New York — Ballroom dancing hit its peak in the big-band era of the '40s. Since then, it has been kept alive in the United States by dance instructors, who have, in turn, kept themselves in business with dance contests.
And there is a growing corps of top fox-trotters and ace quicksteppers who have swept through these contests and arrived at the US National Ballroom Championships, the pinnacle of the American circuit.
The competitions were held in New York's Madison Square Garden last month, and a restaged version of them will be shown on PBS, with Juliet Prowse announcing (to be aired during the December pledge period, check local listings).
The American audience for ballroom dance-viewing is growing. Last year's US championship was the most watched show in New York City the week it aired, says Aida Moreno of Boston public television station WGBH, who produced last year's show and the coming one.
In December, viewers will see a brave new world on the dance floor. Couples with numbers on their backs still whirl to the static-y loudspeakers playing mushy waltzes, blaring tangos, and all-purpose fox trots. But forget Fred and Ginger and think ''Saturday Night Fever,'' and you have an idea of the dance style. The clothes follow suit, so to speak.
The competitors in the theatrical dance division were the showiest. The women were dressed in body stockings with satin sewn on in splashes to suggest tiny, clinging dresses in outrageous greens and flamingo pinks, tufted with fur and feathers. The men wore tuxedos as tight and supple as leotards.
Dancing was a combination of Ice Capades and gymnastics.As the music started, the couples would throw their hands in the air and then grab each other by various limbs for death-defying lifts, spine-tingling drops, and an occasional, much-applauded, fling of the woman along the floor. Invariably she bounced up with the glassy smile of a circus performer who has been shot from a cannon.
Mary Molaghan, who founded the American Ballroom Company, which has put on the competition for the last 12 years, said in her retirement speech that ''when we started, they didn't have panty hose. There were very few lifts, drops, or kicks, because of garters. Now just as body stockings are coming in, I'm getting out. Just in time.''
It's not just hose that made the dancing get flashier, Ms. Molaghan explained in an interview. It's partly that the US National Ballroom Competition is the only event that combines English-style Latin dancing - dignified but tricky - with American-style theatrical dancing - flashy and inventive. The American-style dancers see the English-style dancers, and away they go. ''Saturday Night Fever'' and skating have left their mark, Mrs. Molaghan said, and ''when I see dancing on ice'' in the Olympics, ''I say, ah-ha, that'll show up (in the championships), and it does.''
There's no name for the new style. ''It's one big blob,'' she says, and adds, ''Dancing is the best way in the world to show off.''
The English Modern division, however, is untouched by time and fashion, and the winners of this division go on to the World Championships. Brian and Kristi McDonald, a Scottish couple who emigrated here five years ago, won the English Modern Championship this year for the fifth time in a row. Then they announced their retirement.
''It's time to allow new champions to win,'' said Brian McDonald, a small, neat man in a sleek tuxedo, who was surrounded with whooshing organza dance skirts as the women they had competed with rushed up to his wife to hug her on hearing the retirement news. The couple had danced flawlessly, heads level, holding each other in an impeccable grip, moving quickly through their paces. Mrs. McDonald's white skirt flounced traditionally.
''We've been dancing for 23 years,'' Mr. McDonald said, ''and it's time to stand down.'' They will continue to teach and coach competitors. And they will compete in the World Championships this year in Tokyo. No American couple has ever won the world title.
This is one reason McDonald wants to teach.
''There's talent in this country,'' he said. In the next five years or so many good young dancers will appear, he expects, and by then there will be a winner.
What does it take for the US to win a world championship? ''More exposure,'' he says. In Europe and England, ballroom dancing is followed closely, with many national and even local competitions on television. In the US, the US National Ballroom Championships will be on PBS this year for only the second time.
''This is a serious business,'' he says. ''These couples train like athletes. It takes time and money. ''
Even though many competition steps were invented by Americans, English dancers usually waltz off with the World Championships.
''If you ask me who are the most creative, we are,'' says John Monte, president of the American Ballroom Company and National Dance Director of Fred Astaire Dance Studios. ''But if you asked me who claims the highest standard, it's Great Britain.'' Since the World Championships are danced in English style, also called International style, the English usually win.
The US lost its edge during World War II.
''The way the jitterbug is danced in New England is different from the South, and it's different from Texas,'' Mr. Monte says. ''They're all indigenous to our folk style, and they're all correct.'' But tell that to the judge. ''In Great Britain, the GIs that brought over the jitterbug all did it one way. The English teachers immediately standardized it.'' National competitions started soon after the war. When world competitions came along, English dancers be-bopped right to the top - English-style, of course. ''They begin training at age 6 or 7 years. Most of them have worked with the same partner since early childhood,'' Monte says.
But he thinks Americans have been gaining, and ''now we're making our bid in world dancing.'' On TV they will be able to see for themselves whether the US can reclaim the jitterbug, not to mention the fox trot and the quickstep.