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."

The fact is, everyone wants a way out, a reprieve, from everyday routines. "Our lives are full of stress. It's work, work, work. It's worry, worry, worry, all the time," says Elena Torbenko, who started Elena's Dance Studio in Rockville last fall. It's the kind of encouraging, tranquil place where the instructor says "forward-side-together, backward-side-together" as pupils waltz to Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?," the gentlemen as "vases," Torbenko likes to say, the ladies as "flowers."

With her studio open seven days a week (at about $10 per class), Torbenko, a former high school physics teacher in Russia, says she's too busy to watch "Dancing With the Stars." Still, she credits the TV show -- and last year's hit remake of the 1996 Japanese film "Shall We Dance?," featuring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez -- for attracting both men and women to ballroom dancing.

One of Torbenko's star pupils, a 17-year-old named Ben Chafetz, was encouraged by his dad to take classes to attract girls -- and it worked. "The hustle is the most fun of the dances, salsa has the most moves and you can do a lot with it, but the waltz is definitely the hottest," says Chafetz, who's working two jobs (and looking for a third) to pay for his lessons. This fall, as a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, he'll be leading the dancing club -- a club he formed last spring.

"Why the waltz? Well, you're dancing with a girl, and her hips touch yours the whole time," Chafetz says.

Tami Tamsuk, a fan of "Dancing With the Stars," is a fan of the waltz, too. But the merengue -- "with all that hip action," she says -- is her favorite.

She has seen all but one episode of the show, and she's rooting for Monaco, who she says was "such the underdog" when the show began. She's not a fan of O'Hurley.

"Did you see his tango?" Tamsuk asks. "He was really comical about it, and it didn't fit."

In Tamsuk's office in Rockville -- she's a business travel consultant -- the show is almost always the topic of conversation come Thursday morning; nine of the 12 co-workers usually watch it Wednesday nights.

"We've all embraced the show because you can turn on the TV in the middle of the summer and find something positive to really get into," Tamsuk explains. "The show is so graceful, so elegant, so beautiful."

Not to mention so glittery.

It pairs up celebrities like O'Hurley and Monaco -- he of a killer quickstep, she of a smoldering samba, and that's no overstatement -- with professional ballroom dancers such as Jorgensen and Mazo and gives them a little more than a minute to create some of kind of romance, or magic, or confusion.

For one, who knew that you could rumba to Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"? For what it's worth, the show attracted 13.5 million viewers to its first outing June 1, and last week's show drew in an estimated 18.6 million, winning that night's coveted 18-to-49 demographic.

"I'm gonna miss the show," says Tamsuk, 43. Not for long, though. Season 2 will be coming soon enough.

John O'Hurley and Charlotte Jorgensen go up against another couple in tonight's season finale of "Dancing With the Stars."

Michael B. Rubin and Oga Gracheva take their lessons for a spin at a dance party at Elena's Dance Studio in Rockville.

Elena Torbenko dances with Ben Chafetz, one of her star pupils, recently at her dance studio in Rockville.

Torbenko, left, sees the resurgence of ballroom dancing as a way for people to escape stress. Above, Paul Sullivan and Sabrina Sim show off their moves.