ne year ago, David and Cecile Benigni of Wheaton were planning their wedding. Cecile, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, grew up in a Seventh-Day Adventist family, where dancing was virtually absent from family festivities. But her nondenominational wedding -- David is Catholic -- was going to have a lively band. The thought of 120 guests watching them hit the dance floor for their first dance as husband and wife struck terror in their hearts.

"We wanted to avoid making fools of ourselves on the dance floor," David said. So, at Cecile's urging, they signed up for a series of classes at the Arthur Murray Studios -- two lessons a week for six weeks leading up to the big day. Their instructors choreographed a social fox trot to go with their chosen music. Says David, "We came out on the floor, did a spin and looked polished. It was so much fun, we decided to keep going, and now dancing is our weekly date."

Returning to the same Arthur Murray studio every weekend for a refresher lesson, a new step and a fun evening out, the Benignis have plenty of company. By all accounts, local interest in social dancing -- that's when you dance with, not at, your partner -- has increased tremendously, and continues to grow.

"The Washington area studios comprise the top-performing group of all Arthur Murray studios in the country," says Linda Theiss, manager of the Silver Spring branch of the nationwide franchise. "D.C. is definitely a dancing town."

Theiss ought to know; she's been with Arthur Murray for more than 25 years. A former student herself, she began taking classes to increase her self-confidence, and like many dance students, got hooked. These days, Arthur Murray is no longer the realm of the "blue-haired old ladies and gentlemen." According to Theiss, her typical students are urban professionals in their early to mid-30s, most with high-pressure jobs, in search of a little R&R. If you visit an Arthur Murray studio, you will receive a free lesson to test the waters. After six to 10 weeks of group and private lessons and practice sessions, most people are proficient at several different dances. Many stay on and make ballroom dancing a lifetime leisure activity.

OUR FOUR LEFT FEET

"Fun is number one! If you're not having fun, try something else," says Sue Green, the Arthur Murray instructor who undertook the formidable task of teaching my husband and me the basics of ballroom. I should point out that my husband greeted news of our impending dance lesson as he would an impending kidney stone. (That's normal -- most often, the female of the couple initiates lessons.)

Green, a former broadcast engineer at a Boston public radio station, returned to her hometown of Silver Spring seeking a midlife career change. In search of a "people job," she entered the training program at an Arthur Murray studio. Besides proficiency in dance, their instructors must possess a winning personality and strong people skills. The result is a friendly and patient extrovert who helps you uncover your inner dancer -- sort of a combination Sigmund Freud and Ginger Rogers.

Green proved to be a great teacher, sprinkling our first lesson with memorable sound bites: "Dancing is old-fashioned -- the man leads, the woman follows"; "A crowded dance floor is like the Beltway: You weave in and out of traffic to avoid a crash"; "Dancing grows relationships, and it's aerobic"; and "All new students bounce." Despite her encouragement, my husband and I lurched around the dance floor, clutching one another like passengers on the Titanic -- as it was going down. However, after our second lesson, we felt more comfortable, and were safely ensconced in the "awkward" phase. (A large illustrated poster on the dance studio wall explains the stages of learning dance: Initial Learning, Awkward Use, Conscious Use and Natural Use.)

While dancing is an artistic pursuit for some, many people give other reasons for taking lessons. They like socializing, or they crave exercise, or they're seeking new friends, or they simply enjoy mastering a new skill. Besides, the dance floor beckons at weddings, bar mitzvahs and office holiday parties, and they're a lot more fun when you know how to dance. It's also healthy, and with obesity running rampant in America, that's reason enough to give it a whirl. (According to studies, an hour of ballroom dancing burns approximately 150 calories.) Says Green, "People who sit at a desk all day need a mind vacation. They need to get up and move around. There is something very enriching about dance; it's replenishing."

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

The term "ballroom" refers to five basic dances: the three-quarter waltz, Viennese waltz, fox trot, tango and quickstep. Of course, there are many others, like the cha-cha, the meringue, the Lindy hop, the mambo and on and on. Dance devotees are passionate about their chosen dance, and swear it's the only one worth doing. Smooth dances with graceful, long, gliding steps, or rhythmic dances featuring fast feet and showier steps, appeal to different types of people. What's true for all is that not everybody is good at every dance; usually there's one dance that feels just right. "People need to try out a few, and find the one that says, 'I can really express myself in this dance,' " Green advises.

Arthur and Barbara Karpas apparently found that in the tango. For the last year, they have hosted Friday night Argentine tango parties, attended by as many as nine couples, in their Takoma Park home. It all started back when they met their teacher, Ali Dadashian, at the studio of local tango guru Leon Harris. Dadashian agreed to in-home lessons, but they needed a permanent dance floor. "We'd been moving the furniture out of the living room and dining room for parties for years, and then we'd move it back the next day," recalls Arthur Karpas, a biomedical research scientist. "About a year ago, we stopped moving it back."

Dadashian lives in Leesburg and travels to Washington several times each week to teach at a variety of locations. He says the Argentine tango is both the most difficult and the easiest dance to learn, adding, "Students take lessons for many years, because with every class they learn something new." Bill Griffiths is one of those students, and a regular at the Karpas Friday night dance party. A high school English teacher by day, he readily admits an obsession with the tango. "The tango almost becomes a religion; it creeps into your life in so many ways," Griffiths says. Now that his wife is becoming interested, "We're ready to rip up the rugs in our house and put in our own dance floor. That's one of the first signs that you're serious about tango."

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Terry Chasteen has been teaching dance since 1974, has seen trends come and go and loves talking about it. "Salsa is the big thing now, because it's easy to learn and you can do it in a small space," he said to a group of about 25 students who made it to the Chevy Chase Ballroom on a recent snowy night. Chasteen is happy to explain the nuances of the ballroom world, and goes into detail describing the different levels of achievement. "There is bronze, silver, gold and supreme gold. You must learn a specific number of patterns or figures before moving up to the next level."

Another subject that occupies Chasteen these days -- besides his cameo appearance in the feature film "Head of State," which opens Friday -- is the gay dance scene. "It's always been very disco, and many people are tiring of that." So he recently inaugurated monthly gender-neutral dance parties and classes, in conjunction with the Whitman-Walker Clinic, at Between Friends, a downtown nightclub. All participants are welcome and encouraged to both lead and/or follow, regardless of gender. (This is a break from traditional ballroom, where there is an almost dictatorial insistence that the man leads and the woman follows.)

Dance veteran Nick Short, who has operated Bethesda's Du-Shor Dance Studio for 32 years, attributes the ups and downs of any particular dance craze to what people see on television. "Ricky Martin brought the salsa, and those Gap TV ads selling chinos brought swing. In fact, anytime I see a commercial on TV that shows dance, I go nuts, because I know it will increase business."

Short predicts a boom in ballroom, as more people -- including teens and college students -- become interested in it. "After September 11, 2001, business fell off for about a week or so, but then the crowds returned, looking for distraction. A big part of the appeal is the relaxation factor. People come in to escape reality; they arrive in one mood, and leave in another."

Where to Learn Here is a sampling of the places where you can learn ballroom dancing:

Arthur Murray International Dance Studios:

Alexandria -- 6489 Little River Tnpk.; 703-751-4336.

Bethesda -- 8227 Woodmont Ave.; 301-657-2700.

Gaithersburg -- 1 W. Deer Park Dr.; 301-590-0387.

Silver Spring -- 10801 Lockwood Dr.; 301-681-4466.

Vienna -- 8603 Westwood Center Dr.; 703-556-0088.

The company's Web site is located at www.arthurmurray.com.

Ballroom Dance Company -- Founder Ray Bugnosen and his company offer workshops and classes at area health clubs, private social clubs and dance studios. For more information, or to arrange personalized programs or private lessons for singles and couples, call 301-294-1797 or visit www.ballroomdancecompany.org.

Bethesda Dance Studio -- 4900 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-718-4608. www.bethesdadancestudio.com. Friday night practice parties let you show off (or try out) your skills on the dance floor. A full range of lessons, from private to group, in all the popular dances, is available.

Boogie in Bethesda -- The Woman's Club of Bethesda, 5500 Sonoma Rd., Bethesda. www.countrydancin.com/events. Offers lessons on Tuesdays from 7 to 8, followed by open dancing from 9 to 11:30. A new beginner-level series starts each month. DJ, soft drinks and snacks are provided. All lessons are $12, and students are invited to stay and dance at no extra charge. Admission to the dance is $6 for those not wishing to take the lesson. For more information, e-mail Frank Glowczewskie at baysideswing@aol.com.

The Capital Tangueros -- A community of tango dancers dedicated to the promotion of Argentine tango. Their Web site, www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/4119, has a complete listing of events, classes and teachers, with links to other tango sites.

Chevy Chase Ballroom -- 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW (Metro: Friendship Heights); 202-462-0870. www.chevychaseballroom.com. Offers classes featuring a wide variety of styles and instructors, and a great dance floor.

Dance Factory -- 954 N. Monroe St., Arlington; 703-528-9770.www.dancefactory.com. Offers private, semiprivate and group classes, plus weekend dance parties and intensive workshops.

Du-Shor Dance Studio -- 7800 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-656-7434.www.dcdancenet.com/du-shorstudio. Features a 4,500-square-foot dance floor, huge crystal chandeliers and great natural lighting.

Glen Echo Park -- 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo; 310-492-6229. www.nps.gov/glec. The famed Spanish Ballroom remains closed during extensive renovations (it is scheduled to reopen this summer), but the social dance program is being held in the Bumper Car Pavilion. The park offers classes year-round in a wide variety of dance styles. Beginners enjoy a free hour-long lesson, and registration is not required. Many people go without a partner, and dress is casual.

Leon Harris -- 1250 New Jersey Ave. NW; 202-638-3589. Offers beginning, intermediate and advanced classes in Argentine tango.

Ali Dadashian -- 703-443-0438. A disciple of Leon Harris, he now teaches on his own. Call to arrange private or group lessons in Argentine tango.

Hollywood Ballroom -- 2126 Industrial Pkwy., Silver Spring; 301-622-5494. www.hollywoodballroom.com. Offers classes four nights a week, with a free lesson given one hour before dance events take place. You may also enroll in a series of classes with the instructor-in-residence. The 7,200-square-foot floating maple dance floor is one of the best in the area.

Joy of Motion Dance Center -- 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-362-3042; 1643 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-387-0911; 7702 Woodmont Ave., Suite 202, Bethesda, 301-986-0016. www.joyofmotion.org. Offers classes in many styles of dance.

Virginia Ballroom DanceSport -- 8442 Lee Highway, Fairfax; 703-641-1400. www.virginiaballroom.com. Offers a country-western two-step dance party, with instruction in two-step and line dancing, Thursday from 7:30 to 11:30. Also conducts classes in every style of ballroom dance, with something every night of the week.

Clubs With Classes

B.A. Restaurant and Tango Lounge -- 1512-B 14th St. NW; 202-234-0886. Offers lessons on Tuesdays from 7 to 8:30 and Wednesdays from 7 to 9, followed by open dancing until midnight.

Between Friends Nightclub -- 1115-A U St. NW (basement level); 202-232-2544. Offers gender-neutral lessons on the third Friday of the month from 7:30 to 10, followed by open dancing and practice until 3. Snacks and refreshments are provided, and admission is free.

El Boqueron -- 1330 East Gude Dr., Rockville; 301-294-1797. Offers salsa lessons Thursdays from 8 to 9:30, followed by open dancing.

Ooh La La -- 1800 M St. NW; 202-785-1177. Offers salsa lessons on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 9:30 and Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 to 10, followed by open dancing. $10 per lesson.

Andrea J. Rouda is a freelance writer who has now become a dedicated student of fox trots, waltzes and other forms of ballroom dance.

At right, Ballroom Dance Company instructors Ray Bugnosen and Rachelle Schiffli take a dip. At far right, Bugnosen and Schiffli get into the swing shag.