Lee, Mass. — They talk earnestly of the essentials of a good partnership: sensitivity to the other person and balance; respect and trust. ''It's not 'She's wrong' or 'He's wrong' but 'How can we make it right?' '' says Peter Maxwell earnestly, making an energetic gripping motion as if trying to save a marriage with his bare hands. But he's not talking domesticity. This is ballroom dance strategy.
He, his partner, Vicki Regan, and two other couples - billing themselves as ''Winning Teams'' because among them they have won most of the ballroom dance competitions in the Western world - are trying to get off the dance floor and onto the stage. They started out in, of all places, Jacob's Pillow, a summer showplace for the new and the classic in modern dance, for foreign ballet companies, and for ethnic dance. In a rehearsal in the rustic barn theater, the record player squeals out Gershwin's ''Rhapsody in Blue,'' and Peter Maxwell and Vicki Regan sulk, slink, and swing their way through a steamy set of grasps, whirls, breakaways, and lifts.
They look as if they're sliding on glass. Maxwell passes Regan behind him and then lets her loose for a matched set of turns, interspersed with over-the-shoulder pouts. Across the stage from each other, looking in opposite directions, they magically fall into synchronized footwork. But they both stop and look disgruntled, mutter, grab each other again, and put themselves through the same paces. Whatever the mistake was, it was invisible to the uninitiated eye. But to Peter Maxwell and Vicki Regan there was something to adjust. No matter. The tension of constantly trying to ''make it right,'' says Maxwell, is what makes this dancing compelling to watch.
'' 'Rhapsody in Blue' is a 12 1/2-minute number,'' says Maxwell, a compact, muscular Englishman. ''There's no way you can get through 12 1/2 minutes and get everything right. In ballet, if something goes wrong, it's a major disaster. In ballroom, it's either not seen or it's part of the act.'' The difference is in the partnering, he says. In ballet, except for a few exceptions partnership is seldom an ''abstract,'' he says. In ballroom, it is constant and personal. ''You develop a sense of touch. Before the disaster's occurring, you can sense something wrong. The action or the attitude might be wrong in a turn, so you change the support to correct it.'' The audience is no wiser.
This sense of touch which he calls ''sympathy, not just in the psychological sense, but in the physical sense,'' gives good ballroom dancers the look of being ''connected.'' And one has only to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance together to get a feeling for what that can mean.
Even Arlene Croce, the rather fierce dance critic for The New Yorker, gets a little misty-eyed on the subject. In ''The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, '' she writes, ''[Ginger Rogers's] technique became exactly what she needed in order to dance with Fred Astaire, and, as no woman in movies ever did, she created the feeling that stirs us so deeply when we see them together: Fred need not be alone.''
They don't have a Fred orm a Ginger, but ''Winning Teams'' is an experience to behold. They are, by Maxwell's own admission, ''out of left field.'' In our age of independence, as men and women explore new roles, often in solitude, most dance keeps up with the trend. Modern dance emphasizes the spaces between the dancers as much as it does the dancers. In modern ballet, it's a choice between a platoon or a soloist onstage. But no one in the ''Winning Teams'' would ever think of setting foot onstage without his or her partner, and usually they step on in unison. In an era of jet-setting superstars using whole ballet companies as background, they travel in pairs.When modern music and dance are combining in lofts for a minimalist experience of repetitive music and movement, they dance to songs with words - corny ones like ''Perhaps Love'' and ''You and Me.''
And it's the age of the male dancer. You pay a lot to see Baryshnikov leap, and the name of that nice ballerina onstage with him slips your mind. Not so with ''Winning Teams.'' They put the women out in front or up in the air, fluttering, flying, twirling, wheeling - all at the touch of a hand on the small of the back - or in some cases, around the ankle.
They start the program off with ''The Blue Danube.'' Each couple, doing its own specialty, whirls on in blue evening clothes for a few turns. Maxwell and Regan are the most theatrical. Maxwell has a macho presence, and Regan, a thin brunette with large, liquid brown eyes, makes herself putty in his hands, wrapping and unwrapping from his arms, stretching out and coming back, pouring herself over backward, but always in step with him. At one point Maxwell stands stolidly, a nostril-flaring, proud look on his face, his arm out. Vicki is a blur suspended from his hand, whirling squatted down with her skirt sticking straight out and her Bambi-like legs crossed at the ankle.
Yvonne Marceau, who is also liquid in her movements, but has the upward spring of a twig, stays in waltz time through the whole number even though her foot hardly ever touches the floor. She spends most of the time floating from hold to hold above the head of her partner, Pierre Dulaine. He turns her, holds her upside down with her legs up straight, flips her over one shoulder, around the back of his neck, and around the other shoulder. She keeps smiling and keeps her limbs in order, never breaking the smooth lines of their dance, not for a moment looking manhandled, or even mussed. She smiles delicately but proudly at the audience as if this is just where she meant to be, and isn't it wonderful there was this handsome man to climb up on and perform from?
Pierre smiles without a trace of strain, as if to say, You'd like to hang upside down using the back of my neck as an anchor for a few moments? Delighted! Be my guest. The lifts, whirls, and turns come in streams of movement , long phrases for the music, and you hold your breath for long stretches, but they always finish the phrase in triumph before diving into the next. This is called adagio or exhibition dancing. They are British Exhibition Dancing Champions, probably the best adagio dancers in the world.
Then on step the traditionalists, Gary and Lori Pierce. They waltz around in widening circles. Gary's black-tuxedoed legs flash in and out of Lori's billowing skirts as they scud around the floor. In the finale, they turn twice as fast, which pulls them closer together, snapping them into focus and taking your breath away. Yvonne is perched on Pierre's shoulders, and as he turns around they look like a helicopter. Peter has Vicki at waist level, perpendicular to him and perfectly stiff, so that now her head faces the audience and now her feet, and every time her head comes around she's smiling.
Everyone is smiling, and every hand that isn't holding on for dear life is raised to the audience. The audience, right in step, jumps up out of its seats and applauds for all it's worth. In the oldest stronghold of modern dance, in the woods of Massachusetts, the waltz has made a conquest.
Is this the absolute rear guard of dance? Or a trip back to the '40s?
Neither, Peter Maxwell maintains. He doesn't feel his work is a nostalgic effort, but a continuation of a glorious tradition. He agrees that while ballroom dancing at parties is based on the discarded notion of a male leading, ''when the dance is choreographed, the girl knows what she's going to do and the man knows that she knows, so the idea of 'lead-and-follow' progresses to partnering, which is very different.'' Partnership, he says, affords ''the connection, elasticity, and security'' for the woman ''to do what she does, better.'' (Or at least higher up in the air.) ''I don't feel it puts the man in a secondary role. . . . You don't dance through the girl. In (a 'lead-and-follow' situation) what you do is manipulate her. In partnering, what she does is an extension of what you do yourself. If there's a girl on the end of your arm, it's not 'I can't do anything because she's there.' She does what she does because I do this.''
Vicki Regan says Maxwell is ''one of the greatest partners. He motivates women to dance full out. He has a passion. I have a passion, too, but I need the other person to bring it out.'' She still thinks the man leads, but that's fine with her. ''(Ballroom dance) is a man's world. You have to follow what they do unless they accept your suggestions, and that's rare. . . . Good partners make you look great. They can put you on or off balance. They have to be very sensitive.'' Though she often leads when she is teaching, ''I've never been on the other end completely. But I think the woman has more of a physical strain. The man does recoveries and leads. She goes away and does the pirouettes, knee-drops, backbends, and spins on the floor. The man's job is concentration, knowing her balance, and initiation.''
For all these subtle exchanges of power, there's something naively cooperative and effusive about the way they dance, as if they were making a human pyramid for you. Yvonne Marceau says she misses ballroom competitions, the world they all come from, where competitors all dance at the same time in a ballroom with observers around them. ''It's funny for us not to see. You look out there and it's just a void. We're used to seeing, and talking to, people when we dance.'' With the audience out front, hidden by the bright lights, ''there's no feedback.'' But the connection between partners seems to extend to the audience in a personal way.
Gary and Lori Pierce, who are also married, have only been dancing together for three years, but Lori is ''the only person I ever wanted to dance with,'' he says. Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau have been dancing together six years, and run a dancing school in New Jersey. And Peter Maxwell has had the same partner for 16 years, starting in England at age 10. When he and Vicki decided to dance together six years ago, they both moved, he from London, she from Montreal, to work together in New York.
The pull isn't mere romance. It's the fact that it's very hard to find someone with the same feelings about dancing who will still be bearable after 12 -hour days of rehearsing; or still pulling with you when required to dance on what Lori Pierce calls ''God-forsaken surfaces, like gravel or grass''; or traveling. Ballroom competitors travel constantly, making a living by teaching and competing in matches all over the world. Most important, the compatibility is part of the act. Ballroom dancers, aside from doing soaring lifts and diving turns, have to give that sense that ''Fred need not be alone.''
''It's not the sort of dancing where you can put two people together and say 'learn this duo,' '' says Maxwell. ''It has to be somebody who's done it and knows what they're doing. It's part of their life. You couldn't teach a couple of stage dancers how to do it with that conviction and that ability. Impossible.''
Maxwell's idea is that the conviction and ability are the show, and that this kind of dancing doesn't need a musical comedy to support it. ''We're saying, forget the story, forget the book. Look at the quality of dance for itself,'' he said excitedly in a phone interview from Miami, whither he had repaired for some more dancing before a trip back to London to chart the future of ''Winning Teams.''
He believes the allure of two people dancing as one is enough of a draw, and he thinks it's rare. In classical ballet, he says, there is little knowledge of partnering, except for the rare greats - Fonteyn and Nureyev, Sibley and Dowell, Martins and Farrell. ''That connection is what you see,'' when you become star-struck by their pas de deux, he said. London's Royal Ballet calls him in to give it technical tips for the tricky lifts in the modern ballets of Glen Tetley. The dancers aren't always thrilled by it. The men, he says, think partnering is second-best to dancing. But to Peter Maxwell, it is dancing.
Ballroom dance on stage has different dynamics than ballet or modern dance, or even ballroom dance in the movies. ''Certain kinds of performances will make it easy for an audience to see and other times they'll have to look closer,'' says Gary Pierce. ''And when they look closer, it kind of brings the focus in.''
When the Pierces waltz around to ''The Blue Danube,'' you look closer. Gary is tall and polite-looking, with a high forehead; Lori is tall and bigger in the shoulders than most dancers, but graceful. They are the least theatrical couple. They rarely look at the audience as they whisk and billow around the stage. Gary steps adroitly around Lori, plunging them in loops and circles, and Lori dips and swoops in response. They watch each other intently, not just with their faces but with their bodies, as if holding an unheard conversation. Watching them is more like eavesdropping than being performed to. Glancing only occasionally at where they're going, they form fantastic, lacy patterns on the floor. Their concentration on each other and what to do next, less polished than Fred and Ginger's, gives the same feeling of connection, and can bring the same catch to the throat.