Now they seem to be edging back together. Kimmins estimates that the Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire studio chains, which have about one-third of the business, total 800,000 students a year. The average age of Arthur Murray students used to be 65, with 80% of them single. They now average 35 and are 60% couples. Ten years ago, there were 200 pro couples in the United States; now there are 1,600, plus 12,000 registered amateur competitors.
That trend is borne out in the Greater Los Angeles area, which after New York leads the United States in ballroom activity. Many of the top professional couples are from the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, says Pete Taylor, 50, a former competitor who has been coaching and judging since the early '70s.
Taylor says the studio where he works out, Fred Astaire in Irvine, has seen a definite increase in students. It's particularly popular among Asian Americans, as is the case in Los Angeles. The dancers' ages have decreased during the last five years in Southern California, where many more studios have opened, he said.
He can't offer a single explanation, although he has some educated guesses: the search for exercise alternatives, the presence of touch dancing in the movies, the swing revival among twenty- and thirtysomethings and more pop music with softer, more orchestrated styles.
Maybe fear of AIDS and a retreat from uninhibited intimacy have something to do with a return to more formal modes for boy to meet girl, or maybe it's just a basic need people have to dance together.
"Ballroom dancing is what everyone wants, they just don't know it," said Clive Phillips, a tall 33-year-old Australian who looks like a young Pierce Brosnan and has been dancing since he was 9. He recently opened a 7,000-square-foot studio with 62 teachers in mid-town Manhattan; it's bustling.
"There's something that happens between two people dancing," he said. "It's like a drug. It's give-and-take and compromise, it's mutual respect, it's like marriage. It's a metaphor for life."
The most common metaphors are that ballroom is like (or is better) than sex and that it's addictive.
"Dancing by yourself is a high, but this is a double high," said Suzanne Phillips, a former Broadway dancer who switched to ballroom after meeting and marrying Clive Phillips.
There is something mysterious and seductive about this union between two people. Redondo Beach resident Victor Veyrasset, who with British partner Heather Smith won the U.S. championships of the international standard style of ballroom dancing for the fourth year in a row, tried to describe it.
"There's a chemistry between good partners," he said. "I can feel that this is the person I want--there's a body communication that's better than with anyone else." When he and Smith float through a waltz, the slightest impulse in his torso sends them sailing in another direction. "His body is my computer," Smith said. "I get all my messages from him."
The dances are divided into ballroom (waltz, fox trot, etc.) and Latin (cha-cha, \o7 pasodoble\f7 , jive and so on) divisions. These are divided into American and international styles, each with its own rules and dances, plus there's theatrical or cabaret, showy adagio duets with lots of lifts and further divisions according to age, national origin, competitive ranking and so forth.
At the upper levels, ballroom is as physically complex and demanding as any other form of dance, and the dancers look gorgeously unlike regular folks. European pros have invariably been training since they were small children. In America, the pros tend to be studio-based teachers or dancers from other forms; they and the U.S. ballroom world are sustained by an elaborate "Pro/Am" competitive system, where students, mostly middle-aged to older women, pay substantial amounts for private lessons and to compete with teachers in events like the U.S. Ballroom Championships. A primary reason ballroom proponents here want television coverage and commercial sponsorships is that it would help them get off the student support system and bring the professional levels here closer to those in Europe.
This is a fully evolved subculture, with its own hierarchies, rules and styles and very little reference to the outside. "An underground palace," one woman called it.
The residents wouldn't live anywhere else. "It is a big place, our dance world," said Bobbie Irvine, an imposingly elegant British woman known as "the Queen of Ballroom." She and her husband, Bill, were a champion couple for years and now travel the world to judge competitions, teach and speak. Their standards are clear and demanding.
"This is an extremely difficult and intricate thing to do," Bobbie Irvine said. In the 90 seconds they have to judge a dance, they look for clear silhouette, rhythmic exactitude, technical specifics and more ineffable qualities like musicality and movement quality. "Our techniques are just as exacting as ballet," Bill added.