Ballroom Blitz

The world's baddest dancers begin their quest for Olympic gold.

Legends of the dance floor: Lisa Vegas and husband - Nichy.
Legends of the dance floor: Lisa Vegas and husband Nichy.

Lisa Vegas never thought she'd see the day when her beloved ballroom dancing would become an Olympic sport. After years of dancing competitively, she doesn't have to be told that the salsa, tango, and bolero are nothing short of gymnastics.

The International Olympic Committee finally agrees. After making a test run as an exhibition sport at the 2000 Summer Olympics, ballroom dancing will join the ranks of track and field, swimming, and baseball at the 2008 games in Beijing. "It's a long time coming," Vegas says. "Everyone who does this competitively realizes this should have been an Olympic sport a long, long time ago."

That's why Vegas -- who co-owns the Cleveland Ballroom Company in Beachwood -- has organized the third annual Cleveland DanceSport Challenge, a three-day ballroom battle featuring the world's top dancers. Dressed in elegant tuxedos and floor-length gowns, more than 200 couples will compete in ballroom and Latin styles, with requisite moves including the fox-trot, tango, swing, rumba, and mambo. Six finalists from each category vie for a chunk of more than $40,000 in prize money. "It's very similar to [watching] a golf tournament or a tennis tournament," says Vegas, who, with husband Nichy, ranks third in the country in competitive ballroom dancing. "People go to watch the best in the sport, and they want to see the cream of the crop."

The Cleveland stop is one of 10 events on the Global Pro-Am Spectrum circuit -- the NFL of ballroom dancing. Evidently, this stuff's not just for the debutante-ball crowd anymore. "Social dancing, holding people's hands, is much more popular today," Vegas says. "People want to learn the salsa or a tango for their wedding dance."

Terri Baldwin of Lakewood saw her first competition last summer in Tennessee. The dancers' grace and form hooked her immediately. "It blew me away," she says. "I was expecting to see old people and dull music. But it's sexy and hot."

It's also sweaty. In competition, couples weave together five different styles for four minutes each. To keep up the pace, it's not unusual for dancers to hit the gym to run and lift weights. "[Dancing] is not just jumping up and down," says Vegas. "We're doing five dances in a row. This is 20 minutes of solid moving."

Vegas -- who choreographed the opening ceremonies for the 2000 U.S. Figure Skating Championships -- predicts that ballroom dancing will earn wider respect, once the first medals are presented in Beijing. Her hope? That the first Olympic champions will have fine-tuned their routines in Cleveland. "It's become such a very small world," she says.