Topical Series: Ballroom Demystified (Part Deux)

Where was part one, you may ask?  Well this post is an extension of another post by Alaina which you can read here.

I thought it was an excellent topic and told her so.  And, me being as opinionated and vociferous as I am (at least as a writer), I was inspired to continue the conversation.

I’ll use Alaina’s same format.  She was comparing DWTS, which probably represents how most uninitiated people think of ballroom, to what actually happens at a ballroom competition.  If you’ve never been to one, then you can’t possibly know, but the two are worlds apart.  I think pretty much the only things they have in common are spray tans, amazing outfits and hair, the fact that there are judges, and Pro/Am couples.  Other than that, things are really different.  And one housekeeping note – I’m talking about NDCA Dancesport competitions as those are the ones I have experience with.  There are other competitions put on through studio chains or through other independent companies like World Promotions which have their own set of rules and protocols.

Point 1: In competition, there are multiple couples on the floor at the same time

Alaina got this right.  The only thing I’ll add, is man, is it a different experience with all that movement going on at the same time.  It kind of makes more sense as to why ballroom couples try to be so ostentatious.  If you don’t know what they will be up against, it may seem particularly gaudy and over-the-top how they move, how they dress, how they do their hair and make up, and all that.  Each couple is vying for the attention of the judges and the audience and being showy, glittery, or even ridiculously cheeky, may help achieve that aim.  It is practically impossible to watch just one couple while they compete as each one will catch your eye at a different point.  This is also part of why couples rotate around the ballroom between heats – to perform for a different section of the audience and hopefully gain their support.

Point 2:  Two styles of dance

I’d argue that there are 4 categories of dance – broadly divided into American styles and International styles.  But it’s not just the styling that is different – it’s also the dances that are performed.  On the American side are the American Rhythm and Smooth Divisions, and on the International side are Standard (or Standard Ballroom) and Latin.


American Rhythm – Cha Cha, Rumba, East Coast Swing, Bolero, Mambo

American Smooth – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz


Standard Ballroom – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese, Waltz, Quickstep

Latin – Samba, Cha cha, Rumba, Paso Doble, Jive

As you can see, some of the dances are the same.  This is where that styling that Alaina was referring to fits in.  In general, legs are straight in Latin Rumba and Cha Cha but there is a bending and straightening action that occurs in American Rhythm.  In American Smooth, couples can go in and out of a dance frame hold and tend to do lots of sweeping movements, and spins with the lady, and maybe dips too, but in Standard Ballroom, the couples must remain in a dance frame hold throughout the entire dance and travel in unison around the floor.  On DWTS, Len’s background would be more in Latin and Standard Ballroom (being from Great Britan) and this is why he often harps about couples breaking out of hold (which I think he used to do more often than he currently does).

In addition, there are also other dances that may be at competitions like country western dances, Night Club Two Step, Argentine Tango, and West Coast Swing, but generally they have different stylization as compared to the dances as danced in their traditional milieu, like a milonga, or with true “Westies.”

Furthermore, there are more types of pairings that can occur.  On DWTS we see a little of this – sometimes there are Pro/Pro pairings, also formation teams, both of which occur at competitions.  In competitions, there are also purely Amateur couples, some of which are very high level and almost as good as the pros.  This pairing is two amateurs and would be the equivalent of two of the “Stars” on DTWS pairing up.  Now that would be interesting to see on the show, but would probably result in poor dancing because instead of only 1 person not knowing what they are doing, both would be clueless!

Also, remember that the couples dancing at competition do not know ahead of time which music they will be dancing to.  On DWTS the routines are more like those that would be presented during a showcase; the music is known and choreographed to.  But in competition, you may have a routine but it has to work and the timing must be correct no matter what music is played.  DWTS did show some of this with those “Instant dances” they have had on a few seasons.  Those dances test the skill set of leading and following.  I believe (though I don’t know for sure) that for most divisions the couples have a pre-planned routine, however they still have to remain in connection so they can react seamlessly if another couple gets in their way or something unexpected happens like one partner forgets the routine.  They can then fall back on lead-follow dancing to get them through.  However, in the Standard Ballroom division, I think there is more of a chance that the couples don’t have a planned routine.  They probably have the basic idea of what they will do and also which steps they will want to show off, but because there is so much movement around the floor and many couples are buzzing around, floorcraft is key in this division in particular.  The couple has to react quickly and often to avoid collisions. (As an aside, I think Artem and Inna are particularly adept at this.  I’ve only ever seen them almost collide once, ever, on a video, and I have seen them masterfully avoid collisions multiple times without missing a single step.)  Anyways, I think in this division, and probably Smooth as well, lead-follow plays a much bigger role.

Amendment:  Please do see the comments section of this post!  Why? Because Ellen so generously and eloquently clarified this detail, about Standard Ballroom dancers.  I am incorrect, it seems!  Standard dancers do have planned routines, and maybe even more so than other dancers!  Who knew?  See Ellen’s explanation!  The main idea is that there are only certain ways to get into and exit out of various steps (very true) so they have to be strung together in careful and meticulous order, which many times will require a pre-set routine.  And yes, I admit when I am wrong! LOL!  Love it!  Thank you for interacting, Ellen!  I appreciate you so very much.

Point 3: Scoring and points

Yeah, there are no paddles at competitions.  Instead, judges mark couples, ranking them or recalling them on forms which are collected and tabulated, and then at various intervals during the day there are awards.  The announcer quickly calls out who made 3rd, 2nd, and 1st in a particular heat.  That’s it.  You may get some gold stickers, or you may get some coupons for $1 off rounds if you compete again next year for placing, and a plaque for participating, but no mirror ball trophy.  Medals are sometimes given for placing in a scholarship competition (I will explain that in a bit).  But certainly no commentary on what each couple did well or any advice on how to improve like happens on DWTS.

Another difference is that because there are multiple couples competing at the same time, if there is a large heat, with many participants, it is possible that many rounds may have to be danced.  There can be multiple preliminary rounds, then quarterfinals, then semifinals, then finals.  During each iteration, a few of the couples will be eliminated.  In the earlier rounds where there are many couples on the floor, the judges simply vote to “recall” those couples they’d like to see more of.  The final round will consist of 6, maybe 7 couples, so getting to semifinals can be a real feat if there are like 24 couples entered in the competition.  Rounds like this can be found at bigger competitions like Ohio Star Ball, or Millennium, or USDC, but usually only happen for pros.  I’ve only ever had one heat large enough to require a semifinal.  All the other heats I’ve danced have always been a final right off the bat because there aren’t enough couples to warrant multiple rounds.

Once reaching the final, judges then place the couples as 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on.  Each judge gives his or her own individual opinion/ranking and these are tabulated.  This is why you see perhaps 33221 by the picture or write-up in the media of a couple that placed 3rd.  In this example, 2 judges placed the couple 3rd, two judges placed them 2nd, and 1 judge placed them 1st.  The couple with the most 1st’s wins and the ranking follows the same pattern.  Hopefully the rankings will agree somewhat, indicating that the positions were highly contested, and the the judges were generally on the same page as to the excellence of the the couples.  Sometimes, however, they may also vary widely.  A couple can miss a final round, or a higher placement by the opinion of just one judge.  Truly, for this reason, I have such respect for the strength of character and perservence of the pros who put themselves out there to compete.  It can be a brutal process sometimes and very difficult to convince the majority of judges to place you highly enough to reach any level of professional success.

Often competitors can obtain their scoresheets after the competition online to see how a particular judge placed them, or if that judge recalled them.  If the competitor knows the predilections of that judge, then they may gain insight in areas to work on.  For instance, some judges are known to focus in on toplines, others footwork, others overall presentation.  In addition, competitors can see if there was a wide variation in their placements, or if the judges generally agreed upon how they were placed, again giving them more of an idea of what to focus on in the future.

Here’s where I’m going to veer off the path laid by Alaina.

Point 4: Single dances versus Scholarship Rounds, Open versus Closed heats

Okay, so in competitions there are a variety of types of heats.  Single dances are just what they sound like.  You want to dance Mambo, you dance a Mambo.  You will dance it at the appropriate level and age category.  In America, there are Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels.  These may be further divided into “pre-” or “full” or “intermediate” levels.  For instance, as a way of stretching yourself, if you are ranked as a full-Bronze student, you may also participate in a pre-Silver level heat to see how you fare against more advanced competition.  In addition, you dance with people your same age, and can dance against those one age category below you.  This makes it fair so 20-year-olds aren’t competing against octagenarians.

Scholarship rounds are kind of like a mimic of what the pros do.  The pros don’t dance a single dance.  They dance all the dances in their category.  Now, for us beginners, they go a little easier on us.  First, for the lower levels like Bronze, you may only dance 3 or 4 of the dances required by the pros.  Also, the length of the heats is less – 1:10 minutes to 1:2o seconds versus about 2:00 minutes for pros.  Thank God, I have to say, because it takes time to build up the cardiovascular capacity and skill level necessary to complete all the dances for such a (relatively) long duration.  So for instance, I did a closed Bronze scholarship round in Latin at Desert Classic.  This meant that I danced 3 dances in a row: Samba, Cha cha, Rumba and was ranked on those compared to the other Pro/Am couples on the floor at the same time in my same skill level and age category.  No Paso Doble of Jive for me! (Thank heavens!  However, I did dance some single dances in Jive, separately)

Again the scholarship rounds are divided by skill level and age.  They can get very competitive, especially at the Open level.

Okay, now for the difference between Open and Closed.  Closed rounds are those that only include steps in the syllabus.  For NDCA events, this is the DVIDA syllabus.  Open rounds can include more creative choreography and include steps not strictly on the syllabus.  There can be open single dances as well as open scholarship rounds.  They can also still be divided by skill level, so for instance you can dance an open bronze Bolero or an open silver Waltz.

When pros compete, they are competing as an open.  Anyone can enter.  Though for Pro/Am and Amateur levels, the open scholarship rounds are generally still divided by age, but then again, you don’t usually see senior citizens in open professional competition, but you will see them in open Pro/Am scholarship rounds.

Hmm….well, that’s probably just scratching the surface of the differences between DWTS and a NDCA competition.  Honestly, if you’ve never been to one, it’s worth checking out.  The energy of the ballroom during pro heats is unbelievable.  And it’s so inspiring and incredible.  Though I love getting my DWTS fix, I love being a part of this other world and participating in the “real deal.”  There are a lot of ways to participate in ballroom and I’d encourage anyone to participate to any level that works for them, from social dancing, to full-on competition.  All are wonderful, and special, and important.  But for me, I’ve decided, it’s the competition route I’m interested in.  Yeah, I’m crazy.  I know.  Lol.

If you do happen to have anything to add, or any further questions, please comment!  I love hearing other perspectives, and about other experiences.  Part of what I’m after here on the blog is to build community.  Please join in the fun!

22 thoughts on “Topical Series: Ballroom Demystified (Part Deux)

  1. Love both your and Alaina’s posts! Only thing I will add is that in my experience dancing International Standard (which was pretty much all I did) we absolutely have set routines – and I think it may be more so than in any other style because in Standard you can only do certain figures in specific order, or start in a certain place, etc. Some things you can do anywhere but some figures can only be entered in a certain way at one level or exited a specific way if followed by another figure etc. There are standards – hence the name that must be followed – you often see standard dancers with their little blue book out looking up the steps to see if it can be done in combination with a figure or after another one etc. So that is my experience and what I have been taught – it could be that at a very high level they do things differently – but every comp I’ve seen even the pros have their routines in Standard planned. Just my two cents!

    • loveablestef says:

      Awesome Ellen! Thank you so much for the insight. I have so little experience in actually dancing Standard I just assumed (which I made sure to clarify) based on what I have observed of Artem and Inna’s masterful floorcraft. They seem to alter their routine more than Ivan and Marieta, but then again, it’s hard to tell because I see the more sporadically and a lot of the figures they execute are basic, even at the pro level, because the aim is more to travel around the floor. One of the most intriguing things I learned/heard/observed of Artem and Inna is that they perform “basic” steps but at a very high level of technique. They don’t appear to seek to make their routine complex or flashy but rather to demonstrate their amazing competence and excellence at performing the core movements in Standard. Again, this is all conjecture on my part…my brain making meanings up to what I have observed. But anyways, thank you SO much for your contribution! I love learning more about ballroom and I appreciate your experience and invaluable insight. More than that, I appreciate YOU, my dear! XOXO

      • Just adding what little I can. It is true that even at very high levels the competitors do some very basic steps – it is all about technique. I stayed at bronze ins Standard for over 3 years just working on technique before going to Silver – it isn’t about the number of steps here it is really about executing them superbly (which I was unable to do – but loved trying). I think the other thing about people at Inna and Artem’s level is that their strides are more than likely huge which is fabulous. I would assume they cover a lot of floor in their steps so they can move across the ballroom easily and cover the floor effortlessly – that way their routine moves and flows throughout the ballroom. I have only seen them on video and am so impressed by their dancing – you are lucky to be able to dance with them. Thanks for your always kind words And for this continued forum of learning and communication. Hugz.

    • loveablestef says:

      Hey! Thanks to your information I put an amendment in the post! Thanks again.

  2. Alaina says:

    Ah, yes. I forgot to mention those four sub-categories, but I’m glad you did. I frequent Dance Forums, and I hear those often. That’s why I’m glad I have a more experienced dancer backing me up.

    It’s nice. I covered the basics, and you covered all the details I couldn’t possibly know. It’d be awesome for other people to join in.

    • loveablestef says:

      Agreed! I love hearing from others, like Ellen, who shared experience and perspective I didn’t have. Also, please give yourself credit! You came up with this brilliant idea and I loved what you wrote. I’m simply being a mouthy, opinionated friend, sharing my perspective lolol. I love your perspective. Thank YOU for sharing and getting the party started. Much love, Stef

  3. mybelle940 says:

    Thanks for this post. It was really helpful for someone just starting out like me!

  4. Thanks so much for this info, Stef! I’ve posted a link to it on the Arthur Murray Central PA Facebook page, because I know dancers will be interested in it.

  5. bgballroom says:

    Yes, International Standard dancers do have a routine. BUT we need to be prepared to bend, change or amend the routine at any time for floor craft purposes. If my partner is about to contra check me and another couple is right where my head will be, he had better come up with something else! LOL sometimes you can just stop briefly then carry on and sometimes something’s gotta give.

    One classic moment was in last year’s Canadian Championships in Vancouver. We were dancing tango and our next step was backwards for the man. I don’t remember the step, but I am sure Bill does. He stepped back and WHAM! straight into another guy who was stepping backwards into us. They hit back to back and, partly due to the fact that I am short and partly due to the nature of the dance, nobody had good sight lines. So we all did what we were supposed to do – pause, collect ourselves, waiting for the other couple to have time to get away and step right back into our routines. But the other guy did exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. Wham! And then we did it again. And then the “tango-tude” serious, intense facial expression turned into giggles, I’m sure. Friends watching who had a perfect view said it was the highlight of the comp 🙂

    Eventually we got out of it – I think Bill added a little something step to move us, but as you say, he has to make sure the step is in syllabus and also have a clue as to how to link us back into our routine. For some reason, I seem to be able to adjust to the choreography changes pretty well in a comp, in spite of the fact that I do routine changes miserably in practice. I think it is a strange combo of adrenalin and Spidey sense.

    One other thing – the top Amateurs are every bit as good as the pros. For anyone wanting to watch a comp for the first time, you will find the Amateur level pretty amazing from Gold and up. In fact, if you have never seen ballroom live, you will think the gold dancers are almost as good as the Champ level dancers. Plan to get there in time to watch Gold, and also try to make sure you get in to see the little kids. They are adorable and often incredible dancers by the time they are 6 or 7.

    OK – off to Seattle to compete in Quest for the Best!

    • loveablestef says:

      BGBallroom! Thank you for this great insight and the fantastic story. I laughed out loud reading it. And good luck at your competition! Let us know how it goes! I’m sure you’ll dance beautifully.

  6. Best of luck BGBallroom! It certainly sounds like that kind of experience will serve you well at other comps! Love the “adrenaline and spidey sense” and “Tango-tude” it’s so funny how those things seem to be universal! I agree completely that floorcraft is necessary in any style – including standard – and your example of that was perfect! I hope it did not sound like I was saying that Standard did not require floorcraft. My original comment was in response to Stef’s line in her post that said “However, in the Standard Ballroom division, I think there is more of a chance that the couples don’t have a planned routine.” Of course – as I always say… what the bleep do I know anyway!! 🙂 I’ve danced for 7 years and still feel like I’m in kindergarten! I’m rarely definite, often wrong and hopefully always humble! There is so much to learn which is why I am so grateful to Stef for sharing so much in her blog and making it so accessible. I also in sync with your comment about the top level amateurs – there are some who are amazing!!

    • bgballroom says:

      SIH – no problem. I was just adding a bit for clarity. And not everyone does have a routine set in stone. Friends of ours danced small sequences that could be combined in multiple ways to suit the floor for years. When we started beating them because he had trouble linking the sequences, they switched to a set routine PDQ!

      Hot off the presses news, not even posted on Facebook, written up in my blog or phoned to family and friends – we came second and third in our Gold events (above mentioned friends beating us in one and finishing second to our third in the other) and first in both Silver events! Yay!! Why they beat us in Gold and web beat them in Silver is a bit of a mystery, but makes for great post-comp beer drinking and late supper enjoyment. If you ever end up in Seattle, give the Palace Kitchen a try. They grind their own sirloin for their burgers and have some secret Belgian system for their fries plus a ton of fresh stuff from their very own farm.

      Currently enjoying great food and world class views on the ferry ride home. People come from all over the world to see this and we sit reading books or posting on blogs, not even looking out the windows. Amazing. Next stop Northwest Regionals in October then the Grand Ball in Richmond BC in November. Lots of pro-am there. Wanna come up?

      • loveablestef says:



        I’m so excited for you! That is awesome!

        Thanks for sharing here first! So cool!

        And that Palace Kitchen sounds awesome!

        Good luck at Northwest Regionals and Grand Ball. Please keep us posted! And yes! I’d love to come up to BC…probably not this year but maybe next? Sounds delightful!

        XOXO, Stef

  7. Speaking from the pro-level of things (and pro-am, on the teacher side), I know that all styles use routines to about the same extent. Most dancers (leads and follows) learn to “read the floor” and predict (sometimes badly) what is going to happen and shorten/lengthen/bend/rotate/pause their steps to dance where other people WON’T be. Most people get comfortable with “close-calls” and the occasional elbow-to-the-head, also.
    Of course, there’s going to be an unforeseen collision once in awhile (as bgballroom retold!), but that’s what makes dancesport a full-contact sport, right? Aaaaand exciting. Who doesn’t suck in their breath as they see what they’re sure is going to be a spectacular crash and then sigh and applaud as the dancers pass by each other with only a breeze touching between them?
    There’s very little “lead and follow” involved in most high-level routines. Connection and tone, yes, but variation from said routine? Meh. Not so much.
    BTW, great blog. And comments. Go ballroom!

    • loveablestef says:

      Hey! Thanks for the compliments and for the awesome insight, especially from a pro perspective. I just found your blog on typepad and posted a link to it on my FB page for the blog because I liked it so much….the post about what kind of on-deck personality are you? I can’t wait to read more of your posts, especially those that are ballroom-related. And welcome to the blog/community here. I’m so glad you found us and that you chose to participate with a comment. Seriously, it makes my day! Thank you! -Stef

  8. Clint says:

    Thank you for writing that. Such references are excellent for people trying to get their head around the nature of ballroom. And I know how much time it can take to write such a piece too.

    I like also the way you point out when something is your opinion too. Some people are certain that they know it all – when really who does?

    Thanks again.

    • loveablestef says:

      Heya Clint! Thanks for the nice note. I’m glad you found this useful. I’ve been bad about it lately, but part of the blog is (supposed to be) to be a resource for other dancers and to be a community for discussion about our passion. I checked out your blog on Typepad and it is pretty cool. I’m always on the lookout for ballroom-related content. You are now added on my sidebar as a resource. Anyways, thanks so much for stopping by! I hope to “see” more of ya!

      • Clint says:

        Thanks for taking a look and the link. We all go through periods of low productivity from time to time. I will need to link to you too.

  9. Vikki Liles says:

    I’m coming to this topic late, but here is my two cents. I compete in Standard, Smooth and Rhythm at the Bronze level. Just starting to learn Latin. I really don’t know what I don’t know, but have tons of opinions anyway.

    My teachers (I dance with two) and I are doing away with combinations for the heats for the next couple of competitions. I dance open with one teacher and closed with the other. In the open heats, I have no idea what will be led – might even be Silver steps or encouragement for embellishments. The idea is to work on lead and follow skills and connection. Believe me, I pay attention to what is happening. In the closed heats, I know vaguely what steps we might dance, but there is no set pattern. I know almost all of the Bronze syllabi, but there are some steps better than others for me. Part of the teacher’s job is to pick out the best ones for the student. For example, in the tango, I do a pretty good twist turn, so I can count on that showing up sooner or later. I know what steps are likely to occur in a corner for the Viennese waltz and just wait for the lead. I am loving this, as I think it makes my dancing more alive, more connected and more real. It is working especially well in Rhythm. We have even done away with set combinations in Standard. I know the steps, can recognize most of the leads (the foxtrot is a challenge, I admit) and have become pretty adept at covering up mistakes. What I want to avoid – at all costs – is looking freaked when floorcraft requires the combination to be adjusted on the fly. There is nothing worse than having a combination that takes the whole floor, only to get to the comp and find the floor has been divided into three parts and you still have to share with 10 other couples. I trust my teachers to figure out what to do and I follow as best I can. I find I am actually more relaxed. At my last comp, we still had combinations for the closed heats and all of Standard but not for the open Smooth and Rhythm. I made more finals in the open heats. Go figure.

    • Clint says:

      Yes indeed I think simply following makes dance look better. It gets back to what social dance is all about. However, things still remain hard for the lead. I guess that’s where differences in training come in. I do reckon men need to get the odd class from a male instructor for that kind of thing.

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