Ballroom Dancing Is Hot to Fox Trot

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005

It's the summer of the rumba, the summer of the cha-cha, the summer of the waltz. The summer when you -- yeah, you , the guy over there snickering -- wondered: Why ballroom dancing? Why now?

Why not?

The bygone days of Fred and Ginger and Gene and Cyd are impossible to top, but at least tonight you've got John and Charlotte, and Alec and Kelly.

Until recently, John O'Hurley was best remembered as J. Peterman, Elaine's boss on "Seinfeld." Kelly Monaco, who plays Sam McCall on "General Hospital," is one of too many vixens on daytime soaps. But these days, they are the "stars" (or is it more like "half-stars"?) in ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," an "American Idol" meets "Hollywood Squares" meets "Dance Fever" that is the biggest hit on television on this side of anything to do with Tom Cruise and a couch.

If the past five weeks are any indication, tonight's season finale -- with O'Hurley and partner Charlotte Jorgensen poised to out-dance Monaco and partner Alec Mazo -- will again rule the ratings.

The ballroom craze doesn't end there. "Mad Hot Ballroom" -- a critically acclaimed documentary that follows a diverse lot of fifth-graders from TriBeCa, Washington Heights and Bensonhurst as they fox-trot their way through New York's 10-week Dancing Classroom Program -- is the sleeper hit of the movie season. First shown in only a handful of theaters in early May, it's now showing on some 200 screens and has grossed almost $4 million -- not bad for an art-house film in limited release.

There's more. Later this month, Fox will debut "So You Think You Can Dance," from the hit-making producers of "American Idol," and this fall, TLC will premiere a reality series aptly called "Ballroom Bootcamp." Next year, Antonio Banderas will star as Pierre Dulaine, the man who started the Dancing Classroom Program, in the movie "Take the Lead."

Here in the Washington area, ballroom dancing classes (and after-class dance parties) are on the upswing -- at the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County, at Dance Factory in Arlington, at the Du-Shor Dance Studio in Bethesda, at Virginia Ballroom in Fairfax and at the Joy of Motion dance centers, among others.

What is going on?

You can say it's nostalgia, a yearning for pure, uncomplicated, joyful times. If you trace ballroom dancing back from the merengue of the post-World War II era to the famous tango of Vernon and Irene Castle in the early 20th century to the waltz of 18th-century Europe, it is about structure, discipline, respect. You look your partner in the eye. You touch (with no threat of a sexual harassment suit). You bow. In the dances, whether it is the jive or the samba or the pasodoble , a man is not merely a man but a gentleman, and a woman is a lady.

To Marilyn Agrelo, the 43-year-old co-producer and director of "Mad Hot Ballroom," the popularity of ballroom dancing isn't "a matter of coincidence."

"We're living in very uncertain times," she says. "We have terrorism threats. We have the war in Iraq. We have a country that is so politically divided. The look, the feel, the ritual of ballroom dancing bring us back to a place of comfort. There's a structure to it, a very graceful social interaction. Everything's been so free-form -- beyond dance. We don't even know how we're supposed to behave in our daily lives. So here comes this old-school, traditional thing, something out of the past, and now it's in vogue again."

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