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!

Topical Series #4: Points, Points, and More Points

It all started with this comment from Ellen:

I’ve never understood the whole points thing, scholarships, etc. for open comps.  I don’t do enough open comps for it to matter – but I’d love to understand it.  I’ve tried to look it up and other than the official rules which are like reading a law-book ( in other words make no sense to me!) I can’t find a simple explanation of it all.  If anyone can give a layperson’s explanation it would be cool!

I had to clarify.  What to which “points” was she referring, exactly?

Ellen, what do you mean by “the whole points thing?”  I am under the understanding that in competitions for scholarships you are ranked in the dances in order of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. as compared to the other couples on the floor.  Whoever  gets ranked 1st by the most judges gets 1st place and so on.  There is a rule about when there is a tie that I don’t remember, but I don’t think that happens all that often.  So, I’m just not sure what you mean by “points.”

Maybe you are referring to being top student or top teacher in a competition or a district or in a competition series?  If that is the case, what happens is you get a certain amount of points for each entry you are in (or your instructor dances), and then more points for placing higher.  Like when I got top student in San Diego it was like 8 points (or something, I don’t exactly remember the point value) for 1st place, 6 for 2nd, down through 6th and then 1 point for participating.  You get more points for participating more and for placing higher.  Your instructor gets points for the same things, but obviously if they bring more students and dance more often, they earn more points.

So in that last example if I dance 50 dances but place 1st in all of them and get 3 points for each 1st place, and another lady in my category dances 100 dances but places 3rd and only gets 1 point for each 3rd place, then I’d be ranked higher than she with 150 points and be closer to being “Top Student.”

So anyways, Ellen referred me to the USA Dance website at and a link below the DanceSport Rulebook for “Proficiency Points.”

So I checked it out, not being familiar with proficiency points.  No one had ever mentioned them to me before.

Reading them was like reading the instruction manual for a VCR.  Very technical and not very enjoyable but here’s what I gathered:

Ellen, I’ve looked at the proficiency point guide and I’m intrigued.  Seems to be a complicated system to determine which category you should dance in…what age, what level, as an attempt in making sure people are competing at an appropriate level – not too high or too low.  It says in the guide that USA dance will make a database online of the points so I’m now trying to find that.  I’m curious to see where I might rank.  I’ve always been told that the instructor decides which category you dance at.  It seems like the points might be more important for high level amateur competitors or professional couples.  I’ll ask Ivan about it, but who knows if he knows anything about it.  It does say that you can be disciplined for dancing below your level!  Thanks for asking this question.  I love learning more about my favorite sport!  I’ll keep you updated.

But the story continues.

The topic sparked my interest in a number of facets of ballroom dancing that involve points and I had a big ‘ole conversation with Ivan about it after my lesson today.

Sadly, he didn’t know about proficiency points, but he did comment on another type of points used by ballroom studios which I found intriguing.  Also, I did a little more research and found on some old comments about the proficiency points.  You can see the comments I found here.

First, the database is not current.  I don’t even know if you can find it.  Someone who is on the USA Dance board must have been in the conversation because he or she commented that they needed someone to volunteer to keep up with the points.  I guess you are supposed to keep track of them yourself!  Well, I for one, haven’t been doing that.

Second, the link Ellen sent me on the USA Dance page that directs you to the rules about the Proficiency points is outdated.  I guess there have been changes (that a couple must now only accrue 200 points instead of the 300 mentioned in the pdf file) that aren’t reflected in that edition of the rules.

But the plot thickens.  These mystery proficiency points are only applicable to USA Dance sanctioned events.

USA Dance isn’t the only governing body of ballroom dance.

There are different proficiency points and rules for the National Dance Council of America (NDCA) and the Youth College Network (YCN).

(I think there is another post in the making here about all the “alphabet soup” of dance organizations: NDCA, USA Dance, IDSF, WDSF, YCN etc.)

So there are points you accrue in competition.  But after my conversation with Ivan, I have learned there are also points you can accrue at a studio.  Now, I don’t purport to have expertise in this area because I’ve never danced in a ballroom dance franchise studio.  I’m going on what Ivan told me.  If things are different, feel free to comment below and fill us all in.  At least this is what I gather went on at Ivan’s studio when he was employed by a franchised studio.

Students accrue points and have proficiency tests to determine what level they are at: pre-bronze, bronze, silver, etc.  Then packages are sold around getting to the next level.  Like for every lesson you take or every figure you learn it’s recorded and there are charts of points and where you are.  There are also charts proclaiming which student is which level, so you can compare yourself to other students and follow your and their progress.

To me, this seems a bit weird.  I guess it is great for goal setting and is some form of monitoring progress, but just knowing the steps in the gold syllabus doesn’t necessarily, I think, mean you are a gold level dancer – meaning that you might be dancing a gold step with bronze level technique.

What it does do is give a person a sense of being able to put a feather in their cap.  I’ve had people ask me what level dancer I am, but since I have no points or proficiency tests to go on, I honestly don’t know.  I have no idea what level the steps I know are considered nor my level in terms of technique.

Finally, I also reached out to my friend Ceci and asked her if she knew anything about these mysterious points because she is so well-connected in the ballroom world.  Here’s what she sent me:

NDCA Proficiency Point System From


1. A competitor is eligible to dance in the “Syllabus”, “Novice” and/or “Pre-Championship” proficiency classifications until they accumulate three proficiency points. There is no limit to the number of proficiency points that may be accumulated in the “Open Amateur” level.

2. A competitor receives one point when they either a) place first in their current classification when a semi-final was danced, or b) dance in the final of a higher proficiency event where a semi-final was danced.

3. In the “Syllabus” categories proficiency points should be accumulated independently for each dance.

4. The eligibility to compete in a classification is applied to individual amateur competitors and not the couple as an entity.

5. An amateur couple is only eligible to compete in a classification if both members of the couple are eligible.

6. An amateur competitor’s eligibility is based on his/her accomplishments regardless of the number or length of partnerships they have had.

7. It is the responsibility of all amateur competitors to ensure that they are eligible for the category in which they desire to dance.

8. An amateur competitor may enter at most two consecutive proficiency classifications in any particular style and age group at a particular competition.

9. An amateur competitor’s ineligibility begins at the conclusion of the competition in which his/her third point was acquired. In this case the word “competition” refers to the entire event (generally a “weekend”).

10. An amateur competitor’s proficiency level as a Pro/Am shall not be used in determining his/her amateur proficiency level.

Seems like another VCR manual to me, but at least this one only applies to amateurs.  I still don’t know what this means if I’m dancing Pro/Am since my proficiency in Pro/Am shall not be used in determining my amateur proficiency level….though I don’t dance Am/Am, myself!

Sheesh!  I think it’s an interesting topic, but still kind of a mystery even after all this writing and after all the various research!

So, now the ball is in your court.  Do you know anything about points tracked in ballroom?  What do you think of these point systems?  Does your studio use them?  How? Have you heard of them in the context of NDCA or USA Dance?  Have you kept track of yours?  What do they mean….really?  I’m curious to know.

Signing off,