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THE BALL'S IN PLAY : BALLROOM DANCERS TRAIN LIKE ATHLETES AS THEY PREPARE FOR CONTESTS AND, PERHAPS ONE DAY, THE OLYMPICS.

Byline: Jenifer Hanrahan Daily News Staff Writer

Nobuo Yonekura stretched while his wife, Emiko, took a swig from a water bottle and jogged nervously in place.

As the crowd stood for the national anthem, Emiko stripped off her sweat jacket.

``We have to concentrate now,'' she said, closing her eyes and taking Nobuo's hands.

Channeling their energy for a track meet?

Not quite.

The Yonekuras - she in a $2,000 glittery gown and he in a black tail coat - were among 65 couples who tangoed and cha-cha-cha-ed, some waltzing off with medals, at the Western States Amateur Ball at the Glendale Civic Auditorium last month.

Fred and Ginger's grace and glamour still have their place, but today's ballroom dance competitors may be thinking less about Hollywood musicals and more about a sneaker ad - ``Just do it.''

``Ballroom dancing is no longer just Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray dance studios,'' said Patricia Maier, president of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association. ``Competitive dancers approach the training in the way that any serious athlete would approach training.''

Ballroom dancing even may become an Olympic sport.

The International Olympic Committee took the first step toward accepting ballroom dancing by granting the official organization for dance sport, the International Dance Sport Federation, provisional recognition last year.

Dance sport, you ask? That's right. That new, athletic-sounding name is what competitive ballroom dancers call what they do these days.

``If you think of ballroom dancing as a recreational activity, like jogging, then dance sport is track and field,'' said Peter Pover, vice president of the International Dance Sport Federation, which represents amateur ballroom dancing associations from 69 nations.

An Olympic berth would be the best thing to hit ballroom dancing since the box step, Pover says, but he isn't holding his breath.

In line ahead of dance sport are alpinism, better-known as mountain-climbing; korfball, a weird variation of basketball from Holland; and orienteering, in which participants get dropped in the woods and use compasses to get out.

Those activities already have been given full recognition by the IOC.

In the meantime, Dance Sport Federation officials have to prove dance sport is widely practiced in most countries and decide whether professionals or only amateurs will be eligible.

The federation has to comply with IOC regulations - including testing athletes for illegal drugs such as steroids. Seriously.

Whether ballroom dancing is a sport or an art form, of course, is a subject that's hotly debated in Olympic circles. Purists surely will balk at the prospect of Olympic ballroom dancing - no doubt the only competition held in high heels.

But dance sport enthusiasts insist their moves are no simple ``Macarena.''

Ballroom dancers compete in either international style, which has standardized moves throughout the world, or American style, a flashier style that originated in the United States.

For beginning and intermediate competitors like the Yonekuras of Sherman Oaks, the emphasis is on perfecting basic steps.

In four back-to-back dances that lasted about 1-1/2 minutes each, the Yonekuras swept across the Glendale auditorium floor, at one point narrowly avoiding a collision with Ralph and Christine Warren of Sylmar, who struck a pose in their path.

The Warrens fell in love while ballroom dancing. They have been marriage and dance partners since 1981.

``The whole idea of the man is to show off the woman,'' Ralph Warren said. ``It's better if you're romantically involved. You can do it a lot better if you really feel the part.''

Don't let the expensive gowns and tuxedos fool you. Ballroom dance competitions are no staid affairs. Spectators got downright rowdy as they hooted and cheered for their favorite couple.

Emiko Yonekura, 48, a loan officer at a bank, dragged her husband, 47, a pastry chef, to his first dancing lesson seven years ago.

``I used to play tennis and golf. I thought dancing was kind of sissy,'' Nobuo Yonekura said. ``Now I'm more hooked on dancing than my wife.''

In the Glendale competition, she dipped. He guided. They captured first place in their division.

Advanced dancers create their own variations, putting their signature on the dance while retaining its essence - from the snappy, cheery ``Singin' in the Rain'' fox trot to the seriously seductive tango.

To train for competitions, David Hamilton, 35, winner of last year's American Ballroom Dancing Championships, works on choreography two to four hours, five days a week, with his partner, Olga Foraponova, 32, of Torrance. Several times a week, Hamilton, a Toluca Lake resident, runs for 40 minutes on a treadmill, swims for 20 minutes and lifts weights to tone his upper body.

``We can't get very bulky. We have to look nice and long and lean in our tail suit,'' said Hamilton, who started dancing 17 years ago at a Fred Astaire dance studio. ``But we need all the leg strength and aerobic conditioning we can get.''

Foraponova had a background in gymnastics and ballet before taking up ballroom dancing and emigrating from Russia four years ago. She designs her own gowns, gluing as many as 8,000 rhinestones on each, and wears them only once.

``We always have to be new, different,'' she said.

Striking a balance between sexuality and refinement, they try to impress the judges. This is especially important because rather than giving scores, couples are rated against one another.

In major competitions, couples may have to perform in as many as seven rounds as the judges whittle the field.

``We try to draw them in emotionally, so they're to the point where they can't leave us,'' Hamilton said. ``We want them to see the musicality, the chemistry between us.''

As Hamilton twirled Foraponova in a Los Angeles studio, they seemed to float across the floor as one.

``He's doing his thing. I'm doing mine,'' Foraponova said. ``The trick is to make the two work together.''

In this year's U.S. championship held in Miami, the duo placed second in the American smooth division, which includes four dances: waltz, tango, fox trot and Viennese waltz. They started dancing together only three months before, when Hamilton's previous partner quit to have a baby.

Ballroom dancing is dominated by teams from Europe and Japan, where professional dancers compete for pots of as much as $30,000. When Hamilton won the U.S. championship last year, he took home only about $2,000.

Like many top dancers in the United States, he earns a living by teaching and coaching, which makes him ineligible for amateur competitions such as the Glendale ball.

Still, the renewed interest in social ballroom dancing, especially tango and swing, has given the sport a boost in the United States.

David and Dorothy Reilly, who snacked on yogurt and trail mix before their turn to compete, took dancing lessons for their son's wedding.

``My wife panicked because she heard the bride's parents were good dancers,'' said David Reilly, 61, of Northridge. ``She dragged me off to the class kicking and screaming. Now we've been competing for 3-1/2 years.''

Whether ballroom dancing can compete with big-time American spectator sports is anyone's guess.

``Twenty years ago, soccer wasn't an American thing to do, but it became an American thing to do,'' Maier said.

CAPTION(S):

6 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) Ballroom dancing partners OlgaForaponova and David Hamilton refine their graceful moves during a practice session.

(2) David Hamilton, an advanced ballroom dancer/competitor, stretches before a workout session.

David Sprague/Daily News

(3) Ralph and Christine Warren of Sylmar are the picture of grace as they swirl around the dance floor during last month's Western States Amateur Ball at the Glendale Civic Auditorium.

(4--5) At left, Nadia Eftedal, a judge at the Glendale competition, keeps a close eye on a pair of dancers. Winning couples receive Olympic-like medals, above.

(6) Emiko, left, and Nobuo Yonekura of Sherman Oaks slip off to a storage area to fine-tune their steps before the Glendale competition. They went on to win their division.

Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 2, 1996
Words:1334
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