"In the beginning, the man must be dominant," says Lee Wakefield, who sounds to me like Future Coach.

"The man leads. He creates the opportunities that the lady completes and enhances. But he has to give her the chance to fill the space. Then she becomes the more important one because she must produce the final result. In the end, it is an equal relationship."Wakefield's sport is ballroom dancing, which has been formally recognized by the International Olympic Committee, but is still waiting to step into a quadrennial program. For 18 years, Wakefield has been director of the ballroom dance division of the dance department of Brigham Young University, by far the country's leading collegiate teaching and competition center. Wakefield would like the eight ballrooms on the Provo campus to someday be the national Olympic training center.

DanceSport, as the medal-seeking children of Fred and Ginger like to call their game, is about as close as we are likely to get right now to a disciplined, elegant, nonviolent competition in which men and women can play together as equals. It has the romance and telegenicity of ice skating but is far more accessible; you don't need frozen water. You can try out new moves alone at home or in the corner of a wedding party.

If anything can soften the shocks of Michael's leaving the NBA and the Yankees' leaving the Bronx, it will be ballroom dancing, the future of sport and of gender equity, at the very least an antidote to football, the male meatball game.

A glimmer of the possibilities was shown on television earlier this month during the PBS broadcast, "Championship Ballroom Dancing." During the international standard competition in the waltz, the tango, the Viennese waltz, the fox trot and the quickstep - dances in which the partners never "open," or leave each other's arms - you can see how thrilling a partnership can be. The best dancers seem to be inside each other's skin.

"You can't compete successfully if you can't get along," says BYU's Wakefield, who competed professionally with his wife, Linda. "This is a sport that teaches you to respect and get along with a person of the opposite sex. It's why it's an important social activity here."

Of the 27,000 students at the Mormon university, according to Wakefield, 5,500 take Dance 180, which is beginning social dancing. The only class with a higher enrollment, he says, is a religion course required for graduation. More than 3,000 students take the 11 technical dance classes, which lead students through four levels of skill, up to competition.

The best of those go to regional, sometimes national tournaments where dancers on crowded floors have only seconds to dazzle quick-moving judges with their steps, rhythm and fixed smiles.

There are 160 students on BYU's three performance teams - roughly equivalent to freshman, junior varsity and varsity squads - of which 12 are on full-tuition ballroom dancing scholarships. Ballroom dancing, however, is not a sanctioned NCAA sport; it is not even, according to a spokeswoman, on the list of "emerging sports."

The NCAA may get on this bandwagon too late. Amateur dance organizations already seem to have the inside Olympic track, bumping the independent teachers and the major chains off the floor.

Mark McCormack of the International Management Group is moving into the sport. Two successful recent feature films, the amusing Australian "Strictly Ballroom" and the poignant Japanese "Shall We Dance," have been filling studios as the film "Rocky" once filled boxing gyms. In the United States, American dancers are challenging the perennial British and European champions (called, often with fear and loathing, "the passports"). Regional competitions have been appearing on cable TV.

But the style of integrated partnering that was the signature of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers may be sacrificed for the cruder, more individualistic postures of American Smooth, in which the dancers break apart; think of ice skating pairs versus ice dancing or the 1970 Knicks versus the current Knicks. Supposedly that's what an unsophisticated TV audience wants.

One advantage of ballroom dancing becoming an Olympic medal sport would be the chance for people to see the International Standard, the real stuff, on prime time; it might even convince NBC that it has found the sport of the millennium to replace football.

Which might be the ultimate gift of ballroom. If only Tito Wooten, Lawrence Phillips, Christian Peter - name your favorite player with a need for some remedial gender socialization - had taken ballroom dancing lessons and learned to appreciate a woman as a teammate rather than a toy.

"If the man is too possessive or pushy or protective, the lady won't be able to do her part," Wakefield says. "The man can smother the woman or she can end up having to do too much in the relationship.

"That's why the benefits of dancing are so wonderful. Even if you don't win a medal dancing, you can learn how to live your life."