Beyond the throng of sequin-covered dancers sashaying to the floor, Allison Dennis stood nervously in her modest-by-comparison flouncy polka dot miniskirt, eager for her group to be called.

It was, after all, only her second dance competition. But like so many relative newcomers to ballroom dancing, what she lacked in experience she made up in attitude.

"It's exciting, it's exhilarating, it's exhausting," said Dennis, breathless, as she strutted off the dance floor with her partner, Robert Granville; both are sophomores at the University of Maryland, College Park.

They were among the nearly 1,000 competitors in this year's DC Dancesport Inferno ballroom dancing competition at the university. What started as a small collegiate tournament 14 years ago has grown into one of the largest competitions in the mid-Atlantic, with college students and nonstudent amateur competitors alike taking part in a two-day contest.

Participation in the competition has soared in recent years. With the popularity of such TV shows as "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing with the Stars," ballroom is hot.

"It's more appreciated now," said Dan Calloway, a competition judge and professional dancer for 35 years. Calloway said he was walking through campus Sunday when participants in a cheerleading competition approached him all abuzz about the ballroom contest in a building next door. "They wanted to know if any of the cast of 'Do You Think You Can Dance' would be here," he said.

On Sunday afternoon, the ballroom of the campus' Stamp Student Union was packed not with TV stars, but with bunches of energetic dancing pairs - men in fitted black pants and chest-hugging button-down shirts, and women in all manner of skin-baring slinky, glittery ensembles. Around them, hordes of enthusiastic fans whooped and shouted as if it were a football game.

Sunday's all-day contest was strictly Latin, from cha-cha to rumba, with dancers competing in four skill levels. The prize: just a ribbon. No matter. Some dancers said they were in it for bragging rights, or reaching a personal best. But most said the hours of sweat, leg cramps and the arduous tasks of reapplying fake lashes and body glitter were worth it because competitive dancing is simply fun.

"For girls, it's the makeup and the hair and the jewels and ... you get to shake things," said Iyen Acosta, one of the event's organizers, a legal assistant by day and competitive dancer in her free time for the past four years. "In Latin, you can be that sexy voluptuous flirt you always wanted to be. It's amazing; it's an excuse to transform yourself into a different person."

It's also quite the workout. "You don't even realize it until the next day, when you can't get out of bed," she said.

Anne-Sophie Eliopoulos and partner Oleg Kordunskiy, both sophomores from Cornell University, were working up a sweat during practice - she twirling in a hot pink one-shouldered minidress dazzling in Swarovski crystals she glued on herself to save cash as he whisked her back and forth wearing slick black pants and a black shirt unbuttoned to the navel.

While women dancers are known to be flashy, the man's job is to be the woman's sillouette so she can show off, Acosta said.

"As long as you don't look really dumb, that's all that matters," said Kordunskiy, a mechanical engineering major who said people are often surprised that he dances competitively. "We actually have a lot of engineering majors who dance," he said. "They're the only guys smart enough to realize this is a great way to meet girls."

The pair has been training for years and competed together Sunday among the top tier of dancers. With goals of entering the next rung of competition - where dancers can choreograph their own moves, rather than follow traditions - the pair sat nervously assessing their competitors.

"I've seen a lot of these people at competitions before at other colleges," said Eliopoulos. "You start saying to yourself, 'I'm competing against her? Oh no.' But you go out there and do your best."

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