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Mad Hot Memphis

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When John Wasileski began taking lessons in ballroom dance last summer, he didn't have to lead his partner quite as carefully as he does now. "The place is jammed packed now. It's hard to navigate the floor," he says.

And because all levels of dancers practice together, Wasileski says it can be a little disconcerting.

"Often times, you're dancing to music that's not playing. You might be hearing a cha-cha, but you're dancing a foxtrot. You have to keep the music in your head."

Due to the recent prevalence of ballroom dance on television and in movies, that latest dance craze is also one of the oldest. Wasileski, the associate vice president of information and system operations at the University of Memphis, caught the bug after seeing Shall We Dance? with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.

"The very next day I was returning the movie to Blockbuster and I needed a loaf of bread, so I ran across the street to Kroger," he says. The Fred Astaire dance studio caught his eye. "I looked over and all these people were dancing, and I thought I've got to find out what this is all about."

Within the last year, would-be dancers could watch the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, about the Dancing Classrooms program in New York public schools, Ballroom Bootcamp on cable channel TLC, and Dancing with the Stars on ABC. And the media waltz shows no sign of stopping. In April, two new movies -- one starring Antonio Banderas as a teacher with Dancing Classrooms -- will feature ballroom dancing. The tempo is even picking up in Memphis.

"Dancing with the Stars last summer kicked it off," says Benji Smith, owner of the Fred Astaire studio on Whitten Road. "We thought we'd have a slow time and I could take a vacation, but that hasn't happened. All of a sudden, we had about 50 or 60 new students."

Another important component of Dancing with the Stars will find his way to Memphis this week. Tony Dovolani, the professional half of the couple (with wrestler Stacy Keibler) who came in second on the show, will be in Memphis March 24th to 26th as a judge for the Freddy Ball.

"The Freddy Ball is the South Central Dance Sport Championships," says Smith. "Studios all around the region -- South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas -- compete in the event."

The Freddy Ball, which is open to the public and takes place at the Hilton Memphis, has been held in Memphis for the past six years. Many of the heats are pro-am, meaning students dance with their teachers. The categories are divided by age, dance level, and gender, though some are open categories, where dancers can be competing against people with years of experience.

"It's like going off a high-dive," says Smith. "Can you handle the adrenaline rush of knowing you walk in as an underdog? Open numbers are choreographed numbers, so the material is going to lean more toward what the pros would do. It's more like the numbers on Dancing with the Stars."

Smith says people always ask him how much ballroom dancing costs and how long it takes to dance well.

"It can cost a jaw-dropping amount if someone really wanted to pursue it," he says. "It's just like golf. It depends on how you approach it."

Melissa Garner, one of the students at Smith's studio, isn't one to spend a great deal of money. However, for the Freddy Ball, her first competition, she's had a yellow skirt with a lot of fringe custom-made for the Latin dances.

"If money is no object, it's just like ice-skating costumes," she says. "It has to be able to move with you, and it takes a lot of talent to sew those outfits."

She says dancers can find store-bought clothes that will work, but it's a little tricky. For the waltz, she lucked out with a long glittery skirt.

"I'm not a professional competitor," she says. "You have to work with the instructor to see if it flows. Obviously, you don't want to have a wardrobe malfunction; you don't want it to rip. Sometimes you're moving very fast. You have to have the right outfit."

And she has a bit of advice for anyone interested in going to the competition: "Try to get a seat in the front.

"That way you can see all the amazing footwork and the costumes," she says. "All the girly-girls out there, they've got to see this stuff."

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