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May I Have This Dance?

Ballroom Dancing From Courting to Competition

By Jana Neimanns

Colourful artwork of people dancing, in couples or by themselves and in different types of clothing including ballet shoes and a leotard with a tutu.
Courtesy of Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Have you ever seen ‘Strictly Come Dancing’?

If so, then you have some idea of competitive dancing and what this article is all about. The show’s name is inspired by the movie ‘Strictly Ballroom’, which came out in Australia in the early 1990s. The movie inspired me to write this article, tracing the origins of modern day competitive ballroom dancing. It shows the journey of two people trying to win a ballroom dance competition by using new and different dance styles compared to the typical ballroom dances. By incorporating other dance styles and performing them in front of an audience at the competition, they defy the prevalent traditions of competitive ballroom dancing in Australia at the time. The organiser of the dance competition is vehemently against incorporating other dance styles so, the couple needs to convince him and the audience of their new style of dance.

This article will cover the definition of ballroom dancing, some of its history which I will link back to the movie mentioned above, where it is now and how you could do it. So, let’s look into it!

To situate the topic, ballroom dance is a partner dance that uses a predetermined step pattern. Technique and posture are very important and are judged harshly in competitions.

At this point, there are two schools of ballroom dance; The International School and The American School. They are locationally different as the International School of ballroom dance is regulated by the World Dance Council (WDC) and the World DanceSport Federation (WDSF) in Europe and was developed in England. This school includes Standard and Latin dances, whereas The American School has its own equivalent, called rhythm and smooth styles. It allows separate moves between partners. Competitions following the American School style are regulated by the USA Dance and Canada Dancesport CDS.

The two schools include four main ballroom dance styles: American Smooth, American Rhythm, International Standard and International Latin.

As many of you who have seen period dramas like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ will suspect, and as the name itself suggests, ballroom dance can be traced back to courting dancing in 17th and 18th century England. The upper class used to come together in social events like balls to court each other. Men had to write their names on the women’s dance cards which is where the term ‘my dance card is full’ originates from. At first ballroom dancing was only accessible to the privileged as the working class did not attend these events.

The music used for ballroom dancing came from operas, ballets and polkas and would likely have felt as exhilarating to dance to as modern-day club remixes feel to us.

Unlike the dancing you will see in clubs nowadays, however, the dances back then included dance steps adapted from folk dancing. The form was mostly throne facing to show respect to the King. Dance partners danced in circles and in squares through the ballroom. After some years, this rule was not as heavily enforced and people only had to face the throne at important events.

A ballroom with golden ornamentations, high mirrors, and a large chandelier on the ceiling.
Image courtesy of Diogo Nunes via Unsplash

During the 19th century, the structure of the dances changed. Cotillion became more popular because it consisted of a series of short dances and dance segments that mimicked social behaviour. Couples presented each other with souvenirs such as flowers.

Much later, only specific dances, however, were classified as official ‘ballroom’ dances. Those included Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango and so on, which were considered more smooth and less intimate.

‘Latin’ dances such as Rumba, Swing, Samba, Cha Cha, Merengue on the other hand, were more rhythmic and intimate. The dancers could dance next to each other which is different to the typical way of facing each other. Rumba, Swing, Samba, Cha Cha, Merengue are some of the Latin dances.

In the movie ‘Strictly Ballroom’, these ‘Latin’ dances are seen as improper by the judges and the organiser of the competition. The organiser even wants to ban the couple trying out new dance styles because he disapproves of them and seeks to rig the competition against them. The main characters, however, go ahead and perform the other styles for the audience, who seem to have a lot of fun watching them.

The movie is set in a time where professional ballroom dance associations have been established, which made ballroom dancing become more popular.

As the dances were favoured more and more by the general public, people wanted to learn them and dance schools started to emerge. This led to more people being interested in competitive ballroom dancing as they could now learn them properly. In the movie, the main character’s parents run a dance school for competitive ballroom dancing, which seems to fit the real situation at the time.

Ballroom dancing started to become popular in other situations too. It became part of social events and infiltrated the culture more. During prohibition in America, however, the dancing was reduced a bit because alcohol was forbidden and that was a big part of social events. In contrast, it became more popular in Europe. Movies started to showcase ballroom dancing and by the end of the 20th century, it has become popular in most places having moved to Asia in the 1960s.

Ballroom dancing is part of the media, the public and social events. As Jazz music attracted popularity, Latin and Cuban dances started to become incorporated into the ballroom dance structure as well. The Cuban mambo and cha cha for example, started to be common and got included.

The movie ‘Strictly Ballroom’ is filmed at this point. The audience is excited by the different dance styles being incorporated, so the couple in the movie gets a lot of applause for their dance routine in the end.

So, now, in the 21st century, ballroom dancing is part of popular culture.

Ballroom dancing is not just a part of many competitors' lives, but has also become a part of the entertainment industry with popular shows such as ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in Europe and the Americas.

These shows represent the world of ballroom dancing in some ways, but watching an actual competition will be a more authentic experience. The competitive scene is still just that though: highly competitive. The routines have to be as exact as possible to win and there is competition for all kinds of dances all year round in many areas.

And lastly, to discuss what I hinted at earlier, perhaps you have seen one of the period dramas or shows mentioned above and thought, I would like to do that! So, can you do ballroom dancing too? The simple answer is, you can. There are many dance schools that teach competitive dances all around the world with master classes and regular classes to join. Universities have dance societies that teach some of the dances mentioned in this article. If you go into training with enough dedication, motivation and discipline it is possible to even compete. If this article has interested you in dancing, I would recommend joining the Dance Society at the University of Aberdeen and see if it’s for you. Who knows, maybe this article inspires the next world champion!


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