LOWELL — Out on the competitive ballroom dance floor, you’ve got 90 seconds or less to prove your grace and your mettle. For a group of baby boomers who started competing just in the last three years, the pressure is intense. And they love it.
“You have to want it badly. You have to love every minute, and you have to have a competitive drive,” says Bette Bissonnette, 64. She entered her first pro-am competition, in which only the amateur is judged, in late 2010.
Bissonnette had been dancing socially with her husband for 10 years, when a groundswell started building at the Steppin’ Out Dance Studio, where they were taking lessons. One of the students convinced studio owner George Lacerte, who had danced professionally 22 years ago, to train and partner her in competitive ballroom.
Soon others caught the competitive bug. Lacerte now partners in pro-am competitions with Bissonnette, Valerie Gillett, 59, Carole McOsker, 65, and Gloria Scollo, 66. In the last year, Scollo has also entered amateur competitions with her husband, Nathan.
There are a lot of baby boomers on the competitive dance floor these days, with contests broken down according to age and ability. Lacerte says he sees dancers get involved before they have children, then drop out, and then there’s a resurgence after children have grown up. For the older set, he adds, there are no disadvantages to ballroom dancing. It keeps you agile, fit, and mentally keen.
Gloria Scollo says it beats going to the gym. Gillett boasts that dancing helped her recover more quickly from knee surgery.
Although most of these dancers have been competing less than two years, the group is on fire. At the Yankee Classic DanceSport Championships in Cambridge last month, dancers from Steppin’ Out Studio (the baby boomers plus one 18-year-old Latin dancer) entered 31 dances and scored 24 medals, according to Lacerte’s tally: 12 gold, eight silver, and four bronze. Lacerte partnered in all of them.
There are two styles of competitive ballroom dancing, International and American. They mostly cover the same dances, but with different technical standards. The Steppin’ Out competitors practice the International style, which means the partners must remain in the closed position, body to body, throughout the dance. They perform Quickstep, Foxtrot, Waltz, Viennese Waltz, and Tango.
On a recent visit to the Steppin’ Out studio, some of the baby-boomer competitors have gathered in chairs ringing the studio floor to demonstrate their moves to a reporter — McOsker can’t make it; she’s at work — and the Scollos, in their street clothes plus dancing shoes, jump up to waltz.
The Scollos dance the International Standard Waltz, also known as the slow waltz, to piped-in instrumental music. Lacerte says that the country tune “You Light Up My Life” has a slow waltz tempo, and the Scollos glide across the dance floor, formal yet serene, transported in one another’s embrace.
Ballroom dancing can be dicey for a couple. Traditionally and competitively, the man leads and the woman follows. That may not be easy or natural for either party.
“I’m a control freak,” Bissonnette admits. “As a woman, when you come through the door, you have to give up all control.”
“You have entered the dance zone,” Gillett says. “But the bottom line is, when you have a man who is a good lead, there’s nothing better.”
Being a good lead, according to Lacerte, isn’t about moving your partner. It’s about your own body position.
“A big part of it is experience on the floor,” he says. Up to a dozen couples can be dancing at once. “If there’s another couple in the way,” he says, “that’s a split-second decision. We need to be prepared to navigate.”
And yes, there are collisions. Bissonnette and Lacerte suffered one the very first time she competed. They didn’t lose points, though. Judges are less interested in the crashes than they are in the recoveries.
Back in the demonstration session, when the waltz ends, the Scollos sit down. Their marriage, says Gloria, has weathered competitive dancing. Like Gillett and Bissonnette, the Scollos took up dancing when their kids left the house.
“We have our moments, sometimes,” Gloria says. “We practice in the basement when we’re not in a good mood, and by the time we reach the top step [after a workout], we’re fine.”
Bissonnette and Gillett both dance socially with their husbands, but have not invited them to compete.
“I can’t compete with my husband because I want to stay married,” Bissonnette says. “There’s no room for error, and my husband does not have that motivation or desire for perfection.”
“I’m in the same situation,” Gillett says. “Only I could go a step further, where if I competed with him, I might kill him.”
“Extreme ballroom,” Lacerte says, laughing.
Each dance has its own personality. The quickstep is lively; the waltz is dreamy, the tango, passionate. McOsker, in a phone interview, says it’s the music that keeps her coming back for more. “Right now, my favorite is the fox trot. I love that music — the tempo, the old Frank Sinatra tunes,” she says. “It takes you away.”
In competition, you know what the dance will be, but the music is always a surprise. There’s no counting on Ol’ Blue Eyes.
“Sometimes when we train, I put on horrible music,” Lacerte says. “It doesn’t matter what the song is, we have to make it look like you’re having the time of your life.”
Bissonnette’s goal is a gold medal in the waltz. It’s her favorite dance: “When we hit it, it’s like floating,” she says.
Whatever dance you’re competing in, the trick is to know the footwork, maintain your posture, and then let go. “It’s a strange combination of intense concentration and relaxation,” says Gillett. Their next competition: The Massachusetts Dancesport Challenge on Aug. 24 at Melrose Memorial Hall.
At the Lowell dance studio, the fever is spreading. Another dancer has joined the group training for the August competition.
Bissonnette nods at Lacerte, a trim man in black patent leather shoes. “His harem is growing,” she says.
The group agrees that dancing isn’t merely good exercise, it’s a great form of therapy. “You have to leave your issues at the door,” says Gillett.
But they take the dancing home. “It is such a high, you cannot imagine,” says Bissonnette. “I dream about it at night.”