At a recent Torrance mixer, members of the Chinese Dance Club watched in wonder as Susana Chi glided across the ballroom floor with her husband, Jeff.
The couple embraced theatrically, clasped hands and angled their way toward mirrored walls in a tango. They executed an elegant pirouette, speeded to a samba, then settled into a Viennese waltz.
For Susana Chi, such theatrics would have been unthinkable seven years ago. Until then, she had never danced socially. Now, she can fox-trot with the best of them, as evidenced by her several trophies in pro/am ballroom dance competitions. Clad in a black sequined dress at the recent Chinese Dance Club mixer, she said she has come a long way since her days as head librarian for the city of South Gate.
"I even used to wear those glasses," she said, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "I looked like a librarian and I wanted to look like a librarian." Ballroom dancing, she said, "has changed my whole life."
In the South Bay and the San Gabriel Valley, Asian immigrants have donned tuxedos and beautifully sequined dresses to fuel a local boom in ballroom dancing. The re-emergence of the art form, which evokes images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during ballroom dancing's Golden Age of the 1940s, is sparking growing interest nationally because it is an enjoyable way to socialize and exercise, enthusiasts say.
"It relieves stress and tension," said Margaret Michael, a South Bay dance instructor who over three decades has taught thousands of students, including the Chinese Dance Club members. "It enables people to meet people. It can be quite fun."
Ballroom dancing has become extremely popular in Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, experts say. Dance competitions in Japan have attracted as many as 20,000 spectators, and Asian immigrants have helped spur similar enthusiasm for ballroom dancing in the United States.
In the United States, ballroom dancing has taken on a higher profile since the Public Broadcasting System began televising national ballroom dance competitions in 1980, said Tom Murdock, a spokesman for American Ballroom Co., the governing body for the U.S. Ballroom Championships held annually in Miami.
"It has turned it into a spectator sport," Murdock said. "Now you have people sitting on the sidelines yelling out the numbers (affixed to competitors), waving their country flags. . . . Fifteen or 20 years ago, you'd have been hard-pressed to find one competition a month in California. Now, California has one every other weekend."
The Chinese Dance Club was formed in the South Bay seven years ago by eight couples to socialize, practice their steps and exchange dance partners. "If you keep dancing with your wife all the time, the conversation is always the same," quipped Ben Kwan, 52, a Rancho Palos Verdes ophthalmologist.
Over the years, the club has grown to 50 members, almost all of whom are professionals who live on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Most immigrated to the United States years ago to attend universities here. Wayne Eng, owner of Club 2005 in Torrance, the dance studio that hosts the Chinese Dance Club mixers, said that half of his 120 ballroom dance students are Asian immigrants.
Martin Chiang, founder and director of the Martin Dance Company, a group of middle-aged Taiwanese amateur dancers, said he and other immigrants have taken to ballroom dancing with a passion because it is "a chance to make up for lost time."
"(When) most of us came here, it was study, study, study," said Chiang, 59, a retired electrical engineer. "We didn't have a chance to enjoy things. We were very busy establishing ourselves."
Now, many have either retired or scaled back their workload, leaving ample time for ballroom dancing, Chiang said.
"It's good exercise, it's nice music and nice people," he said.
It is not for people with light pocketbooks, however. Lessons cost as much as $50 an hour, and ladies' elaborate, custom-made dresses for dance competitions can cost $2,000.
"Ballroom dancing, you have to have spare money to do this," said Chiang, who takes up to eight hours of private lessons each week.
At ballroom dance competitions, Chiang competes in the "pro/am" category, in which an amateur student is paired with a dance professional, often the student's instructor.
There are two styles in ballroom dancing, American and International, formerly called British. The international style is the standard dance form for worldwide competitions.
"In the international style, you stay with your partner constantly," Murdock said. "The American style is much more 'showy,' you can dance away from your partner."
For Susana Chi, dancing of any kind was once considered taboo.
"My father, he was very, very strict," Chi said. "No social dance, none of those activities."
Her dresses, she adds, might still cause her father some consternation. "If he saw me in a Latin outfit, he might have a heart attack," she said.