The Twin Wars, or Where Might a Career in Ballroom Dancing Lead?

By Daniel Calloway

Editor’s note: At NCDC each year we make a point to host ‘cookies with the pros’, a Q&A session for competitors and spectators to ask any questions they like of our all-star judging panel. Since we weren’t able to have our ‘cookies with the pros’ this year, we’ve decided to share some stories every now and then. A huge thank you to Daniel Calloway for taking the time to share this great story!

When I began competing professionally in the early ‘80’s, I competed against my identical twin, Darryl. Unfortunately for the judges, our medium-height, dark-haired partners were also apparently identical in their competition hair, make-up and costumes. The chair of judges always needed to hold a brief judges’ meeting before the professional events to warn the judges about the two matching couples: “If you think you’ve already marked this couple, check the number again.”

Darryl and I had balanced our cooperation and competition with each other well all our lives. We even shared ballroom coaches with each other even though we lived in different states at the time. My partner, Sharon, and I dominated in the Twin Wars until Darryl got a chance to trade up and dance with former champion, Sandra Fortuna, immediately reversing the usual results. That decided it for Sharon. She realized she preferred show dancing to competitive dancing and moved to New York City. There she met and taught Oscar-winner, Robert Duval, in a dance studio where his passion for tango and Sharon led to marriage. They established a tango studio together at his Virginia horse farm.

Sandra retired a year or so later and Darryl met and married his next partner, Lucia, still the love of his life. They left competition to perform on cruise ships around the world for the next eight years. That lead to a love of geography and history that became Darryl’s passion in teaching school until his retirement this month.

I retired from competing in 2001 (forced out by a skateboarding ankle injury), but love dancing way too much to leave it. I have danced professionally, coached and judged non-stop for 44 years. My 20-Year “Ankleversary” is this January 1st!

About the NCDC Anthology: Volume One

One of the goals of the National Collegiate DanceSport Championships is to help dancers continue to be a part of the wonderful DanceSport world. We’re thrilled to present you with a selection of articles from members of the community about continuing on in DanceSport, both in college and after graduation. This anthology includes a mix of perspectives, personal stories, and interviews.

These stories are directly from the community and are only lightly edited for clarity. They are not a reflection of the views, recommendations, or policies of USA Dance, but instead a reflection of the various concerns, discussions, and opinions you might find in the college dancer and alumni community.

We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.

Tips for Dancing after College

By Seth Westlake

Finding a Committed Partner, or Continuing on with One

Finding a committed partner can often be the hardest step. It can be difficult—and at times, almost impossible—to find someone who meets all of your competitive criteria. There’s the time large time commitment, including practice, coaching, travel, and days at competition. There’s the fact the both of you will need to live proximate to each other, or have to make plans to travel excessive amounts throughout the month. Additionally, you will both need to be able to afford ballroom dancing, including coaching, dance gear, dresses, and competition fees. That being said, where can you start?

First, try talking to your coaches, friends, and local professionals. Like a job, networking can often be your best friend and quickest route towards arranging partnership tryouts. If reaching out in the community isn’t working, try social media, fellow alumni, and Facebook groups. Get the word out that you are interested in a partner, and what goals you have in mind for your dancing.

For any audition, try to keep in mind that most partnerships break within the first month. Give each potential partnership an honest effort, focusing primarily on whether or not you have compatible goals and personalities. Skill level comes second. Remember: with proper coaching and commitment, almost anyone can rise to the occasion.

For those of you that have been able to remain with a committed collegiate partner, congratulations! It can be hard to align schedules as you both step into a busy working world, but we assure you that the love of dance is always worth pursuing!

Budgeting for Instruction

Affording coaching can be stressful, especially as you and your partner start to look at taking lessons from some of the nation’s top coaches and professionals. Lessons can often range from $60-120 for 45 minutes, so it’s important to make sure you find the right instruction for you, and to save money where you can.

Before getting private instruction (or perhaps in supplement to private instruction), look for ballroom seminars, workshops, and camps offered in your area. Some studios invite master instructors to teach group classes and private lessons for a specific period if time, which can become an excellent opportunity to learn well for cheap. Some competitions—like NCDC, for example—offer free seminars to competitors, often regarding what they see as the biggest problems with dancing they’ve seen during that competition.

Finally, if you do get consistent private instruction, try to pool your resources. Always take private lessons with a partner. In some cases, instructors might even allow a two couple “shared private lesson.” You won’t get as much one-on-one time, but the words and visuals of your instructor will still be available to you.

Affording Competitions

Competitions can be expensive, but they also offer some of the biggest opportunities to save if you know where and how to look. Registration fees are fixed, but things like travel and places to stay can be shopped vigorously.

First and foremost, drive when possible. If you have the time—and perhaps a car full of people to take with you—trips can be fun and rather inexpensive, with the added bonus of avoiding airport security procedures and carry-on bag restrictions. Having more people will also help you save on nightly hotel costs, depending on how far you split the rooms. Also consider that having a car at a competition is a powerful resource. You can get food, supplies, or depart whenever you’d like.

Second, shop around for airfare and hotel prices. Some websites will even track the prices for you and tell you when tickets are at their lowest. Consider arriving at a competition a day early or leaving a day late if you want to save even more. Additionally, programs like AirBnB can often put you up for a fraction of the cost of a hotel.

If you’re looking to save on registration, ask your competitions if they’ll accept volunteering as a form of payment. Some competitions might be able to arrange free or reduced registration. Others might enable you to get free tickets to an evening show or session of your choice. If you do have to pay full registration, make sure to register early and get the early bird pricing.

For anyone planning a vacation, consider pairing your time off with a competition. Buy one flight instead of two and spend time exploring the competition area. Sightseeing and relaxation can help bolster your enjoyment of the competitions and the places you visit.

Where to Practice

Unless you own or work at a ballroom studio, finding or affording practice space can be a special problem of its own. Before paying full floor fees at your local studio, consider a gym, YMCA, or workout space near you.

Universities often have special Alumni access and pricing to their facilities, often at rates comparable to that of local gyms. These spaces often have the largest sections of hardwood floor, tile, and racquetball court-style accommodations, which are perfect for practice.

Local gyms or YMCAs are often just as good, providing open dance space in rooms that are not currently hosting group classes. If the rules permit, basketball, racquetball, and tennis courts can be excellent spaces to practice as well.

Dance studios, compared hour-to-hour, are almost always the most expensive, but they do provide consistent, open, and clean spaces for dancing. Ask your local studio if they have a monthly practice membership, or perhaps a package deal that can couple with private instruction.

If possible, practice at home by yourself, doing drills and basic actions by yourself in the mirror. If working on your own fundamentals doesn’t require studio time, save a dollar by staying at home.

Staying involved with your dance community

Staying involved with your local dance community is a big part of developing your own dancing, your teaching style, and your love of dance. Sharing your dance knowledge with others is both an excellent way to help ballroom disseminate and grow, and also a great way to learn more about your own dancing.

To stay involved with the competitive world, try joining a local team or club, even if you weren’t an alumni or previously involved with the institution. Many teams are thankful for the help and free instruction. This can also help you get access to free or discounted practice space.

Next, consider becoming a member of USA Dance. Your affiliation with USA Dance can help grow the world of amateur ballroom dancing, including the access that new and upcoming collegiate dancers have to competitions.

Finally, get involved with social dancing. We’re all in this for one reason: fun. Take time to dance with others in your community. Make friends. Experience the power that dance has to bridge all kinds of demographics, bringing together people of all proficiencies, age, race, gender, and social status. Ballroom dance is an art, skill, and passion that we can all take with us into the latest parts of our lives, so why not start sharing that passion with others now?

The Dance Bibles

By Elisha Otis (a pseudonym)

What would you say if I told you that it was possible for someone to run 85 miles a day for twelve days, and to run faster on the back six days than the front six days?  It would certainly make those Jive rounds a little easier, right? How about if I told you it was possible to change your mental state in 15 minutes or less from one of anxiety to one of peace and happiness, and keep that state for the whole day?

My dance coaches frequently push me to take certain books to heart, not only because they help me with dance but also help me be a better person. Having tools to learn at an optimal pace, maintain my partnerships, and have boundless energy have not only changed my dancing but radically shifted my career trajectory. Here’s a list of my top five favorites—I hope they’ll become yours, too.

The Book: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

What you will learn about: How to have better relationships with everyone you interact with.

Why you should read it: Ever lost a practice to a fight with your partner? Then you know why you should read this. As an added bonus, the approach should positively impact your interactions with all.

The Book: Unleash the Giant Within by Tony Robbins.

What you will learn about: A lot.

Why you should read it: It is really hard to describe in a few sentences how much Tony Robbin’s approaches can help someone. Perhaps it is as simple as this: what if you could be given a set of tools that let you choose to be happy when you wanted to be? How much would that affect your practices? Your performances? Your life? If that sounds appealing, I’d give this book a try. Like most of the books on this list, Tony Robbins can be an acquired taste, so be prepared to read the book with an open mind and to learn the content, not the tone.

The Book: The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey.

What you will learn about: How to learn and retain knowledge in your body at the optimal rate.

Why you should read it: I’m pretty sure everyone who has ever danced has at one point tried to control every muscle fiber in their bodies simultaneously. Then they saw the footage of what that looks like, as well as their funeral-director face trying to do that much mental work. There’s a better approach to learning how to dance and how to maximize your athletic performance, and this book will explain it to you.

The Book: Slow Burn by Stu Mittleman.

What you will learn about: How to train and feed your body in order to maximize athletic endurance.

Why you should read it: Stu Mittleman is the ultramarathon runner I described at the start of this article. He has successfully trained others in his approach, so the process is replicable. I suggest reading the book with an open-but-skeptical mind. Much of the food stuff (eat your veggies!) will make sense to readers and is strongly recommended, but I don’t advocate adopting any part of the approach that strains traditional scientific or medical advice.

The Book: The Egoscue Method (your book of choice) by Pete Egoscue.

What you will learn about: How to keep your body in alignment so that you can keep dancing at a high level until past the age of retirement.

Why you should read it: Intuitively, if your body is out of alignment, you’ll put repetitive stress upon it. Repetitive stress causes pain and injury, which tend to cause dancers to stop dancing. I find Pete to be a super egotistical writer who oversells what is possible, but every dancer that has seen the egoscue specialist in my area (author included) has become a repeat visitor with significantly less pain. The concepts are commonsense and effective, so I highly recommend readers give the book a try.

Making it Work

By Esther Foo and Ziqing Lin

This is a joint piece by Ziqing and Esther, who have been dancing together since 2011 with a little break for Esther’s grad school commitments. Ziqing started ballroom dancing in his senior year of fall 2006, so he has been dancing for eleven years since undergrad. Esther, on the other hand, started social dancing in 2008 when she was in high school, danced throughout her undergraduate career and is currently dancing while in graduate school.

From Esther: It is difficult to pinpoint a specific instance where I knew I fell in love with ballroom dancing and decided that this is the thing I want to dedicate my time to. I believe it was a combination of the music and the aesthetics of dance that first caught my eye and led me to try ballroom, but ultimately, I think it was the intrigue of collaborating with someone else to create something with nothing more than a touch (and some music) that makes ballroom dancing truly remarkable. Dancing has drastically changed my life; I wouldn’t be able to tell you where will I be or what will I be doing if weren’t dancing. Not dancing after I graduate was never really a consideration for me. Of course, it also helps that I can socialize, exercise, rewind, listen to music, sing, make friends, gain confidence, and be creative, all in one practice session. I think it is pretty neat! I’ve heard a lot of people say that there is not enough time in the day to dance, but for me, the best part about dancing is that is saves time while letting you stay mentally and physically healthy!

Ziqing: My very first coach once told me that ballroom dancing is an activity that will draw you in and keep you there for a very long time; no matter how long of a break someone takes, they would eventually return to dancing. It is ironic that I’ll have to admit that I almost quit dancing. Having been dancing alone for a whole year since I first moved to the US*, I was getting frustrated by the lack of partnership and progress. The very day that I steeled my heart and decided to quit, I met Esther, decided to form a partnership, and the rest is history. I think dancing is a great form of release where I have a time set aside to forget all the problems/pressure from studies, work, and daily life. When I step onto a dance floor, all that matters are my partner, the music, and what we can jointly create.

  • Fun fact: I would not be here in this country if I hadn’t started dancing! I started a conversation with my then graduate advisor because he learnt that I was dancing, thought it was cool, and invited me to join his lab. You’ll never know where will dancing take you!

Ziqing and Esther: One aspect about dancing that really appealed to the both of us is the critical cognitive processes involved in dance, and it is also what really motivates us to be better dancers. While dancing encourages creativity and allows for expression through movement, it is simultaneously a process that requires a lot of active thinking and logical reasoning. If you catch us on our down time, more often than not we will be watching dance videos, analyzing movements, discussing what we learned, and thinking about how we can improve our dancing. But on top of that, we definitely enjoy sharing our joy of dance through practicing and competing.

We are currently managing a long-distance partnership because we trust and believe in each other’s vision of dance and know that our goals in dance are aligned. For those who are graduating and might be considering continuing with their current partners but are in different cities, know that it is a challenging process, but with the right partner, it will all be worth it. Despite the fact we only see each other every other weekend, this process has allowed us to develop our own understanding of dance and subsequently ourselves. Hopefully, we will continue dancing for many more years to come! So if you are having doubts about continuing after graduation because of logistical concerns, please, please don’t give up; talk to as many people as you can to hear what they have been through and how you might be able to work something out. We know people that have gone on to finding a partner at a local studio, dancing pro-am, picking up a new dance style, or even turning professional. If there’s a will, there’s a way; so if you’ve enjoyed your dance experience so far, keep dancing!

Last bit of advice: don’t forget to always cherish your partner who shares the same love and dream with you, or that many things are possible with a little sprinkle (maybe more than a little) of hard work!

Practice Time and Positivity

By Jonathan Wolfgram

It is by no means uncommon to have an unproductive day of practice from time to time. You might be sore or your partner might be having a rough day, and although it can be frustrating, this is to be expected in any sport as partnership-reliant as ballroom is. But, if you’ve ever looked back at your practices together and thought, “Wow, we’re NEVER very productive,” there are plenty of steps you can take to make your time together not only more useful, but significantly more fun. Having a great practice routine is not difficult, so I’d like to briefly share with you three things to remember that will help give structure and efficiency to your practice time: start positive, stay positive, and set clear goals.

1. Start Your Practice Right

The key here is to throw yourself into a positive attitude right away. This will set the tone for the practice and make both of you more receptive and engaged in dancing.

  • Don’t forget the niceties. Always begin your practice by smiling and being genuinely happy to see your partner. Ask them how their day was and what they’re looking forward to. Relax and just talk to each other for a few minutes. These are all very simple things that will not only jumpstart your time together with a positive attitude, but it will make the tone of the practice more conversational and thus make communication much easier.
  • Stretch out. Dancing is a physically intensive activity, and a lot of acid can build up in your body in the process. Not only will you be painfully stiff if you get stuck in the habit of not stretching, but you can hurt yourself if you don’t allow your body to breath for a little while. This time is also phenomenal for talking with your partner or making plans, so be sure to use it and abuse it.
  • Warm up with something fun. At the beginning of every practice, my partner and I kick things off with a West Coast Swing. We do this not to work on swing technique or practice the dance, but because we have a great time and it gets our bodies moving before we start drilling ballroom technique together. You can dance a Hustle, a Salsa, a Single Swing, or anything casual that you both enjoy to warm up and set the mood for the practice.

2. Stay Positive

Now that you’re warmed up and have the right attitude, do everything you can to keep it positive for the remainder of the practice. A few things to remember to hold onto this:

  • There is no negativity across the partnership. Feedback is important and you should absolutely tell your partner what you’re feeling, but you should never insult or degrade them, for technique or for any reason at all. Any kind of hostility will stomp on the positivity you’ve worked hard to achieve, so be sure to treat your partner well.
  • Dance can be frustrating, and it’s neither of your faults. The technique and details you are working on are hard, so don’t be upset when they don’t come right away. You’re working as hard as you can and your partner is doing the same.
  • Dancing is fun; remind yourself of it. Most of us probably enjoy dancing at least a little bit, but it’s easy to get lost in competitiveness and work and forget to appreciate it. If you ever feel like you’re having a dreadful time or that you’re frustrated with the sport, take a step back and be thankful that you have someone there to dance with and that you’re passionate about what you do.

3. Set Clear Goals

Having a smile on your face is not the only necessity for a successful partnership. In fact, one of the most useful things you can do is to set goals in a clear and rigorous manner.

  • Figure out your long-term goals. Talk with your partner and agree both on where you want to be and when. This could be dancing Silver Smooth in four months or dancing Champ Latin in three years. Be specific and you can work out a game-plan to make it there.
  • Set goals for every practice. Discuss what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it, and once again, be as specific as possible. For example, say, “I want to clean up the rotation on our cortes and I want to work on our shaping drills to do it.” Fill your time with as many goals and accomplishments as possible. Probably the biggest mistake all of us have been guilty of making is to spend your entire practice saying, “let’s just dance a round and see how it feels.”
  • Write them down. For both long and short term goals, whip out a phone or computer and jot it down. It will cement the goals in your mind and you’ll have a concise point of reference if your ever get sidetracked. It’s important to revisit your long term goals often and important to hold yourself accountable on a day-to-day basis, so be sure to get into the habit of putting your goals into words on a page.

Overall, every partnership is different, so it’s important to experiment and see what works best for you and your partner. Regardless of your process for goal-setting or the ways you keep a smile on your face, I encourage you to take this advice for a spin and see how much more you can get done. Not only will be significantly more productive and engaged, but you’ll have a lot more fun while doing so.

Iron Chef Ballroom: Eating Right at a Competition

By Nick Johnson

Picture the scene: on the road, a bus with 49 of your closest friends (literally), when the sun goes down, and you’ve depleted the budgeted reserve of oreos and mixed nuts. Drowsiness and a grumbling abdomen hound every breath when suddenly, the announcement comes over the PA that everyone on team has ten dollars each for dinner at the nearest Panera. It’s a classic choice: heavy on the starch, but lots of fancy fiber and slow burning carbs in vegetables and soups. But across the street, nary a minute’s jog, is the holy grail of cheap protein: Burger King. Not the namesake sandwiches, or even the fries, are the staple capturing your eye.  Tonight is about the nuggets. Two fifty for ten: or forty total for none of your own dime. Eighty-four grams of protein to satiate, to fuel the last four hours of bus ride and getting situated before grabbing a few hours of sleep before it’s time for hair and makeup. Doubling down on the buffalo sauce and keeping the receipt, your choice is made, and you trot back over to the Panera to impress your teammates with your capacity for processed domestic fowl.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well—not immediately, at least.

They fall down the hatch like the Ring into the mouth of Mount Doom, and you remain satisfyingly satiated all through the evening (and a bit of the continental breakfast as well, to be honest). When it comes time to don Smooth gear and your waistband is a bit snug, the bloating becomes noticeable. The effect of too much sodium relative to hydration makes itself known, not to mention not moving at all for four hours immediately following consumption. Rhythm gear is a near nightmare, stretchy fabric bulging over a swollen intestine, pitching posture out of whack and prioritizing self consciousness over floorcraft. In short, a very bad time.  

It’s simple to avoid this specific scenario (get a salad at Panera), but there are some general tips that fit almost everyone’s budget and the palette of most dancers I’ve encountered. First two tips: almonds and dark chocolate. They’re a good combo, cheap separate and easy to combine with a little time, a Ziploc bag, and a knife for chopping cheaper bar chocolate into mixable pieces. This combo contains a decent amount of protein and healthy oils from the almonds alongside quick energy sugars and a touch of caffeine from the chocolate. If pre-coated almonds are in your budget, that can save some time and prevent nut-dust from getting on your floats or tails. Personally, my favorite addition to the power couple is a friendly handful of dried cranberries (‘craisins,’ to some). Their tartness helps balance the richness of the first two.  

Water is a given. Staying hydrated is essential to keeping on top of your form, and some opt for sports beverages with electrolytes and sugars to replenish the body’s stores after generating that healthy glow during Mambo, Jive, Quickstep, and Viennese. Personally, leaving it simple makes keeping track of salt and sugar intake easier, but it’s more a function of what you’ll actually drink vs what’s theoretically best.

Same deal with food before the comp starts: three eggs benedict at the Marriott Watertable might tickle your taste buds and seem like an appealing combo with protein-rich eggs and hearty English muffins, but a cautionary tale about filling up on simple carbs and fatty, salty (delicious) hollandaise. Simple carbs will burn out fast, leaving one light headed and dizzy if not perfectly hydrated, and the eggs won’t be as filling when competing with the buttery sauce.

After some trial and error, as well as considering what’s available at the venue, the best-results breakfast seems to be in the neighborhood of:

  • A fruit to perk up for the first round. Banana is my favorite—solid enough to balance its own sugars, and a healthy dose of potassium to keep muscles limber and uncramped. Banana chips also make a great addition to the almond chocolate mix for throughout the day.
  • Some dairy. Milk, yogurt, soy milk, etc. are great for calcium, and some cultures from a kefir or greek yogurt to stabilize throughout the day are also important.
  • Lean protein. Egg whites or turkey sausage to the front of the line for this one, but the more fat you’re able to metabolize the wider the options here.  
  • Starch and bread are something to avoid early in the day, but for most it’s a good way to boost satiation without layering too much dense food into oneself.  

Author has no nutritionist training, just coaching and observation of self and teammates at competitions.

Dancing Through the Distance

By Hannah Alyea

Dancing. This word defines me in ways I never thought possible. I started ballroom dancing my sophomore year of college. I had no previous experience, but I tried one lesson and was instantly hooked. I have learned so many things like standing up straight, using gravity and floor pressure, keeping proper frame, how to dance in sync with another human being, and most of all, how to have fun. I remember sometimes practicing up to 22 hours a week, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the joy of dancing. I would find myself more often than not practicing things such as Cuban motion at my work desk, because what else are you supposed to do when your whole self is devoured by something so magnificent?

Four years have passed, and even though I have graduated college I still plan to compete in dance until my legs give out. I have danced with the same partner, and we both love having the chance to step out on the competition floor together. But like many who dance collegiately there are some struggles when trying to dance with your partner after graduation. Life can get in the way. People graduate, get jobs, and move to different cities. Currently my dance partner and I live 1,671 miles away and it can be difficult to find time to practice together. Even though we don’t find much time to dance together, we have decided to still try and compete together. I know it sounds crazy. “Hannah, is it really worth keeping a partnership when you can’t practice often? Isn’t it called partner dance for a reason?” Is that even a question? Yes it’s worth it! It’s at least worth trying. There are so many things we can work on even if we’re miles apart. I would be more disappointed in myself if I didn’t at least give it a try.

I know it can be a tough road to follow, but dancing doesn’t have to stop after you graduate school or move to another city. Maybe a long distance partnership isn’t for you, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on dance entirely. There are ballroom studios all over the world and in this day and age all you have to do is google “Ballroom dance near me” to find something. I am here to encourage and challenge you to stay connected to the ballroom dance world after school. If you’re like me, once you start ballroom it’s hard to just give it up and know you don’t have to. Enjoy your time dancing in the collegiate circuit, but know it doesn’t have to end if you don’t want it to. Good luck to everyone competing and have lots of fun!

Healthy Dancing

By Jessica Doro

Dancing can be incredibly beneficial to a person’s health, both mentally and physically. To gain the greatest health benefits from dance, however, one must also maintain healthy dance habits. Having been a dancer for several years, I have had my fair share of pain and injury, but I hope to continue dancing for many years to come. Dance has given me strength and immense happiness, and has motivated me to live a healthy lifestyle so that I may keep dancing through life. Here are some things I have learned as a dancer that hopefully you can implement into your own life and dancing:

Leave it at the Door

Stress, worry, negative attitude—leave it all outside the studio, off the dance floor, and away from your practice and performance space. Be present. You are there to dance, so enjoy it. Sure, dance can be frustrating and challenging at times, but there is a difference between struggling to learn a complicated new dance step and struggling to dance with your partner because you are too distracted by your endless to-do list or the fact that you missed your bus that morning or how irritated you are with so-and-so. Forget all of that and let the dance floor be your space of solace.

Imagine that there is a forcefield at the studio door, or surrounding the dance floor, and as you step blissfully through it all that negativity drops off your shoulders. Don’t try to pick it up. Leave it be to sit outside and you may find that as you return, much of that negativity has dissipated and things may not seem so bad after all. If you allow yourself to dance with a mind clear of dark clouds, you will be amazed with how that positivity can compound itself and permeate into the rest of your life. Focus on the dancing, let it heal you and brighten your day, and enjoy the time you have to dance with your partner.

Align Yourself

Before beginning a practice or performance, it is important to find your center, breathe, and find your strength (literally and figuratively). There are several techniques and exercises which can assist you in aligning your mind and body, and practices which you can implement into your regular warm up or dedicate more time to outside of the ballroom.

We will start with some seemingly simple exercises, which can have profoundly positive effects. I have come to hybridize breathing meditation and exercises outlined by the Egoscue Method, which then transition into yoga and Pilates-like movements. Start by laying on your back, knees bent or up at 90 degrees and resting on a chair, and arms at your sides rotated palms up. Breathe deeply into your belly and let your body melt into the floor. After a few cycles of breath, slowly move your arms along the floor in a jumping-jacks-like motion. Let your arms come to rest at your sides again, palms down, take a few more breaths, and then adjust so that your feet are on the floor and knees bent (if you weren’t already in that position). The best way to describe this next movement is like a slow-rolling hip thrust. Slowly, with your breath, lift your right hip and leave the left hip in contact with the floor. Then roll your hips up and through so that both hips are in the air like the basic bridge yoga pose. Continue to roll through so that your right hip makes first contact with the floor, and then come back to center with both hips resting on the floor. Repeat a few times and then start in the other direction, first lifting your left hip. After that I like to hold a child’s pose with my palms facing up, and finish the warm up with basic stretches and small arm circles: standing with arms to the side, straight out from the shoulders, rotated with a closed fist and thumbs pointing back.

When warming up, I like to engage in slower movements that focus on my breathing because it allows me to tune into my body and feel where there may be tightness or areas I should be careful of while dancing. This warm up also helps me to find a clearer head space which invites more positivity into my dance practice.

Listen and Communicate

In order to dance at your best, it is crucial that you take good care of your body and are able to effectively communicate with your dance partner. This requires you to take the time to calmly tune into your body and ascertain what you need to do to facilitate the best possible function and feeling. This is different for everyone, and you will know the needs of your own body best. After focusing on yourself, open up this awareness to your dance partner, whether the cues are verbal or nonverbal. The biggest advice I can give on effective communication with your partner is to remain open and to be clear when articulating your thoughts. We are always told that no negativity should cross the line of your partnership—this is so important! Rather than placing blame, if something is going wrong, take a step back and discuss how you may go forward together. Improve your dancing by way of improving your communication. Interacting positively with your partner will improve your dance performance and likely help you with other relationships in your life. As I said before, there are so many ways that dance can have profoundly positive effects on a person’s life—remain open to the possibilities and come into practice with a smile and a willingness to learn.

Learning to Lady Lead

A Shared Experience on Breaking Out of your Assigned Dance Roles

By Abby Mark

When I first started dancing, it seemed unusual to see two women competing together. I may have seen one or two couples, but otherwise it was strange to me. Why would any woman want to lead? It seemed counterintuitive to learn the lead part when there was already so much to focus on with the follow technique. Now that I have been dancing for four years, I’ve been lucky to see the numbers of same sex competitive couples increase, and I have even competed as a lead myself. To find out more about the reasons for this change, I reached out to some female leads to learn more about their experiences.

Why did you initially switch parts?

There can be many motivating factors in learning the opposite role. For me, it was out of necessity, as we had lost many leads in the upper levels on our team. I found that this was a pretty common theme. Kellen Niles, from the University of Northern Iowa team (UNI) said, “I initially learned how to lead because our group lacked a decent number of members to have a balanced lead-to-follow ratio.”

For others, learning to lead presented an opportunity to get everyone dancing. From Luther, Barb Stier emphasized, “We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to dance as much as possible, so I figured leading would be the best way to help anyone that wanted to dance.” Learning both parts often allows for flexibility, meaning no one has to be left out in a social or team practice setting.

Leading can even be a motivation to stay away from the sidelines and dance more! Nichole Aitchinson from UNI said, “As a follow you are limited to your pool of leads, but as both lead and follow you [can] literally ask anyone in the room for a dance!” In competition, you can dance two levels as a follow, and even more as a lead. It’s more chances to bring home a ribbon, right?! In a social setting, this also means that you can dance all night long without stopping!

Motivations for learning to lead can be as simple as a shortage of leads or a desire to dance all night long. Any reason to swap positions is a good reason! Switching from a follow to a lead position seems to be a positive experience that is worth the time and effort.

Do you see any benefits to learning the lead’s part?

Hannah Alyea of the University of Minnesota shared how leading changed her perspective. “The biggest thing I learned from leading is how much I took the lead’s part for granted. Leading gave me an incredible appreciation for what leads do. The biggest thing was dancing with new follows. They kind of expect a lead to carry them down the floor, and that’s really hard to do when trying to keep good frame. My arms would get sore really fast after leading through a whole summer lesson. After doing that for the first time, I ran to Seth and Kyle to apologize for all the times that I did that to them and to thank them for all of the work they do.” I couldn’t agree more Hannah! I also had no idea how hard it was to be a lead until I tried it myself. In learning the other side of the partnership, I learned to respect what my lead does.

Natalie Wade from Luther shared the same sentiment. “It gives me an overall respect and better understanding of both sides, which is really important because it makes the communication of dance more smooth when you know both parts.” Having this perspective can allow a dancer to follow more efficiently, because in learning both parts, you can better understand how connection is built and maintained on each end of the partnership.

Learning both parts has many benefits inside your own partnership, but it can also have many benefits when helping other dancers. Hannah Heckmann from UNI uses her knowledge to choreograph pieces for others! She remarked, “My favorite part of leading is all of the knowledge I’ve gained, especially as a choreographer. It’s nice to know both parts so I can fully understand what my dancers are capable of doing.”

Even though learning the other part has many benefits, it isn’t always easy. I asked the women about some of the challenges they have faced in a community where leading is predominantly male.

What challenges do you face as a female lead?

Leading as a women can present some physical and mental hurdles. Hannah Alea has experienced some of these setbacks while dancing as a lead. “Sometimes dancing with just as busty ladies makes it hard to lead,” she says. “That and sometimes I get the lead and follow parts mixed up.” Switching back and forth between lead and follow can be extremely confusing at times. Barb recalled similar struggles. “Another challenge is remembering the leader’s footwork when I also have the follow’s footwork in my brain,” she says. “Sometimes I’m tempted to do the basic the whole time.”

An occasional conflict is in the pronouns used in lessons. Nichole shared, “it is hard on us when we want to lead in a lesson and we are referred to as a man. Also, when competing, we have to still have a more masculine everything. There needs to be a definite line between which female is leading or following. Some people say you can’t have the same feel as a man/lady could portray vs a lady/lady or even a man/man partnership.”

Hannah H. discussed her struggles in leading in a seminar setting. “As a female lead I do face some challenges, especially if I’m in a workshop or practice with an instructor who doesn’t know I’m a lead. They may assume I’m a follow and prevent me from learning the lead part by grouping me with the follows. Other times, I’ve had instructors remove me from dancing with a female follow because they found a male lead to dance with them. It can be pretty frustrating, but the ballroom community is becoming a more welcoming space.”

The ballroom community has a ways to go in accepting more female leads, but there is still hope! I have been very lucky to be in the Midwest, where I have found an abundance of support from fellow dancers of both genders and all levels/positions.

What advice do you have for other dancers considering learning the opposite part?

Kellen (UNI): “Similar to learning the follow part, being a lead does take practice. You are essentially starting from scratch when starting out. It is worth it though, because you learn what you need to give to your partner, regardless of your role when dancing. Also, have fun with it and show how strong of a dancer you are! Being able to do both parts is valued, impressive, and even an appreciated skill to have.”

Barb (Luther): “DO IT. It will be greatly beneficial to not only your own dancing but the dance community you are in because it provides more opportunities for everyone to dance by having an extra lead.”

Nichole (UNI): “Do it! Knowing both parts helps you become a better dancer. It also helps you know where you should be in your partnership. If you know both sides of the move, you know how it should feel as a follow so you can definitely lead it better as a lead. Leading also gives you the opportunity to meet fellow ladies in the ballroom world. Most women only dance with men so you don’t get the opportunity to chat with your fellow follows. When you lead and follow you can dance with anyone! There is no harm when it comes to learning both parts. The worst that’s gonna happen is you become a better dancer… and what’s wrong with that?!”

Hannah A. (UMN): “Keep an open mind and work just as hard on the lead’s part as you do the follow’s part. I’m always surprised at the new things I learn as a follow when leading someone else.”

Natalie (Luther): “I would highly encourage it. Work on it to the extent that you are gaining understanding, rather than just doing it because I think there is a lot of benefit in learning both sides of the dance.”

Hannah H. (UNI): “My advice for other dancers is to learn as much as possible. Being talented is great, but to be a great dancer you should also be an educated dancer. This means follows should learn how to lead and leads should also learn how to follow. Often times I only see female follows learning how to lead and male leads tend not to bother learning the follow part. Being “ambidancetrous” isn’t just for female follows to fill in for the male leads. Men need to step up and learn how to follow too.”

All of these amazing women have said all I could say and more. Follows can and should learn to lead, either strictly for practice purposes or for public events like social dances and competitions. Though it isn’t easy, and there is definitely a stigma in parts of the ballroom community, learning both parts is worth it. I wouldn’t be the follow I am today if I didn’t gain a better understanding of the whole partnership through leading. My hope is that in sharing our collective experiences, we can continue to encourage more dancers to cross that boundary and to learn more about both roles in this amazing activity of ballroom dance.

I would like to thank all of the women that collaborated with me for this piece. If any leads or follows want to know more about the experience, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask!