Monday, January 31, 2011

Ballroom vs Social Dancing

The Ballroom Dance world in comparison with many other dance styles out there, seems to have a different mentality about its social side. If you look at Salsa, Swing/Lindy Hop, Argentine Tango, Ceroc, and many other dance styles that are out there, you will quickly see a big difference in generally accepted practices, and personally, I sometimes feel that is to the detriment of the Ballroom and Latin community.

One of the biggest differences between those other styles that I mentioned and Ballroom is the lack of social dancing associated with classes. In the Ballroom world, it seems to be the norm that classes are taught and then people go home; if they want to dance socially, they go to a specific event or gathering that is primarily for that purpose. However, in almost every other social dance genre, classes are interwoven into full evenings in which dancing and practising what you have just learned is not only possible, but easy to do and highly encouraged! This facilitates people actually digesting and retaining what they have learned and propagates actual dancing -not just copying the steps you are learning in class.

I know that there is a larger overhead, most often, for Ballroom events as the space needed has to be of a certain size and without many obstacles to make it truly viable, and therefore it is either necessary to charge more or get more people through the door - sometimes both. And I think this is one of the main reasons that more classes aren't able to hold social dance practice sessions afterwards - the floor fee is simply too high to make it possible. For many other styles, space is not as much of an issue: any of the more stationary dances can easily be done in rooms that are oddly shaped or which have pillars or obstacles as well as it being possible to have more people on the dance floor at any one time - therefore more patrons able to enter in the first place.

There is also a bit of a stigma over the head of the Ballroom community. I will not hesitate to admit that shows like Strictly come Dancing and Dancing with the Stars have done a tremendous amount to bring Ballroom dancing back into the public consciousness. And I think that the movements created by these shows are doing a lot to keep Ballroom dancing alive and growing. But here in the UK at least, there is still a strong bias against it (often in the male part of the general public) and as much as these shows have opened a lot of doors, they have also propagated the stereotypes of sequins and fake tan which make Ballroom seem inaccessible and foppish to the average person.

As someone who has trained professionally in a number of styles of dance, but who came to Ballroom out of an interest to learn and to continue developing my dancing personally, I have focussed my whole experience within it as a social dancer - not a competitor. Too often I feel that the Ballroom world gets so hung up on the competition side of things, that it forgets that it can be equally as satisfying, enjoyable, and worthwhile for the social dancer as it may be for the competitor. Its focus on the glitz and glamour of it all, as well as the tendency for some to simply learn routines - and not build from basics - in order to compete, creates a divide between the competitive and social dance scenes which no other dance genre seems to have as strongly. This creates two main issues as far as I see it. Firstly, it means that when social events Do occur, they are populated partly with people that only know how to dance with their one partner, and only do the routine they have been taught - regardless of the music or the people around them. The other issue is that people who don't feel comfortable with competitive styling are often scared off by the showiness; when in reality they enjoy the dancing and should be allowed to do it in a way that expresses them - not one that is all about extravagant arm flourishes and tidal wave hips.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against the competitive side of the Ballroom world - many people I know and love are entrenched in it - but I do have a problem with social dancing that is no longer given an opportunity to be social. When a couple uses competitive routines and styling on a social floor (and ends up doing the same routine to every song that is a Cha Cha, for example) I have to wonder where their enjoyment is coming from - this is a social floor, not your practice time... especially after the competitions are finished! Personally, I love when you get your dancing to a level that you feel comfortable playing with the music as you hear it, you react and adapt to what your partner is giving you in your connection, and  the whole dance becomes more than just the steps - and this doesn't just apply to more advanced dancers. I think it is very important for developing dancers to be given the chance and the opportunity to mix up the moves they are being taught... dance them in their own patterns and follow the music as they hear it. It is that sort of experience which strengthens lead/follow capabilities as well as musicality, and it makes the dance yours; which is why we all want to dance in the first place, isn't it? So what is it that stops Ballroom and Latin dancing from encouraging that? When and where did this massive divide between the people who love these dances occur?

In relation to all the other social dances, Ballroom has simply seemed to lose its social nature. And though shows such a Strictly have helped restart the ballroom community, I also feel like it is creating a voyeuristic aspect to Ballroom which precludes a person's own enjoyment of the dance. Because these dances that we love originated on the social floor.... what is keeping them from it now?


  1. I blame the approach to teaching that many teachers have and I suspect, and I could easily be wrong, is encouraged from the ISTD etc.

    It's a production line. Take a person, assume they have no creativity or musicality apart from a recognition of a beat, and carry them from there through to an A-grade competitive level. Finished product. Ta effin da.

    To do this, ballroom has had to be very prescriptive. This appeals to a certain type of dancer and discourages other types.

    The best way I can think of fixing this is to remove the prescription on music. Let a step take 1,2,3 beats if the dancer feels it appropriate. Let a figure be Slow-and instead of Quick-Quick if the music suggests it. Let a waltz be danced to a 4/4 song, if it is phrased in 3-3-2 (for example).

    I would also want beginners to be taught movements, not figures (and certainly not routines!) and there should be an emphasis on lead-follow and musicality from the first lesson, like they do in Argentine Tango. This will make social dancers feel more comfortable taking 1 step of figure A, and 2 from figure B if they feel it appropriate, and give them a sense of ownership of the dance, which I think is important.

    My other complaint with ballroom dancing is the dress code at competitions. I would suggest that the dress code of the competitors be only slightly more smart and elegant than any audience members'. If the audience are in suit and tie and evening dresses, then the competitors can wear white-tie and ball gowns. If the audience are in track pants and hoodies, then the competitors should wear trousers and a smart shirt/top. I think this is important not only to arrest the unhelpful (I think) image of ballroom dancing- snobby, preening and absurdly out of touch, but also to reduce the financial barriers to taking up the dance seriously. And they are, I think, quite high.

    I also wonder if adjudicators place undue weight on the appearance of women competitors.

    *I've only been into ballroom dance for a year and a few months and I don't compete and have no desire to. No dance experience prior to that. The above are just my current opinions based on what little I've seen of this ballroom dance world.

  2. You raise some valid points. Your second point, which I will look at first, is towards the lavish outfits which seem to be an inseparable part of competitive dancing. This is something that I do agree with you on in principle, however, I don’t quite see how it is going to be possible to be changed. Competitive arenas in all disciplines tend to go through various fashions and the Ballroom and Latin competitive community is rather firmly entrenched in the sequins and sparkles category.
    Personally, I would feel better if even something as small as fake tan were to go out of fashion. I completely understand why people may want to be slightly browned – it helps make muscles look more defined for example – but tanning so dark that you make your shoes (which are the strangest colour ever to begin with) look light or so that you actually look as though you are a completely different racial origin seems to go into the realm of the ridiculous for me. Surely your dance ability should not be linked to the number of fake tan coats you have put on.
    There is also a huge monetary commitment if you decide to take up Ballroom or Latin competitively. It is unfortunate, and I too wish that it was not as steep a price to pay. The university competitions seem to have a slightly better understanding of this and therefore you will often see a mix of costuming and apparel choices there. And though I do believe that there does need to be some sort of investment in your training and presentation if you are going to really take something like that seriously, I don’t know that the price tag needs to be quite as high as it is currently set.

  3. (And part two.... as my response was too long to post as one!)

    The first of the two main issues you mention is what you feel to be the highly prescriptive nature of Ballroom dancing.

    I think you will find that strong social dancers DO play with rhythms and amount of turn and pretty much every other characteristic of the steps which the technique books pin down to specifics. Inventive demo couples have also proven that they can dance a Waltz to 4 beat music – but social dancing is meant to be inclusive, and this sort of timing manipulation is not something that is easily adopted by everyone who may be wishing to dance at a social. So while I agree that musicality and interpretation are hugely important, I don’t agree that it is a place to begin teaching.

    Musicality and musical understanding are things that most people never even think about. As a dancer, however, it is an integral part to the enjoyment of a dance. Personally, I believe that at least making reference to musicality in beginners lessons is very important (and I spend a lot of time on connection and lead/follow relationships) though too strong a focus on it can either intimidate or lose a beginning dancer. Developing a good understanding of music and where it is likely to be going is something that often takes a lot longer than just learning the footwork – but, in my opinion, it is also only after you learn the footwork that you can truly let the music take hold. The ‘rules’ are there to enable learning and then to be broken or bent when the dancer is strong enough.

    Much like any other formalised dance form, Ballroom does have a set of steps which have been solidified into accepted “technique”; however, you will find this in every dance from Argentine Tango to Ballet to modern Street Dance. So claiming that it is only ballroom that prescribes its figures is false. I am also a little uncertain what you mean about only teaching “movements” not “figures”. Each of the steps laid out here, to me, is a figure. To break down most of these steps even further would, firstly, remove the defining elements of each dance, and, secondly, create even more confusion for beginner dancers. The lesser structured dances such as Ceroc which, from my understanding, focus on the fluidity of movement rather than “steps” may be what you are referring to, but honestly, I believe that to be an entirely different genre as the dance itself was created to fit a business model.

    I agree whole heartedly that students should be encouraged to see each step as a building block that can be used in any different combination to create a dance that is individual and different each time it is danced. I also agree that teaching long routines, that end up being done by rote rather than led and followed, is detrimental to social dancing. But similarly to the point made above, some linking of steps needs to be done to show How the steps can go together in the first place. It also makes practicing easier when the figures are linked together in various ways to allow for the feel and the movement of the dance to really come through as well; it is impossible to really FEEL a good foxtrot, for example, until you get it linked together and moving!

    Getting an understanding of the individual steps within each dance and how they can be interchanged is something that I do feel is slightly easier to do in the Latin dances as more of them can be done from a variety of positions and alignment isn’t relevant. It is harder to see the individual steps in the Ballroom dances, generally, because they lead from one into the other and don’t have specific starts and stops that are easily identifiable.

    I agree with you 100% that students should be taught to listen to the music and dance from the inspiration that it gives... however, asking a beginner to do this is often too much for them to take in. There do need to be some rules - at least at the beginning - which can then be broken or bent when the standard of dancing grows beyond the figures which have been given.

  4. I am also a little uncertain what you mean about only teaching “movements” not “figures”

    The following would be examples of what I consider movements.

    Forward walk
    Backward walk
    Forward walk with CBM and turn
    Backward wakk with CBM and turn
    Forward walk in CBMP
    Backward walk in CBMP
    Heel turn
    Side step without rise
    Side step with rise and sway
    Stepping out into pp
    Hesitation drag (no weight change)
    Whisk action
    lock action

  5. I agree with everything you said in this post. I am a hobbyist dancer, and a serious competitor. I have done a bit of all these social and ballroom dances, and even competed in a couple of amateur ballroom competitions.

    Whenever i see some couple dancing ballroom really well on a routine, i usually walk back thinking what's the point of even learning. The whole thing feels very inaccessible to me.

    On the other hand, going to a salsa class or a social is a much happier experience. Even when i see a couple doing good salsa or bachata, i feel as if even if i can't dance like them, i can most certainly have as much fun doing it, and make sure the girl also enjoys it as much.

    Another thing i have noticed is that the number of friends i have made through salsa is significantly higher than friends i have made through ballroom.

    All in all, i have decided to stick with these social dances. Its a much more chilled out and pleasant experience