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Someone's got to cha-cha

I HAVE grown to be not immodest about my prowess as a ballroom dancer. Those who have felt the brunt of my efforts, as it were, in the region of their toes and shins, might well say ``with good reason.'' But the truth is that there was a callow time when I felt pretty certain I did a rather nifty quickstep. I was particularly keen on the negotiation of corners - an inventive concatenation of progressive and regressive moves at lightning speed that was designed to make the rest of the room look like snails - followed by an alarmingly independent line of footwork surging from one end of the place to the other with my partner unexpectedly swept backward off her feet en route. Not that I have lost the knack or anything. It's just that on the decreasing number of occasions in recent times when I have been called upon to take the floor, I seem to have become less impressed by my performance than I used to be.

The fact is that even in my busier dancing years I was really more an admirer of others - and consequently only a somewhat pale imitator - than I was a true originator. And I fear that my wife is nowadays keener on disco-dancing than on waltzes and foxtrots. In our few attempts together at such pass'e social practices our ankles have tended toward mutual confusion, so perhaps it is better, in the end, to dance with each other in different parts of the room, disco-style.

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Not that one's disco style has much more to recommend it than one's tango. I never mastered the tango, in spite of its being on the agenda at the dancing lessons for 15-year-olds I attended in Camberley. I have retained only the slightest afterimage of its magnificent elongations and sudden twists of fortune. Was it the tango that our teacher said could be danced entirely with a newspaper between one's knees? No, perhaps it was the rumba .... I even fancy that she supplied us all with copies of the Camberley News to prove her point, and that newsprint came off on our various legs, and paper shredded disconsolately all over the bare boards of the scout hut. But the tango (or rumba) still slipped my grasp.

When it came to less formal types of dancing - the type accompanied by such devastatingly volumetric music that even yelled conversation is no longer possible - it wasn't then called ``disco,'' it was called ``jive.'' I learned to jive at Guildford Technical College, if you can call my version of it by the orthodox name. The college was annexed to the Art School, and it was from this neighboring den of aesthetics that the more fabulous jivers emerged. Clearly they had been practicing for decades. This sort of thing has always been an enigma to me: How can people who apparently have only 18 years or less under their belts nevertheless achieve skills that call for a lifetime to acquire?

And where, I asked myself, had I been all my days that I had learned only a hesitant waltz with reverse turns and couldn't pick up a partner (wearing a full skirt and a Marks-and-Spencer cardigan buttoned down the back, her hair flying out in a ponytail) and throw her with negligent ease over each shoulder in ice-swift succession, twirl her like a spinning top by an ingeniously serpentine series of under-and-over-and-under-arching arm movements, and push her vigorously away only to have her spring back at me as if we were both made of elastic?

I observed the jive wizards (who accomplished this and more) with wonder and waited for a crowded and darkened room to make my own attempts with whatever long-suffering girls were willing to waste their own superior expertise on my practice sessions. The best I managed was a kind of simplified formula. I was never satisfied with it.

Today, the even paler residue of real jive that is known loosely as disco dancing is a lot easier for everyone but seems to me to lack panache somehow.

And has the art of ballroom dancing today also died a death? Has the formless shuffle completely replaced the ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three of the Last Waltz, the QUICK-QUICK-S-L-O-W of the quickstep?

I know from television that competitive ballroom dancers are still alive and well and covered in sequins somewhere in Hammersmith or Bournemouth. These dedicated amateur-professionals pursue their chocolate-box calling with such undivided enthusiasm that in some cases it is fast approaching a High Art. It is becoming Torvill and Dean without the skates, Rogers and Astaire without the clapper boards. But what about the real world?

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Well, I'm glad to report (and it was this that put me in mind of all my dancing yesterdays) that we have four close friends (two married couples) who are keeping things going masterfully. Mysteriously it may have something to do with the transatlantic alliance, because the wives in both cases are from California. The husbands are Scottish and English, respectively. The scene where they trip the light fantastic and shimmy the nights away is Scotland.

They are most obliging. With little prompting they will form up - in the sitting room, on Princes Street, anywhere, - and demonstrate their latest steps. They can do the tango (though they don't seem to have heard of the newspaper trick). One couple is attending classes twice a week at present, the Beginners and the Advanced. The other I suspect - though I haven't asked them - are simply Advanced.

They certainly were about a year ago when they and my wife and I all had a Saturday evening meal together in a small Scottish country town. The pub turned out to have a dance floor, about the size of two Ping-Pong tables side by side. It was already filled with couples and they were clearly regulars. I guessed they came here once a week and were probably farmers and insurance salesmen and representatives of sheep-dip suppliers with their wives. What they didn't know was that Fred and Ginger - being urged on by mischievous friends wanting to witness a spectacle - were quietly eating pork chops at one of the side tables. ``Go on,'' we whispered, ``this is your big opportunity.''

Our friends didn't take much persuading. They stood up and slid with consummate grace to the starting position. They set themselves incisively. She gazed up at him and he gazed straight ahead. They started to count, visibly but silently. And then - they launched themselves. Well! Lessons do make a difference! Here was no amble, no aimless mingling in the melee.

These two sailed with immaculate ease and exact timing, describing a splendid pattern on that small dance floor that seemed to have been predetermined by the inevitability of the preceding centuries. This, their cha-cha, was like no cha-cha-cha ever done before, before. Eventually, as the music lulled, the bemused locals simply stood and applauded. It wasn't in the least ironic. It was just the superiority given due recognition. Our friends returned to Black Forest gateaux, flushed with success and laughter. We naturally voiced our admiration.

Just the other day, the other couple asked us if we would like to come to lessons with them. Actually, they asked my wife. It seems the lessons needed some extra support. But she declined. Our already full schedule made it impossible. ``Anyway,'' she said as she told me about it afterward, ``it isn't really our scene, is it?'' ``No, no, of course not,'' I said. But I thought secretly that she may also have been concerned for her toes and shins.

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