10 Tips For Ballroom Success

I’ll be the first one to admit that my approach to dancing is a bit different than a lot of people’s. When I started the program at ASU in the fall of my sophomore year I took the Level I Ballroom/Latin/Swing class and was hooked. However, unlike most of the others in the class I didn’t pursue one of the two chief choices: stopping there or moving on to Level II. Instead I re-took the Level I class. I continued to learn and laid down the foundation for what has become one of my favorite, educational and most rewarding pastimes. By my third semester in the dance program, I finally decided to move into the Level II B/L/S class. I learned a lot, improved my dancing exponentially and enjoyed the class, but still found myself attending the Level I classes. By the time my third semester in dance wound down to a close I did the unthinkable. Instead of repeating Level II or moving up to Level III, I returned exclusively to Level I and that’s where I stayed for the remainder of my 4 years at ASU.

To be clear, it wasn’t that I couldn’t go on. I could have quite easily and was pressured fairly heavily to do so. Which isn’t to say I started out as a good dancer. Quite the opposite. In fact, I take a certain level of pride in just how horrible I was when I started. Clumsy, petrified of the girls I was forced into close proximity with, unable to hear the beat, unable to count out the steps – I was a complete dance disaster. About the only thing I had going for me was an awkward sort of charm and perseverance.

Over the last 4 years my dancing has come a long way. In fact, as a person I have changed a lot – and in no small part due to dance. My confidence has skyrocketed. Girls are now relegated to only being marginally scary (downgraded from petrifying). I can hear the beat about 95% of the time. I still can’t count, but I’ve figured out the rhythms. I haven’t dropped a girl and, through it all – somehow – I’ve been accused of moving smoothly and gracefully. I still have a long way to go but the transition from ugly duckling to swan has been an interesting and enlightening one.

I’ve had the opportunity to dance with and to get to know a lot of the incredible dancers that have come out of ASU. In the 3 years I spent in the program, and the year I’ve spent on it’s fringes since I graduated, I’m constantly amazed at the talent and thrilled to see the program grow. It’s truly amazing how things have changed in the last 4 years. When I started Ballroom was still taboo – something for “girls and queers”. Somewhere between the 60s and 70s it had fallen out of favor. That dead period has finally come to an end. Our generation is once again embracing dance and that is a really fun and exciting thing.

For those of you just getting into it or considering picking it up, I’m offering these suggestions as food for thought based on my experiences, approach, and what I’ve seen.

  1. Dance is fundamentally about having fun. I’ve seen a lot of people get into it, push through the classes, and memorize routines with an all consuming focus on competing. For a lot of these people the drive to be the best comes at the cost of actually enjoying what they’re doing. Fundamentally, dance is about enjoying yourself and making sure your partner does the same. If you lose sight of this none of the medals or fancy moves mean squat.
  2. Men – beyond fancy turns or quick spins focus on your ability to lead. If the girl can’t follow you, you aren’t doing your job. On the flip side Girls – work on your ability to follow. Don’t cling to him, listen to his suggestions, and let his body lead you.
  3. Find the music. This one is more difficult for some of us than others. As someone who to this day fights with the beat in some dances, I can’t over emphasize the importance of listening to the music in your spare time and figuring out a system that works for you. Mix it up. The way they told you to count it may not be the best for you. I had major issues with salsa until I started matching up “Quick, Quick, Slow” to the music in my head. No numbers, no this on that beat. Just a simple rhythm I could match and follow. To this day it’s what I use and it’s allowed me to break away from the standard salsa formats and embrace a more South American/natural style.
  4. Be humble – it’s easy to get cocky. It’s also really easy to get frustrated when dancing with someone at a totally different skill level. The reality is, you sucked once. Not only did you suck once, but you’re probably a lot less skilled right now, at this moment, than you think you are. You just won’t realize it until you reach the next skill level. Always make time to dance with a beginner, take the time to be patient, teach them the basics, offer a tip, and be supportive. Guys – in the long run, I promise a smile and a little support will leave the girl feeling like you were a much better dancer than a horribly executed Level III move designed to show her how good you are.
  5. Be careful who you turn down. To this day there are girls I won’t dance with because they were rude. There are others that I won’t dance with because of the way they treated my friends. Also, girls – quite often the guys who have the roughest time at the start end up being some of the best and most prolific dancers. Likewise – guys, it takes a lot of courage for a girl to ask you to dance. If you have the energy, go for it. Even if they intimidate you or you really don’t have any desire to dance with the person. One of my biggest goofs was turning down a phenomenal dancer who approached me about partnering with her on ASU’s competition team. In my shyness, I was intimidated by her and felt severely outclassed skillwise. That combined with my policy at the time not to compete (and frankly my lack of interest in competing) led to a hasty no. That no wasn’t delivered with nearly enough grace or consideration and is something I’d take back in a heartbeat given the opportunity.
  6. Guys – just go for it. There’s a whole story behind it, but there was a line a few girls told me summer of my freshman year during a drunken night out on the town in Edinburgh, Scotland. To this day it’s stuck with me. I’d just finished flailing around at a club in a disastrous drunken version of dance-meets Big-Bird on rollerblades when the girls stopped me mid sentence, “Alex, it’s such a nice change to finally find a guy who dances. Anything is better than the stalker dance.” What is the stalker dance one might wonder? It’s when you stand on the side of the dance floor, bobbing your head to the beat, and stare at the girls like a basset hound eying dinner. So remember – just don’t do the stalker dance and you’ll be a hit.
  7. Try not to smell – I know this one should be common sense but a lot of people are not aware of the scent associated with them. For some it’s just bad breath, for others it might be tied to medicine, breath mints, your toothpaste or gum. Regardless, always be conscientious and pay attention to how you smell. If you smell, not only will it drastically harm the level of enjoyment your partner gets out of the dance, it will cost you future dances.
  8. Girls – don’t tolerate gropers. Accidents happen. Lord knows I’ve accidentally grabbed a boob or two, and on more than one occasion blown a move and ended up with my face nose deep in cleavage. It happens and it can’t be helped. Unfortunately, there are more than a few guys out there who intentionally grope, squeeze, pinch, and generally disrespect the women they’re dancing with. If a guy starts pulling this sort of crap don’t feel like you have to finish the dance with him. Just stop and walk away. Never dance with him again and feel free to intentionally stomp on his toes if you do decide to finish the dance with him. Warn your girlfriends, and let the guys you dance with regularly, know. My only word of caution would be to make sure it’s not legitimately part of the dance (eg: Bachata’s close grinding).
  9. If you’re just starting don’t let the skill of the dancers you see keep you off the dance floor. Anyone who’s going to judge you isn’t worth your time to begin with. Also, it took me about a year to figure it out – but the better dancers typically don’t tend to dance in the more visible locations. So, it’s probable that the dancers dancing along the edge of the dance floor right at the entrance etc. are probably some of the best dancers at the club. Just push on in to the middle or find a quiet corner where you’re comfortable and have fun.
  10. Don’t stop. Even if you totally blow it and get lost – just push through and have fun with it. Crack a joke, make a funny face, and keep going. Remember, you’re out there to dance. Not to be a robot carrying out pre-programmed moves. Besides, how do you think some of the best moves were created?

Tips, ideas, suggestions or questions of your own? Post a comment!

Las Vegas Desert Challenge Ballroom Competition

Vegas Competition Group

This past weekend Nate and I attended the Las Vegas Desert Challenge Ballroom Competition with ASU’s Devil Dancesport Team. The competition draws students from several major southwestern universities and is held over a two-day period. My little brother Nate is currently a Sophomore at ASU and has picked up where I left off with the ballroom program. As part of the fun he’d signed up for a number of dances in this past weekend’s competition with several different partners. I had initially planned to tag along and support Nate and the team but ended up doing a late sign up about an hour before the competition started on Friday. One of Nate’s dance partners and a mutual friend needed a partner for several latin dances and graciously talked me into signing up for the competition.

Friday morning at 6:15 a.m. we all gathered in the parking lot north of the football stadium, staggered onto the two waiting buses and prepared for the long drive to Vegas. Two stops and X hours later we finally rolled into the city that never sleeps and set to exploring our hotel. We had an hour and a half to prepare before check-ins during which I frantically ran around getting the fee paid and signing up for Rumba, Salsa, ChaCha and Merengue. After getting checked in I set about trying to locate an outfit that would work for the comp. Luckily I’d brought a pair of black slacks and was able to borrow a black dress shirt. We all grabbed a bite to eat and then the dancing began.

After an hour of check-ins the comp started at 5 and ran until about 8 Friday evening. The main event was the open salsa competition. Andrea and I made the first two callbacks which was fantastic since we hadn’t had any time to practice together and had only danced Latin once or twice before. What really made the night though was Nate and Debbie’s Salsa. They were able to carry over some of the social Salsa moves we’ve developed for the club, and apply them to the competition environment. The result was a fantastic set of dances which took the GOLD! No small accomplishment given the structure of the Salsa competition. Unlike the majority of the other dances which are broken down into skill categories – Newcomer, Bronze, Silver and Gold – the Salsa is an open dance where all levels of dancers compete at once. As a result it’s both significantly more competitive than some of the other events and has a much larger crowd.

After a few exciting hours of competition the first day of the event ended. We assembled a decent-sized group. After waiting a while to round everyone up about 25 of us started toward the strip. The walk ended up being about a mile or so and after a few hiccups we ended up at a restaurant capable of serving the 15 of us or so that were still together. The food hit the spot and we managed to work in a little dancing at the restaurant in an open space that had been created when they put our 5 or so tables together. Stuffed, exhausted, and dreading the walk back to the hotel we began the mile walk down the strip and the additional mile between the strip and hotel. After a few hours spent socializing we all turned in.

The 2nd day of the competition was long. Check in was from 8-9 and open dancing stretched from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a 2 hour break for dinner. The day was a full one. Luckily the dancing was excellent, and the event organizers did a great job moving things along and mixing in social dances.

All of the ASU competitors did a fantastic job, and there was a lot of terrific dancing. For my part, I danced Rumba, ChaCha, Merengue and had a blast. Mixing things up and keeping everyone on their toes Nate and I decided to have some fun with our Merengue. Dragging our poor partners along, we performed a mid-dance tunnel maneuver where one set of dancers holding hands opens up and creates a bridge/tunnel of sorts, which the other pair then bends down and backs through. While the move didn’t score us any points with the judges (and may have even gotten us disqualified) it was entertaining and well worth it!

While I don’t have any direct video of the comp itself uploaded, Nate just finished posting this video of a ChaCha I danced with Jill during one of the social breaks.

After the competition wound down a group of us formed up and began the trek back towards the strip. After another long, tiring walk, we managed to arrive at the Excalibur before the buffet’s 10 o’clock closing time. As you can no doubt imagine, after a long day of dancing without food breaks, we were famished. We hungrily set to the task of emptying out the buffet and managed to make a pretty impressive dent before relaxing for a few minutes in a food coma.As we left the buffet in the Excalibur we picked up a few refreshments and then hit the strip. Several of the members of our group were under 21, and eager to keep the group intact we avoided areas that carded, sticking instead to the outdoor parts of the strip and common areas/casino floors.

Vegas Competition Group

Singing, dancing, and goofing off we made our way down the strip pausing to take in anything/everything interesting and generally having a blast. Eventually, we found our way towards Paris, Paris! We were delighted to find a large open portion of the sidewalk located directly in front of the bar’s patio area. The bar’s music blasting on the patio was loud enough that we could easily hear it on the sidewalk. As luck had it, it was just right for dancing. Before long we’d dropped our bags, put down our drinks and grabbed our dance partners. The sight of the 12 of us dancing on the sidewalk quickly caught passerby’s attention and before long we’d managed to gather a bit of a crowd. As the crowd grew, the occasional random brave soul jumped in and joined us. Hotel/Bar security kept a wary eye on us, and at one point 3 officers on patrol paused to watch us for a few minutes before continuing on down the strip.

One of the most entertaining moments came when one of the group realized that the music would work for the Wild Wild West line dance we’d learned earlier that day during the competition. If we thought we’d made a scene with the random dancing we’d been doing before, the line dance stopped passerby’s in their tracks. Before long, we’d probably gathered 30 or so people on the street and another 30 or so on the bar patio. After a few minutes of the Wild Wild West line dance, we decided it was time to continue exploring. We picked up our bags and were gone…just like that =) It felt like a spontaneously orchestrated Improv Everywhere skit. It was a blast!

From Paris, Paris! we meandered up and around the fountains before pausing briefly in front of one of the Casinos. Georgi and Chels (our two resident dance/gymnasts) showed off their skills with a number of back flips in a grassy area. Back flips completed and all extremely impressed we made our way inside and found our way to the stunning floral gardens. The gardens are incredible, with intricate designs created out of live flowers. It’s a beautiful and vibrant creation. As an added perk there were a number of beautiful butterflies on display in the butterfly greenhouse. Enjoying the setting we paused for a number of photos…more than a few of which involved dips, lifts, or other entertaining poses before making our way back outside and onto the strip.

Once back on the strip we wandered for another hour or two, pausing to take photos, dancing, drinking, and generally having a wonderful evening. Eventually, footsore and exhausted, we made our way back to the hotel by way of McDonalds. By the time we got back to the hotel it was 4:00 a.m. and after40 minutes or so socializing in the hotel room we split up and called it a night.

After 3 hours of sleep it was wake-up time. We piled our sore, bruised bodies back onto the buses for the trip back to Arizona. We’d all made loads of new friends, had incredible stories, and a wonderful weekend full of memories to show for it. Vegas was a blast!