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Ballroom dancing competition combines sporting glamor, diversity

ST. PETERSBURG — In a corner of a Vinoy Resort ballroom, a man in workout pants pirouetted alone in a corner, arms spread to account for a partner tending to her makeup.

A few steps away, a woman downed a banana and swished Gatorade in a bottle.

And along the bleacher railings, immaculately preened women stretched their legs then adjusted tight, spangled dresses. Men, most in tuxedos and all in basic black, stood at the ready. No one's hair moved.

The waltzes played, and the screaming began around the dance floor aside the judges' stand.

Such is dance "sport," an odd merger of the traditional ballroom dancing that once passed for a courtship ritual, and the lucrative and glamorous game taken mainstream recently by TV shows such as the popular Dancing With the Stars.

About 10,000 competitors from as far as Russia, Hong Kong and Australia have descended on the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Spa hoping to dance away with part of the $125,000 available in cash and prizes from the 12th Millennium Dancesport Championships. Michelle Officer, a judge, professional dancer and singer, called it "one of the top competitions in the country."

"More people are willing to try it," said Vicki Seaton, a competitor who owns a studio in Seminole. "Before, people had ideas about what they thought it was. But now that they have seen it on TV, they see younger people, current music, the costumes, the high degree of ability people have."

Promoter Michael Chapman said the Dancing With the Stars phenomenon has helped.

"Us in ballroom dancing have always known this was a glamorous sport, so we appreciate the attention," he said.

Entrants increased from about 8,300 last year, Chapman said. They are diverse.

Among them was 8-year-old Hannah Pardo of West Palm Beach, a frequent regional competitor who took her first lesson two years ago as a Christmas present. She and her instructor, 51-year-old Herb Vazquez, now compete as partners.

"I like it because I get to try out what I'm learning, and I get to start gaining points so I can get points for the big competitions," she said.

Vazquez, a nationally prominent teacher, said Pardo has the talent and aptitude to follow the path of her favorite dancer, Julianne Hough.

"She can go wherever she wants to go with it," he said.

Also gaining favor from judges was 97-year-old George Taylor, the competition's oldest competitor.

A retired BellSouth employee and Clearwater resident who used to ballroom dance casually with his late wife — "She was really good. She was musical, you know" — Taylor walked into Seaton's studio three months ago looking for a new way to exercise. Now, he and Seaton dance together. He's partial to the Tango.

"I take my vitamins. I try to have good activity friends," said Taylor, who dances four days a week. "Dancing is good exercise, and you meet lovely people."

And more and more of them, these days.

Ballroom dancing competition combines sporting glamor, diversity 06/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2009 11:09pm]
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