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Aside from this month's elections, the most important competition about to take place in Israel is the 2006 World Cup Championship of ballroom and Latin dance, the first time Israel has hosted the event.
Over 50 couples from around the world are flying in to compete with 150 local couples for tango, cha-cha and waltz awards given by the International Dance Union (IDU). Ten professional judges, including the IDU president and the president of the Russian Dance Federation, will also be coming from abroad to take part in the competition.
A glance at Israeli TV lately suggests a growing national interest in dance. In addition to the intensely popular competitive dance shows Dancing with the Stars and Born to Dance, many Israelis closely followed the fortunes of the two Israeli pairs competing in ice dancing at last month's Olympics.
As for ballroom and Latin dance, these snazzy styles have become not only something to watch, but something in which to participate in recent years. The Arthur Murray Dance Studios, which train amateurs in ballroom and Latin dance, operate three dance studios in Israel among 320 around the world.
Though they are some of the youngest branches in the world, the Arthur Murray studios in Israel have quickly become some of the most successful. At the recent annual Arthur Murray competition in Las Vegas, the Ramat Hasharon studio was named Top School, while one of its instructors took the Top Teacher prize and students from the Ramat Hasharon and Ra'anana studios took the Top Dancer titles in ballroom and Latin dance, respectively. In addition, two teachers from the Israeli Arthur Murray studios did Israel proud by coming in third in the Canada Open - the third most important ballroom dance competition in the world - competing against mostly professional dancers.
And if all that weren't enough, the Ramat Hasharon studio has just been admitted to the elite Arthur Murray VIP club, to which only about 20% of studios belong. With its admission based on student satisfaction and its achievements in international dance competitions, Ramat Hasharon is the first VIP member to be admitted from outside North America.
What's spurred this dance craze? Ballroom and Latin dance have been growing in popularity all over the world, due in part to trends in music and movies. Rolling Stone magazine has reported that, in 2005, Latin music was the only musical genre which saw increased sales. Mainstream stars like Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias have emerged from the world of Latin music, with MTV capitalizing on the trend by adding the Latin Video Music Awards to its list of flashy annual awards shows three years ago. Columbian pop star Shakira, who burst onto the scene ten years in South America, has crossed into the mainstream in the United States, Europe and elsewhere around the world with her rock-influenced yet authentic Latin sound.
Dance has also become a choice topic on the big screen, with Dirty Dancing Havana Nights bringing Latin dance to the big screen in 2004. Ballroom dancing, a crisper form of pairs dancing not far from Latin dance, has also made its way to the movies. Shall We Dance?, which attracted the participation of A-listers Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez, revolves around ballroom dance lessons. More recently, the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom attracted legions of new fans to dance with its true story following New York City 11-year-olds from their ballroom dance lessons all the way through to the citywide competition.
Other reasons ballroom dancing has caught on are its social elements and cosmopolitan appeal. Arriving as part of a rapidly developing Israeli leisure culture, ballroom dance also appeals to those looking for a taste of foreign cultures and an elegant opportunity to spend time with friends.
Ballroom dancing will be contested for the first time at the Olympics in two years in Beijing. With the development of a strong ballroom dance community in Israel, it's just possible that Israelis will have a shot at a medal there, according to Miri Raudnitz, Arthur Murray's director in Israel.
She notes that dance has been a growing hobby in Israel for the past ten years and that the media has lagged behind the public in taking notice. She's pleased about the world dance community's recognition of Israeli participation in the sport and that the IDU chose Israel for this year's World Cup competition.
Favorites at this weekend's competition include Oron Dahan, winner of the Dancing with the Stars contest. Already a minor celebrity, Dahan, who has been doing ballroom and Latin dance for 13 years, credits the hard work done by the Amateur Israel Dancesport Association for putting Israel "on the dancing map."
Dahan hopes the competition will add to the growing popularity of dance in Israel. A relatively pricy sport, Dahan hopes that increased awareness of dance in Israel will translate into more financial support for ballroom dance as a serious sport, including corporate sponsorship for Israeli dancers like their counterparts receive overseas.
Fri. & Sat. March 17-18, Hadar Yosef Sports Center, 2 Shitrit St. , Tel Aviv. Tickets, NIS 60-200 depending on seats: (03) 524-7373.
Dance to ballroom and Latin tunes in kosher conjunction with Cup 'O Joe Cafe. Every Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Arthur Murray Studio, Achuza St., Ra'anana, NIS 60; call (09)740-3545 or click on www.arthurmurray.co.il.