Topical Series: Tips For Competing

Ah, life is a never-ending opportunity for learning experiences.  Fresh back from my latest competition, I have had some time to reflect upon all the lessons I received now that the fake tan has faded, and my body isn’t so sore.  So I thought I’d write another piece for the topical series, and share some tips, tricks, and tidbits that might be useful to know if you are interested in competing.

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m talking about NDCA (National Dance Council of America) events, which are a bit different from studio franchise sponsored events (which I’ve never been to) and other more commercial events like those put on by World Promotions.  I will say that by no means am I a total expert (I’ve been to a total of 3 NDCA events and 1 World Promotions event), but it seems like, or my impression is, that NDCA events are the more competitive species in the competition kingdom.

Also, we are talking here about Pro/Am, although some of the information may be applicable to Amateur couples (and I won’t pretend to tell the professionals anything!  Ha!).  And, sorry guys, this is mostly from a girl’s perspective, because, well, I’m a girl.  And, truthfully, I do think we have a few more things to worry about with make up, hair, and dresses.

1) All Hands On Deck!

When you are practicing in your studio, you don’t generally have to enter and exit the dance floor, but the situation is different at competition.  This is one of those things that your instructor may tell you, but even so, for me, it wasn’t enough to prepare me for what it is like.  Now, I’ve got the hang of it, but at first it was a little bit overwhelming.

Here’s the deal:  there is an area roped off on one of the four corners of the ballroom that is called “on-deck.”  There is always a person running the on-deck area, making sure that the people who are dancing in the next heat are either already dancing on the floor or lined up ready to enter.  You line up in the on-deck area one heat before you dance.

If you are lucky, you will get to stand there with your instructor.  If your instructor has multiple students and is dancing all day, you may have to walk yourself out to your instructor.  Sometimes the person in charge of on-deck will walk out newer, beginning students to their instructor at least the first few times they dance, but you can’t count on this.  You have to know when you are dancing, and what heat the competition is on.  It’s best if you are responsible for yourself as much as possible, especially if your instructor has multiple students to keep track of….which brings me to my next point….

2) You Live And Die By Your Heat List

When you arrive to the competition you will get a big, thick book that lists all the heats, all the people in the heats, and has a bunch of advertisements, plus a letter from the organizers of the event.  You can use this to keep track of when you dance but it is very cumbersome.  Better is a heat list.  This is usually one or two sheets of paper that lists all the heats in which you are competing, the number, the time, which dance it is, and who you are dancing with.  You can keep this with you much more easily than that big book and fold the sheet to keep track of where you are, or use a pen or highlighter to track your progress.

You can also use the big book to keep track of how you place.  I don’t generally see many people manually doing this in the ballroom as all results are posted online nowadays, but if you want to you can.

3) Presentation IS Important!

Another thing that your instructor may tell you about, but that you may not be fully prepared for is presentation.  This is what you do after (and sometimes before) you dance.  It is the curtsey, or the bow, or the spin.  Sometimes it is just a step to the side, or a gesture to your partner.  The point is, it’s important.  It provides a bookmarked ending (and sometimes beginning) to your dancing.  And let me share that I was not fully prepared for it.  Even though Ivan will end dances with me in the studio, he typically does one particular spin out.  So that was what I was expecting.  But instead, he rarely spun me out in competition, but rather wanted me to simply step to the side and put my arms out…only I hadn’t practiced this variation!  In any case, now that you are in the know, ask your instructor to practice this stuff with you before you set foot at the competition.  Then you won’t feel awkward, like I did.  And, your dancing will look more polished.

4) Photos And Videos

At competition there are professional photographers and videographers.  The photographers you don’t have to worry so much about.  They will snap tons and tons of pictures of you and everyone else throughout the competition on the dance floor.  You’re not supposed to take any photos or videos of your own, and if you are completely obvious about it, the emcee will make an announcement that you are not allowed to take them.

I think they are more concerned with people taking photos and videos of the professional events, but they will still call people out for snapping pics during the amateur heats too.  The truth is that people do take photos or sneaky videos if they can, but be advised that you are not supposed to.  I don’t know if they’d actually take your camera away or anything, but I guess it’s possible.  Consider yourself warned.

But the thing that people may not know is about getting a video.  You must inform the videographers ahead of time if you want to get a video that tracks just you.  You will have to fill out a form with the heats you want recorded, the number of your professional partner (if you are a girl), or your number (if you are a boy), and the color of the dress you or your partner is wearing.

When people don’t know to do this, they miss out on a video they may have wanted.  Even so, not all may be lost.  Sometimes the videographer can give you a video of the entire floor, showing all the couples that danced.  However, a video like this won’t feature you exclusively, and may miss some of your performance.

Also it is nice to know about these options so you can budget for them ahead of time.  Again, like everything else in ballroom, not cheap.  For instance, I think small photo prints were about $13 each (and they offer many sizes, plus cut outs, all of which cost more), and each video of a dance heat was $15 at this particular competition, just to give you an idea.  You can plan how many pictures and videos to purchase ahead of time because there will be many to choose from and it may be difficult to set a limit!

6) The Floor Is Different

I mean this in two ways:  First, the floor at a competition is physically different from the floor you are used to dancing on and Second, being on the competition dance floor is a different experience than being on the floor you are used to being on at home.  On the first point, all floors are different.  Some are sticky, some are slippery.  At competition, the floor is constructed so it will have many joints which can be tricky.  There can be areas on the floor that dip down or are bumpy.  The bottom line is that the competition floor will feel different and is physically different from the floor you normally dance on.  Be prepared for both situations (sticky and slippery) by having a shoe brush and using it, and/or using a little castor oil or water on your shoes as necessary.  Be aware that if you choose to use water or castor oil on the bottom of your shoe, this may make it more tacky and cling to the floor better temporarily, but it may change the surface of your shoe sole and even ruin it if used excessively.

If possible, get on the floor and feel it out before you have to dance.  There may be social dancing you can take advantage of between heats or the floor may be open before the competition.  Most competitions also provide a practice floor which should be similar to the main competition floor.

On the second point, I heard a lot of “You only remember 50% of what you know at a competition” while at Desert Classic.  Who knows how valid this little adage is, but the point is that there are a lot of things going on in a competition that you have to adjust to, and that takes brain power.  From keeping track of your heats, to having a genuine audience, these differences and details are things you don’t normally have to grapple with.  Therefore, you may not be as relaxed as you might be in practice.  For sure you can’t realistically expect yourself to dance your absolute best for every singe heat (like I did – silly me!) or else you will be sorely disappointed.  And, as one of my friends shared with me, knowing that you won’t be perfect, with the adrenaline and all, can allow you to be a little kinder with yourself if you know this going in.

Along that vein, it is generally helpful to do a round or two of single dances before you do the scholarship round.  Why?  Your body will be warmed up, you will get the feel of the floor, the feel of the audience, and you will be able to get out some of your nerves….kind of a trial run before the “big show.”  And, as my friend told me, she was surprised at how much lactic acid built up and the physicality of the 3 dances of her scholarship round.  It’s just different in a competition situation than at the studio.

7) The Devil Is In The Details

Okay, actually, this is just a mishmash of some things about preparing for the competition that might be nice to know.  First, the styling is different for Smooth/International Ballroom than it is for Latin/American Rhythm.  One of my friends said when she first did a competition, she didn’t know about this.  Yes, indeed, it is true.  I don’t think I’ve seen a dress that would work for both types of styles.  If you dance both styles, have a dress appropriate for each style you dance, and have hair that works for the style as well.  Some people even change outfits between single dance heats and scholarship rounds.  This is optional, but the higher level you are competing at, the more likely you are to see others doing it.

Another consideration is to do a trial run of your tan.  Do it about two weeks before the competition.  If it makes you look like an Oompa Loompa, there will be time for it to fade.  If it works well, you’ll know what to use the day before the competition.  Also, bring extra tanning product and bronzer with you to the competition.  I was amazed at how fast the tan faded and some areas take the color better than others.  You may have to cover spots that got missed or faded.

Fake nails.  Get ’em bigger, thicker, and longer than you can imagine.  I’m not kidding.  I thought mine were pretty long but not compared to many others.  Or, get them blinged out like my friend did, to really make a statement.  Hardly anything is too over the top in ballroom, I’m telling you!

My friend’s Nails for Desert Classic

Also, it is a good idea to put on your dress and dance in it before the competition.  It probably has a length of skirt different from your usual practice wear, or other straps, dangles, bangles, tassels and floats that you don’t usually have to cope with.  Plus it can be heavy, or restrict your arms, or need one last hem or whatever.  It’s best to try it out once or twice before the show.

Lastly, pack a little day bag if you will be in the ballroom competing a long time.  You will want comfy shoes like slippers to change into.  You will want a jumpsuit or a robe to cover up, not only to protect you clothes from damage, but to keep warm.  The competition usually provides water and towels, but you may want to bring sports drinks, snacks, and hard candies if you will be doing a lot of heats.  Also bring your lipstick so you can do touch-ups, especially before scholarship heats.  If you wear fishnets, get the dark colored ones and have an extra pair on hand in case they tear.  Also bring band-aids and tape in case you get blisters and still have to dance.  Ibuprofen is handy as well.

In all honesty, there are probably a million other things to know about competing!  But hopefully this article helped at least a little bit.  If you have any specific questions, please feel free to ask!  I’ll do my best to answer.  Or, if you have experience and would like to share what you wish you would have known, please share here in the comments!

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