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Ballroom dancing becomes a hot new trend

Hollywood takes notice and develops dance-themed films like ”Let It Be Me,” ”Tango,” and ”Tropicana”

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Dust off those feathers and unruffle your tuxedo: America is dancing. We’re not talking about that novelty craze, the Macarena, but rather the timeless elegance of ballroom. In the past year, more than 15,000 hoofers have registered with the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association. And check out a nightclub on any given evening and there’s a good chance you’ll find a roomful of twentysomethings in tails and taffeta. ”Ballroom dancing has replaced singles bars,” says Eleanor Bergstein, a former Arthur Murray instructor and the screenwriter of Dirty Dancing. ”It’s a safe way to put your arms around a stranger. It’s one of the last places where civility still exists.”

PBS’ annual Championship Ballroom Dancing, which is hosted by actress and acclaimed dancer Juliet Prowse, is one of public television’s highest-rated specials. ”Interest in ballroom dancing is growing exponentially,” says Anna Lowi, a senior publicist for WGBH, Boston’s PBS affiliate. ”We receive requests to broadcast it 24 hours a day.” And while these days your TV is probably locked on the Atlanta Olympics, four years from now at the Sydney Games you may very well find yourself glued to the tube rooting for the gold-medal-winning…samba team. The International Olympic Committee has granted ballroom dancing ”provisional recognition” (along with such other nontraditional sports as surfing), which means that ballroom may be considered for medal status. ”It’s quite possibly going to happen,” says Nick Vista of the Atlanta Olympic News Agency. ”It just takes [time] for these things to materialize.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood has taken notice of the dance-hall craze as well. (Remember Al Pacino’s tango in Scent of a Woman?) You probably won’t be seeing anything along the lines of Rumba in the Bronx, but there are a number of ballroom-driven projects in the works. Bergstein has written and directed the upcoming Let It Be Me, which stars Patrick Stewart, Campbell Scott, and Jennifer Beals and centers on a young couple who sign up for ballroom dancing to prepare for their impending marriage. ”After Dirty Dancing came out,” says Bergstein, ”the Dance Teachers of America called to say enrollment had gone up 95 percent. That’s when I realized dance could be huge.”

Also bitten by the jitterbug: Robert Duvall, a longtime tango aficionado, who married (and is currently divorcing) his dance instructor, Sharon Brophy. Duvall recently returned from Argentina, where he was researching his own script, provisionally titled Tango. And director Ron Shelton (Cobb) has written Tropicana, in development at Warner Bros., about an elderly dance team in Havana during the revolution. ”I actually don’t know much about ballroom dancing,” confesses Shelton, who wrote the script 10 years ago as a vehicle for Goldie Hawn. ”But it definitely evokes a much more innocent era.”

That goes a long way toward explaining the current ballroom vogue. After all, there is something fundamentally reassuring about waltzing the night away. ”The only rule in the ballroom world is that you dance with anybody who asks you,” says Bergstein. ”It helps make the world a little less lonely.”