Behind the scenes at a ballroom competition

This is the second post in a series of three posts about ballroom competitions. The first one was about what you do in the weeks and days leading up to a ballroom competition – how to prepare your mind and body. This post is about what a competition weekend looks like. The last will be crowdsourced feedback from dancers about why they love to compete and any special rituals they do before stepping on the competition floor.

This past weekend I danced in a two-day competition in New York City. Let me give you a behind the scenes look at what happens at a ballroom dance competition…

Friday:  I flew to New York with the other instructors and students from my studio. Let me just say packing for a competition you need to fly to is a struggle! If your checked bag gets lost, you want to be sure your carry-on has the shoes and costume you need for the first day of dancing. You need to pack all the products to do your hair and make-up, plus you don’t want your ballgown to get wrinkled. Not to mention that I had 6 different pairs of shoes for the three-day trip! Guys have it much easier, my partner got by with only a carry-on and garment bag…smh.

One convenient thing about ballroom competitions is that most of them take place in big hotels where you sleep, eat, and perform all without leaving the building. Literally there have been competitions where I didn’t step outside and breath any fresh air for three days straight. At this competition some of the judges were offering coaching lessons on the afternoon before competition started.. Then festivities kicked off that evening with dinner and a show. Students were able to perform a showcase routine and get commentary from a panel of judges. I didn’t enter a showcase this time, but had fun cheering on some of my friends who were performing. There were also breaks throughout the evening for social dancing which I always love. I got to dance with some talented guys who I only get to see at competitions once or twice a year.

Around 11:30pm I called it a night and went up to my hotel room to get some sleep.

Saturday: Saturday I was competing in the social dance division which included salsa, bachata, hustle, argentine tango, kizomba, and west coast swing. I believe it varies across competitions if social dances are included, and if so, exactly which ones.  A few days before competition I had received a “heat sheet” that lists what heat numbers I am dancing in and an estimate of what time they will occur, so I knew I was starting with a kizomba around 10:30am. My alarm went off at 7:30am, I threw on workout clothes and started to do my makeup. Then I grabbed breakfast with two of my dance friends in the hotel restaurant (usually at competitions you are buying a “package” that includes your room and all meals). Then it was back up to the room to do my hair and put on my costume. Next I packed my duffle bag with things to bring down to the ballroom with me – Band-Aids, dance shoes, shoe brush, granola bar, lipstick, etc. and then headed to the ballroom.

As I entered the ballroom I was greeted with a complimentary mimosa (in fact they were available basically all day, every day of competition for free). I accepted said mimosa, because you need to be more lose and relaxed for social dances. My partner and I warmed up a bit, and then it was time to hit the floor.

At a ballroom competition there are multiple couples on the floor at the same time (sometimes as many as 15 couples depending on how big the competition is), and you never know what song they will play in advance, you simply know that it will be a tango. There are usually 4-6 judges for each event and they switch off throughout the day. Another important thing to know is that the song for a heat usually plays for 90 seconds, so the judges may only watch you for 5-10 seconds before making a decision on how to rank you. Some judges focus on watching your feet, others may focus on arms, but all expect you to stay on beat.  

Once my partner and I finished social we had a break for an hour or two before the championship and scholarship rounds started. These are the bigger awards to vie for that may mean winning a medal, trophy, or even money.  Championship and scholarship rounds have 3 and 4 dances from the same genre bundled together. For instance, in the social dance championship you dance salsa, bachata, and hustle.  After all those rounds finished there was an awards ceremony for social dances. Social dances are a little unique but generally at competitions you are grouped into both an age category (by decade – in your 20s, 30s, 40s, etc.) and a skill level (newcomer, bronze, silver, gold, open). I was over the moon to win 1st place in all of the championship and scholarship events I entered for social.

Awards wrapped up around 2pm, and I went back to the room to take a nap before cheering on my friends in the rhythm events. Dancing wrapped up around 7:30pm and then we had about an hour to get ready for a fancy gala that evening. At this gala I sat with others from my studio and enjoyed a 4 course meal and  special performances from pro dancers.  After dinner and the show it turned into one big party with everyone dancing late into the night. That’s the crazy thing about us ballroom dancers, we’ll compete for hours during the day, have sore feet and legs, but somehow get a second wind and want to dance more at night for fun! While some people were still dancing the night away, I slipped away around 11:30pm to finally take off my fake eyelashes and shower off the hairspray, before finally falling asleep around 1am.

Sunday: My smooth partner and I wanted to practice our routines on the competition floor, so I dutifully rolled out of bed at 8am to get ready to practice. Our home studio is much smaller than a competition floor, so it was beneficial to have this time to adjust our directions and decide how to use all the space effectively. We weren’t scheduled to start competing until 2:30pm, so I had a leisurely morning to eat breakfast, get ready and watch the earlier events. For social dancing I did my own hair and makeup to save money, but I did opt to have the professionals do it for me on smooth day. Ballroom updos are a work of art and hard to do on yourself. Image factors into your overall look on the floor, so it is important to wear a nice dress and put effort into your hair and makeup.

Unfortunately, during the first few heats on the floor, my updo started to fall out – guess I was whipping my head too fiercely in tango 😉 but I had to keep dancing like everything was fine. When I finally had a short break between dances a friend was waiting for me at the on-deck area to fix it for me (thank you!).

At competitions you have to think on your feet and be ready to adjust because you have no idea where everyone else’s routines will take them on the floor (again, you are dancing with a bunch of couples at once). You could turn out of a spin to realize you’ve been blocked in a corner by two other couples, or you start to do an elegant leg kick to have someone step in your way. But you have to look calm and composed regardless of what happens in those 90 seconds.

After Smooth awards (we did awesome, I was so pleased the hard work paid off!), I showered again to get my hair back to normal. They use so much hairspray that I used a whole bottle of hotel conditioner to break it down (that’s the trick – start with conditioner before attempting shampoo).  They had a professional photographer at the competition, so I went to their booth to look at my pictures and make an order. Then back in the ballroom to watch final heats and the awards ceremony. The final award ceremony of competition names top students, teachers, and studios. Unfortunately for those us of dancing on a budget, these awards are purely based on entries – you could dance 250 heats ($10,000+), not place first in anything, and ultimately take home the award for top student. Not cool in my book, but that’s life.

Then I ate a late dinner with my studio and fell into bed to get a few hours of sleep (literally) before hoping on an airplane back to reality.

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