GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND -- One of my daydreams has always been to dance like Fred Astaire. I wanted to slip into white tie and tails, calmly take the hand of a vivacious woman in a long gown and sweep across a vast and empty dance floor to a fast waltz or intense tango as hundreds of admirers cheered us on.
Last week I did that, sort of, at the Mid-Central United States Ballroom Championships in Cincinnati. The event is known as the Ohio Star Ball, and it is indeed a most grand, unusual, even poignant event: one thousand dancers in classically elegant and (depending on the dance) very dramatic attire that seemed always to include ostrich feathers. Do not take your pet ostrich to one of these competitions unless you want it danced with or plucked.
The people at the ball were as interesting as the clothes. Pro-am events -- where a dance teacher enters a competition with a student -- are pretty much the domain of older ladies dancing with their young instructors.
I watched hundreds of such couples line up quietly behind brass stanchions hung with burgundy ropes. The ladies, some of them into their eighties and stooping a good bit, looked frail at times. The young men looked much more like grandchildren than instructors.
But when the announcer would call something like "The Gold Foxtrot, heat 62B," and then begin to call each couple's number, charges of energy seemed to pass from couple to couple, as if the announcer's voice gave them The Power. When I first saw this transformation, I understood the adrenaline someone must feel when ushered into the Oval Office for the first time or perhaps, more appropriately, when first presented at court in London.
Old bodies very quickly looked young, a lot of wrinkles seemed to disappear behind wonderful smiles, and age and time very quickly lost its importance. A lot of real-life Cinderellas danced at the Ohio State Ball, and I didn't see one coach turn into a pumpkin at midnight, either. After competitions, couples continued to dance until 2:30 or 3 a.m. It's been a long time since I've seen people having so much fun.
Young couples and amateur couples (many of them very beautiful and handsome in the traditional sense), very overweight couples, and not very physically handsome couples danced and competed, too. Ballroom dancing, which consists of about 10 separate dances if you really want to be a cognoscente, is such a great activity because it lets all of us be graceful and beautiful and live in a healthy fantasy for a time.
One couple weighed at least 750 pounds total (they belong to an overweight dancing club). The man was dressed in white tie and tails. The woman wore a tight-fitting, spectacularly colored tango outfit covered in sequins and feathers, and her eyes were brightly painted with iridescent mascara dusted with sparkling sequins. A still picture of this couple might not fit your image of idealized beauty. But when their feet touched the dance floor, these two moved with a light-footed grace that put a lot of the younger, slimmer couples to shame.
Gladys Lien caught my eye, too. She is from the Washington area, and, though she may kill me for saying it, looked like the type of person everyone would want for a grandmother. Gladys Lien is tall and elegant, and the night we met she was wearing a blue chiffon feathered gown.
She retired from the Army in 1955 and didn't dance at all until 1975. "I got tired of sitting at home," she says. Gladys Lein is now what's known as a "Gold C" competitive ballroom dancer -- she's in the expert category, and is over 65, and, without doubt, can outdance just about anyone reading this today.
I, unfortunately, couldn't outdance a soul at the competition. My teacher for four days was Vicki Regan. Vicki has the physical beauty and talent my daydreams used to conjure up. She is a strawberry blond who has danced in both "42nd Street" and "A Chorus Line" on Broadway, and for some time she has been one of the reigning queens of competitive ballroom dancing.
And if anything intimidates me more than a really beautiful, really bright unmarried woman, it is a beautiful, bright, unmarried woman who dances like Ginger Rogers. For three days, Vicki worked with me on "smooth" dances such as foxtrots and waltzes and "rhythm" dances such as the cha-cha and hustle.
She spent most of her time trying to break my bad habits: looking down at my feet to make sure I didn't crush the glass slipper; keeping my left hand open as if I were taking an oath, rather than closed comfortably around her fingers; holding her body close to mine ("nightclub dancing", she called it) rather than keeping a disciplined distance.
And then on Friday night at 9 we danced. I had on white tie and tails, and she a long and elegant sequined blue gown. We dipped, we turned, we twirled. I got lost on that danceroom floor, and I want to tell you I didn't want to be found.
I would imagine Doctors Leon, Connett, Jacobs, and Rauramaa would approve of all this dancing, too. In the Nov. 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, they reported on an important study relating to leisure-time physical activities and heart disease.
Just about every doctor will tell you unequivocally that strong, sustained physical activity can very positively impact our health. But until recently, very few studies had been concluded that indicate that moderate physical activity might be good for you, too.
This study certainly says that. The doctors evaluated the leisure time activity patterns and levels of 12,138 middle-aged men. During a seven-year follow-up program, the men who took part in "moderate" leisure time physical activity had 63 percent as many fatal coronary heart disease incidents and sudden deaths as those men who only took part in "light" physical activity. The study defined "light" activity to include walking strictly for pleasure, fishing, and bowling. Moderate activities included gardening, yard work, swimming, and dancing.
Men in the moderate category did an average of 48 minutes of moderate activity per day, activity that seemed to lower their risk of death or serious injury by heart attack by 39 percent.
If you are, therefore, one of those people who will never consciously undertake an exercise program, why not think about dancing lessons? Something you can do with a friend that's honest-to-goodness fun? The lessons themselves will give you moderate exercise, and if you decide to become a competitive ballroom dancer, like the people at the Star Ball, you'll actually be getting a very serious, hardball workout without knowing it.
And if that's not news to make you dance, I don't know what is.