Dancing isn't just for stars

Times Staff Writer

OUTSIDE, traffic whizzes by. Inside, music pours from speakers, mixing with a hubbub of voices and the shuffle and slide of shoes on a wooden floor.

A crowd of adults, young, old, all shapes, all sizes, is reflected in mirrored walls. They're eyeballing peppy young instructors coaching them through step-by-step deconstructions of the waltz, the cha-cha, the samba:

"Quick-quick slow, quick-quick slow."

"No looking at the floor."

"Ladies, your hand should be a bird, perching on a tree."

Suddenly, there is quick movement among the measured steps at this storefront Arthur Murray dance studio in Sherman Oaks. A boy in dress shirt, slacks and groovy wide belt tangos by, guiding his older, taller partner through the maze of adults with a romantic flourish.

Twelve-year-old Brandon Krieger may not realize it, but he's part of a nationwide phenomenon: Ballroom dancing is hot again.

After decades of a low-profile existence, ballroom dancing is attracting adults, and kids even younger than Brandon, into a transformative world of ladies and gentlemen, a place of rhythmic, formalized social exchange with its own rules of etiquette.

This recent surge in interest is largely media-driven, sparked first by last year's Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez remake of the Japanese film "Shall We Dance." The surprise hit documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" added fuel.

So did ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" earlier this summer. The top-rated reality series was a cross-generational success with viewers, who tuned in each week to see celebrities pair off and train with professional ballroom dancers, then compete.

"In the past, when you mentioned ballroom dancing, people would think of elevator music and grandma," says Esther Freeman, president of the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Assn. "Now, people have seen that it's exciting, it's athletic, it's beautiful."

Business grew by nearly 30% in the first six months of the year at Arthur Murray studios nationwide, according to John Kimmins, executive vice president of Arthur Murray International, a sponsor of the ABC show.

Many franchise and independent studio owners in Southern California have experienced a similarly noticeable influx of new students.

In San Diego, Ginger Sarmento, who owns San Diego's Strictly for Fun studio, reports an increase in interest, especially among young people. One woman called to ask if age 3 1/2 was too young to take lessons. (Sarmento told the woman that 5 years old was the cutoff, but gave in, she says, when convinced that the child wouldn't be denied.)

Leo Cendejas, owner of Ballroom Is Back! Dance Studio in Costa Mesa, says that because of the ABC show, "normal people" of all ages are realizing that they can learn to dance, "if not for the social elegance of it, then for its competitive athletic demands."

Cendejas estimates that his business has jumped by 20%, with a noticeable increase in parents calling about classes for their offspring. He attributes that to "Mad Hot Ballroom," which documents the experiences of fifth-graders at three New York City schools as they prepare for a dance competition against their peers.

BALLROOM dancing by definition involves holding, and being held by a partner. It includes dances that require "traveling" across the floor; among them: the waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, pasodoble, tango, swing, cha-cha, rumba and samba.

Ask engaged couples, long a significant part of dance studios' bread-and-butter income, and they'll explain that you can't pick it up in an hour. It takes practice and time to even begin to approach Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers elegance.

Why then, are so many people suddenly willing not only to watch, but to invest their time, money and energy in an activity that has for the most part remained under the pop culture radar for decades?

The answers are as varied as students' dance class couture: executive chic, floaty skirts, sexy dresses and high heels; shorts, bare midriffs, torn jeans, sneakers and flip-flops.

The appeal of ballroom dancing is "so many things," says Perimeg Judith, owner of 3rd Street Dance studio in L.A. "There's an etiquette and a courtship involved that I think people are yearning for. It's a way to express passion. It's a safe way to have intimacy."

Partner-dancing also crosses age ranges, ethnicities and professional lines, says 3rd Street's manager, Michael Lipson.

"If a guy knows how to lead, if he's graceful, he could be overweight, he could be 80 years old, but if his partner feels he understands the dance, that's all that matters."

"I say it's the ultimate, three-minute affair," Freeman says. "You don't know his name, you don't know where he came from. He holds you in his arms, you feel like you're flying and then it's over. You're touched, you're smiled at. I can travel around the world and we speak the same language when the music starts." Insecurities, anxieties and loss can play a role in the decision to step on the dance floor.

"Somebody said they were too fat or too tall, or their husband or wife said, 'You can't dance,' or they were dumped by someone," Cendejas says.

Indeed, adjusting to the loss of a significant other, studio owners say, is one of the more common reasons that people sign up. Dance studios are seen as a safer social environment than singles clubs and bars. That's reassuring to someone like 49-year-old widower Steve Borja of Temple City, who lost his wife to cancer.

Inspired by "Shall We Dance" and encouraged by his mother, Borja recently had his first private lesson at Arthur Murray in Pasadena. "I think it's going to be good for keeping my mind off things," he says.

Learning to dance is a way to "connect in a city where nobody connects," says elementary school teacher Rosa de la Portilla, 30, who began lessons in Pasadena in November and recorded "Dancing With the Stars" every week. "You come here and you have to look into each other's eyes. You have to get to know somebody. And, being with children all day long, oh, the adult contact is great."

Mario Vitucci, the longtime owner of the Arthur Murray in Sherman Oaks, says that his clientele has gotten "younger and younger."

"I've been here since 1963, since the bossa nova became popular," he says. Then came "Saturday Night Fever," "Dirty Dancing," "the swing thing and the lambada. Every few years something comes up that brings people in droves."

Today, only 20% of his students are older than 60, he estimates; 40% are 20 to 30.

"You can see a 15-year-old kid dancing with an 85-year-old lady, because this is dancing. It's never an age thing."

Age doesn't bother seventh-grader Brandon Krieger, whose partners tend to be considerably his senior. With a year of ballroom lessons under his decorative belt, he's up for any traditional dance style, especially the tango: "My favorite," he says, "because it's slow. I can be James Bond. And it's just fun to dance."

Brandon's passion for ballroom's sophisticated pleasures was sparked when his stepmom, Amy Krieger, brought him to the Sherman Oaks studio for a few pointers before a fifth-grade event.

After the first lesson, "he begged me, 'Let's come back tomorrow,' and we did, and 'Let's come back the next day,' and we did," says Amy Krieger, who became a convert too, attending classes during her recent pregnancy until two weeks before delivery.

AT 3rd Street Dance, Kathy Lim, a twentysomething from L.A., and her fiance, Watts Ha, are catching their breath after gingerly maneuvering around the floor in a foxtrot, waltz and rumba in their beginner class.

They signed up because Lim "had a vision for our wedding," Ha says. To help persuade Ha to fulfill her vision, Lim had him watch "Dancing With the Stars."

"The hardest part is not stepping on her feet or bumping her knees. It's not as easy as it looked on the show."

Conrad Green, an executive producer of "Dancing With the Stars," believes that the series helped remove "some of the mystique from dancing. I think it's also taken away the idea that it's somehow a sissy thing to do. Actually, it's just the rather old-fashioned, traditional male role in taking the lead; it's elegance and refinement, yet control.

"And everyone's mad on exercise these days, aren't they? Given the choice between running on a treadmill or looking like Fred Astaire," it's no contest, he says.

Not surprisingly, more ballroom dance-themed shows are in the offing. ABC has picked up a second round of "Dancing With the Stars" as a midseason show. Fox just launched its competitive, all-style reality show, "So You Think You Can Dance," from the producers of "American Idol"; the July 20 premiere was the third most-watched show of the week.

The Learning Channel's "Ballroom Bootcamp" is set for the fall and "Take the Lead," a film starring Antonio Banderas as Pierre Dulaine, creator of the New York City school program seen in "Mad Hot Ballroom," is in production in Toronto.

And WGBH in Boston, producer of "Championship Ballroom Dancing," which ended its 20-year run on PBS stations in 2001, is in discussions to revive the show, possibly in the spring.

Cendejas is gambling that the trend will continue and plans to open two more studios within the next six months.

Judith and Lipson are more cautious. "I'm hoping it's not a fad," Judith says. "I've been here for 26 years and I've seen things come and go." Lipson doesn't think ballroom will top the swing craze of the 1990s. Besides, in L.A. it's salsa, he notes, not traditional ballroom, that is still "by far" the most popular, although many ballroom student packages include it.

Marilyn Agrelo, co-producer and director of "Mad Hot Ballroom," takes a big-picture view of the phenomenon she helped create. In making the documentary, Agrelo was struck by how formal dance lessons helped boys and girls, "at an age when you're riddled with insecurities," interact with the opposite sex and explore their feelings safely.

It isn't much different with adults, she observes.

"We have these terrorist threats, we have a war going on, we're a politically divided country. I think we're feeling kind of insecure and shaken. Somehow, ballroom dancing offers a place of civility and comfort." People feel a nostalgia for something lost, she says.

"Things now are so fast-moving, so unsure, I think that it brings us, in a wistful way, to a place we wish we had known. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but somehow it's resonating."

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One step at a time

Ready to put your best foot forward? Here's a random sampling of dance studios. If a studio is too pricey, check out local community centers and colleges.

3rd Street Dance

8558 W. 3rd St., L.A. (310) 275-4683. www.3rdstreetdance.com

Arthur Murray Pasadena

233 1/2 E. Colorado Blvd., 91101. (626) 792-9209. www.dancestudios.com

Arthur Murray Sherman Oaks

4633 Van Nuys Blvd., (818) 783-2623. www.arthurmurrayshermanoaks.com

Arthur Murray Westlake

3065 E. Thousand Oaks, (805) 495-1445. www.dancestudios.com

Ballroom Is Back! Dance Studio

2980 McClintock Way Unit ABC, Costa Mesa. (714) 641-8688 or (714) 593-5660. www.ballroomisback.com

Champion Ballroom Academy

3580 5th Ave., San Diego, (619) 291-7722. www.championballroom.com

Hollywood Dance Center

817 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 467-0825. www.hollywooddancecenter.com

L.A. Dance Experience

1941 Westwood Blvd., L.A. (310) 475-1878. www.ladanceexperience.com

Long Beach Dance Centre

Belmont Shore Chalet, 5107 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 438-1557. www.lbdance.com

Pasadena Ballroom Dance Assn.

Fellowship Hall, 997 E. Walnut Ave., Pasadena, and Throop Hall, 300 S. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena. (626) 799-5689. www.pasadenaballroomdance.com

Promenade Dance Studios

8675 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, CA 92618. (949) 585-9500. www.clubpromenade.com

Rosalie's School of Dance

Instructor, Virginia MacDonald. 4353 Township Ave., Simi Valley, (805) 390-4247. www.rosaliesschoolofdance.com

Strictly for Fun

Instructor, Ginger Sarmento. San Diego area. (619) 296-1860. www.partypop.com

Other resources:

www.danceauthority.com -- A guide to studios by state and city

www.accessdance.com -- A guide to classes by state and city

www.usabda.org -- United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Assn.

www.ndca.org -- National Dance Council of America.

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