Paul Gilbert, very L.A., very cool, very tan, in his tan slacks and his tan battle jacket, looks out at the crowd of shimmering, glittering, anxious hopefuls who have gathered late on a warm spring night to dance for him, and surveys the scene with big, bored eyes.
"I'm looking for anything that moves," he says.
Gilbert is the producer of "Dance Fever," a televised weekly dance competition that promises cash prizes and all-expense-paid trips to Hollywood, but more than that, it promises the possibility of discovery, a video Schwab's drugstore for kids who think they know all the moves but can't see for the stars in their eyes.
Before the night is over at Numbers, a "dance-rock club," as they call the nouveau night spots resurrected from the unmourned ashes of disco, Gilbert will see a martial arts ballet danced to Stravinsky's "Firebird"; he will watch 25 couples glide and slide and spin for him; he will follow the moves of the self-styled "dramatic hustlers" and "adagio disco teams"; he will entertain the dreams of 50 dreamers and he will plunge the long, cold knife of his indifference into the hearts of all but 12 of them.
It is not a contest, it is an audition, repeats Mike O'Harro, once the self-styled disco king, now and always the would-be surfer on the wave of what's hot. Not that the difference matters to the contestants on this Tuesday night; they look each other over with cool and careful calculation just the same, checking out the familiar faces, the ones they'd seen around at other clubs, other contests, sizing up the newcomers, the style of their costumes, the way they move. "It's a challenge," says Steven Mitchell, 21, an unemployed car salesman, who has been rehearsing his routine with his partner, Lisa Rivera, since January. "Just to be up there, on TV, whether you win or lose, you're discovered. You can get into a lot of dance companies, anything can happen. It's the best chance to make it."
Mitchell is tall and slow-talking, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and before he changes into his tight red Spandex bodysuit with the plunging neckline, there is the quick hint of a tattoo lurking beneath the rolled-up sleeve on his right arm. "It says, 'The Ultimate.' " Mitchell explains: "A lot of my friends in Philadelphia, they gave me that name."
"We've been looking for a chance like this," says Thomas Bevans, 25, thin and pale and serious beneath his shock of blond hair. His wife, Joslyn, nods her agreement. She works for Amtrak, he manages a farm in Virginia. She used to be a member of the Radio City Music Hall ballet company, and a career with the American Ballet Theatre would have been hers, she says, if it hadn't been for an untimely injury.
Now they have a coach, and the costumes they wear can cost hundreds of dollars and everything from free time to children must be postponed while they chase down this dream. "What we're hunting for is exposure," she says. "What we want to be is an internationally known dance team, there hasn't been one since Astaire and Rogers." She says this very intently, and she doesn't smile; she treats this gossamer goal as if she could will it into existence by wanting it so much.
Finally it is time for the contest to begin and the couples are called out by number onto the polished wooden dance floor, pushing through the raucous crowd of nearly 900 that has gathered to watch and applaud, prepared to be dazzled. Each couple gets two minutes and two minutes only, and they all dance their hearts out, from the seemingly endless parade of sequined couples dancing a kind of disco-rococo with endless lifts and spins and elevations, to the ballroom routines that have the participants all looking as if they are trying out for perfume commercials. And then, of course, there are the odder variations that make it to the floor:
Couple No. 20, for instance, performing a New Wave striptease that features a scowling woman in black jumpsuit glaring at an undernourished partner who, after a little initial trouble unfastening his bow tie, manages to bare his chest and move around in an odd semi-convulsive fashion before the allotted two minutes were over.
Couple No. 11, in the disco S-M routine--she's in black, he's in white; she's smirking, he's shrinking; he slithers along the floor, she nails him down with her high heel.
Couple No. 23, this one being a robot waltz performed in white and black motorcycle helmets and blue satin jackets, with props that included blinking flashbulbs and firecrackers.
And then there are the three sets of cloggers, the young men in white patent leather shoes and white belts, their partners in short skirts with a hundred ruffled petticoats underneath, bouncing along to the fiddle music, unexpected apostrophes to the studied sophistication and mannered sexiness of the others.
But it is the kung fu pas de deux that is the hands down favorite. After they finish with the fierce slashing and kicking that made up most of their routine, Regina Gonzalez, 26, and Charlie Lee, 18, both black belt karate experts, are ecstatic. With them is Kim Smith, who choreographed not only their routine, but last year's equally successful effort danced to Beethoven's Fifth, her husband, Jeff, vice president of the Jhoon Rhee Institute and a beaming Jhoon Rhee himself. Before long, Gonzalez has decided to spend her half of the prize money on the karate school she and her husband are starting in Tampa and Lee has reserved his for his college education. "I want to be a successful multimillionaire businessman like Mr. Jhoon Rhee himself," he says.
It is after midnight before the last couple has danced, another hour yet before the semifinalists are announced. There are eight semifinalists, a fact that sends the audition emcee, Nestor Fernandez, into transports of delight. "I want to tell everyone that you are witnessing a real event," he says. "Never before have we had eight couples coming back!"
All three sets of cloggers are back and they dance even faster, the women swirling their petticoats even higher into the air, while the knees of the men melt into rubber and they heel-and-toe with dizzying grace. Steve Mitchell is back and he throws his partner even higher over his head, until she is flailing the air for balance. The firebirds are back, looking even more alarming, chopping the barroom smoke with their hands and kicking toward the ceiling.
Finally Gilbert makes his decision and retreats to the safety of the glass booth where the deejay plays the records and Nestor Fernandez spins himself further into a frenzy. "There are four winners and two alternates," he tells the crowd. "This is the first time ever in the Washington-Baltimore contest that there have been four winners and two alternates. I'm having an orgasm up here, we're making history here!"
Unless the two are one in the same, this is highly doubtful, but the crowd nevertheless goes wild as the winners are announced and the audience can rest assured that the martial arts ballet team, together with one set of cloggers, a disco-jazz duo and a sort of vaudevillian tap routine that danced to "Honeysuckle Rose" will all be on their way to Hollywood this July.
Keith Hamilton and Jeanette Boatwright, looking sad in their coordinated silver pants, will not be going to Hollywood, though they'd stayed up until 5 a.m. rehearsing and spent the day looking for shoes. Still, it had been a last-minute effort, and though in a few hours he would go back to his job at Gino's and she would go back to selling clothes at Miss Harpers, they vowed to return. "I'll never stop trying," vowed Hamilton. "I'll just keep coming back until I make it."