Its, Its a Ballroom Blitz

Christopher Hansen PhotographyThere was a lot of reflection going on at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Mesa—Paris would have been proud. At the back of the room, a massive length of silver streamers hung down like wallpaper. On the dance floor, bling-bling women, clad in full-length gowns of fuchsia and tangerine and kiwi lime, with cobwebs of necklaces and bangles of diamonds (judging by the lack of security guards, definitely fake ones) held court before running into the arms of their partners for the Viennese Waltz. Wispy tufts of chiffon were attached at their wrists and to the back of their flounced, beaded gowns. They looked like exotic birds at a watering hole.

My mother would like this place, I thought as I looked around at the California Star Ball. She's the kind of person who gives a little shriek whenever you try to flip past ice skating, rhythmic gymnastics or that cheerleading extravaganza on ESPN2.

In fact, the oldest ballroom-dance competition in the U.S. had the quality of a gymnastic meet, except for the little kids in flamenco gowns—slit to the hip—running scores back to the judges. And like gymnastics, the rules aren't easily grasped by the masses.

Kandi Blick, who manages a similar competition in Palm Desert, set me straight on the rules. “DanceSport” means competitive ballroom dance, and there are two divisions: International and American. International has Latin and standard dancing while American has rhythm and smooth. Standard and smooth contain the waltzy Fred Astaire numbers so beloved by the Greatest Generation, and Latin and rhythm rule the overtly sexual cha-cha of today. Judges observe flow of the dance, presentation (which I interpret as “Are you cute enough?”), partnership and execution of certain steps to rank the couples.

Sitting on the sidelines right by the water cooler, always the best place to get the down-low, I watched professionals strut back and forth in silk boxer robes while waiting to perform and listened to a soundtrack of Russian, Korean and English.

Most of the competition was dominated by blushing older ladies who dance in the Pro-Am smooth division. Of a certain age, these students pay their coaches a nominal fee to enter the competition with them, and although the most the amateurs can win is $200, their teachers can somehow come out with $5,000. A nice little racket for these cool cats who whisk their beaming-yet-modest patrons in front of the judges like little white handkerchiefs as they tango and foxtrot across the room.

I began to feel rather plain amid the wealth of personal style. There were men in tails and slicked-back hair and sexy young John Travolta types in tight black pants and shirts unzipped to expose an inverted triangle of skin. And perhaps the most exotic were the professional American rhythm girls, many clad in this amazing, indescribable thing that called to mind Christina Aguilera. Part bra, part panties, with a sash draped across very little, the women gyrated and undulated into their partners exhibiting fierce, exciting dance.

Sadly, though, by the end of the evening, I was still fixated on the cost of entry into the sport. The mercenary side of me couldn't be silenced. Shoes, $85 to $150; costume jewelry, $150; full-length luminescent dress studded with 40,000 stones, $3,000. World-champ Carmen wore five or six different $6,000 outfits. Winnings? The first place pro made around $1,000.

As we crowded into the elevator afterward, everyone looking relatively normal in jeans and turtlenecks, I stared at my reflection in the brass doors. I could really do with a peacock feather in my hair or maybe some chandelier earrings.

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