I haven’t talked much about my Ballroom dance career yet, but since I came home from a competition last Friday with two trophies, I think now might be a good time to delve into my insider’s perspective on all things Ballroom. Just so you know, I specialize in the Latin category of Ballroom dancing, meaning I compete in Cha Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble and Jive. People actually know what that means now thanks to Dancing with the Stars, the enormously popular ABC show that’s catapulted Ballroom dancing out of its artsy niche and into the forefront of pop culture.
When people find out that I’m a real life Ballroom dancer, they often excitedly ask me “so what do you think of Dancing with the Stars!?” I always answer that I think it’s done great things to broaden the public’s awareness of Ballroom dancing and I’m very happy to see some of the world’s top ranked ballroom dancers actually get the recognition they deserve. And I’m not talking about the lollipop Mormon Julianne Hough, I mean Louis van Amstel and Karina Smirnoff, two world class professionals who have both been top competitors at Blackpool--the closest thing Ballroom has to a World Championships or an Olympic games event.
If people ask me this same question after I’ve had a few glasses of wine and I feel sufficiently anonymous, sometimes I’ll tell them the rest of what I really think. As someone who actually dances competitively, I think the show is overrated and obnoxious. I don’t know any Ballroom people who can actually stomach it except for Shirley Ballas, the mother of DWTS’ Mark Ballas and a World Champion Latin dancer herself, who occasionally yells to me across the ballroom to ask if I’ve been voting for her son. I don’t have the guts to say ‘no’ to someone of that caliber, but I don’t watch the show and I most certainly haven’t voted for anything or anyone. Even after she gave me this handy LIVESTRONG-esque bracelet with Mark’s call-in number, I’m still just not into it.
The reason I hardly ever watch the show is the same as why I think it’s overrated. Lots of times people who watch the show ask me “aren’t the dance steps really trickey?” and I awkwardly reply, “the Pros, yes--the celebrities, no.” The routines they do on the show I’d categorize as Open Bronze level. Bronze means its beginner steps, but then they add what we call “open” material to the choreography with back bends, side by side work and some fancy things for the Pro to do. Branching out from elementary dance steps gets the job done of making Bronze interesting enough for TV, and the fact that they have the celebrities dancing with Pros, not other celebrities, does a lot to improve the show’s aesthetic. This teacher-student set up actually comes from the competitive Ballroom world, where it’s called Pro-Am. You pay your teacher to compete with you and, of course, you look and dance better as a result. Choosing this arrangement for the show was a very good move because otherwise these beginner celebrities would look like just like what they are, beginners. There’s no way this would pass for prime time material, so adding Pros makes the dancing actually look okay-- some would even say impressive. However, for those of us who dance Ballroom in real life, this means Dancing with the Stars is nothing more than just televised Pro-Am. And we’ve already seen enough of that.
I think the show’s obnoxious because for one, it’s unrealistic about competing and this gives people a totally distorted view of what Ballroom dancing really is. At a real competition you don’t see any of that self-indulgent, saccharine, “I felt like a princess!” nonsense. Competitors don’t sit backstage blowing kisses and playing around, we’re going through our routines and running in place to keep our heart rates up. After all, we’re professionals and we take our work seriously.
Even if the celebrities on the show prepare for their competition like we do, it doesn't matter because viewers only get to see the happy part. The producers obviously want to keep things light because you don't see much of the difficult side of rehearsals. You don’t see anyone get angry – maybe a celebrity gets their feathers a little ruffled but then they cut to the couple getting facials. Oh, how I wish it was that easy.
And as for feeling like a princess? Well, when I’m in my comp gear a princess is probably the least thing I feel like. Let me tell you, that fake tanner not only turns your skin bright orange but it also makes you smell funny. You couldn’t buy a deodorant to handle both the tanner smell and you sweating all day, not to mention that you look practically radioactive next to normal people.
You start your hair-do by pinning it into a tight, uncomfortable bun and then gluing the whole thing down with gel. Then, you make your hair solid by repetitively saturating it with hairspray and then blowing it dry. By the time you’re done, your head is a shiny bowling ball. But my favorite part of the make-up experience are the fake eyelashes, which feel like you have a delicate critter quivering atop your eyelids. Distracting? Yesss...
In reality, competitive Ballroom is far from the happy walk in the park DWTS makes it out to be. Real ballroom isn’t sentimental, it’s not romantic and it’s certainly not some magical force that takes hold and floats you around on Cloud Nine—it’s a sport. Ballroom is muscle knots, bleeding toes, tendonitis, practicing for 3 hours in 100 degree heat, bathing in your own sweat—this isn’t unleashing "feminine powers," you’re unleashing an athlete. You get angry at your body and frustrated with your inability to do things. Your coaches are strict and demanding; to them, your mistakes are unacceptable.
So why do we do this? It’s absolutely exhilarating. And not in an “I feel pretty” sort of way; it’s like training for a marathon, where the exhilaration comes from you pushing your body so hard and amazing yourself with the results. You watch your feet and legs become skin and muscle. You see your toes get boney and you notice your posture changing into that of a dancer. You learn what specific muscle fibers feel like and how to isolate and control them in a sequence, to rhythm. Remember what ol’ Teddy Roosevelt once said:
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty... I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Yeah, Ballroom’s like that.
Sometimes people ask me if it’s such a big deal that the show is unrealistic. Can’t the audience have a little fun and just enjoy it? Let me first say that I am proud that Ballroom has gone mainstream and I have no problem that people watch it for the entertainment value. You know, the rhinestone dresses, the scantily clad women, good looking guys moving their hips, etc. However, when people believe Ballroom is just what they see on TV, or start think of it as entertainment and not a serious, competitive art form, that’s when we start running into problems.
Ballroom isn’t only present in a frivolous way on Dancing with the Stars. The show that started it all, America’s Ballroom Challenge on PBS is produced in much the same way. It isn’t like at a televised sporting event where the commentators are retired, but current, professionals who mostly say intelligent things. I watch basketball; those guys actually seem to know what they’re talking about. In contrast, PBS features the highly commercialized Ron Montez who’s been retired for almost 30 years now and probably can’t dance his way out of a paper bag anymore. It shows too, like on the 2008 show when one of his comments was“those are some strong walking movements.”
Beyond broadcasting, newspapers usually aren’t much of a help either. They seem to send out the reporter with close to zero background knowledge to write feature articles about the retiree-dominated social dance scene and then you get silly, insignificant pieces about how Ballroom is one of the few places where men and women can be elegant together or how dancing is saving women from their midlife crises.
If these reporters want some real stories, I suggest they look at the highly sexualized world of Youth Latin dancing. These little girls are pressured harder than anywhere I’ve seen to dance like sexually active, mature women. They do a very convincing job too, in fact I know some parents force their younger than 10 year old daughters to get breast implants in the hopes that they’ll score higher in competition. I wonder how many of them end up pregnant by their partner or on a shrink’s couch later in life because dancing has severely stunted their psychosexual growth.
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Print media definitely plays a role in people underestimating Ballroom. Yes, the dancing looks beautiful and carefree from afar, but most people have no idea how much work is involved. This is a serious sport and people will continue to treat it trivially as long as journalists keep misspelling words like "chassé" and publishing cheesy one-liners like “never underestimate the power of the mambo.”
However, it still seems that Broadcast media sets the main standard for how the public sees Ballroom dancing. Its decision to present it in such a frivolous way to earn ratings takes away from the dance industry’s hard work to promote Ballroom as an respected art form and sport. This reminds me of how even some Americans I know think of the arts as trivial. For example, I have a close family member who has never understood my dancing. I’ve been doing this for six years now, I’ve devoted huge chunks of my life to getting better and he still thinks of it as a hobby… sort of like knitting. To him, dancing could never be a real job. Is the media’s portrayal setting this idea into the minds of prime time captive audiences?
Does it harden some sort of glass ceiling that no matter how technically advanced or internationally renowned something is, it’s still not significant because it’s just art?