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Students enrolled in commercial dance studios often reach a point of disillusionment when they get past the bronze or intermediate silver standards. They find that the figures and techniques they are spending so much time and money to learn are not usable when not participating in studio events. First, as they become more and more advanced, the availability of suitable partners diminishes, and second, the dance floors they come across are either too small or too crowded and do not provide the space required by the advanced figures and techniques. So they often ask, Why should I continue doing this? And this question deserves an answer which, unfortunately, studios rarely provide.
People often have the impression that ballroom dancing is ballroom dancing and that they ought to be able to dance ballroom wherever they go to dance. Few realize that the term "ballroom dancing" encompasses a number of different activities, of which three are most prominent—competitive dancing, showcase dancing, and social dancing.
Competitive dancing is what lessons are all about. In those lessons, you learn the school figures, proper footwork, carriage and shaping, gesturing, and leading and following. Having this knowledge is what makes a dancer capable of being competitive. And your studio will want to get you involved in competition dancing even if you have no desire to accumulate trophies or become a professional dancer.
Showcase dancing is somewhat different. Although it involves most of the elements of competitive dancing, it lacks the ingredients of leading and following, for showcase performers dance to choreographed routines that both partners memorize. Neither ever has to wonder about what figure comes next. Showcase dancing is a form of theatre. As John Pattillo, F.I.S.T.D., has written, "if I view it as pure theatre, then leading and following go out the window, and being 'well rehearsed' will take their place." Your studio will also want to get you involved in showcase dancing even if you have no desire to be a performer.
Although these two kinds of ballroom dancing are different, the distinction is not always kept. In an effort to win at competition, many dancers choreograph heat-routines to lessen the chances of committing leading and following errors. When this happens, of course, the judges are prevented from judging the dancing and are forced to judge the performance which renders the whole idea of competitive dancing suspect, for if even only one couple in a heat is trying to demonstrate dancing ability, including leading and following, and the others are not, the heat as a competitive event becomes unfair and ultimately meaningless.
Nevertheless, competitive dancing and showcase dancing are theoretically different activities, and dancers should think of them as different.
Social dancing is, of course, considerably different from both competitive and showcase dancing. Social dancing is done for pleasure. Its only requirement is that pleasure is derived from it. No figure or technique is wrong, anything one does is proper. So if all you want to be is a social dancer, why bother with lessons? Many reasons could be cited, but I will discuss only one.
Most people who go dancing want to look good doing it. And in fact, looking good is the one common ingredient in the three forms of ballroom dancing this article is about. Looking good on the dance floor has always been a major goal of dancers and has from the earliest of times been incorporated into the standards of dance. The Italian dance master, Domenico de Piacenza published a manuscript on dancing is 1416. In it he writes that "it is no good going in for dancing if you lack suppleness or are in any way deformed. Beauty and physical aptitude are of great importance." He claims that a dancer should be able to move "as smoothly as a gondola." Looking good is also the reason behind the use of costume and other "spirits of the feet" as they were referred to in the fifteenth century by dance masters. At least since the 1920s, the Imperial Society has had as one of its aims to get as much smoothness as possible into a dancer's movements. To the society, a good dancer is one who exhibits elegance and stylistic appeal, while too much flashiness is a taboo.
Everyone reading this magazine knows what I'm talking about. Good dancers have a certain look about them that the rest of us try to emulate. The look, of course, is impossible to define, yet we all know it when we see it. The question is, How do we get it? The answer is by mastering the basic elements of ballroom dancing that good teachers teach; all of these elements go into acquiring the look. The way you step on your foot—whether it be heel, ball, or toe—the way you use your ankles and knees, the way you hold and sometimes bend your torso, the way you hold your arms and keep your frame, the way you hold your head. These things are what make up "the look" and although you may be able to acquire this look without instruction, chances are you'll get it faster with instruction.
The thing to understand is that all of these elements can be put to use on any dance floor, large or small, crowded or empty, and in any kind of dancing with any partner.
Of course, some of these elements may have to be modified at times to fit specific circumstances, such as dropping a wide frame on an extremely crowded floor, changing a figure to avoid a collision or embarrassing your partner, shortening the length of your stride which may require changing a heel lead to a toe lead, etc. But changing a few of the elements that go into making up "the look" will not destroy the look if you know what you are doing and can maintain the others and resume the use of those altered when it is possible to do so. The look does not require the use of flashy or complex figures, although when carried out well, they can certainly contribute to it.
Unless your only interest in dancing is to be competitive, performing complex figures or even any figures at all should not be your goal. Acquiring the look should. And when you acquire it, you will find yourself being noticed and your dancing praised even if you are doing little more than swaying back and forth and from side to side on the dance floor, for people look at dancers, not their feet, and your elegance and stylistic appeal will be evident even if you are practically standing still.