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Ballroom dancing is alive and well in the Santa Clarita Valley, thanks to dance teacher Jill Irwin and a club, the Stardusters.

The Stardusters, about 90 members strong and ranging in age from 20 to past 70, meet for Jill's dance classes every Thursday evening at the Senior Center in Newhall. They have a dance at the center the fourth Saturday of each month.

Jill, who has been a dance teacher since 1948, is also co-owner, with her ex-husband John Morton, of the Westmor, which they founded in 1958. Located on Western Avenue, it is one of the oldest ballroom dance studios in Los Angeles and, Jill said, the largest in the world.

Once ballroom dancing champions, Jill and John founded the annual California Star Ball in 1960 and have co-organized ever since. It's ``the oldest dance event'' around, Jill said, and dancers come from ``all over the world to compete'' on Thanksgiving weekend at the Wyndham Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. The Star Ball features competition in a variety of categories: amateur, newcomer, professional, Latin and theater arts.

During her competition days, dancing smooth ballroom - ``waltz, fox trot, that kind of thing'' - Jill would compete in four to five events a year. Now there are about 200 dance tournaments a year in the U.S. alone. Jill also has traveled the world judging ballroom dance competitions from Australia and London to Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Born in London, Jill started dancing at 11. The cause of polio and a vaccine had not yet been found, and doctors recommended exercise such as dancing as a way to stave off the threat of the disease. As a young dancer, Jill was invited to join the famous Sadler Wells Ballet but felt ballet was too one-sided, with no variety. In the late 1940s, she became part of an English traveling musical comedy show starring Benny Hill, who was just beginning his long career.

Although she tried tap, ballet and musical-comedy dancing, she switched to ballroom dancing. She soon viewed teaching dance as ``the only way I was going to keep control of my person,'' she said. Jill opened her own school and taught dance to children and to American servicemen stationed in England.

She laughs as she remembers being told by an inexperienced serviceman, ``They don't dance like this in the States.'' It piqued her interest, and in 1957 she decided to find out for herself. ``I came over to check out dance, and I stayed.''

The popularity and growth of ballroom dancing competition has some drawbacks, Jill noted. It can be a very expensive hobby, which makes it ``very difficult for the average person.''

Ballroom dancing has been talked of as dance sport. Jill balks at the term. She sees it more as an art than a sport.

``I'd like to get it back down to the grass roots,'' she said.

She notes that colleges and universities have shown interest in competition. Brigham Young University has had a top-notch dance team and has been competing for 20 years, and now 13 other college campuses participate.

``I'm trying to think of ways of getting young people out there to use some of their energy on the dance floor.''

Jill moved to Santa Clarita 20 years ago, and some of her dance students moved to the area as well. The Stardusters group was formed by some of her former students in 1985. Interest in the dance club has remained keen. One of the challenges is the lack of local dance floors. The members look for dance floors and travel all over Southern California to dance. They've gone as far as Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara and Glendale but are hoping, Jill said, that the new hotel under construction will have a dance floor. Musicians play in person - not just recorded music - for the Stardusters' monthly dance, and there are homemade refreshments - all at the reasonable price of $5 per person.

Bobby Stone, one of the founding Stardusters, said the monthly dances not only are fun, but also ``a good place to meet men.'' She should know. When Bobby's first husband died after 30 years of marriage, she needed activity. Dancing ``started out as a diversion to get me through widowhood.'' Six years ago, she married one of the men, Jim, whom she taught in dance class. ``In the beginning, he had two left feet. Everybody now says he's a good dancer,'' she proudly said.

Bobby recommends the dance classes. ``The experienced ones help the novices. We switch partners often to keep our skills growing. You learn to dance with many people.'' Though there are often more women than men, Bobby said that ``Jill makes sure the extra women get to dance, democratically.''

As for Jill, she's got dancing in her blood. ``Dancers never quite retire,'' she said.



Photo: Jill Irwin, right, teaches in a dancing class at the Newhall Senior Center. A co-owner of a large dance studio in Los Angeles, she has been the nucleus of ballroom-dancing enthusiasm in the Santa Clarita Valley, where she lives.

Tom Mendoza/Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 3, 1996

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