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RETURN TO ARMS : Ballroom Dancing Makes a Comeback, Sometimes With a West Coast Spin

November 08, 1990|ZAN DUBIN | Zan Dubin is a staff writer for The Times Orange County Edition.

Three feet. That was the lean margin that saved Betty and Gene Taylor's lives the night that two elevated walkways above the lobby of the posh Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City collapsed during a crowded swing dance contest, killing 114.

Dancing to the Duke Ellington standard "Satin Doll," Gene Taylor had just "thrown" his wife out into a twirl when the Santa Ana couple heard a roar and turned to see a huge cloud of smoke arise from the crashing debris.

"We were just three feet from where the skywalks fell," recalls Betty, who can't talk about the narrow escape, even nine years later, without getting goose bumps. Waiting under freeway overpasses for lights to change gives her the jitters, too.

Grave as it was, however, the hotel disaster did not dampen a zest for dancing that Betty, 62, and Gene, 70, have kept alive since high school.

"Tired? No, just warm," said Gene, after nimbly leading his partner through a round of under-the-arm dance turns at Costa Mesa's Red Lion Hotel on a recent Sunday afternoon.

"We write it down on the calendar: 'Go dancing,' " he said above the brassy strains of the 19-piece Tracey Wells Big Swing Band. "I feel 40 years younger when I'm dancing. I really do."

The Taylors' passion for social or ballroom dance is shared by enthusiasts nationwide who have fueled a resurgence in the avocation's popularity over the past several years.

In Orange County, where a throng of 1,000 is typical at one monthly dance fest, the pastime is practiced day and evening by devotees who flock to busy nightspots, dance academies and competitions, whether to rumba, swing, fox trot or waltz.

"Our mailing list has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two years," said Ken Allan, who books big bands into the Irvine Marriott Hotel's Rendezvous Ballroom about once a month.

"I go dancing every day and twice on Sunday," said Bettye Murphy, part of a capacity crowd that filled the spacious lounge at Fullerton's Dia mond Restaurant by 8:30 on a recent Tuesday evening.

"I love it. It's good exercise, it's good for meeting people and I love the music," said Murphy, 55, whose partner, Joe Ciraulo, had just brought her head within inches of the floor in a slow, sweeping dip.

Rock 'n' roll may have temporarily rendered touch-dancing passe, but couples have begun to return to each others' arms, said Kevin Richardson, co-owner of the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Costa Mesa, where enrollment has quadrupled in the last two years.

"Whether it's husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, boyfriends and boyfriends or whatever, couples are wanting to dance together because it's something they can share, and they don't have to compete with each other," Richardson said.

Swing, which became California's official state dance last year, is particularly popular. While other fads--such as the pelvis-friendly lambada--have come and gone, the lively dance widely known by its jitterbug and Lindy Hop variations seems here to stay.

"I've been into clubs all over the country for the last 30 years, and in the last two to three years, I haven't seen lambada danced at all," said Robert L. Bryant, president of the Phoenix-based United States Swing Dance Council. "Swing has been around for at least 50 years, and it's getting nothing but stronger and stronger."

Swing dance conventions or competitions--often up to three on a weekend--are held just about every month throughout the country, where members of about 200 swing clubs meet regularly to dance, Bryant said.

Orange County hosts the annual U.S. Open Swing Dance Championship, the nation's biggest contest of its kind, to be held for the eighth time over Thanksgiving weekend at Anaheim's Disneyland Hotel. And about 1,000 individuals belong to the county's two swing clubs.

Kenny Wetzel of Anaheim is president of the 10-year-old Rebels Swing Dance Club, whose initiates dance to the discs he spins on weekends at Westminster's Press Box.

Wetzel, 61, one of five inductees into the U.S. Swing Dance Council Hall of Fame, says swing temporarily took a back seat to the twist in the '60s and the hustle in the '70s. "But it bounced back, and it's probably bigger than ever now," he said. "It never died."

Swing first surfaced in the 1930s in New Orleans, Wetzel said, then found its way into Mississippi "juke joints" and finally to New York City's Harlem.

During World War II, when big bands reigned, swing "really became the dance of the U.S. because it represented freedom of movement, and that's what we were all about: freedom," he said.

Several Orange County spots for swing and other social dances attract a clientele that's 40 and over. The 55+ Club meets at the Red Lion Hotel's Sunday afternoon big-band dances, says club founder J. Bud Morris, who organizes the socials. The average age at Press Box weekends is 45, Wetzel said.

But swing has lured younger followers, too, such as Keldee Bjerknes, 21, who eschews the freestyle solo dancing she used to do.

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