BOSTON — Dancing has burst onto the stage of favorite American pastimes with the energy and enthusiasm of rediscovered pleasures.
Ballroom students are thronging to big-band weekends from Wisconsin to Oregon; line, round, and square dancing draw more than 700 to a festival in school gyms in Hartford, Conn., and account for 60 clubs in the metro Atlanta area; Irish step-dance classes are burgeoning in Buffalo, N.Y., Tampa, Fla., and Denver; and Los Angeles clubs throb to the latest free-form "techno" dancing craze. Social dancing is gathering new converts across the country.
Some find dancing a more enjoyable and social means to fitness than sweaty hours on a treadmill or in aerobics class. Others have discovered the sheer pleasure of moving to music in concert with another dancer.
"I wish I'd done this 30 years ago," says Ted Hutchins of Atlanta, who has taken up ballroom dancing with his wife since going on a cruise in 1990.
Many find it a comfortable way to meet new people of various ages - enthusiasts now range, organizers say, from their early teens into their 80s, with many in their 20s and 30s.
At the front of the dance line is ballroom - which is experiencing an explosion in popular participation. Indeed, membership in the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association has more than doubled in the last four years.
The organization had 18 chapters nationwide in 1988 and expects to have 360 by 2000. Regular television airing of international ballroom competitions has helped boost interest, drawing a growing audience similar to that for figure skating.
Competitive ballroom dancing has gained such worldwide popularity that it will debut as a demonstration sport in the 2000 Olympics.
Professional dance shows such as "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance" have sparked huge interest in Irish step dancing. This dance form is actually not new to the States, notes Marian Horosko, education editor for Dance Magazine in New York. "This is the way America started to dance." Similarly, traveling shows of Argentine tango have made that ballroom style a current favorite.
Overall participation numbers are difficult to track, but those in dance circles agree on a social-dancing resurgence - particularly in university and adult-education classes. "One of the great benefits to social dancing is that it's aerobic and it's constantly challenging, mentally as well as physically," says Ms. Horosko.
Leisure-time trackers say dancing is a natural for the '90s. "It fits in with current trends," says Lucy Long, assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. People are putting an emphasis on exercise as part of healthy living, she says. Yet exercise for exercise's sake may be boring. Socializing - as well as doing something with your partner or children - make some forms of dancing jibe with today's lifestyles. "There's also a recognition that grown-ups need to play," Ms. Long says.
Calvin Campbell is a square-dance instructor in Colorado who helped develop a curriculum called "Dancing for Busy People." He says baby boomers are hitting the age where they want to do things with their children, and square dancing fits that. Church groups are doing a lot with youths, and "beginner parties" are still popular, he says.
Then there's the finger-on-the-computer-keyboard dance: The Internet has put in touch a huge group of social-dance enthusiasts.
Delving into local dance spots around the country, Monitor writers found Americans on their feet to a wide variety of beats.