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!

Coming Down From An Amazing High…

Hello there!  This is Stefanie writing in italics.  I am excited to share with you a guest blog post from my dear friend, Ivonne, who just competed in her very first ballroom competition!  She did an amazing job, and I am so excited to share her story.  There is something so special about doing something for the first time and it is wonderful to experience it vicariously “for the first time” alongside her.  

And without further ado….Ivonne! (She’s the one not using italics ha ha)

The competition was a little over aweek ago, and I still don’t feel ready to let it go. I’m still savoring every last bit of my experience from that weekend. I was warned that I might crash from the high of the competition, and that it would be totally normal, but I didn’t expect this little wave of sadness now that it is really over. With that sadness has come the realization, though, that I totally want to do it again! And often!

The experience of going to a DanceSport ballroom competition could not have been any more amazing. I couldn’t have wished for it to be better! I wouldn’t have known what to wish for! This was simply perfect: going in there without expectations, not knowing at all what it would be like, free from knowing what it “should” be like, how I “should” stack up against anyone, who is who in the industry and what students they are bringing, how the judges do their thing…I was surprisingly calm about the competition itself. I was not scared about competing. I was not concerned with anyone else’s performance. What I could not shut up about was how excited I was to be there. I am pretty sure everyone thought I was acting like a giddy 16-year-old gushing about a crush.

I can’t even put the events of the day into some kind of order to talk about the day in a way that makes sense to anyone. I barely remember being out on the competition floor and what I did, other than the fact that I enjoyed every second of it, and those minute or minute-and-a-half heats were way too short! Between heats in which we were competing, my partner and I spent the entire time dancing on the practice floor on the other side of the room. Even when others were dancing in dances in which we were not competing, like tango and Vienese waltz, we were back there doing those, too. Just having a good ol’ time! I know that I was a bundle of energy and I had to keep moving to “spend” it. But it was not nervous energy. It was pure happy energy, and I think that it showed all around us.

So how did I do in the competition? Oh yeah, because it was a competition, not just an opportunity to dance all day! Right! Well, I got a lot of first places – mostly first places, actually. And yes, that’s pretty darn cool, but honestly,the placing didn’t even matter to me. I could have gotten all last places and still it wouldn’t have changed a thing for me about this experience.

I was just so happy to be able to dance my heart out, give it the best I could, in the environment in which this is meant to be done, in my”costumes,” with my makeup, and my fancy up-do, surrounded by so many other people who also do this because they get so much joy and happiness from it. It was a great community of people – everyone I met was so positive, and happy, and supportive of one another. Oh my god… I was just in love with life that whole weekend.

I will say this about the placings and the awards. No one told me what we “get” when we place. I thought there were medals or trophies or something like that. But we got stickers. Stickers! Which we were supposed to stick on a certificate.  Like a third-grade achievement chart! That made me laugh because it just seemed so anti-climactic for “winning” anything! But hey, I’ll take it. It was just one more fun thing about the day, to look back on and smile. I am not sure if this is the norm for most competitions.

Incidentally, that pink feather in the photo is a souviner from my dress – the one Stef wrote about in this post,  It fell off on it’s own but I decided to keep it as a reminder of the day.

One other thing that I really appreciated was that we were able to meet the organizers of the event, the judges, and so many of the other dancers competing. Everyone was very approachable and friendly. I loved that part about the weekend. It was helpful to get the kind of feedback I got in conversations with any of these folks, and the amount of encouragement to keep dancing! When people would learn that I’d only been doing this since November 1st, I always got the same reaction, “WHAT?! That’s it?! I wouldn’t believe that! You are so good! Please don’t stop! You’re a natural! WOW!”

Seriously – to hear strangers tell me that, who have no reason to be nice to me, felt really good. I have been hearing it at the studio, but there was always this little lining of doubt… I always think they’re just being nice.

It was so surreal. All of it. One girl in particular which I had the biggest girl-crush on from the first time I saw her dance… I approached her after the evening show and told her how she’d given me something to work toward and what a beautiful dancer she is. Her response? “Really?! Thank you! Oh my god,we have been talking about you and your partner all day! You guys are so cute, and you dance so well together! We love you guys! Please keep dancing!” To which I could only respond, bewildered and giddy: “Really? Oh my god, I’m going to cry. Stop right now.”Hahahahahaha!

Like I said. I am still relishing the happiness I felt that weekend. So much so that it took me two days to remove my false eyelashes because that was the last bit of “magic” that was left from the event.

There will never be a first time at this again, and I am so grateful to have had this experience! There will definitely be a second, third, fourth… oh yeah, I’m hooked.

Okay, Stef here again.  I love the detail about the eyelashes!  Ivonne rocked the competition and had an amazing experience.  I’m so grateful she chose to share it here.  You can see more of Ivonne dancing using the links to YouTube below. 

Open Bronze Cha-Cha – 1st place:

Int. Bronze Salsa – 1st place:

Pre-Bronze Rumba – 1st Place:

Pre-Bronze Waltz – 1st Place:

Newcomer Foxtrot – 2nd Place:

Move Your Ass!

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Allegre Studio

Private Lesson With Ivan

Consider this fair warning…today’s post is a wandering ramble.  But this is what happened for me today, and most days are simply practice.  Most days nothing “exciting” happens.  I’m documenting all my days here on the blog, regardless of what they look like.

So today I arrive and Ivan is of a mind to dance all the dances.  My body is of a mind that it wants a little stretching and warming up.  I’m a bit sore from all the dancing this week and I haven’t been good about giving myself a proper warm up before dancing since I’ve done ballroom.  In jazz or ballet, it is built into the class.  But in ballroom, I don’t know any prescribed movements to do beforehand.  Heck, I’m usually too shy to take up any space to do them, anyways.  I somehow gain an entire level of confidence just by having a partner to dance with.  Alone, I’m still insecure.  But I think in an attempt to prevent injury and ensure flexibility, I’m going to devise something I can do before just jumping in, whether it be a series of plies or stretches, or large movements.

In any case, I do a mini warm up for myself but Ivan is hot to trot (pun intended).  We start with Foxtrot which is good for slower, larger movements in any case.  I can’t remember the last time we practiced any Smooth dances so it has been a while.  I am surprised at how good it is feeling.  Of all the Smooth dances, I think I like Foxtrot the best.  So that goes pretty well, and then we move on to Waltz, Tango, and Viennese Waltz.  All are fine, considering.  I have to remember to count and move myself on the Tango, and there is this stupid walking-around-in-a-circle move in Waltz that always mucks me up, and it is always a challenge for me to get out of Ivan’s way when doing right turns in Viennese, but overall things go pretty smoothly.

When I first began ballroom dancing, I thought I’d study all the dances.  I wanted to be great at all of them.  But the further along I get, I realize that overall I enjoy the Rhythm and Latin dances more and also seem to be naturally better  in them.  I don’t think I’ll abandon learning more about the Smooth and International Standard dances entirely, but I’m thinking I won’t take them as seriously.  I’ll still probably do a few heats of Smooth in my next competition, but I’m going to concentrate for now on Latin and Rhythm.

So after doing the four Smooth dances, we move onto Rhythm.  I have to remind myself of the different leg action, but overall, it also goes pretty well.  I still need help with arm styling.  And the struggle with breathing continues to piss me off.  I keep waiting for it to be a little more manageable.  Come on body!  Change already!

But Ivan is so funny.  I tell him that I’m down a total of 8 pounds so far over the past 2 to 3 weeks.

“This is good.  But I’m gonna miss the fat.”

And he grabs the ample, fleshy lovehandles on my back below the shoulder blades.

“Ivan, you are crazy!  I’m not going to miss it one bit!  Say goodbye to it now!  It may take a while, but it is going to disappear.”

I’m disgusted with my fleshy body, pretty much, but there is nothing like having a person grab it and say they are going to miss it to mess with your world view.  It felt good for Ivan to appreciate my body the way it is right now, even if I can’t yet do that for myself.   It was better than when my darling three-and-a-half year old niece told me Christmas day, “Aunt Nonny, you have a big bum bum.”  Ah, from the mouths of babes…   Yes, I do, Ariah.  Yes I do.

This reminds me that at some point or another I will be broaching the subject of body image.  I’ve already talked to a ballerina who has agreed to share her story for the blog, plus I have my own experiences and observations to share.  It is pretty heavy subject matter, but I think so many dancers struggle with it that it is worth talking about.  But I digress….

Big bum bum or not, I will say that in general I love the way the body moves.  And I’d rather move like I do and be big, than be small and not be able to dance very well.  I’m gonna lose the weight and I already appreciate what my body can do, though I can’t wait for it to transform and be able to do more and do it more easily.

Anyways, we resume dancing the Mambo, and after feeling pretty good about myself, Ivan wants to do it one more time.  He starts to squat down while I’m doing swivels, so I start to squat down with him.  I’m being connected, right?

“No!  You stay up!”

He seems a little frustrated.

“You not connected!  Why you not using the connection?!”

“Ivan, you seem a little upset.”

“I am!  Because you not moving your ass!”

We both start laughing.  It is a concern as a dancer if you are not moving your behind!  At least he knows there is more movement in me and cares enough to get mad if he thinks I am holding back.

But then it is on to Latin.  Man oh man.  I am really trying.  I promise.  There is just so, so much to remember.  And right now connection, counting, and remembering the steps seem like the biggest things.  Shaking my tailfeather has taken a backseat.

I have always relied on my instructor too much because it is easier for me to tune into him and follow since he knows what he is doing.  The only problem with that is that I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing.  So I miss steps, or rush through them, or forget to settle the hip.  I do want to be empowered and move myself and know where I am supposed to be in any given moment.  The way to do that, for me, is through counting.

Oy vey!  It so messes up my brain.  It is difficult to speak and breathe and dance all at the same time, I’m not kidding!  It is so much easier, say, in rhythm, to just listen to the music and move.  Now I have to count it.  I know it is good for me and will improve my dancing, and it is not coming very easy for me.

Case in point, Ivan has this percussion only Rumba.  I cannot find the beat (according to him) for the life of me.  I hear a beat and move to it, but he keeps telling me it is wrong.  Play a regular song, and I can immediately find the proper beat and count.  This thing, on the other hand, I am at sea.

So, today, I’m just going to own the fact that I hate counting.  But, even so, I am going to do it.  I am going to practice it every lesson.  I see how much it helps and how much I’m relying on my instructors instead of myself.  I also noticed it in Inna’s class because she stopped counting during one of the exercises and I immediately got lost.  So it is a notice for me that it is something I’m deficient in.  And I dislike doing it strongly at this time.  Oh well.  Luckily I don’t have to like it to do it.  Isn’t free choice great!

Now, time to go move my ass!