Take me out to the ballroom

Oh, I learned so many fascinating things by attending the Texas Star Ball Pro-Am Dance Competition this past Sunday afternoon, I could never enumerate them all. For starters, I learned that there are numerous local Marriotts in the downtown area alone, each with its own ersatz personality. In search of the Marriott hosting a ballroom-dance competition starring seasoned professional dancers partnered with devoted amateurs (hence the term Pro-Am), I first erroneously visited the Marriott Riverwalk, which I’ll nominate for “most prominently featured in-lobby Starbucks,” then tried the one across the street, which in addition to boasting “most vaguely Meso-American lobby décor,” hosted a desk clerk who then directed me, inexplicably, to the ballroom-less Marriott Residence Inn right next to the Bonham Exchange (“Marriott location most likely to startle unsuspecting str8 business travelers,” perhaps?), where a bewildered employee gasped, “You’re looking for … BALLROOM DANCING?”

“But our rooms are tiny,” a nearby maintenance man offered, a little sadly.

So, by the time I hit Marriott number four, my hopes half dashed, and already out an unrecoupable $7.50 on godless, non-receipt-giving parking-lot machines, I began to worry that maybe I’d made the whole thing up. Wishful thinking, or something like it. I love ballroom dancing, see — I was going to say “watching it, not doing it,” but in truth there was a period wherein my friend Wallis and I taught ourselves to rumba using an instructional record and adhesive footprints: and make no mistake, ballroom dancing is very fun, and HARD AS HELL.

Maybe, in a fit of longing, I’d misread the event date on the press release from World Promotions, Inc., of Bradenton, Florida, which promised that “People of all ages are now drawn to the sport, which has resulted in thousands of new ballroom dancers flocking to dance studios worldwide — even in San Antonio” (what do they mean, even in San Antonio? I’d thought). I reflected bitterly that just maybe, like Duran Duran, World Promotions, Inc. had decided San Antonio isn’t worth their time. Maybe the press release was a conspiracy between the ballroom-dancing “industry” and the Marriott Corporation to cruelly gaslight dance-loving reporters. At any rate, the thought of nearly getting to see the glory of ballroom dancing in person, then missing it, was almost too much to bear.

It seemed a miracle, then, that as I warily approached the front desk at the Marriott Plaza San Antonio (the most upscale and appealing of all the downtown Marriotts), a mysterious lady caught my eye. Trim, tiny, of a certain age, and very confident, gliding from a lobby elevator with her jaunty neon-red hair standing up in spikes and her small frame encased in a nearly floor-length black sateen cape, she winked a glitter-shadowed eye at me as she sauntered past. I then noted that from beneath the hem of her cape, a fluttering of tiny light-refractions twinkled on the carpet, as though she’d secreted a small disco ball between her knees … or was wearing a boatload of sequins. Hopeful and entranced, I followed her out of the lobby, through a charming fountained courtyard, and into a dream.

The “Hidalgo Room” is an elegant and well-appointed ballroom, appropriately old-fashioned but not at all fusty, and complete with chichi chandeliers, a cash bar (!), and circular white-clad tables set along the perimeter of a large, glossy, parquet dance floor. Along the back wall, a bank of video-cameras and their alert operators stood at the ready, while directly across from the ballroom entrance, a table of what I took to be judges — one, no kidding, in a plumed hat — scribbled furious notes. A trio of couples stood very erect not far from me, hands joined at roughly shoulder-level, seemingly waiting to take the floor, while other dancers chatted, adjusted their glittering fishtail skirts, and blew my mind.

Unlike the ballroom-dancing competitions of my fantasies, in which curtains and darkness hide the dancers from the audience, who get their first glimpse of the couples in spotlit splendor only when the opening bars of “Girl From Ipanema” shimmy out of the P.A., approximately 150 ballroom dancers sat nonchalantly around the Hidalgo Room in plain sight, sipping bottled water, munching (provided) M&Ms, and consulting their itinerary printouts, for all the world as though attending a bizarrely glam trade-show mixer. And I guess I’d always figured that the ladies’ feather-bedecked, neon-hued dancin’ dresses were amped up for TV performances, and that for, say, real life, they wear more subdued garments. Very much not true! The male dancers, almost without exception, sported form-fitting black slacks, black, collared button-downs, and numbers on ther backs, but the ladies in the Hidalgo Room radiated all kinds of bedazzled sartorial crazy, which in-person and in great numbers, cumulatively acted on me as a sort of mild hallucinogenic drug. I even thought, a little nervously: Do they know I can see them?

Because there seemed to be no audience for this thing. No separate audience, I mean — no set-aside bleachers, no gasping fans holding signs, no onlookers at all. Just 150 ballroom dancers … and me. Me, skulking nervously in wearing jeans and Chuck Taylors. I have seldom felt so ruinously underdressed, like a duck among flamingoes. At first I half expected to be escorted out by epauleted security guards goose-stepping in a Fosse-esque choreographed sequence of high kicks — or at least discreetly asked by one of the judges for my press credentials. I slumped into the nearest empty chair, busied myself with my notebook, and waited.

Then the music started. I don’t know what the song was, exactly, but I recognize a cha-cha when I hear one. And in that cha-cha moment, the very atoms of the Hidalgo Room’s air changed completely: the pairs of dancers took the floor and, with a hypnotic combination of synchronicity with each other and variation on other couples’ movements, collectively killed it. The mind-bending dresses, with their sweep and flourish and nude mesh and countless straps, made perfect sense in motion. The waiting dancers ceased lolling about, leaned collectively forward, and watched with keen, hushed interest. And the judge in the plumed hat nodded sagely toward another, older judge, who herself glowed with an indeterminate yet arresting Quentin Crisp-y allure, and nodded back. Dazzled, I put down my notebook.

I watched the first six or seven “heats,” each lasting little more than a minute and a half, in complete awe. Have you ever been in a bar where patrons are dancing, and suddenly one couple actually seems to know what they’re doing? Often it’s an older couple dancing merengue. It’s always fun to see, right? Imagine six to 12 couples suddenly up and doing that, only with more spins and flashy gestures. After a little while, my ballroom- dance tolerance built up, and I was able to take in details. I began immediately to choose favorites: Was it couple #45, with the broad-smiling, goateed guy squiring the voluptuous younger lady in the bias-cut, geometric-print dress? Or perhaps #2, the lady in the eye-blazing tangerine shifting with deft quickness behind, around, and beside a tall, dapper, white-haired gentleman?

I started noting imperfections here and there, chinks in the Swarovski-crystal armor, near-collisions, nervous glances. It became easier to tell, per-couple, who was the “pro,” and who was the “am.” Also, as my eyes grazed the tableau, it began to occur to me that there was a sort of social corollary to the “Pro-Amateur” competition. I was seeing a lot of ladies my mom’s age and older dancing with younger, possibly gay dudes. Occasionally this was reversed, as in the redoubtable couple #2, with an older man greatly enlivened by the undulations of a younger pro-partner. It also occurred to me after a few heats that nobody seemed to be getting eliminated. I worked up the nerve to start querying some of the more relaxed-seeming participants, each of whom was gracious and patient in trying to explain the ballroom-dancing competition system.

There are age groups (I was seeing what I hesitate to call “senior,” because probably there’s a snazzier, dance-inflected word for it), and skill-level classes, like in martial arts, designated as “bronze,” “silver,” or “gold.” And then, in each class, you have a certain number of heats for each particular type of dance — rumba, mambo, waltz, et al., — and I’m not sure what happens, eventually. I sat in on three and a half hours of ballroom dancing, a grin plastered across my face, taking innumerable and damn near useless cell-phone photos, not really understanding what was going on. The proceedings were stylishly narrated by Andrew Smart, maestro of World Productions, Inc. and a golden-throated emcee with a plummy British accent, to boot. “Heat 170, Silver 2-Open International Rumba?” All righty, then. “Heat 154, Gold Open Mambo”? Fine by me. “Merengue, ladies and gentlemen — this is the one on the two-beat, please.” Nice of him to remind them.

And the music! Often it was the old standbys (Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s take on “C’est la Vie” for West Coast Swing, for example), but occasionally some song selection, chosen by a dour-faced genius ensconced behind a tricked-out MacBook, surprised me. “Is that the theme from season one of The Wire”? I’d think. Or, “Damn, this Spanish-language rumba version of the Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’ is devastating!”

After a blissful afternoon, in which hours slid by like waltzing cougars in the arms of their skillful instructors, there was finally a break in the festivities. The dancing concluded with a hip-hopped version of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Andrew shouted “This is my third-favorite rock band!” and exhorted EVERYONE to take the floor (I was, predictably, way too intimidated). Incredibly, almost everybody got up and shook it, even though many, many of the couples had already danced 12, 15, or more heats (also, several of the pros had danced with first one, then another am, further confusing and delighting me.) Good Lord, I thought, nobody’s even giving them points for this one. It’s like these people actually love dancing!

After the last dance, Andrew sternly, yet cheerfully (because that’s his style), reminded the participants to return for a formal dinner at 8, to be followed by the awards ceremony and MORE GRATUITOUS DANCING. I could hardly believe it! I was ready to lie down. As I staggered off to have a glass of wine with friends, though, I felt truly sad not to get to watch a ballroom-dancing competition every Sunday afternoon. I feel it did me a world of good. •


Optimism & Horror: Bettie Ward
Through Mar 15
Blue Star Contemporary Art Center
112 Blue Star
(210) 227-6960


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