Belles of the Ballroom

Picture this: You’re wearing a floor-length, rhinestone-encrusted dress and your partner is looking regal in his dark suit. You walk to the center of the dance floor in a fancy ballroom, lock eyes and begin to perform an elegant waltz. You lean back slightly and gaze into the distance while your feet execute intricate steps with ease, making it appear as if you’re floating.

It may seem like a fantasy, but for competitive ballroom dancers, this scenario is a part of everyday life. If you’ve ever watched “Dancing with the Stars,” you’ve gotten a peek at the variety of dance styles—from the foxtrot to the samba. You may have even wondered what it would be like to be one of the pros. But Chelsie Hightower (DS January 2009) and Cheryl Burke (DS September 2006) aren’t the only ones cha cha-ing for trophies. On the competitive ballroom circuit, dancers as young as 7 participate as well. DS talked with a few couples to learn more about what life as a young ballroom dancer is really like.

Pairing Off

Before you can enter this glamorous world, you have to find a partner. For many amateur couples, this often happens with the help of a teacher. Fourteen-year-old William Stansbury and 12-year-old Jenny Sokolsky first met when William was 8 and Jenny was just 6. They were enrolled in the same class at The Dance Spectrum, a ballroom dance studio in Campbell, CA. After other parents suggested William and Jenny might make a good partnership, their instructor, Giselle Peacock, an international champion, secured the match. “She paired us together because I had strong showmanship and Jenny had strong technique,” William says. “She thought we could learn from each other.” Peacock was right: Last year the couple took home their first national title at the USA National DanceSport Championships.

In the Studio

Finding the right partner is crucial since you’ll be spending a lot of time together. William and Jenny are at the studio almost every day training with multiple teachers.

Fifteen-year-old Landon Anderson and his partner, 16-year-old Jenna Johnson, train independently with ballroom professionals and take additional classes at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, UT. The couple spends up to 30 hours a week in rehearsal or class studying Latin ballroom styles like the paso doble and rumba, as well as other dance disciplines, including ballet, contemporary and hip hop. The couple also schedules additional private sessions whenever they can. (“Dancing with the Stars” pro Louis Van Amstel frequently works with them—he choreographed all of their current routines!) They practice by doing mock competitions at their studio: The students all come together to perform their routines as they would in competition. “It’s a great way to build stamina and confidence,” Jenna says.

On the Floor

The ballroom dancers you see on TV competitions are at the top of their game, but amateur ballroom competitions are for everyone, regardless of skill level. Many couples enter the “newcomer” category at regional competitions with only a few months of training under their belts.

But being the new kid on the floor can be intimidating. To ease any fears, you’ll want to know what to expect. Most important, know that you and your partner won’t be on the dance floor alone. At ballroom competitions, couples perform alongside other dancers—there can be as many as 20 couples on the floor at the same time! Even though the dancers follow a set pattern, competitors often change their choreography on the spot to prevent traffic jams and crashes. “For traveling dances like the samba and paso doble, you move counter-clockwise on the right side of the floor,” William says. The ability to navigate around other couples is known as “floorcraft.” Yang Chen, a former competitive ballroom dancer and president of the Greater New York chapter of USA Dance (ballroom’s governing body in the U.S.), says the best ballroom dancers can make these shifts seamlessly.

Ballroom competitions are set up as a series of rounds, and each round can contain several “heats.” During each heat, dancers perform five styles, usually either international Latin styles (the samba, cha cha, rumba, paso doble and jive) or international Standard dances (the waltz, Viennese waltz, tango, foxtrot and quickstep). While couples dance, judges surround the floor, assessing their performance quality and technical skills. After each heat, the highest-scoring couples move on. But when there are as many as 40 dancers on the floor, perhaps the biggest challenge is making your presence known to the judges. If you don’t get noticed, you risk getting eliminated! Even a couple with flawless technique could be cut if it fails to catch the judges’ attention.

So what will help you and your partner stand out in the crowd? Pizzazz! Ballroom dancers usually wear vibrantly colored costumes with elaborate detail and plenty of bling. And they highlight their faces with lots of makeup. “People who have never seen a ballroom competition before may be thrown by how theatrical the outfits and makeup can be,” Chen says. “But it’s so you’ll get noticed on the floor.” And often, the dancers get to help create those fabulous costumes. Along with her partner and coaches, Jenna designs her outfits, from color to cut.

Once you’re all dolled up, you and your partner will be ready to show your stuff on the ballroom floor. Like any other dance discipline, mastering ballroom takes time and dedication. But with the right partner, plenty of training and an eye-catching wardrobe, before long, you’ll be dancing circles around the competition.

Common Partnership Pitfalls

Although it’s hard to say goodbye, ballroom couples don’t always stay together forever. Here are a few of the most common causes for a ballroom break-up:

Growth Spurts

Landon Anderson, who’s 15, says he literally outgrew his last partner when he shot up six inches in a matter of months!

Personality Clashes

For ballroom bliss, you and your partner have to get along. Even if both of you are strong dancers, without a personal connection, your performance will suffer.

Different Commitment Levels

Some dancers want to go for gold at competitions; others may simply want to learn some ballroom basics. When your goals are different, parting ways may be better for both individuals.

Interested in trying ballroom dance? Check out classes at reputable franchised studios, such as the Arthur Murray Ballroom Dance Studios or Fred Astaire Dance Studios. The have locations from California to Florida!

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