In days of yore, P.E. class meant pegging the stinky, skinny kid during dodge ball and gagging if you had to stand next to him at the free-throw line for basketball practice. Today, P.E. class at Wilshire Elementary in Euless means taking the arm of the stinky, skinny kid and clutching it dutifully while forming a circle with fellow fifth-graders before launching into a spirited merengue.
"Be confident!" cheers mustachioed dance instructor Gene Willman as 17 pairs of 11-year-old feet stomp to a Latin beat. Some girls are in chunky practice heels, gearing up for their teenage days when they'll try to impress boys who couldn't care less about footwear with their ability to walk from biology to Spanish on 3-inch stems. The boys are in smaller versions of the same sneakers they'll be wearing in their last days enjoying incontinental breakfasts at the Hokey Hills Retirement Center in 2087. Both boys and girls wiggle their hips in circles and wave their best jazz hands in a move called the "boogie walk," a step that a year from now they'll likely regard as thoroughly sissy.
Right now, though, in Willman's ballroom dancing class, future gender roles and embarrassment at the hands of the opposite sex are irrelevant. What's important is counting steps, with each child reciting "one, two, three, four," under his or her breath. I'm wondering if I'm still a little tipsy from last night's exploits: Are those "thank yous" I'm hearing these kids exchange after each dance? Manners? In 2007? Surely not. I gotta lay off the sauce.
In a couple of years, these kids will be driven nearly mad with the thought of touching the popular kid's hand. Now, they're driven nearly mad by the fact that the kid keeps turning the wrong way during the foxtrot. You see, good looks are no substitute for good dancing, something made clear on ABC's brilliant, televised distraction for emotionally unfulfilled housewives, Dancing With the Stars.
Wrangling in the weepy, recently dumped under-35 female set with Grey's Anatomy and doing booming business with The Bachelor—tailored to similar fans, but with lower IQs and higher hopes for marriage—ABC is getting further with the ladies than a Girls Gone Wild camera crew.
Dancing With the Stars takes certain liberties with the term "stars," casting soap opera actors, former boy-band members and retired athletes in a reality-slash-game show that requires them to learn to dance with hot professionals. Week after week, viewers vote off a star until one goofy-looking man in sparkly Lycra pants is crowned king of washed-up rug-cutters. And it will be a man. Women don't win Dancing, or even come close, not since season one when the show's professional judges' scores counted and a sack of sexy named Kelly Monaco (who many will remember from her featured role in 2000's Playboy: Playmates Bustin' Out) ended up taking the top prize.
After that, ABC decided to go all American Idol and leave the voting entirely to the audience. Women across the country met at their local Curves fitness centers and pledged to immediately vote off anyone with two legs, breasts and less than 4 percent body fat. While Emmitt Smith and boy-bander Drew "Nick's Brah" Lachey won seasons two and three, the Curves coalition has already offed a former Miss USA and a supermodel in the first two weeks of this year's installment. (One-legged former Beatle wife Heather Mills is still on the show, but that prosthetic won't get her past week four—wait and see. Skinny and blonde is skinny and blonde, leg or no leg.)
Dancing With the Stars is all about big moves, bigger makeup and raking in those advertiser dollars. But in the dance studios and school gyms here in North Texas where hundreds of folks toil each week to master their tangos and waltzes, ballroom dancing is about much more than just putting on a show. At least, that's how Willman sees it.
In a smart black suit with neatly coiffed facial hair, Willman looks like the James Bond of ballroom sitting on a child-sized bench beneath a wall plastered with kids' scribblings on colored paper.
"This is more than just dance," says Willman, a light Latin lilt in his voice. He spends several hours a week at elementary schools in Hurst-Euless-Bedford teaching fifth-graders to dance. Willman is part of a nationalized version of the dance program featured in the documentary film Mad Hot Ballroom, in which inner-city kids learn to waltz, rumba and boogie.
"It changes the kids," Willman says. "It gives them a different perspective." In this Euless school, many students come from disadvantaged areas where role models are drug dealers or dropouts. Ballroom dancing, says Willman, who's been in the business for nearly 20 years now, teaches discipline, poise and self-confidence. The kids come in squeamish and immature. By week 10 of Willman's class, they're grasping hands, counting steps and acting like grown-ups, hence the polite "thank you" after each dance. (Thank Jebus, I think. It wasn't the sauce.)
The same themes of poise and confidence are echoed by the instructors at the Arthur Murray dance studio in North Dallas. There, at a group lesson, everybody starts out pretty much like fifth-graders, warily grasping potentially cootie-contaminated hands and stumbling over toes. Thanks to Dancing With the Stars, ballroom dancing is more popular than ever.
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The main difference is clientele. It used to be middle-aged women dragging their reluctant male partners to lessons. Today, women of all ages drag boyfriends and husbands to the studios. I am one of them, of course, because the first logical thing to do once a girl's got a full-time boyfriend is to try to run him off with dance lessons. At Arthur Murray, beginner group instruction starts with men and women divided in two lines, facing each other. Every 30 seconds or so, the ladies rotate partners. Learning to dance with all kinds of people supposedly teaches social skills, but I didn't want to dance with all kinds of people, and I sure didn't want that petite brunette in the tight pencil skirt learning to do all kinds of dancing with my man.
But I forget my petty jealousy as I am passed from a rail-thin, nearly 7-foot-tall cowboy to a black-haired guy who'd do well to break 5 feet in a pair of platform wedges. Then, I cha-cha with a handsome middle-aged man with an unfortunate smoking habit (laundry, gentlemen, give it a try, or at least a blast of Glade) and rumba with a remarkably good Latin dancer who has a remarkably irritating tendency to sing along to Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca." I even still have a boyfriend at the end of the whole thing.
Like Willman's fifth-graders, we bow and curtsy to our partners after each dance, murmuring a quiet "thank you." It's all so quaint, behaving like good girls and boys. Quaint and sad.
Somewhere out there, I know, greasy-haired dudes are filling dance halls and grinding, uninvited, on the rear ends of girls who never had a Gene Willman around to let them know better. While body shots are a nice way to say "Thanks for the dance," they're nothing compared with a waltz-ending twirl and a peck on the cheek. So this is my plea to the Dancing With the Stars Curves coalition: If keeping a Kelly Monaco on the show all season gets men watching and thereby realizing that a good tango is hotter than three minutes of thrusting and a shot of whiskey, let's do it.