It's the first night of a regional ballroom dance competition being held at the University of Minnesota's McNamara Alumni Center, a geode-shaped building that rises from the campus' East Bank like a strange pink gem. Inside, the McNamara's soaring, hemlock-plank ceilings and asymmetrical windows provide an elegant backdrop for ballroom dance. But the audience is pleasantly down to earth. People lumber in from the cold in lumpy ski jackets. Kids chase each other around folding chairs as if at a church supper. A humble chair by the coatroom acts as a hairdressing station, where female contestants have their hair coaxed into twists and curls. Earlier in the evening, while kids competed on the dance floor, parents yelled out their numbers in support.
The adult contestants are glamorous. When dancing the waltz, the women's long, frothy skirts swirl around their legs with each graceful step. For the Latin numbers, the women change into strappy, sequined little numbers held together by Lycra and sheer will. Spray-on glitter sparkles from their shoulders and hair. Their stiletto-heeled shoes would be tough to walk in, much less dance in. Even amid these exotic creatures, Lynn Helm Kohlasch stands apart. Warming up before her round with husband and dance partner Frank, she wears a gray Seattle sweatshirt over a crystal-studded, tomato-red dress. The two spin through a few dance steps. Stop and reassess. Repeat. She has worked her whole life for moments like this.
Dance coaches say it takes at least two years for a dance partnership to jell. The Kohlasches have reached that stage. Lynn and Frank move with a dramatic flair and synchronicity that reveals countless hours of rehearsal. Frank, relatively dressed down in black slacks, black shirt and red mock turtleneck, is the ideal foil to Lynn's glittering figure. He bends her into a deep dip, whirls her around and lowers her into a split, managing to make it all look effortless.
Their specialty is international Latin, which includes the cha cha, rumba, samba and pasa doble -- the bullfighter's dance. The four dances are performed back to back, then capped off with the jive, a hopped-up form of swing. The jive's roots are closer to Harlem than Honduras, but it demands similar speed and stamina.
Kohlasch and her husband have a lot of company these days on the ballroom dance floor. In the past two years, membership in the U.S. Ballroom Dance Association has doubled. At least a quarter of the group's current members are college students or younger, and many participate in DanceSport - ballroom's sexy and competitive cousin. In fact, ballroom's promoters are lobbying to make DanceSport an Olympic event. Accordingly, they've adopted international regulations and a stringent formal format for national competitions. Top-level dancers must possess the artistry of a ballerina and the athleticism of a gymnast. A contestant can be docked for a trifling error.
Oddly enough, it was the fall of Communism in one part of the world that led to the revival of ballroom dance in another. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the USSR dissolved two years later, many exquisitely trained ballroom dancers moved to America for the chance to earn a better living. They arrived ready to compete and to teach, and soon names like Ivanenko and Demidova dominated American ballroom competitions. In Russian-owned studios, pupils witnessed displays of finesse and flourish Americans hadn't seen since Fred Astaire.
Meanwhile, American pop culture in the mid '90s offered up movies like "Swingers," a swing-themed Gap ad, and retro big bands on the radio. Young Americans, quick to latch on to a trend, hit the dance floor. Suddenly they understood what their grandparents already knew: organized dance moves could be fun, and a great way to meet the opposite sex. A few years later, ABC began airing Dancing with the Stars, the reality show in which has-been celebrities paired up with professional dancers in efforts to outrumba each other. As critics scoffed, the show's ratings soared. Popular films like 2004's Shall We Dance? and the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom fueled the fire.
Tonight's competition is less to crown the next Fred and Ginger than to encourage dancers to participate. Even so, it's stressful. Judges circle the floor, shifting their gaze from contestants only long enough to scribble on clipboards. After each round, they hand their results to the scorekeepers, or "scrutineers," who crunch numbers at a long table.
Although well conditioned, the Kohlasches are winded after their Latin and jive numbers. The lightning-fast jive is exhausting - especially against 20-year-old dancers who are ballroom veterans. But the Kohlasches wouldn't want it any other way.
Lynn's story follows the well-worn premise of high school girl who doesn't make cheerleading squad, then finds her true path somewhere else. In her case, the somewhere else is a drill team, where she discovers a love of dance. While studying speech and mass communication at North Dakota State University, she dances every chance she gets. She joins Orchesis, the campus dance troupe; founds the Gold Star Band's first dance line; and studies Broadway-style jazz and tap on the side. A job brings her to Minneapolis, where Lynn eventually finds her way back to the dance floor. She also finds Frank, a chemist-turned-law student who, fortunately, loves dance as much as she does. They marry in 2004.
Ballroom is a rewarding mistress, but it's also a demanding one. After working all day - Lynn as an independent marketing consultant, Frank as a management analyst - they practice three nights a week. Dance classes can cost $95 an hour; a bejeweled gown, $1,000. Now the Richfield, Minn., couple has added another commitment to their schedule. They have formed a company, Minnesota PerformDance Productions, with aspirations to produce Broadway-style dance shows in Minneapolis. A Christmas 2006 show is already in the works, with plans for top-tier ballroomites, jazz and tap dancers and a Rockettes-style precision dance ensemble.
Besides running things behind the curtain, the Kohlasches also will dance in front of it. They will move in unison, performing the steps they've practiced hundreds of times. Lynn will extend her long limbs artfully and sway her hips to the Latin beat. Then Frank will twirl his wife around and lower her into a dip so deep it makes your back ache just watching it.
It's all just part of the dance.
-- T. Swift