A quick step up for ballroom - thanks to 'Stars'

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Pivots, cobra fans, quick steps. Dance instructor Jamie Cunneen makes it look easy as a group of aspiring dancers tries to mirror his every move.

Fred and Ginger wannabes have been flooding studios around the nation, thanks in large part to ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," a show that has stolen into the summer rerun season and become a surprise hit. The program pairs a celebrity with a professional ballroom dancer to compete against other couples. None of the "stars" - personalities such as ex-New Kids on the Block singer Joey McIntyre, Kelly Monaco of "General Hospital," "Seinfeld" bit player John O'Hurley, and heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield - had prior experience on the dance floor.

The show's success has crested a wave of renewed interest in ballroom dance that may have started with the 1992 film "Strictly Ballroom" and has continued with the recent documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom."

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Independent dance studios, such as DanceSport in Manhattan where Mr. Cunneen teaches, as well as Arthur Murray, the international chain, are reporting an increase in attendance.

Mark Lightner, manager of the Arthur Murray studio in Boston, says the company's website had a 600 percent increase in visitors in the 12 hours after "Dancing with the Stars" premièred.

Much of the interest is coming from a generation that never learned to fox trot.

"Our new students have continued to be younger and younger," he says. "I think it's become vogue."

The trend speaks to more than just a desire to be hip, however. Participants praise the social aspect of dancing.

"Two generations have missed ballroom dancing; they haven't partner-danced," says Esther Freeman, national president of the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association. "There's a resurgence now because people see it and want to know how to look like that. When you do non-partner dancing, you're both doing your own thing. Now people want to do the same thing."

Partner dancing establishes an intimate and personal atmosphere. Students who attend classes alone often find themselves making friends with other singles and with the couples who switch partners throughout the class.

Ms. Freeman actually discovered ballroom dancing after her divorce, and praises it for its prescribed physical contact - but also for its limitations.

"Ballroom dancing helped me so much because it was an activity where I was touched, looked at, flirted with, adored, but I could go home alone," she says. "It satisfies that social need we have to be touched, to be with other people in a social circle, without having to get into a personal relationship."

Though ballroom dancing is becoming a popular form of social interaction, its side benefits are multifaceted. For many participants, dancing is a relatively painless way to get in shape.

"People who come here want to lead healthier lifestyles and to be more social," says Eleny Fotinos, cofounder of DanceSport. "They're coming here to find a balance of socializing and physical sport. It's different from the gym atmosphere."

For others, ballroom dance is a skill worth developing, regardless of its social or health benefits. Liz Brower, a college senior, recalls with mixed feelings the lessons her parents made her take 10 years ago.

"There was a general immaturity from having to interact with boys, and people felt embarrassed dancing in a way that was new and not necessarily what would come naturally to young kids," she says. But the dance steps she remembers have come in handy at events like weddings, and she would like to take classes to learn more "if I had someone to do it with."

For Glory Missan, who attends classes at DanceSport almost every night, ballroom dance has introduced her to pop culture. Ms. Missan, who will say only that she is "over 65," watches "Dancing with the Stars" and, like many viewers, has picked her favorite.

"The English judge [Len Goodman] is too hard on that Joey," she says. "He really picks on him."

Missan says she hadn't heard of the former member of the boy-band New Kids on the Block before tuning in to the show, but thinks he is "not that bad" and the show is fun to watch.

The program attracts the reality-TV fanbase, but has the added benefit of celebrity headliners. And there is the thrill of watching familiar faces out of their element - professional actors and boxers trying to waltz with professional dancers on live TV. The effort exerted by these celebrities, and the level of success they have reached, seems to inspire viewers to try dancing themselves.

Viewers may think, "if Evander Holyfield can learn to cha cha in a few weeks, then I can throw myself into it too," says Conrad Green, executive producer of "Dancing with the Stars." In fact, the surge of interest in dance lessons has made it difficult for Arthur Murray to continue providing studio space for the celebrity couples. "It's hard to rent space for our own rehearsal," Mr. Green says. "It's ironic, actually."

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