So you want to dance competition.


Don Herbison-Evans ,

Someone wanting to dance in competitions would typically start by going to weekly group classes at a local dance studio. After a year he/she would maybe start taking their medals. These are proficiency tests organised by a professional dancing society. Societies have a series of medals : bronze, silver, and gold, of increasing difficulty. requiring the ability to dance an increasingly difficult syllabus of dance figures.

To practice for the bronze medal, he/she could start going to social dances held at local clubs and community halls. There, they would be able to dance with a variety of partners, and practice the basic steps being learnt.

Studios typically have a medal evening maybe every 6 months, at which friends and relatives can come and watch the dancing, and to be there to offer support the students in their dances. For these the students would dance with their professional teachers.

After a bronze medal, if keen, she/he would start having weekly individual lessons with the teacher. Initially the dances taught will typically be the Waltz and Quickstep in Ballroom, and Chacha and Jive in Latin. As students progress through the medals, they learn the more difficult dances: Tango, Viennese Waltz, and finally the Slow Foxtrot in Ballroom. In Latin, the Rumba, Samba and finally the Paso Doble would be taught. For Street Latin, the dances are often the Hustle, Bolero, Swing, and Mambo. The teacher would choreograph routines usually of about 16 bars, which as the student progresses would become longer, more complex and individualised. Advanced competitors often develop special steps that become their signature steps in competition.

To continue to competion, a dancer needs a partner. This is particularly hard for females. There are far more females wanting to enter competitions than males. There are several avenues a lady might pursue to get a partner. She might encounter someone suitable at the group classes, or the social dances where she practices. She might advertise in a dance magazine, put notices on bulletin boards at local studios, and pester her teacher to find someone for her. She might have to settle for a partner who has less ability or experience than herself, and who has character traits that she would not tolerate under other circumstances, such as being too physical in leading, blaming her when steps dont work, and even seeking a closer relationship.

For dance competitors with no partners, many competitions have events for individual dancers, who may then dance with their teacher (pro-am events) or with another amateur (amateur individual events). In these events, only the competitor is marked, and no account is taken of their partner, be they professional or amateur.

Once a dancer has a partner, then they can start practising together more often. Studios usually allow their couples who have lessons there to practice freely at other times, as long as there is no interference with the regular lessons and classes. They may practice too at social dances in local clubs and community halls. They may even hire a local hall for a few hours each week themselves, for special practice on their own without interference from other dancers. For this they may buy a special portable sound system that has variable speed drive, so that difficult step combinations can be learned slowly before building up to full speed.

Dance competitions are typically organised by a prominent studio or by a professional society. Each of these various promoters have competitions of one sort or another occur maybe once every few months, and some only once a year, so that competitions can be found in Australia every few weeks, and if you are prepared to travel overseas, every week.

At a competition, there a variety of events. Dancers are divided in age groups, like

  • under-12,
  • 12-16,
  • 17-21,
  • 22-35,
  • 36-50,
  • 50-65
  • over-65.
  • They are divided into grades: maybe
  • bronze,
  • silver,
  • gold,
  • open.
  • They are divided into styles such as:
  • International Standard Ballroom,
  • American Style Ballroom,
  • International Latin,
  • Street Latin,
  • New Vogue,
  • Exhibition.
  • So a competition can often have over 100 events during the day, in which a given competitor may enter maybe only 2 if the rules are restrictive, but maybe more if the rules are like "silver and under", "gold and under" and they are feeling cheeky enough to dance against grades higher than their own.

    Couples are identified by their numbers, and have to register to collect their number for the day. This is usually pinned to back of the man with 4 safety pins, one at each corner. This is necessary because with the exertion of dancing, the man's back can become wet with perspiration, and the material on which the number is printed can become weak and may tear away, for example in collisions with other dancers.

    Usually each event will require couples to do a number of dances: one for the lowest grade events, maybe five for the highest. Typically each dance is only for 90 seconds ( 32 to 64 bars depending on tempo). The adjudicators are usually composed of the professional teachers from local studios who have passed appropriate examinations with a professional society.

    If an event has more than 6 couples in it, then a semifinal is danced first from which 6 couples are selected. If there are more than 12 couples entered an event, then there may have to be series of rounds, at each stage eliminating half the couples dancing, until they are down to 12, and then 6 for the final. In this case: the couples often need to keep an eye on a results board to see whether they made it to the next round. Large competitions can have entries of several hundred in popular events, so there can be up to 8 rounds. This is a lot of dancing, and couples who expect to get to the later rounds must ensure they have enough fitness to cope. For serious competitors, this may require extra training in the months beforehand, over and above their dance practice. The main muscles involved are the thighs, knees, and ankles, and one world champion couple explained that their main training before winning their title was running up and down stairs.

    The sitting around waiting for one's events is stressful. Each partner would have brought a dress bag: the lady's with a ballroom gown and a latin gown, the man's with tails and a latin outfit. They would have been applying fake tan for the previous couple of days to build up an even appearance, including legs and arms and anything that shows in the various outfits. The partners would typically take turns changing into gear, so that one stays behind in case of announcements.

    They have to ensure that they are ready to be marshalled one or two events before their own, when the promoters check how many couples they have in each event. When their event starts, they will be announced onto the dancefloor, and have rapidly to find a suitable place to start their dancing so as not to obstruct or be obstructed by other couples. As they dance, they are likely to find other couples in their direct path, and so have to take evasive action. This may require quick changes to choreography and alignments. This re-choreography is normally the responsibility of the man, and the lady must be ready at all times to follow his lead in this regard, so that they can present an open happy demeanour continuously whatever the circumstances.

    Usually the winners and placings are announced at the end of the competition. After these presentations, sometimes the winners of the highest grade events in the various dance styles are each asked to do a solo honours dance for the entertainment of the audience.

    (written 11 August 1993, updated 6 September 2008)