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Having a ball.


During the first half of the 20th century, Americans took great delight in ballroom dancing. Such traditional European steps as the waltz and polka alternated with such smoky Latin routines as the mambo and samba. After watching Fred Astaire kick up his heels on the silver screen, many dapper young men fantasized about putting on their top hats, white ties, and tails to dance the carioca or the continental to the strains of Begin the Beguine.

In the good old days of social dancing, nearly 100 volunteer instructors were retained by the management of the Indiana Roof Ballroom to teach patrons the latest steps. Flappers did the Charleston, and during the Great Depression, thousands of marathon dancers struggled to stay on their feet to win desperately needed cash prizes. Coat-check facilities were available for 4,000 guests, and conga lines snaked across the ballroom's 8,700-square-foot dance floor until the jitterbug, lindy, and cha-cha took over the scene.

Indianapolis teen-agers attended their high-school proms under the room's starlit "Mediterranean" sky, and on one seemingly magical night, a human-sized rabbit led a chain of dancers in the bunny hop. Then, just as talking movies had forced vaudeville to suffer an untimely death, a peculiar combination of social and economic factors conspired to make ballroom dancing an endangered form of entertainment in America.

What happened? Hollywood stopped making expensive movie musicals at about the same time that inner-city troubles caused a massive exodus to suburbia (where Friday nights became devoted to supermarket shopping instead of ballroom dancing). Places like New York's famous Roseland, which had unprofitably large dance floors, found it difficult to pay their rent.

In the '60s and '70s, while performing the frug, jerk, twist, hustle, and boogaloo, many people became absorbed in such isolated forms of self-expression that they never even bothered to touch their partners. Even though adults still danced the fox trot, cha-cha, and jitterbug while attending weddings and bar mitzvahs, ballroom dancing was perceived as being part of a celebration rather than a social activity that could stand on its own. Marge Champion, who, along with her late husband, Gower, had achieved fame as one of America's top dance teams, worried that ballroom dancing would soon become a lost art.

A lost art, indeed.

Today, ballroom dancing is making an astonishing comeback among the under-40 crowd, who once laughed at their parents for touch dancing "the old-fashioned way." Why is this dance form becoming so popular with people who grew up listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles? Because many are now attracted to the beauty of its movements and the ways in which ballroom dancing--which is based upon a solid combination of physical intimacy, tenderness, and unquestioning dependency--can make them look glamorous.

Whatever the attraction may be, many social and athletic clubs (including the New York Health & Racquet Club) are now replacing some of their aerobics classes with introductory lessons in ballroom dancing. "As people seek out a more conservative social image in a turbulent world, one senses a strong desire for refinement," observes Teddy Kern, who teaches ballroom dancing in a New York studio. "Ballroom dancing offers successful men and women a way to meet other people who earn money, spend it, and like to dress up. It's an activity that is totally respectable, can always be done with someone else, and is performed in an environment that has a positive ambience.

"Ballroom dancing is also a way of acting out acceptance and respectability," says Kern, who is also a dance instructor at Baruch College. "One of the reasons why ballroom dancing has become so attractive is that it's never done in a sad or depressing environment."

In 1976, San Francisco's Hyatt Regency embarked on an experiment that became so successful it has now become one of the hotel's biggest attractions. Its Friday night tea dances attract a crowd of nearly 300 young professionals who dance to the music of the Del Courtney Orchestra after leaving their offices in the financial district. For some of these yuppies, ballroom dancing offers a chance to kick up their heels. For others, it is merely good exercise.

America's young couples are hitting the dance floor with a vengeance. In Indianapolis, the Indiana Roof Ballroom has reopened after a $6 million restoration that included the installation of strobe lights and computerized fog, bubble, and snow machines, and a hot new dance hall called the Cat Club has opened in New York.

From June 4-8, the mid-U.S. Tournament & Dance Championship contest, which features a $25,000 purse and performances by Brigham Young University's Ballroom Dance Company (the undefeated U.S. Formation Champions), was held at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. In July, the championship ballroom dancers Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau brought their American Ballroom Theatre to France to open the internationally famous summer art festival in Aix-en-Provence. Even New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art got into the act with a magnificent exhibition of dance costumes entitled Dance.

Perhaps more than anything else, it is the music that inspires people to get up and dance. That's why KDYL--a nostalgia radio station aimed at the 35- to 55-year-old market--has been able to sponsor a series of wonderfully successful ballroom dances in Salt Lake City. "Since Alvino Rey and his wife, Louise King [one of the King Sisters who sang with Rey's band for many years], both live in Salt Lake, we put together the best band we could assemble and produced our dances with dinner and the whole works!" explains KDYL's Chris Hanson. "Anytime you're playing old, pre-1960 sounds, you're really talking to people who grew up thirsty for dance music. On the air, we feature big-band music and traditional vocal sounds like Gershwin, Kern, and Cole Porter--that whole style of American popular music from 1900 to 1950, which is currently undergoing a major renaissance."

For young professionals who like to feel respectable, such social events as KDYL's dances are a godsend. Unlike the solitude they experienced while shaking their booties through the rock era, the tango, fox trot, and merengue require them to relate to their partners in a positive manner. Some are trying to emulate the ways in which their parents once socialized; others have begun to look upon ballroom dancing as a competitive sport. But one thing is sure: whenever a slow dance ends in a tender look and a dip, the couples achieve a feeling of satisfaction, style, and worldly sophistication that continues to elude the new-wave rockers in their crowd.

"The family unit is very tight in Houston, and although people don't have coming-out parties any more, parents have started training their children at an early age to be socially acceptable. One of the best ways is to get them involved in dance, which is good exercise, gives them a sense of poise, and helps them to relax in front of other people," claims Mark Baxter of the Dance City U.S.A. studio. "When a young woman's hair is in place and a young man's tuxedo fits well, it gives them a higher sense of self-esteem--which is very difficult to impart to youngsters these days."

What these young professionals have recently seen on stage has only whetted their appetites for more. American Ballroom Theatre's presentation was designed to translate the basic techniques of modern ballroom, Latin American, and fun dancing styles into theatrical terms. Choreographed by John Roudis (a professional dancer who served as Rudolph Valentino's stand-in while the famous matinee idol was filming The Sheik), an 80-minute program entitled Sheer Romance made its New York debut in 1984 and has since toured the country to great acclaim. In fact, after most performances, the people in the audience leap at the company's invitation to come onstage and join its performers in a waltz.

In 1985, Tango Argentino took New York by storm. As a result of Tango Argentino's popularity, dance studios are receiving constant requests for tango lessons. San Francisco's Hyatt Regency recently added the tango to its Friday night tea dances.

Why is everyone suddenly dressing up and rushing out onto the dance floor? "When societal pressures are high, people seek out pleasure and diversion. Ballroom dancing is the epitome of the perfect social contact. It is very intimate, very acceptable, nonverbal, and has always been one of the primary social mechanisms," Kern says. "It's all very new, exciting, and exotic to these people-- and they're having themselves a ball!"

Photo: Partners wanting to keep in touch have reprieved ballroom dancing from the endangered list of social activities.

Photo: Summer camps that once went overboard for water sports, hiking, and arts and crafts are changing the kids' dancing style from spasmodic to ballroom.

Photo: Indiana's one-time premier nightspot (above) makes a comeback (below) as a new generation waltzes under starlit Spanish skies to the tune of a $6 million renovation of the breathtakingly beautiful Indiana Roof Ballroom in Indianapolis.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Heymont, George
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1987
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