Thursday, July 24, 2008

What do you think of Dancing with the Stars?

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.

Please browse these photos:

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?


Ric Storms said...

I have nothing but respect for ballroom dancers, the physical and mental sharpness required is beyond anything I could even consider for myself ( I speak of professional ballroom, I'm sure if I dedicated myself I could at least do competently at a bronze level, but it would still require intense dedication). However I do have to question the treatment of women in the sport. As a guy, I generally have no problem if a woman wants to show a little skin, but the expectations in ballroom border on obscene. That is my biggest problem with Dancing with the Stars (besides the soulless personalities who host the show, you can almost see the emptiness of their being through their eyes). Its one thing to see a woman enjoying her sexuality in a low cut dress, its her choice to do so. Its another to see teenagers or younger effectively forced by the expectations of the sport into making themselves up into dolls. A lot of ballroom dancers that I have seen (admittedly probably not a representative sample) take the troupes of traditional beauty, but take them to such a degree that they become grotesque parodies of what the initial intention was. I think the problem Ballroom dancing has in terms of being seen as a sport is how the competition is structured. At its core, it is about two dancers seeking perfection for themselves, the actions of other dancers should not effect them as if they are perfect it will not matter. It seems that American audiences prefer their sports to be more akin to a battle, two opposing sides trying to impose their will on each other. I think the nature of the sport makes it harder to be adopted by an American culture that isn't looking for perfection, but a victor.

E.P. said...

I understand what it is you're saying about young dancers, and I have definite issues with that myself. The only justification I suppose that one might offer is that, if they don't start around age 10 or 12, it's VERY hard to get really good, you need to train your body before it fully develops. It's an unfortunate problem. But speaking as a member of the ballroom community, very few partnerships face the problems of pregnancy and the like, and for many teens, it's actually a therapeutic tool. Where I live in Utah, there is a HUGE program which helps troubled youth through dance, and I have seen the profound effects it can have. It's wonderful to witness. There is a fine line, however, and I do understand that. I also realize it's a geographical thing as well -- I have seen some disturbing things at competitions in Las Vegas and New York that made me want to puke because I don't think a ten-year-old should move that sexually, and CERTAINLY not in public or as entertaiment!

At any rate, I don't think the photos you chose as an example are really relevant to your argument. Most of the people in that category are older than 12, they're almost all in high school (whether they look it or not). And no one in that competition has breast implants, I promise you. Many of them are from ballroom families as well. And they're dressed MUCH more modestly and conservatively than you typically find, there are very strict rules about that at BYU and they are STRONGLY enforced. The moves themselves are enforced as well, you can get booted from the competition if they feel you're not adhering to the standards they put forth. But if you'd ever been to that competition, you would see that they're just having a good time, no one's being super competitive (and this is an INCREDIBLY competitive sport) and the youth have such comraderie among themselves and support among the fans. It's a feel-good kind of event, honestly.

And I know the photographer, vaguely, she was once a member of the BYU Ballroom Team and she had a real problem with the way most kids in ballroom competed (much the same that you were talking about). She takes those photos for the parents of the kids involved. I doubt she knows that you're using a link to her photos, but I think she'd be really hurt that you were using them to express a NEGATIVE aspect of ballroom in a way that you really shouldn't because this is a clean competition. Did you ask her permission to use them? She might even be able to take legal action if you're linking to her professional site without permission...just a thought, I'm not sure how it works. But you may want to talk to her about it at any rate, I think she might be a little hurt and disturbed that you were flaunting her photos as negative PR.

Anonymous said...

Boy, I'm with you about the way "Dancing With the Stars" portrays the ballroom world. It's a subject of much debate amongst myself and my friends. There are some good points about it, of course -- it's nice for people to be able to see that dance is entertaining and FUN -- but my friends and I sit there and wince as we see turned-in feet, poorly executed maneuvers, atrocious posture, excessive bounce, and crazy backleading from all the female pros to force their male celebrity partners to do what they're supposed to.

However, I'm going to have to now disagree with you on several points.

First, one of the OTHER things that bothers us is the fact that next to NO ONE on the show is actually a real name in ballroom, they're all fluff names and people who really hold no clout in this prestigious world of ballroom -- they glorify those who can't get the glory for themselves in the REAL ballroom world, while the serious champions never get heard of. Contrary to your assertion that finally people who deserve recognition for their accomplishments are being placed in the spotlight -- well, none of these dancers has, as yet, accomplished much. Most of them have barely one major award under their belts (with the exception of Karina) and ALL of those awards are only on the national level. If you go into World Championships, especially Blackpool -- the largest and most prestigious event in ballroom dance -- those names are nowhere to be found. In most of these dancers' cases, the most that can be said for them is they won some tiny, insignificant Star Ball event or some such thing -- the Star Ball series and others of its kind are great, but they feature more amateurs and risings stars than full-blown pros, and even those rising star events are very limited and small. The awards these people have achieved were in events where they had little or NO genuine competition. Not to mention that almost across the board, these dancers have won awards in the two AMERICAN styles -- which are much newer and have much less prestige than the INTERNATIONAL styles do.

The REAL stars of ballroom, on the other hand, no one but ballroom lovers have ever heard of. Where in the media do you hear of Victor Fung? Of Jonathan Wilkins and Katusha Demidova (who reigned as National Professional Standard Champs for ten years running, not to mention being ranked second or third among hundreds in Blackpool more than once)? No one knows Alain Doucet and Anik Jolicoeur who have ranked as World 10-Dance Champions 5 times. What about Gary and Diana McDonald? Tony Meredith and Melanie LaPatin? Michael Mead and Toni Redpath? Mirko Gozzoli and Alessia Betti -- current Blackpool Standard champions? These are the supermen and superwomen of ballroom, and no one outside this small little unique world has a CLUE who they are. I have been embroiled in this special ballroom world for more than nine years, I have personally seen these amazing dancers perform and compete and if you put any of the "DWTS" people up against any of these champions...well, there simply IS no comparision, it's almost laughable.

And now they even have an AMATEUR dancer playing partner to one of the celebrities on this season of "DWTS." Inna Brayer is a terrific dancer and tons of fun to watch on that dance floor, and she and her partner Pasha Pashkov deserve their U.S. Amateur 10-Dance Champion title. However, SHE IS NOT A PROFESSIONAL! We now have a non-professional ballroom dancer up in the spotlight with the pros.

So no, I don't believe that they are giving dancers the recognition they have earned; in this case they're given much MORE than they've earned.

Secondly, as an avid lover of ballroom and a competitor myself, I think you should really speak for yourself when you're talking about "feeling like a princess." One of the draws for me IS that very feeling. I LOVE the rhinestones and putting my hair up in a fancy bun and putting on the eyelashes (irritating though they can be) and all of that. Yes, of COURSE dancing is hard and it takes hours and hours of hard work and training. It's exhausting and athletic as well as beautiful, and it takes enormous dedication. But I know a lot of people who really enjoy getting dressed up, for them it's that glorious finishing touch on their hard work. For YOU it might be a pain, but it isn't for everyone, many of us really like that aspect of it.

Though I will say that I agree with you about the whole backstage thing -- the way they portray it on the show versus the way it really is. It's annoying seeing all these happy-go-lucky stars acting all silly. It would be interesting to take a camera backstage at one of these REAL ballroom comps and show what the dancers are really doing -- stretching and going over routines and perfecting their dance positions and jogging in place as you said. It is hard work. But it is fun as well, and should be treated as such.

Thirdly, and lastly, Ron Montez. It surprises me that someone who claims to have been in ballroom for six years is so ignorant of Ron Montez. You're bashing a man who has more titles under his belt than any three people on "DWTS" combined and has a very solid reputation as a world-class adjudicator and coach. You don't become a world professional ballroom judge by not knowing your stuff. And I can tell you for a fact that the man CAN still dance, I have in fact personally danced with him. Sure, he's not as light on his feet these days as those on the show...but what can you expect from a man in his fifties or sixties?! Come on, get real. I have enjoyed master classes with him, he teaches at ballroom camps, he's a highly respected judge in a variety of competitive styles, and he KNOWS HIS BALLROOM! He actually has a reputation for being somewhat of a stickler for technique and can be a pretty harsh judge -- possibly the reason he doesn't say much on the show is that he was asked to be nicer about things, it's gotten him into a little trouble before.

In fact, if you want to talk about putting the spotlight on the big names in ballroom, he actually IS one. So "American Ballroom Challenge," or whatever it was, got it right. (Heck, the judges they have on "DWTS" aren't even as qualified as I am to judge ballroom! Carrie-Ann Inaba is a JOKE! She never even certified in bronze level.)

So if you're going to spout ballroom knowledge, you better actually HAVE enough ballroom knowledge to spout.