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"A lot," Beroiz says.
"What's a lot? Can you quantify that? Like an hour a day?"
"Try six. At least as we get near the competition."
"No, seriously. Seriously?"
The social dancers, namely the ones who opt not to enter the competition, will practice for two hours a week. Gays get priority. You don't have to be homosexual to take the classes — "fruit flies" (a.k.a. straights who hang around gays) are welcome — but it does seem to help. At a recent same-sex dance championship competition, a drag queen wore heels higher than Beroiz's and the drag queen was still faster.
"Place your hand on your hip and lean your weight on that leg," Beroiz commands. I'm dancing with a man named Michelle. Neither she/he nor I has ever taken a ballroom class, and the "quick, slow, quick-quick, slow" is rough going at first. But eventually we find our groove, and what we're doing starts to resemble actual dancing rather than the spasms of a dying antelope.
Beroiz insists that steps should be performed so clearly and precisely that someone watching our feet could learn the dance in a matter of minutes. "That swishing motion comes from moving your knees, not your hips," he explains. "Have you ever seen hula dancers wiggling their hips? They're really wiggling their knees. So let's get used to this starting position." He observes Valentine's dance partner. "Good. Exactly like that."
"Huh? Wha ... ?" says Padula, who wasn't paying attention. "Oh, this is just how I stand."
Contrary to what you might think, what with this being one of the gayest cities in the nation, men who want to dance with men in Los Angeles don't have a lot of options. They're stuck grinding up against each other to the same mm-tsk-mm-tsk-mm-tsk, bass-heavy, canned electronic beats at the same few insular clubs, or at the giant circuit parties that sweep through the city. For sure those have their place, but whatever happened to a little traditional, old-fashioned, romantic, man-woos-man, woman-woos-woman courtship? Beroiz finds it tragic that gay couples are more comfortable kissing each other at the mall than dancing in each other's arms at formal events.
To help their cause, Beroiz and Valentine are full of media-ready quotes: "You can keep gay people from getting married, but I'll be damned if you'll keep us from dancing." And: "Humans are the only animal that dances." And: "It's about time we had gay ballroom dancing. All the professional ballroom dancers are gay anyway." And: "West Hollywood will do ballroom, but we'll do it in better shoes. That's what sets us apart."
Good thing, because of course the two are in production talks to turn their gay-ballroom class into a reality-TV show. I imagine, as there was during class, that there will be all kinds of drama: Beroiz egging on Valentine relentlessly; gays talking smack about lesbians and their co-dependent dance issues (Beroiz: "Ahem! You can tell who's co-dependent here. It's the people who crowd their partners"); boys checking each other out; girls dragging other reluctant girls in; couples bitterly envious of their rivals' fancy footwork; everybody railing about the bigotry of mainstream professional-dance organizations and national competitions that won't let same-sex couples compete — even though their skills are just as tight as those of opposite-sex couples. It'll be twinkle-toes and eyes like daggers.
A few nights before our lesson, Valentine invites a bunch of people to the Opera club in Hollywood to watch Beroiz and his spry assistant David dance the rumba. They circle each other warily like lions, eyes locked, muscles taut. Sometimes Beroiz leads, sometimes David. They push and pull apart, embracing and twisting, lifting each other in ways that no man-woman couple could or would do. It is breathtaking, studied, gymnastically (but not crudely) sexy and, even to those in the club who aren't gay, undeniably sensuous. All the elements of good ballroom are accounted for.
"Are you signing up for the class?" I ask one of the guests afterward.
"I'll do it as long as there's booty action. If there isn't, gay men will find a way to put booty action into it," says Lucian. He points to his butt. "This thing's got a mind of its own."
Gay Ballroom with instructor Christopher Beroiz, Plummer Park Community Center, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. Six-week series begins March 1; $200 per couple, $125 for singles; non-same-sex students admitted on limited basis as space allows. For more information: Producer Steve Valentine, email@example.com, www.gayballroom.tv or Plummer Park Community Center, (323) 845-0174.