The Competition Scene
An Informal Introduction to DanceSport/Competitive Ballroom Dancing for Spectators
Welcome to DanceSport! If you haven't been to a competition before, you may be surprised to see how much goes on in one day. We hope this brief introduction will get you started on your way to loving and appreciating competitive ballroom dancing as much as we do!
First, you may be surprised to hear how loudly the audience will cheer on their favorite couples. Dancers generally dance and are judged in groups, and cheering can help bring the judges' attention to a particular couple. Hearing audience support can also give the dancers themselves the extra energy needed to finish their dances with a bang. Audience participation is not only allowed, it is encouraged and welcomed. In fact, if the audience is too quiet, the emcee will instruct them to shout out the numbers of their favorite couples!
Dance styles and competitive events
Competitive events take place in the following dance categories, most of which are "group" events, i.e. multiple couples dance and are judged simultaneously.
- International Standard
- Viennese Waltz Foxtrot
- Paso Doble
(four dances only; generally danced only in the U.S.; dancers are allowed to dance apart from each other, unlike in International Standard)
- Viennese Waltz
(generally danced only in the U.S.; less emphasis on straight legs than International Latin; considered to be "earthier" in its characterization)
- ChaCha (different technique from the ChaCha in International Latin)
- Rumba (different technique from and faster than the Rumba in International Latin)
- Mambo (based on what is also called salsa)
- all 10 International Standard and Latin dances, judged as one event
- all 9 American Smooth and Rhythm dances, judged as one event
- routines to a preselected set piece of music with at least 50% recognizable dance figures from other dances, plus lifts (props are forbidden)
- the only designated solo competitive event (one couple dances at a time); couples perform interpretive routines to music of their choice, with lifts required and props allowed
- some competitions will add additional events in other dances, or hold a team match (where multiple couples each dance one dance and the winning team is based on the combined score of all couples on each team) or a “Jack and Jill” competition (male and female dancers are randomly paired with someone other than their regular partner in a dance that challenges their lead and follow skills)
Level and age categories
DanceSport competitions are, as in other sports, divided by levels of ability: Pre-Bronze/Newcomer, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Novice, Pre-Championship, and Championship. From Pre-Bronze through Gold level the competitors are limited to dance figures out of a strict syllabus, though how those figures are strung together choreographically can, of course, vary. Novice, Pre-Championship, and Championship levels allow "open" choreography. For most dance styles there is a no lift rule (as in Dancing with the Stars).
Note that higher level dancers can and do still incorporate syllabus figures from lower levels within their choreography. In fact, the Manhattan Amateur Classic holds a Master of Syllabus event, open to all levels, that requires competitors to only dance syllabus steps. This provides an opportunity for competitors to demonstrate their mastery of basic figures (and for spectators to see these figures danced by very high level dancers).
The ability levels are further defined by the number of different dances in an event -- Bronze typically has only two dances at a time, Silver or Novice three, Gold or Pre-Championship four, and Championship five. This means less skilled dancers can prepare fewer dances to compete: for example, in the Latin dances at the Bronze level, they only have to prepare a ChaCha and a Rumba, but in Pre-Championship they are required to have ChaCha, Samba, Rumba, and Jive prepared. These two, three, four, or five dances are danced as one "event."
As couples enter in more competitions they accumulate "proficiency points." Once they have accumulated a defined number of those points, they are required to move up to the next level, until they reach the top level, Championship.
Finally, ability levels are divided up by age categories. There are several age categories for children, then Youth (up to and including 18), Adult (defined as 19-35, though anyone in Youth through Senior III can dance in this group), Senior I (over 35), Senior II (over 45), and Senior III (over 55). Age is determined by the year a dancer was born, not his/her actual birth date within that year.
Dancers are allowed to dance up to two consecutive ability levels (i.e. Bronze and Silver, or Novice and Pre-Championship), and can dance in any age group for which they qualify.
Most competition dance floors can really only hold about 12 couples dancing at a time. If the field for an event is larger than that, organizers will hold qualifying rounds (several groups in separate rounds of about 10-15 couples) until they whittle the field down to about 24 couples, then the quarterfinal round (2 separate rounds of about 12 each), then the semifinal (1 round of about 12), and finally the final (1 round, usually 6 or 7 couples). The rounds for a particular event may run in succession or may be interspersed with other rounds for other events.
Keep in mind that each round can comprise 4 or 5 dances at about a minute and a half each, and you'll see that the competition can last all day! If you've never seen a dance competition before, it can be funny -- and a bit confusing -- watching dancers parade on and off the floor as the rounds are announced (which are also themselves sometimes confusingly referred to as "heats"). Just remember that each multi-dance event is given a "heat number," so that the Adult Pre-Championship Latin event, designated Heat 230 in the program, for example, will be announced as "Quarterfinals for Heat 230, Adult Pre-Championship Latin, the dance is the Samba."
But my favorite couple didn't win: some words about judging
Judges (also referred to adjudicators) are certified by various official bodies governing DanceSport, and are experienced competitors and instructors themselves. Judging is both an objective and subjective process -- for this reason, several adjudicators will judge each event to ensure fairness.
What sorts of things do the judges look for? Posture, correct musical timing, pleasing lines, musicality and expression, appropriate characterization, and overall performance are elements crucial to judging any form of dance. On top of those qualities DanceSport adds elements related specifically to dancing in partnership, such as:
- how the couple holds each other (is it symmetrical between the two partners and does it always look relaxed and pleasant?)
- how connected they look (does each partner fulfill their lead or follow role in a technically correct manner without negatively affecting the other, so that the couple looks effortlessly synchronized?)
- how grounded they look (is the couple correctly using their feet, legs, and bodies to achieve a controlled, powerful, movement across the floor?)
- how well they navigate a floorful of couples (does the couple navigate its way around the floor as much as is appropriate for the dance without interfering with other couples?)
Having a large judging panel helps to ensure that different views and philosophies of dance are represented, as each judge may have his or her own beliefs and opinions about what constitutes good dancing. Some judges may emphasize some of the above factors over others.
The dancers also have the challenge, especially in earlier rounds, of trying to get the attention of the judges during the ninety seconds or so that they are dancing. As noted, this is one of the reasons that audience participation is encouraged: with more than a dozen dancers at a time, the judges only have a few seconds to spend on each dancer on the floor to make their picks.
More than you ever wanted to know: how the dancers are scored and placed
In preliminary rounds leading up to a final round of an event/heat, the judges are asked to "recall" a certain number of dancers to the next round. Judges vote to recall couples they think are the best and the couples with the most votes move on into the next round.
Once six or seven couples reach the final, DanceSport uses the skating system method to determine the results. This means that the judges rank every couple in every dance from 1st through 6th or 7th. The couple with the most 1st place marks is the overall winner. The couple with the next highest number of 1st or 2nd place marks will place second, and so on. Tiebreaker rules determine which couple finishes higher in the event of a tie. These rules can be very complex, and an official known as a scrutineer has the painstaking task of taking all the judges' marks and tabulating the results for callbacks and making the necessary calculations to determine the placements, applying the tiebreaker rules in close cases (and these instances occur far more often than you might expect).