Vlad Kvartin dances with partner Yulia Koshkina (Phil DelMazio, courtesy Kvartin)

From Cha Cha to Waltz: Breaking Down Competitive Ballroom Dance Styles

New to the competitive ballroom world? Even experienced studio dancers can be a bit confused by the variety of styles on display at ballroom competitions. In the United States there are two major organizations that sanction ballroom competitions, USA Dance and the National Dance Council of America. They recognize four main dance categories for competition: International Ballroom, International Latin, American Smooth, and American Rhythm. (Outside of the U.S., most people exclusively learn and compete International styles.)

We asked ballroom experts to break down the categories, and the dance styles that fall under each one.


International Ballroom (Standard)

International Ballroom, also called Standard, includes five dances: waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow foxtrot, and quickstep. With dances that date back hundreds of years, Standard is the oldest ballroom style, developed largely in Europe. Dances in this category are performed exclusively in closed positions, meaning partners are required to stay in contact at all times.

International Latin

International Latin, usually referred to as simply Latin, also includes five dances: cha cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, and jive. Like Standard, Latin developed in Europe before attaining worldwide popularity. But unlike the Standard dances, only the paso has European roots. Cha cha and rumba are both Cuban dances, the samba originated in Brazil, and jive, the fastest of the Latin dances, developed from Lindy Hop, which was born in the USA. "What distinguishes Latin is the sensual connection of a couple," says Latin expert Vlad Kvartin.

American Smooth

American Smooth includes four dances adapted from the Standard category—waltz, tango, foxtrot, and Viennese waltz—and is therefore often confused with Standard. But Smooth allows closed, open, and solo dance movements, creating more freedom in competition choreography. And although each dance shares characteristics with its Standard counterpart, most Smooth dance figures are unique. Standard and Smooth tango, for example, both use the same percussive and passionate expression inspired by the dance's Argentinian roots, but the basic figures have four and five steps, respectively, making the footwork entirely different in each category.

Natalie Duke-Honkonen and partner Joe Hasson dance together (Ryan Kenner, courtesy Duke-Honkonen)

American Rhythm 

The American Rhythm category includes five dances: cha cha, rumba, swing, bolero, and mambo. With the exception of swing, which is native to the U.S., Rhythm dances have Afro-Cuban roots and share a distinctive hip action known as "Cuban motion." While similar hip motion is also found in the Latin category, bent knees differentiate the way Rhythm dancers move.

Swing dance requires a bit more breakdown. "Swing is an umbrella," explains Rhythm expert Natalie Duke-Honkonen. "There are many different styles of swing, depending on the music and what area of the country you are in." From Carolina shag to West Coast swing, there are nearly 20 different versions of swing danced in the United States. East Coast swing is the style most commonly danced in ballroom competitions, often to big band music or old-school rock and roll.

Who Dances What?

While most professionals ultimately specialize in a single category—Kvartin in International Latin and Duke-Honkonen in American Rhythm, for example—many competitors begin by learning all the dances in either the International or American categories. In competition, this is known as International 10-Dance and American 9-Dance. At every competition, "there are the same 19 dances from all over the world, each with their own personality and defining characteristics," explains Duke-Honkonen. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to become a ballroom champion in any one category.

Latest Posts


Photo by Joe Toreno. Hair by Marina Migliaccio and makeup by Lisa Chamberlain, both for the Rex Agency.

Sienna Lalau: The Dynamite Dancer and Choreographer Helping BTS Make Magic

At just 20 years old, Sienna Lalau is the living definition of "dynamite dancer": bold, confident, almost addicting to watch, and, at her core, overflowing with pure passion. From her work with The Lab Studios to Video Music Award–winning choreography for BTS, there's no stopping this starlet from bringing her love of dance to the global stage.

"Dance is something that can truly connect people," Sienna tells Dance Spirit. "It's a universal language. We may not speak the same language physically, but when we dance, there's a connection where we understand each other on another level."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Tanishq Joshi brings his star quality to stage in his hometown of Indore, India (courtesy Tanishq Joshi)

Tanishq Joshi is Stomping on South Asian Stereotypes by Fusing Hip-Hop Choreo With Bollywood Music

For Tanishq Joshi (aka Taneesky), becoming a dancer was as unexpected as your music cutting off mid-performance. An unfortunate injury in his hometown of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India, led to the more fortunate discovery of a new passion and a flourishing career.

Joshi's had the opportunity to choreograph and compete at "World of Dance" events, perform at the JaQuel Knight Showdown, and grace the stage at Pharrell Williams' "Something in the Water" concert. And that's all on top of work and training with dancers and choreographers like Devin Solomon, Denzel Chisolm, Josh Killacky, Samantha Caudle, and Jake Kodish.

Joshi shared his story with Dance Spirit, and broke down how his unique approach to choreography is helping him diminish stereotypes, open doors for South Asian dancers, and inspire the dance community at large.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Houston Ballet Demi Soloist Natalie Varnum shows off her signature style (Claire McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet)

Fashion Forward: 3 Pros Share What Goes into Their Dancewear Choices

When it comes to in-studio dancewear, the pros know that the right look, piece, or material can mean the difference between a day feeling confident and comfortable, or just plain out of sorts. With so much time spent honing their craft in dance clothes, choosing those items takes equal parts strategy, creativity and a healthy dose of fun.

Here, professional dancers Ian Eastwood, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, and Natlie Varnum share what goes into their fashion choices that enables them to look good, feel great, and turn heads in the studio.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search