Couples take the floor and must dance, outperform, stand out among their peers, and improvise routines to music they haven’t heard before by using their skill. Judges stand on the edges of the floor, taking notes to themselves about any couple that catches their eye. These observations culminate into points and decisions, and using those, a winner is named. Everything about the dancer is looked at: their clothing, their behavior, their movements, even their facial expressions. This is competitive ballroom dancing, or DanceSport.
Ines Aitsahalia ’18 and Alexa Podolsky ’17 are both dancers who have been dancing for over ten years, and have experience in a multitude of types of dance, including ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, and ballroom. Aitsahalia is currently on the Princeton University Ballroom Team and has won the Kings Ball DanceSport Competition twice with her teacher from the Fred Astaire Dance Studio, Princeton High School graduate Juan Ramirez ’11. Podolsky recently won the Youth Novice Title this year at the USA National DanceSport Championship.
Both dancers emphasize the intense competitive nature of the sport. “[It’s because] there are multiple couples on the floor at the same time,” Podolsky said. “Judges are all around the floor, judging your movements and seeing who can stand out, who has the best technique, who puts on the greatest performance.”
The sport features a dynamic that includes a focus on the camaraderie between two people. A key to success is the dance partnership being able to function as one unit, so developing both trust and confidence with a partner is an important factor. Podolsky remembers her lowest points at the beginning of her partnership. “[My partner and I] definitely went through a rough patch when we first started dancing together because it takes a while for the chemistry to work well.”
“If you don’t trust someone to flip you over their head, you’re not going to look good getting flipped over your head,” Aitsahalia said.
In this extremely nuanced, high-skill environment, the smallest mistakes can lead to failure during competitions. Bending a knee the wrong way, putting the head down, and turning a foot incorrectly are just a couple mistakes that can add up to failure. “[These mistakes] change the overall appearance of the dance and of the steps,” Aitsahalia said. “If you keep turning your foot out the wrong way or repeatedly put your head down, in the end, you’re doing the step wrong.”
The partner dynamic also introduces problems when one person makes an error. “Being the follower of [my] partnership, if my leader messes up, I need to follow it. We both know a routine. If he goes off of it, I can’t fight it … I just need to adapt to [the mistake] and keep going. At the end of the day, that is how ballroom works,” Aitsahalia said.
With this constant possibility of failure, dancers have a phase of second guessing themselves after their dance. “Even if right after you came off the floor after your dance and you feel so great … once you’re up there for awards…you can’t help but [think you] didn’t do that well,” Podolsky said. “I’ll think things like, ‘This [small mistake] could’ve costed me the competition.’”
With such need for perfection, Ramirez finds a perspective from the opposing argument. “I think people think [dance] is not a sport because [professional dancers] make it look easy … If we were to make it look hard, it wouldn’t be any fun to look at. [In traditional sports], people are not caring about how they look while they play soccer or when the play basketball … [dancers] would have to move efficiently and look good. As soon as a person steps on the dance floor … they really start to be amazed about what dancers actually [do].”
The competitions themselves bring out a range of emotions for dancers. “I go from excited to nervous because I’ll watch the other people dance … and I’ll get into my own head,” Aitsahalia said. “As soon as I actually step on the floor with my partner I usually stop thinking … I zone out of emotional nervousness. As soon as I get off, I get this thrill [of energy] … and slip right back into [nervousness] because I think, ‘Was I good enough? Could I have been better?’”
But, when everything comes together, as it did while Podolsky competed at the National DanceSport Championship, the experiences are influential. Podolsky was contending for her first championship title, and felt that her performance was her best one yet. “While we were dancing, it felt much more comfortable and smooth. We had really good feelings going into awards. Once they [went] through from the bottom up, from last … when they say second place and it’s still not you, the rush just comes right up,” Podolsky said.
Consider the amount of work and effort that gets put in by these high school students, with the rigorous demands and practice. Consider the benefits of dance to the character of these people. Remember that the sport can be pursued competitively and careers can be made out of it. Finally, be wary of the amount of competition that takes place among all the dancers competing on the same floor, trying to prove they are the very best.