Getty Images

How Ballroom Can Improve Your Dancing in Any Style

After 11 years of dancing on world tours, award shows, film and television, Britt Stewart was ready for a new challenge. Fate was on the same page. While in rehearsal for Disneyland's 60th anniversary, the producers of "Dancing with the Stars" saw her dance and asked her to audition for the "DWTS" Troupe, the group of professional dancers that used to perform on the show as an ensemble.

"Six months later I was on the show without any formal ballroom training," she says. After immersing herself in the ballroom world, she became a "pro" on the series—paired with celebrities to compete—dazzling audiences with her character-rich choreography, magnetic performance quality and stunning lines.

Diving into ballroom dance has opened doors that Stewart hadn't previously known were available, and subsequently brought more variety to her dancing and choreography overall. "I mean, what hasn't ballroom benefited in my career?" Stewart says, noting her expanded musicality, broadened performance opportunities and newly nuanced partner work. She is one of the many dancers who have discovered that adding ballroom to your arsenal can enhance your dancing technically and artistically, mentally and physically.


Ballroom 101

Ballroom doesn't follow the same training and performance pattern of commercial or concert dance. Most training is done privately with a partner and coaches, and each class generally works on a set piece of choreography. So, for example, you may work on your samba choreography for one rehearsal, and cha-cha for another. Occasionally master teachers will hold group classes with multiple couples/individuals, or dancers may attend classes called "rounds," in which they perform all their dances with other couples in the room and receive critiques as if it were a competition.

Most ballroom dances are done in a circular, counterclockwise pattern (think ice skating) with the audience surrounding the performers on all sides. In traditional ballroom competitions, dance routines are not typically set to a specific song. Rather, the routines are performed to songs that fit the proper rhythm of the selected style. The exception to this rule is when dancers are asked to perform set choreography numbers at commercial competitions, like NUVO, for example, or on shows like "Dancing with the Stars" or "So You Think You Can Dance."

Ballroom is also performed in various live productions (many Las Vegas shows incorporate ballroom dance), which are generally set to specific songs. Beyond these, primary performance opportunities for professional ballroom dancers are at ballroom competitions.

Emotional Experience

Trying any new style stimulates the body in new ways. "Dancers are generally very passionate about their genre, which is great, but to prevent tunnel vision that paints you into a corner, it's important to diversify your training," says Jo-Anne La Flèche, resident psychologist at the École Supérieure de Ballet du Québec. "Otherwise, you will get too comfortable in automated processes that won't challenge either your mind or body."

Exploring a new style can also keep you connected to your inner child. "Dance is often painful," La Flèche says. "We all need to play." La Flèche, who herself enjoys training in ballroom dance with her husband, points out that ballroom is particularly suited for play because it was created in a recreational and social setting. "Even if you work hard, ballroom has that particular flavor of fun," she says. "It's about getting dressed up and having a ball."

Stewart felt the emotional release from ballroom dance herself. "As much as I love dance, there have been a couple times in my life where I've been burned out," she says. After finishing a tour with Katy Perry in 2016, ballroom offered a chance to shake things up. "It was so opposite of anything I'd done before, and because of that, it was a challenge that brought me out of my funk," she says. "It's been five years, and it's still new and exciting to me. That chance to never stop learning has really helped me emotionally and mentally."

Partnering Perks

There is perhaps no greater benefit ballroom can give an artist than partnering skills. "Being able to partner is one of the greatest things you can add to your resumé that will make you an automatic standout for a lot of oppor­tunities," says NUVO Dance Convention ballroom teacher and former "DWTS" pro Ashly Costa.

Stewart found that the emphasis on proper weight placement, and how that might affect balance, helped her become a better partner in other genres, too. As La Flèche describes it, in ballroom, the weight is shifted forward because dancers present their torsos first, to facilitate walks, whereas in other genres, the weight is more likely to be distributed at the center of the body. Grasping this difference and practicing a new weight placement can clarify old understandings, and hone both approaches.

"In ballroom, if you give even just a little too much weight to your partner, it will put them off-balance," Stewart says. "Discovering where that balance is helps form a bond between you and your partner, and you become one."

Contemporary choreographer Lauren Adams, who added ballroom to her dance tool belt when she was 30 years old, found that the structure of leading and following made her a better listener. "When I started, I wanted to dance full-out, and my teachers told me to calm down so I could listen and follow," she says. "Now, even if I'm choreographing a solo, I am thinking about the feedback I am getting from the space, from the floor and from the people around me."

La Flèche points out that the communication skills you develop can be useful on and off the dance floor. The extensive amount of time ballroom couples spend together helps them to collaborate effectively, and the strongest couples learn to strengthen both verbal and nonverbal skills.

Pumped-Up Performance

The many styles of Latin dance in particular provide opportunities to embody different moods and characters. "Cha-cha is sassy, samba is the party dance, rumba is sensual with hints of sadness and vulnerability, and paso doble is intense," Costa says. Each style draws on different emotions, helping dancers learn to channel a range of feelings.

Adams was taken aback by the intensity of ballroom the first time she observed it. The performance quality is "the most full-out," she says. Today, she finds that many of the dancers she works with who study ballroom develop performance skills from a young age. "That breeds a lot of confidence," she says.

Improvisation Variety

Watching a sea of dancers improvise at a contemporary audition can often feel like Groundhog Day: The same legs, turns and movement quality bleed into the dancers' work over and over. Yet those who have ballroom training usually stand out. "They have a skill set that not many others have," Costa says.

For example, if the music playing is a samba rhythm (like Sia's "Cheap Thrills" or Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You"), ballroom dancers can use voltas, cruzados walks, bachatas and botafogos, along with standard pirouettes, battements, leaps and floorwork. Adams says, "I love to see a dancer hear a cha-cha rhythm and start doing cha-cha—they have more available to them in terms of variety."

That variety often brings dancers back to the core of their art form. "The greatest thing about ballroom is it isn't about tricks, it's actual dance steps," Costa says. Each style of ballroom has specific steps and rhythms associated with it that are canonized in technique books and incorporated into syllabi based on level. These techniques are what make up the meat of dances.

Only after a proper foundation of technique is laid can a few contortions or flips be worked into a routine. "The overuse of tricks in dance is like watching a movie with great special effects but a weak narrative," Costa says. "Having a grasp of style and movement speaks volumes, and that's what ballroom provides."

Ingrained Rhythm

Like tap, ballroom has a heavy emphasis on musicality that can translate organically to other styles. "A trained ballroom dancer knows how to find the rhythm," Costa says. "They know that a cha-cha beat is counted 2, 3, 4, and 1, and are able to stay in the pocket when they hear it." In ballroom, you never know what music you will be dancing to—you simply know the beat. Thus, you have to be able to listen and adapt.

Greater Versatility

Today, ballroom styles can be found on Broadway, in Vegas shows and in commercial opportunities. Even more jobs incorporate heels work. "Dancing in heels is a difficult skill," Costa says. "Ballroom helps dancers know how to wear them and look great. If you don't understand where your weight should be (hint: on the inside of the ball of your foot), and you haven't practiced often, you're gonna struggle."

Warning: Ego Check

"Ballroom dance is a lot more complicated than it looks," warns La Flèche. "As a dancer in another genre, you will have to deconstruct many neuromuscular coordinations in your body." Challenges for classical and commercial dancers include the rapid and complex hand changes; a strict lack of external rotation; dancing in a closed-loop space with circular patterns rather than a proscenium stage with an audience just in front; navigating couples who share the space, but are not dancing set choreography; and, for those dancing the traditionally female role, moving backward while being guided by a partner.

It helps to approach these new skills without ego. Adams suggests, "Just jump in and have some fun!"

Latest Posts


Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Simone Biles at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

What the Dance World Can Learn From Simone Biles and Team USA

In the heat of the women's team gymnastics final, a shaken Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic event last week to protect herself and her teammates. Her courageous decision to prioritize her health was met with overwhelming support, including from former U.S. Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, who competed through extreme injury at the 1996 Olympic games and subsequently retired at 18 years old.

And yet, praise for Russian gymnast Artur Dalaloyan's performance in the men's team event highlighted his Achilles surgery in April and questions over whether he was healthy enough to compete.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search