While this post was prompted by Gina N’s comments to The Dancer’s Guide to Red Tape, it’s a post I’ve had a long time in coming. This past February, my studio took some of its dancers to the Mid-Atlantic Dancesport Championship, a USA Dance ballroom competition in the DC area. They had a great time and did very well, with most students making finals and receiving very high placements, but it was also a new, almost overwhelming experience for many of them, despite having competed for years. What made this competition so different? To understand, we need to look at the overall competitive ballroom world in the US.
Pro-Am vs. Am-Am
Before we get into the different competing organizations, we need to look at the different types of competitions. In the US, amateurs have their choice of two competitive styles: pro-am and am-am. An am-am competition pairs two amateur dancers together and evaluates them as a couple, while pro-am competition pairs each amateur with a professional dancer, usually the amateur dancer’s teacher.
As we’ve said in previous posts, there are advantages and disadvantages to pro-am vs. am-am competition. In pro-am, you know that your results are yours, not your partners. You dance under ideal circumstances, with a partner who can be counted on for everything from knowing the choreography to knowing exactly how best to show you off. The focus gets to be entirely on you. The disadvantages are primarily financial, as not only do you pay the pro to come to the competition and dance with you, but anytime you want to practice you need to schedule private lessons to do so.
Am-am competition, on the other hand, is more social and more closely related to real-world dancing. It is a more egalitarian relationship between the two dancers. It is also significantly cheaper. On the other hand, amateur partnerships are difficult to arrange, require much more coordinating of schedules, and amateur partners tend to be less reliable than professional partners if only because they have more demands on them outside of dance.
Different Organizations, Different Types of Competitions
We bring up pro-am vs. am-am because the competitive field is arranged to favor different types of competitors. NDCA competitions are largely focused on pro-am. While am-am competitions (and the lesser-known related fields of student-student and mixed-am) do take place at NDCA events, the overwhelming majority of dancing will be pro-am.
Conversely, USA Dance and collegiate events are entirely am-am (though USA Dance does have a mixed-am option. More on that in a future post). There is no pro-am at these events at all. Everyone attending is an amateur dancer and will dance with another amateur dancer.
NDCA: Pros and Cons
From here on in, we will look at the differing organizations purely from the perspective of a am-am couples. This is not to denigrate pro-am, but since pro-am only exists in NDCA, am-am is the only field that can be compared in the different organizations.
NDCA comps have the distinction of being very well-produced affairs. They are usually at major hotels and other beautiful locations. Tickets often include meals that may range from passable hotel food to elaborately catered banquets. When it comes to dancing, the sky’s the limit. As we said in The Dancer’s Guide to Red Tape, these events are organized to maximize the number of entries students do and thus pay for. Any dancer of any level can compete in any dance, often multiple times per weekend. A 40 year-old woman who dances at the bronze level could compete her smooth waltz in various combinations of levels (Intermediate bronze, full bronze, open bronze), age (Adult A, Adult B), and dance collections (single dance, two-dance, three-dance, four-dance, nine-dance, and scholarship), end up dancing that waltz 36 times over the course of an event. Combine that with different dance types and one can easily do lots and lots of dancing over the course of an event. Furthermore, NDCA events have very few costume restrictions, allowing dancers to wear mostly anything they want.
This also allows dancers to customize the exact type of dancing they want to do. They can dance any style, within or outside of syllabus, at any level, and any age group, within a few small parameters. This makes these types of competitions very attractive to dancers that want a lot of say over how they compete and what they dance.
The catch is that NDCA competitions are usually for-profit events and they make money from entries. Dancers can end up paying between $10 and $50 per dance (depending on the competition, package, discounts, and single vs. multi-dance options). At a typical rate of $30 per dance, those 36 waltzes could cost our dancers over a thousand dollars, and even split between a partnership that’s still a lot of money on one dance. Of course, very few dancers choose to dance every combination they’re eligible for, but that brings up another issue.
Because NDCA events are pro-am focused few amateur couples compete at them. Considering all the different potential entries they could enter, and the relatively few couples attending, and it becomes very difficult to get contested events. If two couples each dance their waltz four times, it’s still more likely than not that they will never actually be dancing against one another. This means that more often than not, amateur dancers at NDCA events are dancing uncontested. This can still be a fun and valuable experience – uncontested first-place still requires evaluation from the judges and is not a guarantee, practice on a full-size floor in front of judges, etc. – but it can end up being an awful lot of money to have no one to dance against.
USA Dance, by contrast, is much more restrictive in what it allows but with the aim of creating bigger competitions at low cost. While an NDCA competition may have less than half-a-dozen amateur couples, USA Dance events can have hundreds. At the aforementioned Mid-Atlantic, although we’d prepared our students by telling them what to expect and even showing them videos of previous years’ events, it was still jarring to many of them to go from uncontested NDCA events to having over a dozen couples competing together. At the largest events, up to three-dozen couples may be competing together, so many that they must be broken down into different groups.
For those dancers who want competition and want to know how they compare to other dancers, this is very good but it can also be an intimidating and humbling experience. NDCA competitions are often more light-hearted affairs where many dancers compete occasionally and purely for fun, while USA Dance tends to draw dancers who are 100% focused on competition. Not everyone takes this view, but many do and it is something to consider.
Furthermore, USA Dance is much more restrictive than NDCA, in terms of what people dance, how they dance it, and what they where while dancing it. For example, a bronze smooth couple at Mid-Atlantic is only permitted to dance waltz and foxtrot for their smooth. They must dance both of these dances, which will be evaluated together as a multi-dance, and they do not get to dance any other smooth dances. In fact, all the bronze events are limited to two dances, silver three, and gold four. To dancers used to dancing every dance they know, this often feels anticlimactic and restrictive. The reason for doing so is to allow the dancers to focus on mastering a few things at a time rather than diffusing their effort (and progress) over multiple dances, and that at events where other dances are permitted as non-qualifying competitions*.
Furthermore, the method of competition is restricted. Both USA Dance and NDCA have syllabus restrictions at each level, but USA Dance is much more stringent about enforcing those restrictions, even going so far as to disqualify dancers for repeated violations. While NDCA does have similar rules enforcement is less punitive. There is also the matter of costumes to consider; USA Dance does not permit any costumes in the adult (18-35) syllabus (bronze, silver, or gold) divisions, and even when costumes are permitted they are still more limited than NDCA rules (i.e. no rolled sleeves on men’s costumes. Too bad, Marcus). While one can register in adult and senior divisions, assuming one’s age qualifies, the events are interleaved meaning dancers will not be able to switch in and out of costumes to match the events.
That said, there are many upsides to USA Dance. A big one is the cost. USA Dance events range between $50 and $80 registration fees per dancer and includes up to four events in each registration (i.e. adult bronze Latin c/r, or senior I silver smooth w/t/f). Additional events are usually $10 to $20 extra. The end result is usually significantly cheaper than NDCA, often on the scale of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The prohibition on costumes also means saving money as one is not required to go out and buy an $800 suit or $1,500 gown (assuming competing in adult syllabus events).
Another advantage is the contested aspect. While it can be intimidating dancing against a dozen other couples, there is much to be said for the idea that dancesport competitions be actual competitions.
* Most USA Dance competitions are referred to as National Qualifying Events (NQE). This means that dancers who do well are permitted to dance at the National Championships in the dances they qualify in. Non-qualifying competitions do not do so. No matter how well a bronze couple does in swing at Summer Sizzler, they must still qualify in cha cha/rumba in order to dance at Nationals.
Finally, we come to collegiate dancing. We’ve talked about college teams before, but rarely about their competitions. Many college ballroom dance teams host their own competitions, including UPenn, Princeton, and (my personal favorite), the University of Maryland’s upcoming DC Dancesport Inferno. Collegiate competitions tend to be run very much on cheap side, often using a student union or gymnasium. They are, however, the lowest cost to enter, usually $35-$50 depending on student status, and include unlimited entries at no extra charge.
Because there is no over-arching organization, each team organizes their own competition differently, but are usually similar. Most, for example, follow USA Dance’s guidelines regarding syllabus and infractions (providing warnings, then disqualifying repeat offenders). Most prohibit costumes in newcomer and bronze but allow them at silver and above. Most allow three dances in newcomer, three or four in bronze, and four in silver and gold, often with an all-syllabus event for the fifth dance (Viennese waltz, paso doble, or bolero. I keep working on UPenn, trying to get them to add a syllabus Peabody event but no luck so far. I’M TALKING TO YOU MELISSA!).
All of this makes collegiate competitions very appealing to amateur dancers, especially since they are not limited to college students. There is, however, one catch: collegiate competitions almost never run different age divisions. A couple in their fifties will have to dance against couples in their late teens or early twenties. It is purely the dancing that is being judged, and if physicality enters into it, that’s part of the game.
I can’t say whether any couple should or shouldn’t compete in a given field. I will say that each brings a unique feel to the event and offers their own challenges. Having competed in all three areas when I was an amateur, I now recommend my students try all three and find which one works the best. If you’re still not sure, check YouTube for USA Dance or collegiate competitions and ask yourself: Does that seem like fun? Will it help my dancing?
What else is there to ask?