Ballroom dancing is the latest “gotta try it” phenomenon sweeping suburbia. Valley dancers are, surprisingly, taking the lead.
“Our next dance is a samba …”
The M.C. dryly intones the words like a Cape Canaveral launch announcer counting down to a Titan 4 rocket detonation. And, fittingly, in a beat the Arizona Ballroom of the Mesa Marriott explodes in a glittery spectacle of mad hot ballroom pyrotechnics.
A jumpin’ Brazilian dance groove pulses from the loudspeakers as the six finalist couples in the Professional International Latin segment of tonight’s contest begin tearing it up around the massive maple floor. All the men wear skin-tight black pants and black shirts unbuttoned to standard Rico Suave gold medallion length, and all the women are packed into daring body-hugging dresses that look like they were swiped from J-Lo’s closet.
In fact, it’s actually possible to get a J-Lo-verdose looking at all the eye-popping sequined bras and tush-gripping day-glo hot pants spiraling around the hotel’s ballroom on this mid-September Saturday night. In the back of the packed room, two middle-school boys, cajoled into wearing starched white shirts and ties to Mom’s big event, appear suddenly mesmerized by a flaming red backless Jessica Rabbit-style gown battling the forces of motion and gravity to stay clung to the petite Latina fireball spinning wildly before them.
This is the first time the three-day Galaxy Dance Festival – one of the dance world’s most anticipated, with a total purse of $58,000 – has been held in the Valley, and this year, it’s bigger than ever. Thanks to the surprise runaway success of such reality TV dance-offs as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With the Stars and the upcoming TLC series, Ballroom Bootcamp, precision dancing is suddenly a hot ticket.
Tonight, in fact, the Galaxy’s biggest competition is the So You Think You Can Dance live spectacle, stopping in Phoenix for one sold-out performance at the Dodge Theater. Yet even with that blockbuster stealing the attention of the Valley’s dance fans, the Marriott’s 9,000-square-foot ballroom is packed to the gills.
“It’s standing room only – is that okay?” says co-organizer Judy Nixon, handing a $30 ticket to an eager latecomer who appears happy just to squeeze into the pulsating dance-a-rama. “Last year, we had only 975 entries,” she confides. “This year, we’ve got 2,800.”
Dancing to the Buzz
So what’s all the buzz about? Kim Campos, the telegenic face of Phoenix dance who, along with her husband Robert, often appears on local morning news shows demonstrating the techniques the two teach at their Tempe dance studio, the Paragon, believes precision dancing affords the ultimate natural high.
“It’s all about having fun and feeling good about yourself, and doing something positive for you,” she says with the kind of enthusiasm that would make Rachael Ray look like a grouch. “You get people from every age, every race, every profession together, and they all have something in common and they all respect each other. It’s such a positive feeling.”
Recently transplanted Californians who purchased the seven-year-old Paragon last December, Robert and Kim are a modern Rob and Laura Petrie – the kind of nimble suburbanite couple who, after hosting a dinner party with fellow dancers, will roll away the ottoman and bust out a cha-cha in the living room.
It’s no accident that Capri pants are popular around-the-house wear for this crowd. The dance shows the children of these light-footed housewives watch today are reminders of the TV they watched growing up — shows like the Dick Van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy, which depicted grown-up life as a nightly neighborhood social where, at any minute, the living room could transform into a dance floor. “But I’m just a housewife!” a reticent Mary Tyler Moore would demur to her dinner guests – right before tearing up the living room with a torrid samba.
“A lot of dancers who are married do live a little like that,” attests Sherry Parman, an avid dancer who’s also vice president of the Phoenix chapter of the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association, or USA Dance, the field’s governing body.
“I know people who actually don’t have furniture in their living room or family room, so they can play music and dance. When we go to home parties, at some point the furniture always gets shoved aside.”
Happy feet are a major affliction for the dance cult. “You hear the music, and you just wanna start moving,” Parman explains. “If I’m dusting, I’ll put on some salsa music and samba around the house. Oh, yeah!”
Parman’s husband, Walter, like a lot of the men getting in on the still female-dominated scene, mirrors Richard Gere’s harried business professional in the hit romantic comedy Shall We Dance.
“It’s a huge stress relief for him,” Sherry says. “He sits at a desk all week. He’s got a high-pressure job, but then he gets out on a dance floor on a Friday night and dances like crazy, and three hours later, that stress is gone.”
While fun-seeking forty- and fifty-somethings like Sherry and Walter comprise one of the biggest groups getting into ballroom dancing, college kids and younger – those who make up the prime audience for the reality TV dance-fests – have also been joining in on the fun.
“There’s a lot of ballroom classes going on in the colleges now,” Parman says, “so we’re seeing all ages. Our only problem is finding ballrooms big enough to accommodate all the new dancers. It’s hard to find affordable space with a large enough dance floor to fit everyone.”
Most agree the Paragon and the downtown Arthur Murray Dance Studio have the biggest and best ballrooms in town. But it’s the old folks – the lindy hoppers and jitterbuggers who were ballroom when ballroom wasn’t cool – who still dominate most floors in town.
“For senior citizens Mesa is considered the dance capital of the country,” Parman notes. “They have so many ballrooms out there. The Viewpoint RV Park alone has a 12,000-square-foot ballroom, and they fill it up. They have dances going on there all the time. We’re jealous.”
That old-fogie stranglehold may be loosening, however, as the senior dance community begins to discover there’s good supplemental income to be mined from the current ballroom craze.
“They’ve finally started to open the Viewpoint up to outside groups who want to rent it,” Parman says. “They’ve never done that before. In fact, we’re running our second dance competition there in February. So we’ll see how they deal with all us youngsters!”
The Dancing Professional
It’s perhaps fitting that the Galaxy Dance Festival has landed at the Mesa Marriott this year, as the Valley has become home to a surprising number of pro-level ballroom dancers.
“People don’t know it, but we have a lot of dance teachers out here who are top competitors,” says Felix Ray, 50, one of the competitors in the Saturday night events and a co-director at Phoenix USA Dance.
“Decho Kraev and Bree Watson, instructors at the Stars Ballroom in Tempe, are now ranked fifth in the nation. My coach, Jenell Maranto at central Phoenix’s Academy of Ballroom Dance, is a two-time national champion.”
As a state, Arizona’s dancers currently rank seventh nationally in wins, according to DanceSport, which tracks the results of over 70 annual competitions.
“A dancer’s life involves a lot of travel,” Ray says, “and I think, because the cost of living is cheaper here, it just makes sense for a lot of dancers to have Arizona as their home base.”
Even the burgeoning support industry appears to be settling in the Valley. In the lobby of the Marriott’s ballroom, Katie Root of Designs by Randall, a small costume shop hidden away near 25th Avenue and Dunlap, shows off the spectacular fringed and rhinestoned get-ups that have made its creator, Randall Christensen, the most sought-after dancewear designer in Hollywood.
Christensen has already snagged an Emmy for his work as the official costumer for ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and is now busy on the hit’s third season. Not only that, his gowns have been worn by the lead stars in seemingly every recent Hollywood movie that’s helped popularize the current ballroom craze, from Vanessa Williams in Dance With Me to Jennifer Lopez in Shall We Dance.
Root says Crystal Cruises and the producers of Ballroom Bootcamp have been the latest to tap Christensen’s talents.
“It’s hitting the studios first,” says Root, who says she’s heard studios boast of up to 30 percent boosts in enrollment since a surprising 13 million viewers tuned in to the debut of Dancing With the Stars in the summer of 2005. “But it’ll take a long time ‘til that boost gets to our business.”
“You want your dancing to be worthy of the costume,” she adds, noting that a Randall gown can fetch as much as $3,800. “You don’t want to go up there looking like a fool in a three thousand dollar dress.”
Molly Ringwald and Uncle Fester
A short drive away from the Galaxy fest, in an unassuming building tucked into the armpit of an L-shaped strip mall off Elliott and Rural roads in Tempe, some of those average folks fueling the new ballroom craze toil away on their West Coast swings, rumbas and salsas.
The Paragon Dance Center hosts some of the most populated dance nights on the weekends. Kim Campos says their regular Friday night function, where $5 scores you a lesson followed by an open dance session that lasts until 11, regularly packs in between 250 and 300 dancers of all ages.
But on this Saturday night, as the last hour winds down and only the die-hard dancers remain to get in a few last meringues under the mirror balls and colored lights, the scene is 180 degrees from the glamorous goings-on at the national dance contest a few miles away.
Here, most of the women dress more like soccer moms than J-Lo wanna-bes, and none of the men could be mistaken for Antonio Banderas. Instead, think Bill Gates – only with stronger calves.
“A lot of engineers and techie types get into ballroom dancing,” says Felix Ray, touching on what to some is a surprising factoid. “I think the reason is that most ballroom steps are learned scientifically. You have to have a mind for patterns and geometry. You start by learning the steps in a mathematical way, what angles get you around the dance floor. And then you add the music.”
On Internet dance forums, geeky software developers and physics majors struggle to further distill their love of ballroom, which apparently holds true nationwide. “I think it’s because we nerds need instructions to touch members of the opposite sex,” jokes one.
“Maybe not so much instructions as permission, and creation of an appropriate environment,” suggests another, in a typical nerdy comeback.
Certainly the environment and social mores at a dance studio are different from that of the average dive bar around closing time. While Ray admits a few old hound dogs have gotten hip to the fact that a ballroom dance is a great place to pick up chicks – women still outnumber the men at these functions, and any guy who can simply mambo or cha-cha is in great demand – a certain gentlemanliness is practically required to make it with the ballroom ladies.
“Their character is different than a guy trying to pick up a woman at a bar,” says Ray. “I mean, these are gentlemen who’ll take Latin dance lessons just to meet a woman at a ballroom dance. How bad is that?”
As the last dance begins at the Paragon, a pretty young thing in dark red hair, looking like a taller Molly Ringwald in her prime, walks up to a bald-headed man clearly twice her age and asks him if he, by any chance, knows how to cha-cha. In a moment, the seemingly mismatched pair is in the middle of the floor, young Molly twirling elegantly as Uncle Fester gently holds her hand up high.
“You ask a woman to dance, and you take her by the hand and you lead her out onto the dance floor like a peacock,” Ray says, slipping into a kind of reverie. “You hold her hand high, you spin her out to get into the position, and then you dance.”
It’s a far cry from the average bar scene – no one’s ever chugging Schnapps shots at a dance studio, for one thing serious steps require clear heads, and you’ll never catch anyone suggestively grinding like contestants on Fuel TV’s Pants Off Dance Off.
“It’s much more wholesome,” Ray says. “It’s really a beautiful thing to see.”n