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Ballroom dancers think they’re ready for Olympics

September 5, 1997

MIAMI (AP) _ Black and white images of Fred Astaire in top hat and tails and Ginger Rogers in feathered gowns may still come to mind, but ballroom dancing is bidding for respect as a sport.

These days at the hundreds of studios across the country that teach ballroom dancing, grandmothers trying the tango are less common than thirtysomethings learning to waltz.

In the United States, where interest lags behind that in Europe and Japan, there are about 2,000 registered professional ballroom dancers. Dance sport, the name that comes with the new image the sport’s governing body is pushing, regularly attracts participants from about 60 countries to the big competitions.

The International Olympic Committee is weighing whether to bestow official recognition to ballroom dancing as a sport. That would pave the way for Olympic competition, perhaps as early as the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.

``They can make all those snide remarks about these old ladies out there in their ball gowns, but they’re in better shape and a hell of a lot better off than those people who just sit at home watching TV and twiddling their thumbs,″ said Betty Silvers, a 56-year-old former ballroom dancing champion in the 1960s who now works as a coach.

The traditional ballroom dances _ the waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz _ are still standards along with the Latin dances, the chacha, samba, rumba, paso doble and jive.

But the modern American and theatrical dances have grown in stature because of the showmanship involved.

Dancers wear extravagant costumes and twirl and spin their way around the room before judges. About 1,500 competitors are expected at the U.S. championships in Miami Beach beginning Tuesday.

The increasing interest allows some ballroom dancers to make a living from competition. Some of the top dancers make about $100,000 a year, according to Tom Murdoch, competition director American Ballroom Company.

Ballroom dancing has undergone dramatic change the last 10 years, according to Silvers and others in the business. A combination of political change in Eastern Europe and the continued upward mobility of the 1980s yuppie generation has renewed the fortunes of dancing.

Many young professionals who grew up with rock music have discovered they need to learn the formal social graces as they advance in corporate culture.

``They find they need to learn to dance so they can attend some formal corporate functions,″ said Jackie Rogers, a spokeswoman for the National Dance Council of America.

They account for many of those who pop into dance studios for lessons _ according to the council, the average age of people taking lessons in studios is in the mid-30s. Some end up picking up ballroom dancing as a pastime.

Karen Sitero, a 39-year-old manager at Costco, tries to squeeze in 1 1/2-hour lessons twice a week when her work schedule permits

``I was never a dancer but it was always something I loved to watch and I was always interested in,″ said Sitero, who began taking lessons four years ago when she moved to Boston and needed a hobby.

Also significant is the influx of trained ballroom dancers who left the Soviet Union and neighboring countries after the fall of communism. Many of them are competing and teaching, and many have children who are training to compete in the Olympics.

``They’ve raised the level of competition,″ Rogers said.

Uali Evgamukov is among the wave of Eastern Europeans. He moved to Florida last year from Russia, where he had trained in ballroom dancing since childhood.

``In Russia, most of the people taking lessons are children, who are training,″ the 37-year-old former Russian champion in Latin dancing said. ``Here, it’s mostly adults who’re doing it just for fun.″

Evgamukov and his wife teach at a studio in suburban Fort Lauderdale and their 11-year-old son is following in their footsteps. He already has won the U.S. title for his age group and will represent the country in international competition next year.

The couple plans to open a training center in September to prepare children for the Olympics. Evgamukov has no doubt it’s a sport ready for Olympic competition.

Still, fans of ballroom dancing know they’ll have to retool the image.

``You still hear people say `Ballroom dancing a sport? Give me a break,‴ said Rogers. ``But dance sport has everything the Olympics wants. It has beauty, grace, theatrics and showmanship. It’s perfect.″

End Adv for Weekend Editions Sept. 6-7

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