'IT's not easy to be very good," says John Kimmins, looking out at a swirl of professional and amateur ballroom dancers in the dazzling grand ballroom of the Fontainebleau Hilton during the 1991 United States Ballroom Championships.
Sleek, beautifully gowned women and tuxedoed men dance and move with grace and precision, their feet like feathers as they glide before judges standing at the edge of the dance floor.
This is ballroom dancing at its best. Mr. Kimmins, vice president of Arthur Murray Dance Studios and executive vice president of the American Ballroom Company, the sponsor of the event, considers ballroom dancing a "sport-art." At the Fontainebleau, more than $85,000 was offered in cash and prizes.
"Many of these dancers know they have to practice several hours a day to stay competitive," Kimmins says.
Over the past 10 years or so, professional ballroom dancing in the United States has been growing in popularity. On just about any weekend somewhere in the US, there is a ballroom-dancing competition. "More people over 50 are dancing these days," says Stephen Diener, president of Fred Astaire Dance Studios and a director of the American Ballroom Company. "And many young people are becoming aware that this is one of the cleanest, healthiest things they can do."
In other countries, Japan for instance, it is not uncommon for ballroom-dance competitions to attract crowds of 20,000. It is the third-most-popular "sport" on television there and the best dancers have corporate sponsors. Dance competitions are regularily televised in Europe and Australia as well. In Finland, Canada, and the former Soviet Union, ballroom dancing is booming.
Many of the top dancers in the world are from Britain. "US dancers are getting better," says a dance official at the Fontainbleau, "but dancers from England bring a richer dimension and softness when they dance."
Dancers from 38 countries competed in the World Professional Latin American Dance Championships held at the Fontainbleau during the same September weekend that the US Ballroom Championships were held.
Most dancers who compete regularily think ballroom dancing should become an Olympic sport. Igor Suvorov, a dancer from San Diego, says, "We are athletes who train regularily and perform under pressure."
At the competitions, dancers, both professional and amateur, perform dances in many different categories and age groups. For instance, the waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep are danced in the US National Professional Standard category. In the Latin American category, dancers do the cha cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, and jive.
Katharina Marks and her partner, Eddie Simon, both from New York City, compete in the "professional rising star" category. Marks owns a dance studio on Broadway. Wearing a flaming-red dress and seated in a side room at the Fontainbleau, she says, "If you look like you're working hard, the judges can see it. You want that effortless performance, as if there is a connection between the couple, but they are like a feather together. You master the techniques, add your own interpretations, and look like you'r e not even trying."
Kimmins adds a sense of "showmanship" to the list of what catches the eye of a judge during competitions. "You can't be shy here," he says. "Extroverts tend to do well in dancing. But technique is most important."
Kimmins says it won't be long before US dancers will have sponsors, and TV coverage of ballroom dancing will move beyond the occasional PBS special.
Among the competitions coming in early 1992 are La Classique du Quebec in Montreal, Feb. 13-16; the Southern States Ballroom Championships in New Orleans, March 4-8; the Fred Astaire Cross-Country Dance Championships in Bal Harbour, Fla., April 28 to May 3; and the Emerald Ball Dance Championships in Los Angeles, April 29 to May 3.