by Tim Palmer (pics by Dave Robinson)
As you are browsing this website, the chances are that you are already one of the lucky souls who have the gift of ballroom and/or Latin American dance at some level. If however you are either a social dancer or a medallist but not yet a competitor you may be pleased to learn that you are already well-placed to try your hand (and possibly your feet too!) at competing.
The transition really can be as easy as grabbing your dance shoes (and a partner of course) and taking the trouble to go along! If you don’t dance but wish you could and are attracted by the glamour and camaraderie of the competition world, then get some lessons now from a reputable school and try your luck early on in an entry-level one-dance competition. Don’t think for a moment or allow yourself to be persuaded that you will have to wait years to get good enough to start: you won’t, and exposure to the competitive world should help to ensure that you reach your fullest potential by the surest path.
Rubbing shoulders with and emulating those who already can is one of the finest aids to learning a skill oneself. I recently had the pleasure of being involved in an evening workshop for beginners in ballroom and Latin where we held a social competition that very night in both styles for those who had taken part. This was possible because it truly never is too early to start competing, the grading system catering for all. The easiest way to start, according to how you perceive your current grade, is to enter a ‘social’, ‘beginner’ or ‘novice’ competition at one of the many delightful ‘Sunday Circuit’ promotions regularly held around the country. Admission is usually at about the same price as a cinema ticket, so you won’t need to take out a second mortgage to go! You can find details of these events from the links on this website, the pages of Dance News or from the Dance Promoters Association (DPA) website.
The ‘social’ category, is not so frequently seen as the two higher grades but, when held, is the easiest since you do not need to be a registered competitor in order to take part and there is no restriction on what choreography you can use: you just have to give what entry details are asked for by the promoter then get up and dance when your competition is announced. The novice grade mentioned earlier does require registration with a body affiliated to the British Dance Council and the figures you can dance are restricted for both beginner and novice grades to those in the BDC syllabus. These though are very likely to include all or most of what you already know and your teacher can advise you on this.
You will not need any special dress for any of these categories either, just simple neat, modest clothing in which you can dance freely. The beginner grade in any case specifically restricts men from wearing dinner or tail suits and limits ladies to simple style dresses without diamantes, sequins or other such adornment. The BDC or the promoters themselves can advise you in more detail on what is needed and it is worth checking in advance.
Amateur membership of the DPA is free of charge at time of writing and can be completed by downloading a short application form from the DPA website and emailing or posting it back. It’s as simple as that! You will though not be able to enter ‘social’ grade competitions once you are a registered competitor, so it is worth thinking through beforehand what is the most appealing approach for you. The promoters are sure to be delighted to know that you intend taking part and many are flexible enough to add an event or two to suit you if they know you wish to dance and your grade is not already represented. You can be sure too of a warm reception from your fellow competitors who are always supportive of newcomers.
You may wish to go along just as spectators on one or two occasions in order to get the feel of the competitive scene. You will I feel sure enjoy watching the dancing if you do, but don’t be surprised if you experience the urge on the day to throw caution to the wind and jump right on in! If you feel a little shy or apprehensive, why not take some dancing friends along with you, either to take part themselves or to support you? The competition world offers the opportunity to see great dancing, experience the camaraderie of fellow competitors and all the while to keep fit in a way which you are unlikely to abandon early on and at some expense like the ‘gym too far’ of common experience!
Forget mind-crushing lonesome ‘reps’ to thumping piped music, dancing is social and is one of the few pastimes that is simultaneously good for body, mind and soul; and it is so easy and pleasurable to take part in that you possibly won’t even notice the exercise you are taking until you feel (and maybe see) the benefits afterwards. It is of course always safest though to check first with your doctor if you know or suspect that you have a condition where exercise should be restricted. Competitive dancers are of all ages from toddlers to folk in their nineties and, if you are a more senior citizen, you may be pleasantly surprised and reassured to know that there is recent reputable research to suggest that folk who dance regularly might be over 70% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those unfortunates who do not! A seventy per cent gain may be hard to grasp but in the competitive dance world I can assure you that you will meet plenty of folk who look and perform as if they were twenty years or more younger than their calendar ages. You will notice that I did not say ‘real’ age; because their ‘real’ age is arguably how they really look, feel and perform!
Competitive dance then is a great way to gain healthy exercise, express your artistic side and to funnel your competitive spirit into a positive channel. The most likely dances to be included at the early levels of competition mentioned above are waltz and quickstep from the ballroom section and cha cha cha and jive from the Latin American style, though these are likely to be held as only one or two dance events. Novice competitions often but not always include up to three dances. Other dances, such as rumba, samba, tango or foxtrot may also be included in the programme and even Argentine tango or salsa may occasionally be seen, though the latter two dances are classed as ‘alternative rhythms’ in the International Style world and are more commonly found on specialist competitive circuits.
Competitive dancing grew out of social dancing and is a natural extension of it, which means that becoming a competition dancer is a natural extension from being a social dancer. To start you will need nothing more than your social dancing skills and the willingness to have a go! To progress with your partner from that base you will need in time and by stages to gradually improve your partnering (lead and follow) and collision avoidance (floorcraft) skills, to expand and neaten the outline you present on the floor, and to develop a smoother and more extensive progression in the ballroom dances and more characteristic expression of rhythm as well as good body shaping in the Latin ones.
Your teacher should be able to assist you with these developments. Dancing is music made visible, so staying on time and developing an expressive feel for the music is an important aspect of progression. Competitive choreography includes the basic and standard figures and is absolutely based on the same underlying principles. It can be built up and extended gradually and naturally to suit your growth as dancers. Dancing has much in common with language and developing your ‘grammar’ (knowledge of technique), ‘vocabulary’ (choreography) and ‘fluency’ (freedom of movement and floorcraft), are equally important.
Most competitions are judged by former champions many of whom you may have heard of or have seen on TV – just imagine the pleasure of finding when you check the marks afterwards that a particular judge or judges whom you admire wanted to see your waltz or cha cha cha again or perhaps thought it was one of the best in the competition! That is a real satisfaction, even for those who do not win on a particular occasion, and that pleasure could be yours very easily! If you take part regularly though, you are very likely to have the experience of being a finalist and of winning competitions, and you are likely to move on in time into higher grades where the only limit to success is your own engagement and self-belief.
Having something to show for your dancing skills is great, but the greatest satisfaction really is taking part and is a pleasure that, once tried, very few willingly give up! For you, enjoying that satisfaction is probably only a phone call and a short drive away. What have you got to lose?