Competitive ballroom dancing is considerably different to its social counterpart. Not the preserve of the middle-aged lecherous men or elderly couples that social dancing is reputed for, but more often populated by very attractive young people made to look ugly by the layers of fake tan and make-up worn in order to impress the judges.
Dancing as a Sport
Surprising as that may be to some, the International Olympic Committee have declared ballroom dancing a sport and will be moving to integrate it into the Olympic games in the next few years. More surprising perhaps is how good Britain is at it. When Queen Elizabeth II invited all the former world champions from the UK from the last 40 years to a party at Buckingham Palace, no less than 55 were former Ballroom Dancing World Champions.
In competitive dancing you are expected to bring your own partner and on top of that, you are expected to know how to dance the appropriate steps to each dance, preferably doing the same thing at the same time. It is possible to compete doing the wrong steps, but you are unlikely to get very far.
Broadly speaking there are two levels of competition; Amateur and Professional.
Amateurs, as the name implies, get paid neither for competing nor for any other dance related activity. Despite this, competition is intense not only for the best dancer, but also for the most garish outfits and most hideous make-up.
Professionals, on the other hand are paid to look silly and dance well. They get paid to compete but may also make money from running dance studios, making instruction videos, demonstrating at events or sponsoring products.
Competitions range in nature from closed regional (only available to people from a certain region) to open standard (international) and may be contested across up to ten dances, though specialisation is often made to either the modern dances or Latin dances, therefore limiting couples to five dances. Dances may be limited to a set number of approved basic steps, or you may be allowed to make up your own routines and moves.
Though socially there may be a variety of dances; from the 'swaying from side to side' variety found on many a dancefloor when the slower songs come, on to morris dancing; from the increasingly popular salsa to ballet. All these are not likely to get you far in ballroom dancing competitions. There are up to ten dances for competitions, broadly split into two categories:
- Viennese Waltz
- Paso Doble
Judging the Dances
Competitors are put into heats of 6 - 20 couples depending on the type of dance, the quality of competitors, the stage of the competition and the available space on the dance floor. Judges, of which there are usually between three and seven, must select a certain (pre-specified) number to go through each round, gradually whittling down the number of competitors until there are approximately six left for the final. These are then ranked by each judge with the couple with the most first places getting first position, most seconds or better being second etc. The judges rate competitors on the precision of their steps, the complexity of the steps, timing with relation to the music, and on their posture and frame ie, how you hold your partner.
The History of the Dances
Modern dances are generally European in origin and evolved from the music developed and codified in to something resembling what we have today during the early part of the 21st Century. They are very graceful when done properly and if you are unsure what they are, they can usually be recognised at competitions because the men are in tailsuits and the women are in big fluffy dresses that usually reach to about mid-calf length
Latin Dances originated mainly from Latin America. They have slightly more of a story behind each one. The cha-cha is a flirtatious dance with lots of teasing evident when the better dancers do it. The rumba is supposed to be an expression of love. It is an intense dance despite its comparative slowness. The samba is a bouncy fun dance derived from the festival atmosphere of places like Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The paso doble tells the story of a bullfighter and by turns, the bull, his cape or his love interest. Finally, the jive is an upbeat fun (and also flirtatious) dance from the rock and roll sound from the USA in the 1950s and '60s.
Spotting couples dancing Latin dances is also quite easy, they are either all over one another or alternatively wearing very little. The women wear very short skirts and the men are usually wearing black, though the occasional white catsuit may be visible. Skin tone also tends to be darker with latin dances as each couple competes to be the first one to exhaust their supply of self-tanning products.
The University Circuit
Universities in the UK have their own competition circuit with the opportunity for students of all standards to compete at an appropriate level. There are designated beginners events as well as open and ex-student events for the better and more experienced dancers.
The Competition Calendar
There are several major events on the university competition calendar, with Warwick and Nottingham generally hosting a competition each before Christmas, and Sheffield, using the famous Octagon centre for a competition, in early February. There are two regional competitions hosted by SUDA and NUDA2 with the venues spread around between the members and one national competition, IVDA3, again with a different venue each year. IVDA is the most important event on the calendar and will often attract much bigger teams from the universities than the other competitions.
A Looooooong Day...
Competitions are usually divided between individual and team events, with the individual events taking place during the afternoon and team events in the evening. They will often start between 10am and midday and may not finish until 1am. These are seriously long days as travelling to the competitions can take several hours on top of the full day competing.
Individual events are split further between beginners, basic, and open sections. With beginners allowed to compete in any section but restricted by their lack of knowledge in comparison to the more experienced dancers. If you have danced for more than a year, you are not allowed to enter the beginner's event but may still compete in the others. This is so that beginners get as much experience out on the dancefloor as possible, even if they fail to get through any of the rounds.
Team events are the specialist section. Each university can enter up to 16 couples in four teams A, B, C, and D. An A team must be filled before a B team can be started, though a D team can be legitimately used without filling A, B or C teams if it consists entirely of beginners. Each couple does just one dance: Waltz, Quickstep, Cha, or Jive with team points also awarded for the final results.
A Site for Sore Eyes
It is during the team competition that the worst taste offences are made. If you are thinking of competing for a university, it may be an idea to avoid certain teams if you want to retain some standard of fashion credibility. Particular mention goes to Southampton for their neon pink and blue ensemble; Cardiff for the gold discs hanging everywhere off the dresses and Bristol for their hideous lime green outfits.
People to Watch Out for
It is generally accepted that the Big Four contest most competitions between themselves and rarely let anyone else get a look in. These four dancing superpowers are the most likely to field an entire team for every competition and will often walk away with the top prizes. They consist of Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College London, and University College London.
The university circuit is so popular that it is not unusual for the better dancers to take up postgraduate courses with an eye to continuing to compete as much as to the improvement to their education.