Strictly Ballroom

Forget 'Dancing with the Stars.' This weekend's dancing championships showcase the real thing

April 02, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,

As usual, Carrie Ann Inaba doesn't mince words.

Fans of the reality show Dancing with the Stars, on which the frank and engaging choreographer is one of three judges, might think the show demonstrates ballroom dancing at its best. But Inaba says anyone wanting to see the genuine deal should head to the national ballroom dancing championships this weekend at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

"TV has a tendency to dumb down and simplify," says Inaba, who will be an honorary judge of the competition. "What you see on our show is a watered-down version of ballroom dancing. The first goal of any television show is to entertain."

Not that the three-day event, which is under the auspices of USA Dance, will lack either glamour or entertainment value.

About 1,100 dancers, ages 7 to 70, will step off in the four major ballroom dance styles: International Standard (such as the tango and quickstep); International Latin (cha-cha and paso doble); American Smooth (waltz and fox trot); and American Rhythm (East Coast swing and mambo).

At stake are not only the championships, but the right to represent the U.S. in the World Games, which will be held in China in June.

"I am honored to be part of the ballroom world," Inaba says. "It's visually stunning, and the dedication and artistry needed to be a top dancer are profound."

Inaba's background is in commercial jazz choreography, which is related to competitive ballroom dancing in roughly the way that the Harlem Globetrotters are related to the Los Angeles Lakers. Both teams know their stuff and perform many of the same maneuvers, but they serve different purposes.

But Inaba thinks that each field could learn from the other.

"I've always believed that our worlds could greatly benefit from merging a little," she says. "The discipline and rigor of ballroom dance could help the commercial world. And, the commercial world's emphasis on performance could help ballroom dance build a larger audience."

Clearly, the latter already is starting to happen. Shows such as Dancing with the Stars , So You Think You Can Dance? and Superstars of Dance have given the art form a new cachet. The phenomenally popular Dancing with the Stars, originally spun off from a British dance show, has become one of the most-watched shows in the U.S.

A new atmosphere

"These shows, and in particular Dancing with the Stars , have created an atmosphere where you can talk about ballroom dance to people who previously would have been totally uninterested in it," says Peter Pover, president of USA Dance, the organization governing the competitive version of ballroom dancing.

"My other sport is golf, and when I meet up with a new group to play a game, they ask, 'What do you do for a living?' When I used to say 'ballroom dancing,' it stopped the conversation. Now, their first question is, 'Who do you think is going to win this thing?' - and they're not talking about the World Series."

In particular, the shows have helped attract male spectators.

"In the past," Pover says, "men who might have been condescending to dance sports are being drawn to it by the presence of athletes they respect who testify what hard work ballroom dancing is. It used to be that, by far, our largest audience was middle-aged women. That's no longer true. The demographics for these television shows speak for themselves."

But fans of the reality show who attend the championships will note some differences. For instance, half a dozen couples take the floor simultaneously, instead of performing one at a time, as they do on Dancing with the Stars. And unlike the television show, in which routines are choreographed to songs that have been chosen in advance, competitors at the nationals don't know what song will be played until the first note is sounded.

"Ballroom dancers have to be extremely adaptive to change their routine to whatever music has been selected," Inaba says. "There's also an element called 'floor craft.' The couples have to dance full out, while maneuvering around all these other moving targets. It can be thrilling to watch."

Though ballroom dancing is recognized as a sport by the Olympic Committee, it isn't part of the official games. That might change if ballroom dancing were to draw audiences as large as those for, say, ice dancing or women's gymnastics. Importing a celebrity into the nationals from a show like Dancing with the Stars, with its approximately 20 million viewers, could help raise the sport's profile.

But while Inaba clearly is enamored of ballroom dance, not all of the contestants feel the same way about her. The January announcement that Inaba would preside over an aspect of the competition caused an uproar; the choreographer, by her own admission, isn't credentialed as a ballroom dance judge.

A Facebook group protesting Inaba's selection has 211 members. There was talk of petition drives and boycotts.

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