in the country now has a dance sports club or offers classes, compared to 30 years ago when for some reason only Brigham Young University did.

Wendy Goldstein, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park, always wanted to learn to dance, but lessons in her hometown, St. Louis, were too expensive. When she got to college, she joined the school's ballroom dance club. In the 10 months since she started, she's become very serious, practicing five days a week when she's not studying cell biology and molecular genetics. She and her partner recently won "best newcomer couple" at a competition in North Carolina.

Goldstein loves ballroom dancing, she says, for several reasons. "You don't see much chivalry anymore, but ballroom is very chivalrous. It's addictive, because the people are so much fun and the dancing is so much fun. You don't have to be good at it to have a good time.

"And you get to dress up," she adds. "That's one of the most appealing things."

Not only are more people dancing, they're watching dancing in record numbers. This summer's surprise reality hit, Dancing With the Stars on ABC, drew 15 million viewers and was the top-rated show for several weeks.

Fox has high expectations for its entry in the category, So You Think You Can Dance, which has its premiere Wednesday at 8 p.m. Contestants for the American Idol-esque title of "best dancer in the country" will be doing hip-hop, jazz and krumping; but ballroom is also in the mix.

The indie film Mad Hot Ballroom has become a respectable hit in limited release this summer. It documents a program that brings trained dance teachers to New York public school kids. Who knows? Ballroom could become as hip as hip-hop. On the horizon is New Line's dance drama Take the Lead, starring Antonio Banderas, which should be out next year.

Ballroom dancing has become an entertainment phenomenon that feeds on itself. Earlier films and television shows such as PBS's Championship Ballroom Dancing got people interested in dance, and dancing got them interested in watching it. Some think ballroom's current popularity can be traced back to the early 1990s with the success of the Australian comedy Strictly Ballroom, unexpectedly a worldwide sensation.

Others, like John Pattillo, owner of the Towson Dance Studio, saw an upswing of interest as early as 1977, when John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever blazed on the scene.

"It sparked a huge influx," Pattillo says. "People came in to learn the hustle and disco and got interested in other dances. There hasn't been one huge [dance] blockbuster since Saturday Night Fever, but many movies have incorporated dancing, like Scent of a Woman."

Each time people see how much fun dancing with a partner can be, dance teachers reap the benefits.

The last film to inspire the craze was 2004's Shall We Dance?, in which Richard Gere played a middle-aged man whose life is renewed when he learns ballroom dancing from Jennifer Lopez.

"Richard Gere made it OK to dance again," says Murdock of Arthur Murray International, the largest of the dance studio companies.

There has always been an ebb and flow in ballroom's popularity, and things were slow in the late '80s and early '90s. People went to clubs and shook it to the music, no partner needed. But since the mid-'90s, Murdock says, there's been a steady increase in general within the industry. Two years ago, Arthur Murray's business was up 7 percent from the year before. Last year, it was up 12 percent, and this year, it's already up 28 percent.

"Hollywood brought people back to the dance floor," says Richards, "and back into each others arms."

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