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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.