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Among the Young, Dancing Is Back in Three-Quarter Time

April 17, 1988|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Entering the Long Beach dance hall, there was little conversation between the boys lined up on one side and the girls on the other.

Greeting the boys was Chloe Call, a dance teacher with many years of experience. At the head of the girls' line was Bobby Burgess, a professional dancer and former television star.

"Aren't you a Mouseketeer?" asked one of the girls whose knowledge could only have come from her parents or early morning re-runs on cable television.

Burgess, now 46, smiled and nodded. Then he gently guided the youngster in a perfect performance of the exercise at hand: introducing herself properly before entering the ballroom for the day's lesson.

The scene was reminiscent of the 1950s. Dwight Eisenhower was President, Walt Disney was king, Hula-Hoops were in and so was ballroom dancing.

If you were a Long Beach elementary school student with socially adept parents back then, chances are you attended Call's Fine Arts Center. There, surrounded by a select group of school chums fortunate enough to have also been invited, you sported a bow tie or party dress to attend monthly gatherings at which a team of glamorous- seeming teachers demonstrated ballroom dance steps and imparted the rules of social etiquette.

At its height in the late 1950s, according to Call, who co-founded the center with her late husband, Derrall, Call's Fine Arts instructed no fewer than 10,000 students a year in classes of 120 to 150 each in a large building on Long Beach Boulevard equipped with a dance floor, parents' observation booth and band stage. "It was like having three parties every weekday and five on Saturday," recalled Call, now 72, who had begun teaching ballroom dancing at the historic Pacific Coast Club during World War II.

Then came rock 'n' roll. Hula-Hoops evolved into the twist. Touch-dancing became obsolete. And Chloe Call, who refused to teach the newfangled dance steps, eventually closed up shop and went into real estate. "I just thought it was ridiculous," she said of the change in style that dramatically reduced her student load and forced her out of business. "I was used to the Viennese waltz."

Well, the Vienna waltz is making a comeback. "At the very least we want these kids to be able to dance at their own weddings," said Burgess, who recently teamed with Call to introduce a new generation of area children to the art of ballroom dancing and the discipline of old-fashioned social graces. Although class sizes are nowhere near what they were 30 years ago, he said, local interest in the new Call's Cotillion is considerable and growing.

"They've already jerked every part of their bodies," Burgess said of the dance styles that dominated the 1970s and early '80s. "What we're teaching them now is how to behave."

Burgess was the most famous of Call's graduates of the 1950s. After learning to dance there as an elementary school student, he appeared as a Mouseketeer on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show from 1955 to 1958. Later, he taught dance at the center and eventually became a regular on the Lawrence Welk Show, where his dance performances were featured for 21 years.

But Burgess' show business career was not on the minds of most of the students last week as they faced each other stiffly from opposite ends of the room at the Golden Sails Hotel. After watching Burgess and Call demonstrate various waltz steps, the boys and girls--in most cases standing as far apart as possible--paired up to try a few steps of their own.

"They need these social skills," said Carol Rowe, 46, the mother of a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. "There aren't enough opportunities to learn them today. Someday they will be in a social setting and they won't know what to do."

A graduate of Call's herself, Rowe was one of several parents instrumental in persuading Call and Burgess to re-introduce the classes three years ago. Since then, the roster has grown to include about 375 elementary and junior high school-age children whose parents' $90 fee for eight monthly sessions barely covers expenses. Neither Burgess, who still performs professionally, nor Call, who still sells real estate, depends on the classes for a living.

Besides dancing, Burgess says, the children are taught such social skills as properly introducing themselves, making polite conversation, asking for a dance, and escorting a lady or being escorted by a gentleman. "No gentleman sits down until the lady is served," Call told one recent group during a brief refreshment period. Later she said: "Girls who have their knees and feet close together look much better."

Parents, who voluntarily perform most of the cotillion's administrative functions, say such instruction is appropriate even in a post-feminist world. "All women want to be treated equal," said Betty Outten, 41, "but it's awfully nice to be treated special."

As for the kids, the reactions are decidedly mixed.

"You never like the boys, but you get stuck with them anyway," complained Emily Ensley, 10. "I try to be polite, but it's hard. I think I'd rather be home listening to my radio."

Cris (Bug) Harkleroad, 9, had a somewhat different reaction. "I didn't used to like girls," he said, "but now I'm coming to my senses."

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