The BBC's identity stings are bang up to date these days, so it's small wonder that one of them shows six sexily clad, lithe young ballroom dancers executing some sultry Latin-American steps in the rain. Ballroom is back, and the dance craze is currently clasping an estimated million Britons to its ruffle-shirted bosom. In Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, the sequel to the hit 1987 film due for UK release in May, the emphasis is on Latin dance. And so great is the growing popularity of ballroom that BBC1's controller, Lorraine Heggessey, has commissioned a new series of Come Dancing, once derided as being the apotheosis of vile make-up and even uglier outfits.
Created by Eric Morley in 1949 to show the public what good dancing was all about, Come Dancing became the BBC's longest-running series. During the Seventies, at the height of its popularity, around 12 million viewers tuned in to watch contestants tango and merengue their way across the floor of Blackpool's Tower Ballroom, its dance floor a vision of perma-tans, freeze-dried smiles, tulle, sequins, and American Tan tights. Audiences learnt to love those hairsprayed helmets, the stiff tail suits, the middle-of-the-road Mecca dance-band music and the roll call of presenters, who ranged from the wryly contemptuous Terry Wogan to the long-legged Angela Rippon. Peter West, the voice of the BBC for several decades who died last September, presented Come Dancing from 1957 until 1972 (he also commentated on the Miss World contests and on major sporting events, including Test cricket matches and five sets of Olympic games).
Come Dancing is due to quickstep back on to our screens later this year, and it's rumoured that, if the price is right, Bruce Forsyth will present. It has also been suggested that the producers may couple a celebrity guest with a professional dancer to have a go at steps such as the tango, the foxtrot, the quickstep and the Viennese and plain waltzes, which make up the five standard styles in competitive dance. The couples may also try their hand (and feet) at the tricky but sexy Latin-American disciplines: the cha-cha-cha, the samba, the rhumba, the paso doble and the jive.
But perhaps the show's producers should be talking to the young people who are taking up ballroom dancing - which is now widely considered to be a dance "sport" - in their thousands. Surprisingly, one of the biggest groups to go strictly ballroom is university students. Jane Higgins, 21, has just finished a law degree at Lincoln College, Oxford and is now doing a legal-practice course at the Oxford Institute. Jane is joint captain of the Oxford University dance-sport team, which has around 1,000 members and recently attracted 500 interested students at a freshers event.
"Ballroom is not considered naff any more," says Jane. "It's sexy and glamorous, and physically demanding. Both men and women can earn a coveted sports Blue through ballroom dancing, now that it is recognised by the University Sports Federation. Our Latin coach, Vicky Cunliffe, was even called in to help the 2002 university boat-race team with their rhythm and coordination, which shows just how seriously we are taken."
The Oxford dance-sport team are in great demand. They feature in the new Visit Britain TV campaign - dancing in Trafalgar Square - and regularly stage demonstrations at college balls. Asked what she makes of Brucie as a prospective presenter of Come Dancing, and Jane proffers an alternative - someone who might reflect ballroom dancing's younger appeal, and the huge makeover that it has undergone. Someone such as Cat eDeley or Liz Hurley. "Everything's different these days," says Jane. "Feathers have been replaced by costumes that mirror current fashions in evening dresses - like something that Liz Hurley might wear. And when it comes to music, you can forget the Fifties and Sixties stuff. You're more likely to hear tunes by J-Lo, Shakira and Norah Jones."
It is thought that the strength, suppleness and athletic stamina required of a ballroom dancer for just one dance is equivalent to that required for a 400-metre sprint. At Dance Options Studio in Cheam, Surrey, some of the country's top professionals are put through their athletic paces. Sandwiched between an Italian restaurant and a chiropodist's practice, Dance Options seems an unlikely place to find top international professionals furthering their training. Yet ex-Latin-American champion Graham Oswick, 38, has been schooling top competitors at Dance Options since it opened 10 years ago. "Couples come from as far afield as Japan, America and Australia, because Britain is the ballroom-dancing capital of the world," says Graham. "They spend up to six hours a day practising and training."
Graham teaches Andy and Kelly Kainz, a married couple in their late twenties who are ranked among the top 12 Latin-American dancers in the world. "To be in this business you need a competitive streak - like anyone else who is active in sports," says Kelly. "We spend upwards of four hours rehearsing every day and, on top of that, we have an extensive workout programme at the gym. Ballroom dancing today is about young, fit people who look more like supermodels than anything else." The couple are sponsored by two companies, who supply them with dance outfits and footwear. "Sequins are definitely out, and rhinestones are in," says Kelly, who, like most dancers, pores over fashion magazines in search of ideas for the design of her dance dresses.
Surprisingly, the competition circuit is now much bigger than it was in the 1970s. Back then, there were only three major championships in the world, and they were all British. Today, almost every country has its own major international events, and many top British professionals have moved overseas where the sport is taken more seriously, lured by bigger cash prizes and better sponsorship. In Japan, for example, prize money runs into thousands of pounds.
Ballroom dancing is now an exhibition sport at Olympic level, and it is hoped that it will soon become a mainstream event. Rita Thomas, the chair of the English Amateur Dancesport Association (EADA), says the goal is to find a medal-winning team for the 2012 Olympics. With so much home-grown talent around, surely gold medals are almost guaranteed?
"We have been helping to set up a ballroom-dancing initiative in schools," says Rita, "as part of the Government's programme to improve health issues and reduce obesity." The EADA currently has more than 3,000 active members who compete on a weekly basis, and who range from children under 12 to the over-fifties.
Social, non-competitive dancing accounts for the biggest swing in the number of people taking up ballroom, especially for those whose days of disco are long gone. It is particularly popular with thirty- and fortysomething professional couples, such as Allan Stripp and Caroline Ashley, who took up social dancing seven years ago. "I'd always wanted to try ballroom dancing," says Caroline, a 45-year-old health-service director from Dulwich. "Allan didn't come with me at first because he thought it would be a bit sad, but three weeks after my initial session I persuaded him to come along and he's been hooked ever since."
"Most couples have separate hobbies, so it's great doing something together," adds 43-year-old Allan. "I have a fairly sedentary job in the civil service and I find that an hour-long session of ballroom keeps me much fitter than an hour of football used to. Dancing is also a great way of cutting through class. In our dance group we have everyone from a QC to the local doctors and their receptionists."
In ballrooms, church halls and dance studios all around Britain, people are taking up ballroom dancing like never before. One of the most beautiful period ballrooms in Britain is the Rivoli in Brockley, south-east London, built in 1923. Beneath sparkling crystal chandeliers and red Chinese lanterns, a well-sprung floor caters for all ages from nine to 90. Around the floor, velvet banquettes line the gold-and-red walls, and along either side of the hall are refreshment bars set with beautiful inlaid panels and mirrors. One of the Rivoli's most popular ballroom nights is Jackie's Jukebox, which is held on the first Saturday of every month. Run by Jackie Appleton, a 48-year-old librarian from Walthamstow, the Jukebox attracts a mixed clientele, although around 70 per cent are gay couples.
"We talk about leaders and followers, rather than saying the gentlemen do this or the ladies do that," points out Jackie, "which means that women can lead and men can follow, or vice versa. It really breeds tolerance, and we find that at the Jukebox a 70-year-old straight man will be quite happy to dance with a gay man in his thirties, rather than sit on the sidelines not dancing. The magic you feel when you are dancing is so powerful that it will beat any prejudice." Appleton says that the open attitudes that come with gay ballroom dancing have filtered into the general ballroom scene, making it less rigid and formal. A 14-strong gay formation team, the Pink Dancers, recently performed at the Labour Party conference.
For many elderly people, ballroom has always been a way of life. Lily Harrison, who is in her seventies, is a Rivoli regular. She and her dancing partner, Eddie Sutton, have danced together for more than 25 years. "Dancing really keeps us fit," says Lily, "and it certainly makes me feel a lot younger than I am." Recent research shows that it also good for the grey cells. Like chess, choreographed dancing is an activity that can ward off Alzheimer's disease, because it requires such a high level of simultaneous mental and physical effort. This is good news for Jane Higgins and her Cambridge chums, who will remain ballroom-dancing bright young things for many years to come.
To find a ballroom dancing class near you, contact the British Dance Council, Terpsichore House, 240 Merton Road, London SW19 1EQ (020-8545 0085, www.british-dance-council.org)