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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

Ballroom dancing still has the moves

May 01, 2008|DANA PARSONS

It's a one-flight walk-up in an 80-year-old building, just as it should be. You wouldn't put a ballroom on the ground floor.

Climb the narrow stairway on the old school carpeting, and you're going back in time, back to moments that weren't all that great but which have been redefined by the passage of time to make them so.

Back to Friday or Saturday nights in the 1930s and '40s, when one of the few escapes from painful realities of everyday life was to go dancing.

Back then, you didn't hit the singles bars to meet people or forget your troubles. You headed for ballrooms. They were oases.

Dennis Lyle appreciates that, even if it's true that he got into the ballroom dancing business 30 years ago because of all the pretty girls. Looking at his first crop of students -- none younger than 60 -- he planned on a short career. They were of the generation who'd come of age in the era of elegant ballrooms and listened to radio broadcasts from the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, picturing themselves dancing under the stars that the lighting was meant to simulate.

"I thought, this is a cool business," Lyle says, "but it's not going to be around a long time, because these people who know what it stood for were going to pass away and it was going to be a lost art form."

Never underestimate the power of the mambo.

Lyle, 50, now believes ballroom dancing will never die. Fueled in recent years by TV's "Dancing With the Stars," ballroom dancing is back in vogue. Lyle saw the same burst in the late 1970s when "Saturday Night Fever" got people dancing with partners again.

Lyle owns the Imperial Ballroom, which occupies the top two floors of the historical three-story Williams Building in downtown Fullerton. Nestled in the historically protected building, the ballroom seems even further removed from the hubbub of modern life, a mere one floor above street level.

On Wednesday morning, about a dozen people were going through their paces, sometimes alone in ballet-like movements, sometimes with a partner and sometimes with a dance instructor.

"In a lot of ways the industry of ballroom dancing has evolved tremendously," Lyle says, "but at the same time it hasn't. It's still gentlemen opening doors for ladies. It's elegant. When we go out, we wear tuxedos. We dress up for everything we do. There's that elegance about ballroom dancing that Fred Astaire epitomized. We're all part of that."

And we realize he's talking about a culture that seems to be fading.

"Coarseness" is the word we often hear to describe modern society, and if there's an opposite to coarseness, it's got to be ballroom dancing.

"We constantly have kids coming in in their 20s," Lyle says, "and that's a big part of the reason they come in. They see something there for themselves that maybe, in a sense, is missing in their own life. They're caught up in the hustle and bustle, and to come in for an hour and be elegant and be a man and woman in the traditional relationship of a gentleman and a lady, they love the interaction of being together."

"Dancing With the Stars" has proved that real men dance. With celebrities that have included NFL stars and boxing champs, today's young guys realize that being manly doesn't preclude learning the fox trot.

Lyle estimates that the number of dance studios has grown more than fivefold in his 30 years in the business. Plus, he says, it's recession-proof.

"As a matter of fact, dancing as a whole does better when the economy is bad," he says. "People are looking for something fun, to take them away from all the junk they have to put up with every week."

Lyle's ballroom has been in the building since 2002. The vertical neon sign that hangs outside evokes those of the '30s and '40s.

I don't care if men don't dress up in tail suits or women in long dresses, but I love it when Lyle says that plenty of today's 19-year-olds do just that, as if they're keeping the flame alive of a more refined society.

Grunge has its place, but so does elegance. Raucous is fine, but so is quiet.

I loved making the walk up the stairway to Lyle's ballroom. He picked the perfect name for the place, and I hope he's right that the art form will never die.

"Ballroom dancing was people escaping from things going on in the world that weren't pretty," he says of its earliest days. "It was a way to get back to basic things, just a man and a woman, not concerned with society or what people thought. It was just about going out and being with the music and just dancing. To forget it all."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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