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The music was loud and the air was hot. Small groups of manicured children stood like statues as they waited to hear their number called onto the dance floor to compete in front of the stern-faced judges. Occasionally rubbing sweaty palms against the shiny material of their flashiest and brightest costumes, their demeanors were serious and controlled. In the bleachers, proud parents and friends waved and screamed words of encouragement to the numbered pairs.
Hosted for the first time in Israel, the International 2006 World Cup Championship of Ballroom and Latin dance took place last weekend at the Hadar Yosef sports stadium next to HaYarkon Park. Over 200 couples from all over Israel and abroad competed in the championship, and at least half of them were below the age of 19.
The interest in competitive dancing as a serious sport in Israel, evident in the televised competitive dance shows and the growing number of studios, is relatively new. Partially due to the worldwide popularity of Latino music and dance-themed movies, the explosion of ballroom dancing in Israel started about 10 years ago and continues to increase each year.
Last summer at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Mad Hot Ballroom, was a crowd-pleasing favorite. The documentary followed a group of underprivileged New York school children as they learned how to dance and practice hard enough to participate in the city-wide competition. Watching those kids gain self-esteem and motivation through dance brought masses of new students to the sport, especially younger ones.
It seems that its appeal reaches far beyond just the Russian immigrant population in Israel, who many say are to be thanked for bringing the art and culture of dance with them from their homeland and take home the majority of the medals in every competition.
"The young dancers here, both Russian and Israeli, are doing well in the world-wide scheme of things," says Harold Drenth, one of the judges of the event who flew in from Holland for the competition. "Israel is a young dancing country, but it has taken a huge step forward in a very short time, and I expect Israeli dancers to keep getting better and better."
For the youth at the competition, who have to juggle their studies with many hours of exhausting practices and private lessons, dancing competitively goes far beyond simple technical skill.
You have to be dedicated, know how to get along with your partner, and be able to handle the pressure of the spotlight, says Danny Excelrod, a 10 year-old from Holon who took first place in the English waltz for his age group. He and his partner, Helen Berezorsky, who is 12, have been dancing together for two years, and they both dream of one day representing Israel in world-wide adult competitions.
"They are learning far more than just dance when they come to the studio," says Ellie Mor, the couples' coach at the Guli Dance Studio in Holon and a judge in the weekend competition. "They are learning how to succeed, how to appreciate aesthetics, how to give respect to their partners, and how to perform for a crowd," he adds, beaming with pride to see his students take home first place.
Not only is dancing good physical activity, something many youth lack, but it also improves balance and strength. "Through dance, the children are learning about the laws of the universe-the relationships between men and women and what it means to compromise," says Leonid Pletnev, a senior judge from Moscow who was one of the chairmen of the competition. "They are also getting a musical education and learning how to feel their bodies and reflect beauty in the movements."
At the World Cup in Tel Aviv last weekend, the youth were divided into four age groups: six to nine, 10 to 11, 12 to 15, and 16 to 18. Each duo danced a combination of Latin and Ballroom varieties, such as the tango, the cha-cha, the samba, the quick step or the English waltz. As they moved across the floor, their elegant steps precisely in tune and their lithe bodies twirling dramatically, the judges watched carefully from the sidelines. Primarily concerned with technical precision, such as footwork, body lines, and coordinated movements, the judges were also looking for happy facial expressions and good eye contact.
"The most pressure for me is waiting to see what the judges will decide," says Ilia Ungun, an eight-year-old from Hadera who won fifth place for his performance with his six-year-old partner, Shelly Duchanov. Duchanov, who says that the cha-cha is her favorite dance, started dancing at just four years old and hopes to keep competing and improving.
For Natali Aviv, a 14-year-old older dancer from Rehovot who started dancing when she was six, the competition held disappointing results. "It's hard to put so much energy into something and then not win first place," she said, her blue eye-shadow sparkling. "But I still want to be the world champion and represent Israel one day."