One of the big limits on one’s ability to pursue dance is the cost of travel. From gasonline and airline tickets to restaurant meals, the costs add up, and one of the biggest is housing. Even buying a room in a price block specifically reserved for a dance event – a very common set up for competitions – can easily run the cost of a month’s worth of private lessons. For some dancers this may not be a big deal, but for others it’s a deal breaker that forces them to limit their dancing to whatever they can drive to and back in the same day. Room sharing can help somewhat, but can quickly become overwhelming while providing smaller and smaller savings for each person added.
For our most recent competition, my dance partner and I tried out a new strategy, one that worked out very well for us: staying with a stranger.
Opening one’s home to dancers is very common in some groups. Lindy hop and blues groups, for example, have been running exchanges for years. An exchange is a multi-day dance event, usually over a weekend, that may feature social dances, workshops, and/or competitions, all of which attract out of town guests. The local group asks its members to offer spare rooms, beds, couches, and floor space that it then offers to out-of-towners at no cost, with the understanding that the out-of-towners will open their homes when there is an exchange in their city. Collegiate ballroom teams often to the same thing when they host competitions, hosting visiting teams in their dorm rooms and staying with other schools’ teams when traveling.
While there’s not exactly an equivalent in the general ballroom world, there’s an even better option. Sites, such as www.couchsurfing.com connect travelers looking for a place to stay with residents happy to host them, and all for free. My dance partner and I decided to give it a try.
Registration was easy. Though there’s no cost to use the site, I did opt to pay $25 for physical confirmation and limited my search options to hosts who’d gone through similar confirmation. This was an easy and still relatively cheap security procedure. Moreover, it meant that I’d be staying with someone who knew how the site operated. It was very easy to search for hosts geographically, and indeed I came away with far too many potential hosts. I searched again, this time using dance-related keywords. I ended up with Howard, who while not a ballroom dancer, was active in the blues, Lindy, and Argentine tango communities. I figured he’d be sympathetic to a fellow dancer, and might have even participated in a few exchanges himself.
It was very easy sending a message to Howard and we struck up an accord right away. I explained that this was my first time using Couch Surfing and asked his indulgence should I commit any faux pas in the process. What should I bring? (sleeping bag, pillow, and a flashlight as his house had no exterior lighting) What time should we arrive? (any time but call about an houor before we arrived) Could we bring anything for him? (No. We brought a CD of a local swing band anyway as a thank you gift)
What was it like staying with Howard? About the same as it would be crashing on your friend’s couch. We arrived about 11:00 PM due to a late departure from our home city and a traffic/construction/weather trifecta of delays. Howard showed us around, where we’d be staying (I claimed a couch while my dance partner slept in a spare bed room), the bathroom, and then we settled in. We chatted about the dance world, the competition, the local area, and got to know each other. Howard and I watched an episode of Breaking Bad, and then it was time to sleep as we had an early day at the competition tomorrow.
My dance partner and I were up early as she had to do her hair and make up, while I had my own, admittedly less extensive grooming to see to. Howard slept the morning in and we didn’t see him as we departed. He did call us later as we’d forgotten a pair of dance shoes at the house (why did my dance partner bring them inside in the first place? I’ll never know), which we stopped by to retrieve afterward.
Overall, it was a great experience. We had a fun time, saved a bit of money (the cheapest area hotels were $125/night and far less convenient), and made a friend. We were both well-rested and had a great time dancing at the comp, placing 3rd in smooth waltz, 1st in smooth foxtrot, 5th in standard waltz, 2nd in rhythm cha cha, 3rd in rhythm rumba, 5th in rhythm swing, and 2nd overall in rhythm, which included a scholarship prize. If couch surfing has this kind of effect on our dancing I could get used to it!
My only concern would be that one takes a risk staying with strangers. Some travelers, and I’d particularly advise single female travelers on this point, may feel more comfortable staying with hosts who have a good feedback history. I’d also recommend having a traveling companion, especially the first couple of times, for safety’s sake.