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

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

American Smooth – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz

International

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!

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Medusa

Good news is, I’ve begun a new job.  It’s a contract job and guaranteed for six months.  After that, who knows, but I’m really hoping it might turn into a “real” job.  They have to put a lot of resources into training us newbies and I can’t imagine they’d want to mobilize the resources again in a few months, except for in extreme cases of workers with poor performance or a hiring freeze or financial cutbacks.  But again, not something I have control over and I am just extremely thankful for what is, right now.

The bad news is, the learning curve is steep.  Not the normal pharmacist stuff…that’s fine…it’s all the company-specific computer and operational stuff.  It is just a LOT of information to absorb (not unlike learning the entire Bronze syllabus for the Rumba or something in just a few days).  In any case, it was so much info that I dreamt about it last night!  I just know my little brain was assimilating all it could.

You see, I’m playing catch-up because I was added to the job a week after everyone else started.  I’ve had 2 days.  They’ve had 9.  AHHH!  Luckily, I got some one-on-one training to help with all that, but it is still a lot to absorb.  So, all-in-all, not bad news, really – not even close!  After all I’ve been through in the job/financial/work environment categories, I’m GRATEFUL!  It’s just that my mind is spent.  I have the IQ of a wombat by the end of my 8 hour shift (no offense to wombats! Perhaps they are very smart, like parrots.  But I wouldn’t know about that, especially right now.)  And this showed up in my lesson tonight….not to mention the fact that yes, I did watch DWTS this week, and yes, the topical series articles are still in process, but I just haven’t had the mental fortitude to actually complete posts about them with real words and sentences and paragraphs in English and all that.

So anyways, I finished work for the day as a mental case and headed to meet with Ivan.

Even from the beginning he noticed a difference.  I told him, “Ivan!  I’m so tired.  I’m stupid right now.  Seriously.  It’s just that I’m starting a new job and have a lot to learn.  Let’s just dance something socially, kay?”

He was amenable and we began with a nice, soft, sloppy West Coast Swing.  Seriously, I was just barely moving as compared to how I normally show up, but it was about all I could physically and mentally muster.

“Stefanie?  What happen?  You dancing like Medusa?”

“Huh?  The woman with snakes for hair? The one who turned men to stone?  Also known as a Gorgon?  What the hell are you talking about, Ivan?”

“No, a medusa.”

“????”  Arms spread outward to the sides, palms up, shoulders shrugged.

“I make a picture later.”

“Okay Ivan.”

So before I get to that…this is/was the other “bad” news of the night.  I was pretty much worthless on my lesson.  First, I was exhausted mentally.  Secondly, the energy in my body seemed to be completely sapped after about 15 seconds of any dance we worked on.  And, finally I was laughing so much my belly hurt, I almost peed my pants, and because I was guffaw-ing so hard, I couldn’t breathe to dance properly.  It didn’t help that Ivan made fun of every little noise I made.  Yes, I admit, they weren’t what you’d usually hear on the dance floor, but I was so tired that I sighed, or grunted, or squealed depending on if I was trying to push through a move or scared or whatever.

Seriously, my stomach hurt from giggling so much, especially when I tried to “be serious” and then made a noise out of frustration or effort or just to try and breathe and Ivan imitated it which, like a row of dominoes, cascaded into a collapsing heap of me folding inward into a belly laugh.

In any case, we continued to dance and Ivan decided that Bolero was appropriate. Somehow this morphed into Latin Rumba and my Bulgarian dance instructor then decided that it was a prime opportunity to practice crazy stupid lifts and dips for someone as large as I am. We did a few leans with developes and some dips with me lifting my left leg into the air.  But Ivan was making me place all my body weight on his knee while he was in a deep lunge.  It freaked me out.  I actually felt my foot leave the floor for a second, realized that for that moment he was bearing all my body weight, and immediately broke the position so I could plant my feet firmly on the ground.  How can that man hold me up like that?!  I am just so insecure about it I wish he wouldn’t do it.

I have to admit this is not a new fear.  Even when I was 16 and weighed 116 pounds I was concerned about this.  Not logical, I know.  But I was in a production of “The Music Man” in my high school and cast as a dancer and member of the chorus.  There was one move in which I was partnered with a senior theater “god” which made me feel horribly insecure because 1) he was a Thespian paragon and 2) he had to pick me up at the waist and place me on a table.  But then again, looking back on it, it might not have been because of my weight that he failed to get me up there on the table that night.  Truly, he was a slight young man, and not at all muscular in the upper limbs.  In addition, he never practiced the particular move but once with me, and it had absolutely been ingrained in me to practice piano/ballet/anything if it was to be performed to the point where you can do it mindlessly, because when the moment comes to perform, all kinds of things can go wrong.  (And also, once I didn’t practice appropriately and bombed my piano recital.  Not a good feeling! But that is another story).  Anyways, I had a high anxiety level about this move knowing how un-practiced it was, and not having any connection to the person who was responsible for lifting me aloft except for a fearful and reverent adoration from afar, and so, my big fear did come to fruition.  He went to lift me up and I just fell right down.  At least I landed upright, on my feet (so that was good), and he had the theatrical training to grab me and sway side to side to cover the mishap – but I’m pretty sure the audience noticed the gaffe because 1) I made a big loud BOOM! when my character shoes hit the wooden stage floor instead of the table and 2) my dancing counterpart was on a table on stage right doing the same choreography I was supposed to be doing on stage left so things didn’t look symmetrical.  This, plus the fact that the bench I sat on during “Oliver!” while singing “Food, Glorious Food,” collapsed on stage while I (and about 19 other people) were sitting on it, confirmed my fear that I was horribly huge and fat.  See, all along, I really DID have a mental problem.  It just now has manifested into my physical reality, not just my mental reality.

Okay, back now from that psychological detour.  Interestingly, I actually thought this post would be quick because not much happened on the lesson – but clearly my complexes are rooted deeply!  Ahhh!

So a brilliant thing did actually happen on this very-low-energy lesson.  Ivan and I did all our basic Latin Rumba stuff and then I asked him about a step I’ve seen others do, and one that I *think* Igor may have been trying to lead me into last Friday, but that I didn’t know how to do.  What happened next may or may not be the same move, but it was damn cool, whatever it was.  Pretty much from an Alemana I then step forward into a double spiral turn and complete with two walks around the back of Ivan to fan position.  But I didn’t know this at the time.  All I knew was I’d seen this turn-y thing done on YouTube videos by professionals and Igor tried to lead me into something I wasn’t familiar with.

After two tries to decipher which step I meant, Ivan demonstrated what I *thought* I wanted to know so I said, “Ivan, teach me this step.”

At first he seemed a little reluctant but then he was like, okay.

“Is this a Bronze or Silver step?”

“No.  It’s an Ivan step.”

“Huh?”

“It not in the syllabus.  You do it, they kicking you off the floor.  You know who doing this?  It Joanna Leunis.”

“Really!?!  I LOVE her.  She’s amazing.  But okay.  I’m clear. So if we get to do it, we do it in an open heat.”

“Yes, open.”

He led me into it, but only indicated one spiral turn.  I did this successfully then he said, “Oh.  It better if you can do a double.  Can you do a double?”

I didn’t know if I could but I wanted to try.

Bam!  I totally did it.

Ivan and I gave each other a double “Hi Five” and a hug.  I was so excited.  In fact, it was probably the most animated part of my lesson, succeeding at this maneuver.  He told me, “Most people doing this step and can’t even do a single turn.”  He demonstrated, in his Ivan-exaggerated way of how people fall out of the turn (normally), leaning and listing to this side or the other and causing a big problem.  So he wanted me to try it again, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.

But me, woot! I easily did the double again! Maybe I’m finally finding my center, once again, and also remembering to spot, plus I had the added advantage of just that little assist in balance from connecting with Ivan – for me that little bit of support makes all the difference, I have to say. So yay.

“See.  I no have to teach you the step.  You already doing it.”

“Let’s try it again, Ivan.”

We did.  And it was successful for the next 3 tries.  On the 4th try I fell to the floor.  I swear the wooden floor at the church is so slippery!  I need new shoes and that floor is difficult.  I love the sticky/tacky floor at Imperial.  It spoils me and I wish it were everywhere!  Anywhoo….I fell.  But I am uninjured and overall the move was a rousing success.

Next onto a Samba.  For some reason, Ivan keeps calling it “Sambera” lately.  Whatever.  He put on the music and since I had suggested we dance socially, we decided to do the Samba in that character.  Oh my gosh, I can’t remember when I ever laughed so hard.  I told Ivan that it is sometimes painfully difficult to watch social dancers do the Samba.  Some of them hop, and jolt, and have no hip movement.  They dance like 2 x 4’s as Ivan calls it when he means people are stiff.  This isn’t to generalize or degrade people who socially dance the Samba, I promise, it’s just that I’ve seen some couples and I’m like, wow, why are you dancing this dance this way?  It is awkward.  Probably the same reaction someone had to me dancing West Coast Swing (as taught by a ballroom instructor) before I knew about the dance.  I promise, we all have stuff to work on, you know?!

So Ivan and I danced this way – no hips, stiff, 2×4, wooden.  It was hilarious!  It looked ridiculous.  And such a contrast from Ivan, who normally dances it so amazingly, and from me, who works so dang hard to create a proper Samba bounce plus hip motion.  I truly wish I had that s*@t on film!  It was too funny.

Honestly though, besides that, the rest of my lesson was unremarkable.  We did Foxtrot, Tango, Waltz, Viennese Waltz, and Cha Cha.  I dragged.  Ivan poured as much Chi energy my way as he could.  It felt a little like an energetic transfusion of sorts.  I did feel somewhat better by the end of the lesson, but still, I’m drained.  Oh well.  Glad I did have one “triumph.”

So please root for Ivan and Marietta as they compete this weekend at the Emerald Ball in LA.  There is live streaming of the entire event (though a pay-per-view) here if you want to watch from home.  It is a big and prestigious and competitive event.  I really, really hope my favorite couple (besides Joanna Leunis and Michael Malitowski) does well.  Ivan seemed to think they wouldn’t even make the final at such a large comp, but I reminded him to look into his mirror, remember the champion he already is, and have an optomistic attitude.  Because you know what? I believe in him and Marietta.  I enjoy watching them dance because they have an real and emotional connection.  And to me, that makes things interesting.  As I’ve said before – I’d prefer to watch a couple that is less technically excellent with an authentic connection than an impeccably technically excellent couple with no emotion or connection any day of the week.

So anyways, as I pumped this positive support Ivan’s way, he rebutted my support by asking me to jump on the roof.  So I jumped.  Not high, not impressively, and certainly not onto the roof, but happily.

He about peed his pants laughing at me.  He said, “Being in the final of Emerald Ball for me is like jumping on the roof right now.  Can people do it?  Yes.  But they need to practice.  You have to remember, I lazy.  And I should be practicing jumping and little by little I jump on the roof like it easy.”

“So what?!” I replied. I jumped up again.  Again, not graceful, not impressive, but to illustrate a point that I hope Ivan got.

The point is, GO FOR IT.  Wherever I am/he is/you are right now, go for it.  Why not?

“You can’t controlling how the judging goes in competitions so you might as well have fun.” Said Ivan.  And I agreed.

“So go have fun at Emerald Ball, Ivan, damnit!  Go have fun!  I will be watching and rooting for you.  You know you are my favorite couple? Right?  Well, if I am honest, besides Joanna Leunis and Michael Malitowski….they I like them best, and you guys (Ivan and Marietta) the second best.”

Ivan was so excited by my comment he said laughingly, “I tell Marietta this.  You know her favorite dancer?”

“Yes, Ivan.  I know it’s Joanna.”

“Yes.  She gonna get a kick that your two favorite couples are Joanna Leunis with Michael Malitowski and us!”

But I mean it.  And so you must be wondering why?  Well, my response is, why not love these two couples?  Because for me, when I watch them, there actually seems to be a connection and that makes the interaction between man and woman interesting to watch.  And Joanna is immaculate.  Truly.  From my perspective, all the high level competitors are technically excellent in their dancing, no doubt about it, but I love the drama, the connection, the emotion.  I personally prefer that above perfect technique, and I guess Ivan does too, based on our conversation which is interesting and makes it no mystery why he ended up being my instructor since we both value the same things in dancing.  I do believe Joanna and Michael to be superior to Ivan and Marietta in terms of experience, ranking, technicque, and even, I hate to say it, connection, but I also happen to believe Ivan and Maretta have the potential to forge an excellence and connection strong enough of their own to compete with the best in the world.  Of course, I’m biased.  But as a dancer and human being, I also happen to see that potential in them.

Whew!  Have I said everything I wanted to say?  Yep.  A brief post – just another 2800-word (and change) post.  Ha ha. Not!

Oh – and before I sign off, I have to explain the title of this post.  Medusa. Well, Ivan “made” me a picture of what “the hell” he was talking about….a jellyfish.  Apparently I was dancing like a boneless, blubbery, soft jellyfish.  The interesting part is that how Ivan described “medusa” to me was that it “90% water.”  Uh huh.  How do you know how to communicate something like that but you don’t know the word for jellyfish?  I’ll never know.  And also, once I figured out that medusa meant jellyfish, I asked Ivan, “Is that the word in Polish or Bulgarian?”

” Bulgarian,” he replied.

“Well great.  ‘Cause that is a useful word, if I ever go to visit there….now I know how to say jellyfish.”  Probably “bathroom” and “beer” and “I’m sorry” would actually be more useful, right?

Damn.

Watch out you Bulgarians.  I am now armed with the word for jellyfish.  Kind of like a Marine armed with a banana.  Sheesh!

It’s way past bedtime.

Gute Nacht,  Stefanie