BIG SCREECHERS: Strictly Ballroom…It’s Back And Better Than Ever

By Carmine Santa Maria

Well, the summer's hit program “Dancing With the Stars” is back again, creating great turmoil with some of the klutzes knocking off some legitimate star contestants. Regular readers of this column know that I've been a ballroom dance instructor since 1956 when I taught for Arthur Murray. Through these fifty years, I've seen dance trends change and ballroom dancing (where you danced in unison with a partner) taken over by the Twist, Rock ‘N Roll, Hustle and Disco. All through these years, Ballroom Dancing stayed alive, somewhat taken over by International Style Dancing, sometimes call English Dancing — a very strict regimen of patterns, directions and style. English Tango does not resemble the American Tango danced here. And I'm not talking about the intricate close Argentine Tango that is currently the craze. In the thirties, forties and the fifties, Roseland was the Mecca of Ballroom dancers, where couples swirled around the huge dance floor. The English had their Quickstep, Roseland dancers had their Peabody, originally created in 1915 by William Frank Peabody, a fat civil servant who swirled through the floor by devising patterns in parallel positions, keeping his partner on his side instead of trampling over them. Now I'll probably hear it from the fat people. Those who could dance the Peabody were considered the best of dancers. The Swing, Jitterbug, Jive, and Lindy-Hop dancers who competed in the annual Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden were considered in a category of their own and were held in high esteem as dancers. The winner became professional after winning, receiving a contract to dance at the Loews State. All these Ballroom dancers held their own until the trend changed and they eventually passed on. Meanwhile, Latin Dancing was the bill of fare at the Palladium and the Mambo, Cha Cha and Merengue were the craze. Salsa has taken over those dances and I'll quote the late great Tito Puente, who scoffed at the term and said “Mambo, Salsa it's the same!” I remember teaching at the Concord in the Catskills in 1962 where Cha Cha and Mambo were King and every boy being Bar Mitzvah-ed had to learn dance the Cha Cha for his affair. Does anyone remember the Bossa Nova craze? Did you ever learn Calyspo? Unfortunately, I've forgotten more than some dancers will ever know. Although somewhat handicapped, I still teach classes the FIAO Beacon Community Center twice a week. So now that I've established that I'm a Dance Master, fifty years of teaching earns me the title, let's get to the main topic of this column, “Dancing With the Stars.” With all its faults, I love the program. Before I get into trouble for being politically incorrect, let me state this: some of the greatest tap dancers ever were black, oops, I mean African-American: Bojangles, the Nicholas Brothers and Gregory Hines, to name a few off the top of my head. They were the undisputed best! I make this statement up front, so as to establish that I'm only looking at the dancers’ performances and not the color of their skin. I also realize that comparing ballroom dancing to tap dancing is comparing apples to oranges. Comparing this type of Show dancing to Ballroom Dancing is also ludicrous, and as far as I'm concerned and an entire different animal. I watch the show every week as well as the reruns on my TiVo. I desperately look to find some basic steps in the dances they are purporting to do. Hey, I found three whole cha cha, cha cha cha steps in the Salsa Exhibition performed this week. I've got to admit that those girl professionals could make bigfoot look like Fred Astaire. And those male professionals make their partners dance like Cyd Charisse, and some of their partners have legs and bodies that match hers. Comparing male stars dancing with female professionals as opposed to the female stars with male professionals is totally inequitable. The male star will never look as good as a male professional, although some have tried very hard. Male stars and their professional partners should be competing against each other, and the same applies be the female star contestants. Remember Kelly Monaco, who was crowned the best of the series and then in a re-run lost it to John Hurley in the first summer series? Who looked like the better and more polished dancer? Kelly did! It is this format of “Dancing With The Star” that hinders it from really being a true dance competition. Having the view-in audience participate by voting for their favorite automatically cancels the competition's fairness. Do you really think your vote counts? It's just a gimmick to increase the show's ratings, which obviously worked and had everyone talking about the show. The producers controlled who wins. This was evident when boxing champion Evander Holyfield danced in the summer series and wasn't knocked off the first round in the first series. Come on, he was a champion boxer, and if his footwork was as awkward in the ring as it was on the dance floor, he would have never retained his crown. He wasn't the first contestant to be eliminated, but he should have been. Neither was Master P in this second series. The program's three judges, who were often cruel, smart- assed and could tear apart Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers’ dancing ability if they had the opportunity, finally did get rid of rapper Master P in the fourth show. Now Master P did have a pleasing personably nature about him and admittedly didn't dance, nor put the effort of trying to dance, walked through the routines, much to the dismay of his frustrated partner Ashley DelGrosso, who literally danced her behind off trying to compensate for Master P's dancing ability. But all the rapper's fans called in for him to survive the first three shows; meanwhile, they eliminated three other contestants that were far better than he. In this week's show as well as last week's show, Len Goodwin, the presiding judge, couldn't take it any more, publicly told Master P Miller that he was an embarrassment to the show, his partner and himself and it was time to part company. I am not particularly enamored of any of the judges, and in conversations with others learned that they felt that way too. The judges were far too critical, showing off their dance expertise rather than encouraging the stars. The stars did magnificent jobs performing and I think this second series of dancers were better than the first, so much so, that at times you couldn't tell who was the professional. I've got to hand it to George Hamilton who despite a chest injury and arthritic pain managed to joke his way so far. Naturally I had to vote for him in his Zorro costume. His partner, Edyta Sliwinska, is pictured here with me at the Taj Mahal. Look at her body! Look at all the bodies of the lady performers — wow! Although the professionals in “Dancing With The Stars” all stem from the International style of dancing, it is not Ballroom dancing as you and I know it (anyway from my generation.), nor are their Latin interpretations of Salsa, Cha Cha, Mambo. No how are you going to be able to take the gigantic steps they take. Have you ever seen Hispanics do Salsa, it is very intimate because the music is fast and there is no room on the crowded dance floor. It boils down to this – “Dancing With The Stars” is good entertainment, it is not a fair competition and should eliminate the popularity contest portion or at least give the judges enough weight in their scoring to offset any huge volume of fanatical fan input.. There will be another column on this show in the future. Screech at you next week.

More from Around New York