What’s It Like to Compete as Part of a Ballroom Dance Team?

People practice ballroom dancing in a shopping mall in Beijing on June 17, 2015.

Photo by Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Tony Cheang, collegiate competitor: 

It’s really immersive.

I remember distinctly in my first year of dancing how large a role the older members on the team played in getting me ready for my first competition. They held office hours to help with arm styling in the Latin dances, position of the frame in the standard dances, walking synchronously on and off the floor, bowing, and the like. There were review sessions on the five routines we learned in a month and talks about the importance of floor placement and rotation to show your number to the judges. The night before the competition, us rookies went to a “hair party” to learn how to lather our hair in gel, shape it with a fine-tooth comb, and freeze it into place with half a can of hairspray and a hairdryer set on high.

All this came free—with no material benefit for them—from a community of people who loved dancing and who loved sharing dancing with newcomers.

Despite all this, however, my fist competition didn’t go so well; I was completely off-time for a good 30 seconds of my East Coast swing and didn’t make it past the second round. Having a team, however, really lessened the impact of this on my interest. The veterans on the team told me how some of them didn’t place for their entire first year! This to me was a shocker, because their dancing—from the colorful dresses and elegant tailsuits to the smooth movement—looked amazing. To think that I could get to their level within the few years I had in college was almost unfathomable.

Almost. I knew that many of them had also started without any experience their freshman year, so it must be possible—my teammates were a source of inspiration, an embodiment of possibility.

I’ve danced a lot the four years I’ve been here and have made some great friends through my team. We share with each other videos of professionals we enjoy watching, geek out over new figures, and cheer each other on during events. Sometimes I’ll finish a competition and a team member sends me a video of my dancing the next day—it’s super helpful to have video feedback. An occasional new photo on Facebook isn’t too shabby either. It’s also much easier to find a new partner when connected to a team.

There are a few drawbacks. Ballroom dancing is still a very individual couple sport, and your progression isn’t tied to your team. In that sense, I don’t think there’s as much of a collective sense of doing well or not, compared to, say, football or basketball. It can be a little frustrating to see how other members of your cohort improve a lot faster than you, especially if you’re the competitive type.

That said, I’d choose my team again any day.

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