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I have, since becoming a USABDA member about a decade ago, always felt that we were pursuing two somewhat contradictory goals—the promotion of ballroom dancing as a social activity and an effort to have ballroom dancing recognized as an international sport by achieving its inclusion in the Olympic games.
Although these may not seem like contradictory goals, two articles in the Mar/Apr edition of Amateur Dancers have lead me to believe that they are. Helmut Licht’s "Ignored and Bypassed" clearly conveys the qualms many social dancers have about imitating competitive dancers. Most people cannot see themselves either dressing as or doing the things in public that competitive dancers do. Most people lack the physiques needed to look good in such costume and would be embarrassed by performing the sensual movements Mr. Licht describes. Then there is the article by Carl Olson, "Becoming Involved," who laments the extreme difficulty of getting social dancers interested in taking medal tests in England. But taking medal tests requires the social dancer to dance like a budding competitive dancer, and most social dancers are not inclined to do that.
Here in Dallas/Fort Worth, we unsuccessfully tired twice in the past five years to rejuvenate our USABDA chapter even though the area has a very large number of social ballroom dancers. I know of no fewer than five thriving dance clubs in this area, and I would not be surprised if there were more. The dancers who are members of these dance clubs are, for the most part, not members of USABDA and have no interest in being members even though the cost of membership is minimal, almost trivial, in comparison to what they pay to belong to their various clubs. Why? Furthermore, anyone who does social dancing and also keeps up with the competitive dancers in this area quickly notices that the competitive dancers hardly ever show up at social dancing events. Why? The reason for both of these conditions is that social and competitive ballroom dancing are two vastly different things, requiring different abilities and personalities.
Social dancers must deal with small floors and many dancing couples; competitive dancers always dance on large floors with few dancing couples. Social dancers do not dance according to rules, not even the most basic line of dance; for them, anything goes. Leading and following and floor craft dominate the dancers' minds. Competitive dancers do everything by rule, especially in international style dancing. They dance to choreographed routines that are well practiced and memorized. Leading and following really have no part to play since both dancers always know exactly what the other is going to do. And, with few couples on a large floor, floor craft doesn't come into play much either.
Some months ago, while browsing in a used book store, I came across two volumes on dance written by Agnes DeMille. In one she writes, "It is rare that a single person effects a new style. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, one man did. Vernon Castle, long-legged, slim, and divinely skillful, together with his willowy and lissome wife, Irene, became the rage of the Western world, first in Paris in l9l l, then in New York in l9l2. They invented many new steps and advertised them in public exhibitions of ballroom dancing. Although they were professional entertainers, their dances were designed to be copied by ordinary people and to be danced everywhere. And they were. . . . The Castles danced in contemporary clothes, not in costumes; they were the first performers in one hundred fifty years to do this."
If this reporting is true, the Castles make a stark contrast to today's professionals.
I don't believe that a woman watching Irene Castle dance would have said that she looked like a cross between "an acrobat and a hooker," to quote from Mr. Licht's article, nor would she have been embarrassed by Ms Castle's movements, and therein lies the rub. Competitive dancing is not just ballroom dancing at a higher level. It requires a mixture of talents. It is not just dancing; it is also acting. It not only requires the ability to move in certain ways, but also to pretend. And it also requires a tinge of exhibitionism; a desire to show off. Most people do not have this combination of traits. When they go dancing, they don't want to act, to be watched or judged, and they do not want to show off. They just want to have a little fun, and school figures, medal tests, costumes, and routines, which would require practice and memorization, would only dampen their interest in dancing.
This is the answer to Mr. Olson's dilemma and the explanation for the reaction Mr. Licht's group had to a professional ballroom dancing exhibition. Just because many of us enjoy attending dramatic presentations doesn't mean we would enjoy being on the stage. The same is true for those who enjoy social dancing, and we make an egregious error when we mix together social and competitive ballroom dancing and assume that just because a person enjoys doing one, he or she must also enjoy doing the other.