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Life's a Dance

Rocky Mountain Challenge exhibits the art and sport of ballroom dancing


Ray Hope, with his instructor, Harmony Lyris - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Ray Hope, with his instructor, Harmony Lyris

It is a blindingly sunny afternoon at the Broadmoor West, the lake surface so shimmery it looks as though it is in rapid, jittery motion.

Inside, at the far west end of the building, all that glitters is not sunlight.

Women of varied ages, shapes and sizes, dressed in tropical-fruit-colored costumes accented with sequins, fringe and feathers, pace the sidelines of the huge ballroom dance floor, waiting for their number to be called.

Music fills the air -- pre-recorded cuts of popular classics, varying in tempo from waltz to cha-cha, rumba to mambo -- interrupted smoothly after each set by the silky voice of master of ceremonies John DePalma. A big-chested, tuxedoed man on a high platform, DePalma calls out numbers in pleasant, rapid succession, indicating who's supposed to take the floor next.

This is the Rocky Mountain Challenge, a ballroom-dancing competition organized by local instructors Wayne Brockman and Colleen Royal of Dansport Dance Centers, under the auspices of the National Dance Council of America.

Judges from Nevada, Maryland, Florida, New York and California line the floor, and some 160 dancers and instructors, local and from across the country, mingle while they await their turn.

The afternoon's competition is in American rhythm single dance events, ranging from cha-cha to Western swing to the hustle. These are fast, physical dances, and the women's costumes allow plenty of room for motion. Most of the hems are cut on a sharp diagonal, with at least one side slit up to the hip. Many of the younger women wear two-piece stretch numbers with bare midriffs and tiny fringed skirts. All the women wear impossible-looking strappy shoes with heels 3- to 5-inches tall. For men, black on black is de rigueur, some buttoned up, some open in the front, revealing tight, muscular torsos. Many competitors wear bomber jackets or sweats over their outfits to keep their muscles warm between dances.

The dancers take the floor in rapid succession, shoulders back, smiles on their faces. This is a Pro-Am competition, which means each couple is composed of a student and a teacher. Harmony Lyris, a local teacher, dances practically every set, her students ranging in age from 7 to 77, and in ability from novice to intermediate. When the weekend is over, Lyris will have spent more than 20 hours on the dance floor, as will her co-instructors Eric Mortenson and Matt Gregory.

Shall we dance?

"About five years ago," explains Colleen Royal, a petite brunette who danced competitively for many years with partner Wayne Brockman, "we began to change our thinking about ballroom-dancing competition and started calling it dance sport."

Dansport instructor Matt Gregory holds still as he gets his number pinned to the back of his tuxedo before the start of competition Saturday. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Dansport instructor Matt Gregory holds still as he gets his number pinned to the back of his tuxedo before the start of competition Saturday.

Governing bodies at the international and national levels set the standard for competitions, and events like the Rocky Mountain Challenge take place across the United States three to four times per month.

By 2008, organizers hope to have dance sport entered as an exhibition event in the Olympics.

For now, many dance teachers pour the bulk of their earnings back into competition -- on travel, costumes and entry fees -- vying for prize money at events like this one. One of the largest, the Ohio Star Ball, in Columbus, attracts 9,000 to 10,000 competitors.

Of the 200 or so students who study ballroom dancing at one of Royal's two Dansport studios here in the Springs, the vast majority come to learn social dancing. A small group of students, most of them older and thereby more able to afford the expense of competition, travel anywhere from four to eight times a year to compete.

Dansport students Brent and Brooke Graves, one of only two married couples dancing as amateurs in the Rocky Mountain Challenge, enjoy both the rigors of competition and the pleasures of dancing together socially.

Brent, an analytical chemist, and Brooke, a freelance editor, first started ballroom dancing six and a half years ago, when they were on a cruise and met a couple who were dance instructors. They take class two hours a week, and compete now just once a year, though they used to compete as often as three times a year.

Tall, slim, fair-skinned and dark-haired, Brooke and Brent cut a striking figure on the dance floor.

"The best part is when you're out there and you know you're doing well," says Brooke.

By dancing together so often, the couple feel they are able to overcome a certain amount of performance anxiety.

"The hard thing is to forget what you're doing and just feel the music," says Brent.

Brooke laughs. "He knows I'm there when I start singing."

Competitors Susan Farrar and Jim Brown take a spin on the dance floor. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Competitors Susan Farrar and Jim Brown take a spin on the dance floor.

Two to tango

Saturday evening, the pace picks up, and the competition becomes less rote, more rigorous.

The male dancers are in white tie and tails, and the women are in flowing chiffon gowns for the international standard events. For each category of dance, there is a closed event composed of standard, required moves, and an open event in which the dancers can modify and choreograph their routines. In each round, the dancers perform, in order, a waltz, a tango, a Viennese waltz, a foxtrot and a quickstep. The quickstep is intentionally set last, a spectator explains, to test the dancers' stamina.

As the open waltz begins, couples twirl in broad sweeps, skimming past each other at a rapid pace. About a minute into the dance, two couples collide, and a large woman in a fuchsia gown is laid out on the floor, her partner tripping gracefully and falling across her chest.

The music is quickly stopped, and the ballroom is enveloped in silence as the upright couple help the fallen ones to their feet.

"Couples, take your places for the waltz," says DePalma, and a polite round of applause arises for the resurrected pair. The music begins, and a graceful, vigorous waltz ensues.

As the evening rolls on, standards eventually give way to Latin rhythms, and amateurs give way to the pros. When the professional open American rhythm competition begins, its becomes clear exactly how ballroom dancing can be considered a serious sport.

These dancers are outrageously fit and trained -- the men perfectly shaped like tight inverted triangles with narrow hips and wide shoulders. The women are muscled and flexible.

Most notably, they have tremendous stamina. In one heat, they dance in sequence, cha-cha, rumba, swing, bolero and mambo -- with barely a few seconds between numbers.

Dancers waiting on deck for the open international Latin competition execute arm rotations and elaborate stretches, like skaters waiting to take the ice or gymnasts before an open floor routine. In the corner, a pile of white Broadmoor towels is swooped up by dancers between heats, wiping the sweat off their necks, arms and faces.

Women are lifted over men's heads, twirled, then plunged to the floor, neither dancer missing a beat, the tempo excruciatingly fast. It's hard to discern what exactly the judges are looking for, what distinguishes the excellence of one couple from another.

Bob Powers and Julia Gorchakov give a scintillating performance during the awards ball Sunday. The couple are the reigning U.S. American Rhythm Champions and two-time world mambo champions. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Bob Powers and Julia Gorchakov give a scintillating performance during the awards ball Sunday. The couple are the reigning U.S. American Rhythm Champions and two-time world mambo champions.

A crowd of teenage onlookers, dance students from the Booth studio in Denver, watch open-mouthed as the pros strut their stuff, exhibiting the kind of fitness and form these kids have previously seen only on television.

The evening ends in a flourish of awards, gracious bows and deep curtsies, camera flashes, hugs, and cheek kisses. Dancers and spectators alike glide out of the ballroom to a phantom beat, toes light and shoulders back, awash in the dream of a tepid tango, an eloquent waltz, a sizzling pasa doble.

Over the top

Sunday's competition is devoted mostly to local and Denver dancers. Because there are fewer couples in each heat, there are more prize points being awarded to those who enter in multiple categories. Points awarded are cumulative and carry over to the next competition, rewarding most those dancers who compete regularly and often.

On Sunday night, everyone is rewarded with a formal dinner in the Lake Terrace Dining Room, followed by social dancing and the weekend's big event -- an exhibition performance by Bob Powers and Julia Gorchakova, seven-time undefeated U.S. American rhythm champions and two-time world mambo champions.

Everyone is dressed elegantly, the atmosphere is relaxed and quieter than at the competition. A jazz combo plays "The Girl From Ipanema."

Barely recognizable in a three-piece suit and tie is Lucas Jaime of New York who comes in with his amateur partner on one arm, his professional partner on the other. Yesterday, dressed in shiny black, Jaime wowed the crowd with his routines. Tonight, he and his partners sip wine and only occasionally take to the dance floor.

A little girl taps the toes of her white patent-leather shoes on the marble floor, swinging her wide skirt as she sashays from one table to another.

Finally, John DePalma takes the microphone and launches into the awards. More photos and cheek kisses, many for the two Dansport studios, are followed by a rollicking performance by the winners of Friday night's William R. Raisner Memorial Swing Cup. Two swinging kids warm up the floor with slides, turns, jumps and plenty of jive.

The room becomes silent as a striking blond woman in a skin tight, ice-blue evening gown comes slithering onto the floor. Her partner, dressed in tight black with a severely pulled-back ponytail, reaches out and places a hand on the back of her dress. In a matter of seconds, she spins across the floor, and he pulls off the dress in one long cascading ribbon of blue. The music begins, and Bob and Julia launch into a wild, dangerous mambo.

Moving far faster than any competitors of the previous night, these two are perfectly, intensely, frenetically choreographed. He bends her backward like a blade of grass. She splits, leaps and flies. Their eyes are locked, and their faces cemented with concentrated smiles. They perform one number, and Julia leaves to change costumes. She returns in red chiffon, and Bob initiates a dramatic bolero. She changes again, and they perform a third time, a crazed modern number that has them both crashing to the floor and rising up in unnatural postures.

The music is loud. The crowd goes wild. Bob and Julia absorb an extended standing ovation and passionate cheers.

The lights go up, and the last round of social dancing begins. Couples float across the floor to jazzy tones of electric guitar, bass and keyboard. Shoes are shed, ties loosened and form forgotten as the Rocky Mountain Challenge comes to a festive, celebratory end.

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