Ballroom Dancing Is 'Hopping' : Top-Notch Couples Will Compete in 3-Day Event

The rock 'n' roll revolution all but eliminated flowing and elegant ballroom dance. But the elegant social art form epitomized by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is staging a comeback. What's more, it's becoming a major competitive event.

There are about a dozen tournaments held each year throughout the United States, where top-notch dancers can showcase their virtuosity and vie for cash prizes and awards.

The Southwest Regional Dance Tournament Friday through Sunday- at the Holiday Inn Embarcadero, is San Diego's most important stomping grounds for ballroom dancers.

The tournament will award prizes in categories ranging from beginning students to seasoned professionals during three days of competition.

The marathon contest will feature the entire spectrum of ballroom dance styles, including the clockwork precision and smooth symmetry of modern, the rhythmic syncopation and floor-grazing back bends of Latin, the traditional elegance of smooth, the toe-tapping excitement of country western, and the flashy maneuvers of cabaret. Organizers of the tournament expect anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people to see the competition in hotel's Embarcadero Room.

Reina Mooney, a local organizer of the tournament, said:

"We expect to have close to 300 couples dancing at different levels, and many of those couples will dance several times (in separate categories). A lot of San Diego dancers are top contenders in the tournament."

Mooney credits resident champions Ron Montez and Elizabeth Curtis (seven-time winners of the national competition) for the disproportionately high number of strong contenders from the San Diego area. Although these internationally acclaimed artists are unheralded at home, they have been catalysts for a local renaissance in ballroom dancing.

"Their influence has been incredible. Everyone's dancing level has improved because of them," Mooney said. "There are several emerging couples (from San Diego) who will be competing. And these people are really out for blood."

Curtis, mentor to many of San Diego's contenders, concurred with Mooney's assessment of the local contingency, and added:

"Several of our dancers have already made their mark. Tony Meredith and Melanie La Patin won the competition last year in the Latin American professional category. Kathy Duke, an amateur, won a lot of student competitions. And Anita Talone is one of the top students. She won the U.S. championship in Latin and also does smooth (i.e., the fox trot). She'll be competing in a lot of categories with her teacher, Ric Valenzuela."

Is the ballroom dance boom just another passing fad?

Frank Gallego, manager of the Desert Paris Dance Club (the host school for this event), insists that "ballroom dance has never been away. There are . . . between 1,000 and 1,500 dance schools throughout the country teaching ballroom dance."

San Diego County dance halls that play host to ballroom dancers, including the Regency Ballroom on El Cajon Boulevard and Lawrence Welk Village in North County, are packed for their ballroom dance parties.

"Ballroom dancing is definitely on the rise," Curtis said, "and the quality is getting better every year. Everywhere we go, ballroom is just hopping. And more Americans are really challenging the international competition." Ballroom dancing has always been strong in Europe and Japan, and most of the world champions are produced abroad.

"Over Christmas, we had a professional dance camp for Latin dancing," Curtis recalled, "and we had 75 professionals in attendance. We'll easily double that next year. That's very exciting to me, because the more competition we get, the more talented people want to pursue (ballroom dancing). That's why I got into it. I saw some very talented people and said, 'I want to do that too.' "

La Patin and Meredith, partners on and off the dance floor, explained their passion for the art form and their reasons for competing in ballroom dancing tournaments during a break from rehearsals at the Regency Studio on El Cajon Boulevard.

"It's very much of a challenge," said La Patin, a lively redhead who thrives on performance. "It's very self-satisfying--and it's also habit-forming."

Meredith agreed that "it's addictive." He added: "I enjoy performing, and I like to watch people getting pleasure from watching me ."

Both compared competitive ballroom dance with Olympic events.

"It's almost the same, because it has the same judging as the Olympics," Meredith said. "In fact, we're hoping, that it will soon be included in the Olympics."

"It's like an Olympic event in that it takes enormous stamina," said La Patin. "We practice seven days a week, two hours a day--and we work twice as hard when we're preparing for competition. You can do three or four rounds (of competition) and then be called back and you have to get out there and do it all again. But just when you think you'll never make it, the Adrenalin takes over. It's really exciting."

Even though the expense of competing (with travel and costumes) is "phenomenal" and the prize money far from adequate, Meredith and La Patin have no intention of stopping short of their goal--which is to snare the world championship . . . or at least become world finalists.

"We're hoping that by the time we peak," Meredith said, "the prize money will be very good."

"The problem is, it's like a secret world," La Patin said. "We're hoping to let the secret out. Once a year (the national tournament) is televised. Otherwise, there's very little publicity for what we do. If we got the coverage, we'd be as big as ice skating."

Although they describe competitive ballroom dancing as highly physical--an endurance contest--athletic prowess is no substitute for artistry in the critical eyes of the tournament judges.

"You can't just do steps," Meredith said. "You must have style--and styling involves the expressiveness of your body, arms, face and even your feet. It involves emotions. Technique is only part of it, and even champions continue to work on their technique. You never stop perfecting it."

Marlyn McDonald, a professional modern ballroom dancer who will be competing with Janet Meyer in this weekend's event, has made a career of his hobby by teaching to support his dancing habit.

"Actually, it's so much work," he said, "that I shouldn't call it a hobby. It's really a sport and an art form. You have to be totally on the ball, and you have to work with the same partner for a long time so you learn to work as one."

In modern ballroom dancing, close body contact and clockwork precision in the unison work are essential, he said. "That's why even top-level dancers don't do well if they have to change partners," McDonald said. "They lose an aspect that enhances their performance."

Talone is an amateur, by definition. But as she was quick to explain, that doesn't mean she can't compete with the best of them.

"Amateur status just means you don't get paid for what you do," she said. "It's like in the Olympics. You can't tell the difference between an amateur and a professional based on the ranking.

"Right now, I'd rather maintain my amateur status. That means I get to dance with the best," she said, casting a glance at her partner. "If I changed to pro, I'd have to start the hard road up--and there's a lack of partners."

Eileen Schaefer, a tournament organizer, described some of the activity in store for San Diego aficionados this weekend in a telephone interview from Arizona.

"Every evening, there will be competition among different professionals," she said. "And each evening, we'll award prizes for the winners. The students will compete during the day, and they will receive their awards at a banquet on Sunday evening."

There also will be team matches that pit studio against studio in all levels, which makes for particularly intense competition.

But one of the most exciting items on the agenda for the three-day tournament is not a competitive event.

Ron Montez and Liz Curtis, and Rufus Dustin and Sharon Savoy will entertain Sunday night. "And, they're some of the top ballroom dancers in the world," Schaefer said. The Savoys are two-time world champions.

"We're hoping to get permission to do some choreography from our new company," Curtis said. That company is Peter Maxwell's Ballroom Dance Theater, and Maxwell is a world champion ballroom dancer with credits in several other areas of the dance world as well.

"We've already got four weeks in Japan lined up--at nine shows a week," Curtis said. "But we'd be so happy to show it off here in San Diego Sunday night."

The tournament will feature at least one throwback to the glitz and glitter age that spawned ballroom dancing.

"All the competing dancers wear elaborate costumes or elegant formal wear," Meredith said. "In fact everyone gets all dressed up for these tournaments. The women get out their evening dresses and fanciest jewelry. There's a return to the glamour of ballroom dancing--when it was in its heyday. The whole thing is really a lot of fun."

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