IRVINE — Some ballroom dance can be like rarefied dog breeds: Even certain die-hard canine lovers can't muster affection for the pug-faced Pekingese or the poodle with a cotton-candy haircut.
Take Latin competitors expert in such sexy dances as the samba. Their hyperextended hip thrusts and exaggerated facial expressions remind me of cartoons in which hounds' eyeballs rocket into space when mischievous cats stick their tails into light sockets.
Dance sport such as this demands skill, musicality and intensive training, and pros doing dreamy smooth dances such as the waltz can take my breath away. But even they--by design--execute razor-sharp, robotic head flicks.
Nonetheless, these moves thrilled the opening-night crowd recently at Orange County's newest ballroom studio, the South Coast Ballroom Center.
The pretty new facility opened in August but threw its coming-out celebration late last month with a short demo by four top pros: Melissa Dexter and Giacomo Steceaglia, dancing Latin, and Jonathan Wilkins and Katusha Demidova, taking my breath away.
A renovated warehouse, South Coast is probably five minutes from Avant Garde Ballroom, a 9-month-old academy that, like South Coast, converts to a smoke- and alcohol-free nightclub on weekends. Both open their parties to the public.
Will the area sustain so much waltz space? Some of the country's top coaches and competitors live in Orange County, so both studios draw dancers from as far as San Diego. Recent developments further afield auger well also. Dance sport was recognized this month as a full-fledged Olympic sport, although insiders say it won't make the games until 2004 at the earliest.
Meanwhile, KOCE-TV Channel 50, Orange County's public television station, is airing a Saturday night ballroom show through Dec. 6. "Dance Sport," at 9 p.m., features footage of dance competitions across the country.
South Coast Ballroom Center owner Teresita Dwinell is a Minnesota transplant, former bank manager and social ballroom dancer. She obtained the lease on the erstwhile warehouse in February and says she spent plenty on renovation.
I would have urged her to raise the roof--literally. The studio's low ceiling makes it feel as though the floor is smaller than Avant Garde's, although Dwinell says they're the same size, at 2,500 square feet.
Long, rectangular acoustic baffles hanging from above don't help. But mirror-covered walls do, and sleek black Grecian columns stationed around the room--out of dancers' way--lend an air of formality, despite white plastic lawn chairs all around.
A smaller room upstairs was taken up with dining tables and a well-endowed buffet during the recent opening bash. (The room is open for dancing during weekend parties, when a simpler spread of chips, sandwiches and such is included with admission.)
Downstairs, rhinestone jewelry twinkled beneath a spinning disco ball as dancers, most in their 30s and 40s, practiced their hard-learned moves.
Anyone who has been to Knott's Berry Farm's ballroom dances would have recognized several faces, and teachers from other local studios came out to party too. Deejay and swing dancer Yolanda Vargas of San Diego cued-up music for all the smooth and Latin ballroom dances as well as for an occasional West Coast swing, hustle and disco two-step.
South Coast Ballroom Center, 17961 Sky Park Circle, Irvine. (714) 833-1305. Ballroom dance parties 8-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Cover: $10.