Correction to This Article
In early editions of the Feb. 1 Style section, a preview of "America's Ballroom Challenge" misspelled the names of Aira Bubnelyte, Nadia Goulina and Ilya Ifraimov.
TV Preview

'Ballroom Challenge': Better Sit Down First

Erminio Stefano and Liene Apale make it look easy, but ballroom's hard work.
Erminio Stefano and Liene Apale make it look easy, but ballroom's hard work. (By Jeffrey Dunn)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Once you get the image of the dancing duo dressed like lemon-meringue pie out of your head, then you realize this is the real deal. Get out of the way, George Hamilton. Stop trying so hard, Lisa Rinna.

In other words, eat your hearts out, you stars of "Dancing With the Stars."

This is no group of amateurs on the two-part PBS series "America's Ballroom Challenge," although co-host Marilu Henner, she of "Taxi" sitcom fame, gushes: "This is like bumper cars in chiffon!"

Tonight's one-hour premiere at 8 is a quick-paced, serious-minded, altogether electrifying affair. These are pros, ladies and gents. So watch, learn and don't try this at home.

Nothing in the spate of ballroom-themed shows and films -- ABC's hit "Dancing With the Stars," Discovery Channel's upcoming "Ballroom Bootcamp," last year's indie documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" and the 2004 Richard Gene-Jennifer Lopez remake "Shall We Dance?" -- prepares you for the expertly executed and passionately rendered tangos, jives, waltzes, sambas, fox trots, quicksteps and cha-chas on stunning display here.

Sure, Paulina, the J.Lo character in "Shall We Dance?," does a serviceable job explaining the rumba, arguably the most sensual of Latin dances, as the "vertical expression of a horizontal wish." But to watch Yulia Zagoruychenko, a leaner, long-legged version of Marilyn Monroe, rumba her way through a Spanglish version of "California Dreamin' " is to understand, in its purest sense, the intrinsic sexual allure of this Cuban dance. Zagoruychenko's head-turning performance should come with a warning: Do not operate any heavy machinery after seeing this routine.

Hosted by Henner, a ballroom-dance buff whose mother ran the Henner Dance School in Chicago for 20 years, and Tony Meredith, a former professional Latin American Dance champion, tonight's show features sets of six dance teams competing in four divisions: American Rhythm, American Smooth, International Latin and International Standard. Twenty-four teams -- that's a lot of swooping, gliding, swinging, turning and stepping. All the hip gyrations and pelvis action going on, from the men and women equally, could keep a dozen chiropractors busy. And next week, the top dance team in each division will vie for that woefully misleading but still utterly desirable title of being -- what else? -- "America's Best."

Alas, Henner and Meredith, whose mostly aw-shucks, "whoa-they-are-hot!" commentary can get drowned out by the music, are merely adequate in highlighting the individual characteristics of the dances -- how the fast 3/4-time Viennese waltz, the oldest ballroom dance, compares with the modern slow waltz, for example, or how the turns and rhythms of the Spanish pasodoble are not to be mistaken with the staccato steps of the tango, which hails from Argentina. Nor do they offer much insight as to how the classic International Standard dances, which demand that the dancers must stay in close contact throughout, require a different set of skills than, say, the more contemporary American Smooth dances, which allow room for creativity.

But, then again, who needs a tour guide when the map is this instructive? The dances on the floor, with six teams dancing at the same time, speak for themselves.

When Aira Bubnelyte, a blonde in a black-and-white gown, accidentally elbows Rita Gekhman, a dark brunette in a blood-red dress, in the middle of the fox trot -- and a slow one at that, set to the tune of "Honey on the Vine" -- there's no denying the hard work that goes into these dances. A few minutes later, during the same dance, Erminio Stefano and partner Liene Apale are gently pushed off -- is that an accident, too? Who knows? -- the dance floor.

"I think people could give up any form of exercise and just dance," Henner says toward the show's end. "It is such a workout."

And the wonderful dancing notwithstanding, a workout in atrocious workout gear. Thankfully, the lemon-meringue duo-- Nadia Goulina in a backless sequined number and partner Ilya Ifraimov in what we'll call a V-navel, a V-neck shirt that goes all the way down -- can do a mean samba. Just keep your eyes off the frocks and on their feet. Okay, at least try.

America's Ballroom Challenge (one hour) airs tonight at 8 on Channels 22 and 26. It concludes next Wednesday at 8 p.m.

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