Competition Ballroom Dancing

Donald Daniel

Originated 2001, revised July 2013

www.waltzballs.org

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COMPETITION BENEFITS SOCIAL DANCING. This website is dedicated to social ballroom dancing, not competition ballroom dancing. However, it is appropriate to acknowledge the debt that social ballroom dancing owes to competition ballroom dancing.

Before competition ballroom dancing the only form of dancing that was precisely defined by a system of notation was ballet. The ballet notation was appropriate to and adequate for ballet, but inappropriate to and inadequate for ballroom dancing.

Competition ballroom dancing resulted in a careful study of ballroom dancing, revealing the secrets of how good dancers danced. New notation was developed which was especially appropriate to describe ballroom dancing. The new notation was used to document good dancing which enables ordinary people who study and practice to dance like the rare few who were born with exceptional talent. The new notation is explained most fully in the book by Alex Moore, which gives detailed instructions on how to do international standard competition dancing, and shows diagrams of the syllabus figures.

The form of competition dancing most closely related to social dancing is international standard, previously known as international modern. This is because it is based on a man leading a lady around the dance floor. By contrast, the type known as American smooth is based on show dancing, having flourishes similar to ballet, and choreographed separation between the partners. In a technical sense, these non-ballroom figures in American smooth are best described as latin figures.

COMPETITION ON AMERICAN TV. The former PBS program "Championship Ballroom Dancing" was started the first year of the Reagan administration and ended in the year 2000. It showed the final heat of the competition for each of the four or five dances in each of the four categories: American smooth and rhythm, international standard and latin. It started again under a new name and a new format in 2006. It is called "America's Ballroom Challenge". The new format showed the final heat of the competition in all the dance styles followed by a show dance routine by each of the finalists. PBS is the government network, and its content is ultimately determined by government policy. During the last presidential campaign the press worried that the new administration would be unduly influenced by an extreme element of the adversaries of dance. This appears to be the case. The first time this program aired during the new administration, most of the competition dancing was eliminated, leaving mostly just show dancing. The adversaries of dance disapprove of competition dancing more than show dancing, and social ballroom dancing more than competition ballroom dancing. In 2010, the program was canceled completely. Even when competition dancing was shown on this program, the influence of the adversaries of dance was much in evidence. The camera operators zoomed and the editor cut so as to make it difficult to appreciate the competition. If a couple was shown from head to toe as they should be, often they were shown so briefly that an entire maneuver could not be seen. If an entire maneuver was shown, a head and shoulder shot was used so that the dancing could not be seen.

One source to purchase DVD's of competition dancing is to go to www.dancevision.com . If you want to see ballroom as opposed to latin get a dvd that shows "standard". The most important ballroom dance competition in the world is the one at Blackpool England. To get video of this go to http://www.thedancingchannels.com/tdc/shop/. Click on "blackpool dance festival", "blackpool 2008", then scroll down to "friday 30th May" and get the "BP08_8F2" video. The Blackpool competition includes the slow waltz but not the Viennese waltz, possibly because the Church of England decided they were opposed to the dance when it first came to England in 1812. Much as they might regret that decision now, they cannot be seen to change their mind too soon. It took three centuries for the Catholic church to forgive Galileo for telling the truth.

The popular program "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC gives a false impression of competition ballroom dancing. The contestants are asked to do some latin dances and some ballroom dances. The teachers who dance with each contestant are nearly all specialists in latin, not ballroom, so the latin performances are usually more authentic than the ballroom performances. There are two categories of dancing that are considered in America to be ballroom dancing: standard ballroom, which Americans call international standard, and American smooth. Standard ballroom is 100% ballroom, whereas American smooth is 10% ballroom and 90% latin. Quickstep is only in standard, not smooth. Both standard and smooth include versions of slow waltz, Viennese waltz, slow foxtrot, and tango. When contestants are supposed to be doing slow foxtrot, tango, or quickstep, they are likely to do onestep instead because it is easier, and the judges do not object, they give the contestant a score of 7 out of 10. At least onestep is a ballroom dance, not a latin dance, even though it is not in standard or smooth. Even though pure onestep is not in smooth, smooth tends to look like a blend of onestep and swing dancing. Pure ballroom dancers sometimes say that if you have not yet learned to dance, you can always swing instead. Only the British judge objects if the contestant does only latin figures from American smooth without doing any ballroom figures. Even he will not object if they do at least a small percentage of ballroom figures. Sometimes the contestant substitutes a pure latin dance or a freestyle show dance for a ballroom dance, then the judges do object. No matter whether the judges object seriously to a latin performance or a ballroom performance the audience protests loudly at the judges. For both ballroom and latin dances they should require a minimal set of beginner level syllabus figures in each dance, and the rest of the dance could be nonsense to impress the audience anyway they can. In the ballroom dances the syllabus figures should be from standard, not smooth, so they will really be ballroom figures, not latin figures. The rules should not permit a score higher than 5 if they do not complete the required syllabus figures.

When dancing is televised all of each couple should be shown, from head to toe. No shots of heads, feet, or elbows! It is instructive to see why the Fred Astair movies showed dancing so well. The Fred Astaire biography by Bill Adler on p.113 explains. "He wanted no cuts to close-ups, no cuts to feet in motion, no cuts of the shoulders moving, no cuts of isolated parts of the body inserted in the flow of action. It destroyed the concept of the dance. So did overhead shots, weird-angle shots, and straight-down shots from twelve o'clock high. The camera should shoot about eye level, or perhaps even below that... . Dancing was the whole body--or it was nothing." This did not mean that there could be no cuts. On p.114 Fred explains "If, however, the 'B' take is much better in one sequence, while the 'A' is better in another, the best sequences are pieced together, but the sequence of the dance itself is never broken." The Astair dolly was developed to move the camera about two feet off the floor. The dolly followed the movement of the dancers, it did not have a separate movement of its own. Today zoom lenses would achieve a similar effect. The zoom should keep the couple filling the frame from head to toe. The zoom should not be used to make the dancers seem far away at one moment, close up at another.

SWING DANCE. In north america the term "swing dance" is most often used to mean a subset of latin dances including the jive and other dances related to the jive that are danced only in north america. Since this website is created in north america, this is the meaning used here. Outside north america "swing dance" often means ballroom dances, not latin dances, that include a graceful pendulum swing of the body when danced properly. This would not include ballroom tango as it has no pendulum swing.

BALLROOM VS. LATIN. Sometimes teachers on the "dancing with the stars" TV show in America will use the term "ballroom dancing" when clearly they are talking about latin dancing. But the judges usually distinguish between the two. Why the difference, and what is the significance? It is an example of efforts to define ballroom dancing out of existence, as I will now explain.

Ballroom dancing, in the modern sense of the term, with frontal body contact, started in Europe in the mid 1700's, probably as early as 1750, with the waltz. Other ballroom dances came later. In the 1800's the waltz spread to England and to America, much to the consternation of the adversaries of dance. Hundreds of Hollywood movies before 1950 show that in America large restaurants had dance floors, and the general public did social ballroom dancing with frontal body contact as late as the 1940's.

In England, the disruption of World War One was used by the adversaries of dance there to almost eliminate the waltz from England. This was done by re-defining "waltz" to mean what "the Boston" had meant before the war. In a similar fashion, the disruption of World War Two was used by the American adversaries of dance to re-define "ballroom dancing" to mean mostly latin dancing. Nationwide chains of "ballroom dance" schools taught "smooth", which was 90% latin, and "rhythm", which was 100% latin. Social dancing by the public faded out over time to a small fraction of what it had been, and restaurants no longer had dance floors.

It is inevitable that the adversaries of dance will eventually gain ownership of the archive of old Hollywood movies. When they do, all evidence that real ballroom dancing was ever popular in America will disappear forever.

AMERICAN VS. INTERNATIONAL STYLES. When competition dancers discuss American and international styles they mean styles of competition dancing. International style is 10 specific dances that are danced the same way and competed the same way around the world. American style was created in America primarily to satisfy the adversaries of dance in America, who do not like international style. American style is taught all over America. International style is only taught in a few places in the largest cities in America, because the adversaries of dance are able to prevent it being taught in most places. To disguise this fact, many teachers will advertise that they are teaching international style when they are using "international" only to indicate that some of the dances are of foreign origin, not that they are teaching the international competition style as danced in the major competitions around the world. If the teacher is teaching the box step, salsa, mambo, merengue, bolero, Argentine tango or west coast swing, he is not teaching the international style competion dancing. To learn more about this read two paragraphs here, one paragraph here and two paragraphs here.

COMPETITION VIENNESE WALTZ. The international competition Viennese waltz is a much simpler dance than the others. One improvement that has been proposed is to add more figures. This lacks imagination, shows a lack of understanding of the true nature of the dance. It is a social dance, with lots of dodging and weaving on crowded floors. The proper solution is to borrow an idea from skiing where flag poles are introduced into the slalom events. A disk with rubber on the bottom to avoid damage to the dance floor and weighed down with two small sandbags could have a flagpole in the center. Dancers would be required to dodge and weave between a series of such obstacles like skiers on a slalom run. If this scheme is not acceptable, another way of making the dance more interesting and more challenging would be to use music with tempo variations typical of Viennese waltzes in the 1800's. Viennese waltz should be scored by how easy, natural and beautiful the dance looks. While rise and fall is fine, the slightest sudden "bump" of the head should count against the contestant.

BAD COMPETITION DANCING. The different dances should have a different look and feel about them. This is especially true in international standard. It is less true in American smooth, where all the dances tend to look like travelling swing dances danced to different kinds of music. Back to international standard. Slow waltz should be dreamy, swooping, swirling. Slow foxtrot: cool, suave, flowing. Tango: determined, aggressive, prowling, grounded. Quickstep: smooth, lively, playful, uninhibited, flying. Viennese waltz: elegant, serene, flying. But with the exception of Viennese waltz, non-syllabus figures are legal. Dancers who are mediocre at syllabus figures try to spice up their dancing with non-syllabus figures that sometimes destroy the character of the dance.

Continuous pivots in tango have have a flying quality, not a grounded quality, and have nothing to do with tango. Many competitors eliminate the walk and progressive sidestep from their tango and it looses its prowling aspect. The prowling provides a much needed contrast with the livelier figures. A proper tango should look even more than the other dances like it is only between the two dancers, and not an exhibition for the public. Generous amounts of the walk and progressive sidestep moving in a very small circle are necessary to give it this level of intimacy. Unfortunately competition dancers make it look like a race against other couples, not a dance between the two partners.

Hopping and charleston in quickstep may be legal, but they are not not smooth and miss the point of quickstep. Some competitors do nothing but hopping and Charleston; absolutely no real quickstep. Perhaps there should be a separate competition dance for hopping and charleston. Much of the hopping like a kangaroo is an attempt to get around the floor faster. A very beneficial rule change would disqualify any competitor if both feet left the floor at the same time except in the case of an accident. This would force competition on the basis of good ballroom dancing, not silly pyrotechnics. Perhaps the best way to discourage hopping and charleston would be to increase the competition tempo from 50 bars per minute to 60 bars per minute. Once you become an experienced dancer, quickstep at 50 bars per minute feels glacially slow. 60 bars per minute is a much more natural tempo for the dance. The elementary figures in quickstep are certainly more fun to do at 60 bars per minute. At age 67 my favorite tempo for this dance is 65 bars per minute. I prefer to dance it to cha cha music instead of quickstep music. Cha cha music is 32 bars per minute when dancing cha cha, but 64 bars per minute when dancing quickstep. This should come as no surprise, since quickstep and cha cha are both largely based on fast chasse steps. The tempo that is natural for a fast chasse is the same in both dances. Either the tempo should be raised or the name of the dance should be changed from quickstep to the kangaroo dance. What can be done to revive the quickstep at 50 bars per minute is for the dancers to lower, stretch, and take very large steps in simple figures like the quarter turns. Instead they reserve this technique for the slow waltz, not realizing that it is applicable to quickstep also.

There is a natural tendency for the competitive nature of the event to change the event from a dance into a race, with every effort made to move around the floor faster than is possible with the figures of the dance. Thus, in both slow waltz and slow foxtrot, the competitors will sometimes shift into onestep , which moves faster than slow waltz or slow foxtrot. Surely it is no worse to dilute the slow dances with onestep than it is to dilute quickstep with hopping and charleston. If a couple did nothing but onestep, it would be interesting to see if anyone would complain. This way perhaps a beginner who could not do waltz or foxtrot could win a contest by getting around the floor faster than anyone else.

The situation is even worse in some latin dances. A couple may do nothing but play acting in rumba, no real dancing of any kind, without doing a single syllabus figure in their entire performance. This is a terrible loss because the syllabus version of the international rumba can be a very beautiful dance when performed by the most talented dancers. Perhaps the skimpy costumes killed syllabus rumba, which would look best with the man in a white dinner jacket and black tuxedo pants, the lady in a light colored tea length full skirted cocktail dress that sways with her movements.

For more on competition dancing click here .

. EVENTS TO ATTEND. To see events to attend in America go to the NDCA website and click on "events". For events elsewhere in the world click on http://www.worlddancesport.org

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