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HAVING A BALL : Fred and Ginger Most of Them Aren’t, but Ballroom Dancers Are Whirling Again

Times Staff Writer

They practice for hours on end, drive hundreds of extra miles a week and spend thousands of extra dollars a year, all for a hobby/sport/obsession that drives yet another nail into the coffin of the 1960s.

And wow, do they ever look good.

The men in white tie and tails, the women in yards of billowing chiffon, glide across the dance floor in the style of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, fox-trotting to this tune and waltzing to that one, blending the 18th-Century Vienna of Johann Strauss with the 20th-Century technology of the Bose speaker.

Ballroom dancing, a survivor of the decade when people danced without ever touching each other, of years of break dancing and disco, is thriving, according to those who teach it and those who practice it.

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“There’s no question that in the last few years, the number of people taking up ballroom dancing has increased,” said Brian McDonald, who teaches ballroom dancing at his Santa Ana studio. He and his wife, Kristi, won the U.S. professional modern ballroom championships five years in a row before leaving competition in 1982.

“Today, there seems to be much more interest in the public at large in getting involved in touch-dancing again,” McDonald said. “Young people are interested in coming into dancing as a sport.”

After putting on an annual dance competition in Santa Monica for eight years, McDonald moved it to Orange County this year, figuring that there were enough dancers here and enough people who wanted to see them that the competition would be a hit. He was right. All three nights of the dancing during the Labor Day weekend quickly sold out.

There were dancers under 14, dancers attending college, dancers in their 20s, 30s, 40s and on up. They danced ballroom style--waltz, fox trot, tango, quickstep and Viennese waltz, with men in white tie and tails and women in formal gowns. They danced Latin style--samba, cha cha, rhumba, paso doble and jive, with men and women in glittery, spangled costumes cut down to the point that they would be equally at home in a Las Vegas revue.

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Among the ballroom dancers was Jeannie Fung, 39, of Fountain Valley, who started taking lessons in April of 1987, along with her 44-year-old husband, Anthony, sons Victor, 10, and Alex, 11, and daughter Jennifer, 13. Several months later, daughter Tiffany, 6, joined the lessons. At McDonald’s competition, all six Fungs danced.

“I always liked ballroom dancing,” Jeannie Fung said. “It’s elegant.”

“Whether people are young or old, they can still do ballroom dancing,” she said. “If I’m 80 or 90, I can still do ballroom dancing. . . . I think that’s very important. And besides, we get the kids involved in dancing and it’s a whole family hobby.

“We stay together as a family, practicing, taking lessons together. And one member of the family helps another one.”

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Even her husband thinks she may have a point.

“When I first started, I hated dancing,” Anthony Fung said. Although he still isn’t an aficionado, “now it’s getting easier. It’s more of a challenge than anything else. Maybe in three years, you get to enjoy it.”

Enjoyment is too mild a word to describe Fred Migliorini’s feelings for ballroom dancing.

A Fullerton resident who retired from the Marines in 1971 after a 21-year-career, Migliorini started taking lessons eight years ago because “I just wanted to learn to dance with my wife. . . . I wanted to be able to social dance. I wanted someone to put on a piece of music and I could go out and dance.”

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The lessons went from once in a while to twice a week. The practices grew to two or three times weekly. A contest here and a competition there and the next thing he knew, Migliorini was president of the Southern California chapter of the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dancers Assn.

He held that post for two years before surrendering it this year so that he could devote more time to his Fullerton-based real estate appraisal business. While president, the chapter’s ranks increased at the rate of 5% to 10% yearly, passing the 300-member mark, he said. Membership is divided evenly among Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties.

Migliorini said that after taking some lessons at the start, what really got him hooked was a dance competition he attended with his wife, Keiko.

“After we saw that, I said, ‘This might be fun,’ ” Migliorini recalled. “You know, it’s a sport, a way of us doing something together.”

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“It’s like driving a car,” Migliorini said. “The first time you drive a shift car, you kind of hiccup a little. Pretty soon, the next time, you start smoothing out. And then pretty soon you can speed shift it. It’s the same way with me with dancing. It was kind of hiccup and jump and stall and step on toes. And then each time you got a little better, then you start shifting into high gear. And there’s a desire to get better and better.”

That desire led the Migliorinis to win the U.S. senior (35 years old and up) modern championship three years in a row.

Migliorini said he hasn’t added up the cost of his love affair with dancing, but he knows it hasn’t come cheap.

Lessons run $35 to $50 an hour. White tie and tails--specially made and weighted so that the jacket rides up less than normal when the man raises and extends his arms--can run $650 or more. A woman’s ball gown can cost anywhere from $600 to $2,000. Because of the cost, many are bought used. Plane tickets to faraway competitions cost hundreds of dollars more.

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“Last year I estimate I spent about $10,000,” said Natalie Mavor of Sherman Oaks, a 24-year-old secretary who dances competitively with Brian and Kristi McDonald’s son, Gary. “We did just the bare minimum of what we had to do. We didn’t dance in all the competitions.”

Mavor, 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall and 122 pounds of lithe beauty, said she has two part-time jobs, working for bosses who are “really understanding” when she asks for time off to attend a dancing competition in this country or overseas. Still, when she and Gary McDonald do travel, their sightseeing is limited mostly to airports and the hotels where the contests are held.

Last year, for instance, they traveled to Scandinavia, Germany, England and Hong Kong. For all but the Hong Kong trip, they left on a Thursday and returned on a Monday.

After the long plane trips and the dancing, “you’re so tired, you’re shaking,” Mavor said. “And everyone thinks you’re crazy too. (They say), ‘Oh, you went to England just for the weekend?’ ” Gary McDonald joked that after a number of such super-quick trips overseas, “it’s especially difficult getting back through customs.” Mavor agreed, saying that suspicious customs agents “really interrogate us.”

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But both say it is worth it.

Both have parents who were championship competitive dancers, and for both, dancing is more than a hobby.

Gary McDonald said that unlike jazz dancing, which he studied in college, “when you do ballroom and Latin (dancing), you’re out on this small floor and there’s people all around you and you get to (have) close contact with the audience. . . . You get a lot more enjoyment out of it, I think, than just looking at spotlights and not seeing anyone.”

Mavor said that the pleasure of the dance contests comes in “trying to be the best. It’s trying to get better all the time.” She adds, wryly: “It costs too much to do it just for the fun of it.”

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It’s still fun, though, for Brian Underdown of Torrance, who listed as benefits of ballroom dancing “exercise, . . . jolly good company, . . . nice people.”

Underdown, 51 and a model maker for the Mattel toy company, said he danced competitively in his native England but quit after getting married nearly 30 years ago. A year ago, after being told he was “a borderline diabetic and needed exercise,” he returned to the dance floor.

Now he and his wife, Janet, practice four or five times a week, take lessons on Tuesday and Friday, and continue “just getting in deeper and deeper,” Underdown said.

As for money, “you get to a point where you stop counting,” he said with a laugh. “You feel better about it. If you think about these things, you wouldn’t do it, probably.”

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