the Gauntlet

A look at ballroom dancing

Publication YearIssue Date 

Ballroom dancing is one of the oldest activities to ever be new again. The long-standing activity has made a resurgence into modern times and popular culture as a new social environment, a more competitive style called DanceSport and as inspiration for reality television shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

Originally derived from casual folk-dancing, the labeling of a ball itself comes from the Latin ballare, meaning, "to dance." It now refers to partner dancing where there is a leader and follower. This aspect makes the dances often very difficult to learn.

"The hardest part is learning to lead properly," says University of Calgary Ballroom Dance Club member David Rottenfusser. "It takes a lot of people a long time to learn that, because not only do you have to keep in mind what your feet are doing and what your hands are doing, you also have to give the lady the right signals so she knows what she's doing."

Closed ballroom, the common stance for formal ballroom dance, consists of five points of contact between partners, including three hand contacts and two other areas of contact. These are denoted as the man's left hand holding the lady's right hand, the lady's left hand resting on top of the man's right upper arm, the man's right hand placed on the left shoulder-blade on the back of the lady, the lady's left elbow resting on the man's right elbow and the right area of the chest touching the partner.

Ballroom has taken on many forms that can appeal to a varied audience of young and old from many different demographics and cultural backgrounds. Its modern form in North America is technically classified as international standard or latin. These two classifications are home to 10 specific dances including the slow waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow foxtrot and quickstep and latin with the cha cha, samba, rumba, paso doble and jive. There are also proponents of historical or vintage dance who focus on the waltz, polka, schottische, tango, one-step and foxtrot.

Other partner-dance styles have often been labeled ballroom as well, like country dancing which has also regained strength in recent years. While stemming from the same social motives as ballroom, it can involve different configurations including circle dancing, longways set, square set and couple dancing.

While each dance holds its own unique characteristics, there are some similarities.

"Once you learn the first two, or three dances, the others come a bit easier," says Gail McFadden, an instructor for U of C Ballroom Dance. "There are some things that follow through in every dance, so the third dance and fourth dance and fifth dance aren't as difficult."

McFadden adds there is a little bit of a learning curve to step up to when switching between styles.

"Latin to ballroom is a little bit different," she says. "As you move up the levels, the partnership gets closer and closer. We don't want people who are dancing for the first time to have to be glued to each other because it's a little intimidating. But at the upper level, it's a lot closer."

With the introduction of much variety in the sport, DanceSport has become a revered competitive activity in the international arena and is even recognized by the International Olympic Committee as a competitive sport.

The competition side of things is often very subjective, as points are awarded based on judges' opinions of aspects like connection, frame, posture, speed, proper body alignment, proper usage of weight/ankles/feet and grooming. With all those things in mind, many involved in the sport face the hardest part after they get past learning the actual steps.

"For me personally, the showmanship [is very challenging]," says Chris Jessop, another instructor at the club. "Some people have problems with rhythm and holding someone's hand, the personal space issues. I had been dancing in one form or another for most of my life but [doing] ballroom for only 11 years, so for me it was about [getting better at] making it look good."

Dancers can become certified at certain levels through medal examinations. The dancer chooses a certain genre to perform in front of a judging panel. Though the road to competitive skill is long, many consider it an enjoyable journey.

"Usually, we suggest a couple of years in the lower levels before moving up, so at least four or five years of experience," says McFadden. "But if you're putting in that amount of effort, you're probably going out and dancing at clubs and dances and whatnot, so there's a lot of practice that goes in that doesn't feel like practice. It's just going out and having fun on the dance-floor."

In addition to learning the dancing itself, many look to ballroom to find a new social group.

"I moved to Calgary and I didn't know anyone or anything about the city so I thought joining the club would introduce me to some social life here," says Jessop. "The big classes sometimes have their drawbacks but they have a lot of energy. There's a dynamic, that once the class gets to a certain size, it generates a lot of enthusiasm, especially if the instructors have a lot of enthusiasm to impart on the class."

With all the positive and exciting aspects, ballroom dancing is making an impression on a new generation and demonstrates its staying power as an activity, sport and artform.