The elevator door opens to the fifth floor, and the gray skies that have shrouded the city all day are cast aside like a wet wool coat. Inside, the music throbs and the lights shine blindingly white, the better to illuminate the wildly plumaged creatures tangoing and foxtrotting about in a blur of satin, sweat and Swarovski crystals.
"It's a zoo," Peter Pover says.
If it is, Pover is the head zookeeper, the ringmaster. As president of USA Dance, he brought this year's National DanceSport Championships to Baltimore this weekend, part of a path that he hopes will someday lead to the Olympics.
Yes, the glitter and the glam that has turned Dancing with the Stars into one of TV's hottest shows - and made even viewers with two left feet conversant on the difference between a mambo and a samba - may one day reach Olympian heights. Pover and other dance competition officials have been lobbying the International Olympic Committee for entry as a medal sport and believe victory is in their future. As part of this effort, you'll hear the competitors called "athletes" as often as "dancers," and what they do is now "dancesport," rather than "ballroom dancing."
Whatever. While the movement to bring dance competition to the Olympics has drawn the predictable sneers - the argument usually runs along the lines of: Real jocks don't wear sequins - it's hard to argue that it would violate whatever history and sanctity remain in the Games. Once you let beach volleyball and halfpipe snowboarding in, surely the jive and the cha-cha should get a chance. And if you're looking for mass viewership, surely the dancers would beat the biathaletes.
"Once people started pinning numbers on their backs, training 30, 40 hours a week, having highly qualified coaches, traveling around the world to compete against their peers - once you're doing all these things, it translates into sport," says Pover, a one-time vice president with the Heritage Foundation think tank who got drawn into the world of ballroom dancing by his wife.
Someday, when the history of dance competition is written, there will be a before- and after-Dancing with the Stars - BDWTS and ADWTS - which many credit with bringing their world to wider attention. (The consensus at the competition, by the way, is that Kristi Yamaguchi, the Olympic figure skater turned DWTS celebrity dancer, will win this season.)
But even if you watch DWTS - I plead guilty, even though I still am not over Baltimore's own Stacy Keibler being denied her rightful victory in season two - nothing quite prepares you for seeing a dance competition in the flesh.
And I do mean flesh.
Many of the competitors - and there are more than 500 couples in the mix - are slinking around the fifth floor of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel in what appear to be slivers of Lycra, bits of lace and scraps of fishnets, all overlaid and perhaps held together with sequins, fringe or feathers.
However minimal the use of raw materials, these are pricey frocks - Ken Heron, a designer and part-owner of Randall Designs, says the company's dresses cost about $2,500 to $4,000 off the rack and $3,200 and up for custom. And custom is about 70 percent of his business.
The company, among the retailers displaying their wares at the competition, is DWTS' costumer. It brought some of the show's costumes along - previously worn by celeb contestants Laila Ali and Jenny Garth, and the professional dancers, like Julianne Hough and two-time winner Cheryl Burke.
The real-life competition, parts of which were taped for later broadcast by Comcast, filled just about all the waking hours from Friday morning to Sunday night. Like swimming or track competitions, there were endless heats - every couple of minutes a new heat would bring another dance floor full of competitors, from the 55-plus-year-olds in the Senior III category to the impossibly tiny 7-year-olds, dressed in miniature tuxes and ball gowns.
"This is our future," says Angela Prince, a ballroom competitor herself and USA Dance's public relations manager. "These are our Olympic hopefuls."
It's chaos, potentially, but a controlled chaos. If you're a NASCAR fan who goes to see the crashes, you should see 10 couples doing the quickstep across a single dance floor, everyone trying to catch the eye of the judges who stand around the perimeter, inputting their scores into BlackBerry-like devices, without barreling into one another. Near-misses draw neither hissy fits nor dagger looks, though, but a composed stop and pose until the traffic clears and the dancers can proceed.
This air of civility - even if it masks what must be biting competition - is surely one of the delights of dance contests. It's the original reality show, even before reality shows had a name.
Offstage, dancers are continually practicing - a young man in sneakers doesn't just walk down a hallway, he slithers like a panther, one foot stepping out slowly as he makes a tango face, followed slinkily by the other. Another man practices a complicated hip swivel that seems to defy the laws of biometrics; a couple, the woman with a bathrobe over her flounced dress, whiplashes through a series of spins.
If you can look past the rainbow-hued eye makeup and the high-heeled sandals, these are indeed athletes.
"I do track, too," says Ava Donovan, 14, a Latin dance competitor who describes her days as basically "school, track, dinner, dance."
She and her dance partner, Michael Serebrennikov, 18, dance at a huge studio in Newton, Mass. They recently paired up after Serebrennikov's previous partner had a growth spurt that left her towering over him.
So, as the song goes, he changed partners and danced.