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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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 http://usadance.org/dancesport 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 http://DanceForums.com 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 http://www.ndca.org/competitor-information/amateurs/eligibility-definitions/

C. ELIGIBILITY DEFINITIONS

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,

Stef