It takes two to tango—and to samba, rumba, cha-cha, jive or paso doble. The last five of those dances were executed to glittering perfection by 12 couples last Saturday at the DanceSport Champions Series in Madison Square Garden. The competition was a tune-up for the Sydney Olympics, at which ballroom dancing will be an exhibition event. In the International Latin division (in the Olympics, contestants will also cut a rug in the tango, waltz and other steps), Jukka Haapalainen and Sirpa Suutari from Finland were the couple to beat. The suave Haapalainen and the piquant Suutari are the defending Latin champs at the British Open, the Wimbledon of DanceSport. They have won the title in Blackpool three years running, or should we say, rumbaing.
Haapalainen and Suutari, who teamed up in 1989 and married this summer, were weaned on the Finnish tango, a staccato step that's slower than its Argentine cousin. Finland has been a cold-weather tango hotbed since the '60s. Every summer a national tango king and queen are crowned at the annual tangothon in Sein�joki. "Our tango is more melancholy than the South American one," says Haapalainen, "but just as passionate." At the Garden, Haapalainen and Suutari danced rings around the competition to place first.
The reigning U.S. champs, Bill Sparks and Kimberley Mitchell, finished fourth. They won't be competing in Sydney: Mitchell is British. She came to America in 1997 after breaking up with longtime partner Scott Montague. "It was inevitable," Sparks cracks. "Kimberly's a Capulet." Mitchell and her current Romeo have never beaten Haapalainen and Suutari, whom they next face on Halloween at the world championships in Tokyo. "We have a fair chance," deadpans Sparks. "The glass we'll put in their shoes should help."