|High hopes for ballroom dancing|
|Written by Robert Lipsyte|
Every few years, ballroom dancing glides onto America's cultural radar and my heart skips a beat. Not only do I remember the most intense competitive sports moment of my life, but I fantasize about the alluring conventions of the world's most graceful, cooperative and personal performance art. What else could be about romantic love and Olympic gold medals?
My heart is skipping these days as the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom packs movie theaters and TV scrambles for more ballroom dancing shows to follow ABC's hit Dancing with the Stars. Fox just wrapped up So You Think You Can Dance, and The Learning Channel has scheduled Ballroom Bootcamp. There is at least one film in production, Take the Lead, based on a true story about a dance teacher, starring heart throb Antonio Banderas. Across the country, ballroom dancing schools are reporting upswings in attendance. Though it was turned down as a 2008 Games medal sport, ballroom dancing (also called DanceSport) presses on as an Olympic hopeful.
But I've been here before, thrilled at another resurgence in kiddie schools, college clubs, regional and national competitions and then, after a year or two, disappointed by a leveling off. It seems as if the very conventions of ballroom dancing that attract people the discipline, the rules, the demand for selflessness eventually become too hard to sustain.
No bruisers here
Compared with football, a profession that lures many overweight delinquents, ballroom dancers are trim and civilized. The men seem unafraid, unlike football players, of having their manhood challenged, even though the women are capable of doing everything a man can do, and doing it while traveling backwards. Meanwhile, mass audiences have not emerged; ballroom dancing doesn't have enough aggression to attract NFL-size TV audiences, while still scaring potential promoters because it has the rumor of sex without punishment. It was famously described by George Bernard Shaw as "a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire."
I think it offers far more than that. Beyond its glamorous and romantic aura, it has enormous potential as a competitive sport that could make the Olympics relevant again and as a recreation to give men and women a chance to perform and cooperate together. As the antithesis of most commercial sports, which are segregated and violent, it is a paradigm for peaceful coexistence. It might not be a total model for world peace, but it's SportsWorld's quickest step in that direction. It is a bubble of elegant sanity in a nasty world, yet still fiercely competitive.
My own eureka moment came 10 years ago while reporting on a Fred Astaire national competition in Las Vegas for LIFEmagazine. Hundreds of dancers, mostly women led by their male instructors, had spent thousands on travel, entry fees and gowns to compete for medals and trophies. At the last moment, a spot opened up in a low-level rumba competition. As a mediocre beginning dance student, I had noticed that some of the foot work in the "newcomers" category resembled my own hesitant, not quite on the beat and dangerously close to his partner's instep. I justified entering because it would help me understand my subject.
I think I did understand the basics: The real lessons of ballroom dancing were in the metaphors; yes, men lead, but if the man doesn't know what he is doing, if he doesn't take his responsibilities seriously, if he doesn't step out with confidence, the team fails. That seemed beyond the culture wars to me, along with dancing's promise of safe sex (at least while dancing), intimacy, and conversation without the risk of words that can be misinterpreted.
Lure of competition
But I also wanted to measure myself, the point of competition. And once No. 196 was pinned on my back, I wanted to win, too.
Two teachers from my Manhattan Fred Astaire studio, Jennifer McCalla and Rebecca Sweet, were in Las Vegas for the competition and agreed to be my partners in the two heats I had entered. They figured that during a two-minute heat on a crowded floor, the judges had only a few seconds to note any dancer's rhythm, steps and style. In my first heat, I managed to move like a zombie while stepping on Jennifer's toe. I also botched the critical fifth position break.
We had 20 minutes before my second chance, and Jennifer and her colleague Rebecca broke down and re-assembled every movement of my game. They decided that the key was to remember to turn to the left on the cross-body lead. Had any wide receiver, cornerback or nose guard gotten such feverish coaching at half-time?
With Jennifer's sideline instructions and Rebecca's perfect following, I was in the zone. Later, they told me I not only turned left but also snapped my head like Fred. I remember nothing except I never wanted the dance to end. I still have the little bronze medallion that proclaims me OUTSTANDING, not the highest award, but not the lowest either. I imagined how future athletes would feel when ballroom dancing finally makes it as an Olympic medal sport.
The combination of football season and ballroom dance boomlet has me dreaming again of the rumba and the rush I felt in Vegas. Dancers are my heroes, and I find sadly comic the bogus macho of those big-bodied boys who dance only after they knock someone down.
Well, not all of them. The top-rated college quarterback in the country, Matt Leinart, who stayed for a last season at USC rather than turning pro, needed only one course to stay eligible. He joined his girlfriend in a ballroom dancing class. I hope he waltzes all the way to the Rose Bowl.
Robert Lipsyte, a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors, has written 16 books, including the forthcoming young adult football novel, Raiders Night.