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Ballroom Dancing - Part of College Life

by Mila Gorokhovich
January 19, 2003
Ithaca, NY

Ballroom Dancing - Part of College Life

By Mila Gorokhovich
January 19, 2003

1 2 3 4-cha cha cha 1 2 3 cha cha cha, 123 cha cha cha…from the cha cha to the rumba to the jive, to the waltz and quickstep - Practice, repetition, precision and flamboyancy - all parts of the wonderful world of competitive ballroom dancing.

I embarked on this journey in the beginning of September of 2002 with my entrance into the Columbia University Ballroom Dance Team. From visiting previous ballroom competitions, I had a head start in the newcomer level about the ambiance of a competition. But, as I discovered, observation and participation are two completely different experiences.

In the very first opening class, the team invited professional competitive dancers to demonstrate a few dance steps. The latin dances that they performed were not dance steps, but magnificently precise movements that followed one another interminably. This couple as well as some advanced dancers from the team was meant to inspire the wide-eyed, jaw-dropping newcomers that were intimidated but simultaneously motivated to think " I want to do that!!!" Those whose thoughts placed more pressure on the latter continued coming to the subsequent practices and lessons. I was one of them.

It is astounding to realize how substantial ballroom dancing is in universities and colleges throughout the world. Within the life of each young dancer, there are responsibilities; work, school, family, friends, to name a few. However, for many, ballroom dancing weaves into their lives as a new and unique challenge, a source of escape from the adjustment to first semester (as was in my case), the endless math problems and the hundreds of pages that are often felt as impossible to complete in any case. The challenge within competition reveals evident improvement. As I've learned from my own experience, the amazing feeling that comes with making the semi-finals/finals gives much satisfaction, causing the simple, multi-colored winners ribbons to mean ever so much more.

Having a drawn out ballet background, it was not difficult for me to grasp at the steps and execute them. Stanley McNalla, the team's Haitian dance instructor, emphasized that it is the quality of the performance more so than the quantity of steps and that is what the judges will pay the most attention to. So I resented my partner's eventual comments that he thought we should learn more steps. Naturally, when one sees the brisk movements of professionals, a fiery desire to challenge yourself through a myriad of movements awakens the body. But as we later discovered for ourselves, more steps was not the answer.

Our first competition at the Cornell DanceSport Spectacular in Ithaca New York was a successful experience in terms of feeling what it was like to be on that dance floor and participate in this stunning art that I was once only about to ogle at. The competition truly felt like a team effort as the members got to know one another through continuous support and encouragement. The waltz was the very first dance that my partner and I competed in. Within minutes after the music started, we felt slightly uncoordinated as we twirled among the many couples that surrounded us. It seemed as if the structure of the waltz combination escaped from our heads. We rescued ourselves by executing the basic step over and over and I could tell the nervousness in his eyes. The quickstep followed and while we felt increasingly at ease, the small mistakes felt as if they glazed obvious highlights in front of the judges.

Among the schools present were Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, Kenyon College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Penn State University, RPI, Rutgers University, SUNY Albany, SUNY Stony Brook, University of Connecticut, University of Delaware, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylavania, University of Toledo, Vermont DanceSport Academy and Yale University. Each university had a spot around the dance floor, which was a gymnasium, the usual area where collegiate competitions take place (Rarely do they occur in actual ballrooms). Bags, luggage, vibrant colors of costumes, hundreds of nervous, relaxed, excited, tired dancers surrounded the floor. To give a quick overview, the American Smooth was the first dance, followed by a Jack and Jill Medley and International Standard. The American Smooth included Waltz, tango, foxtrot for the newcomer and Bronze levels and Waltz, tango, foxtrot and Viennese Waltz for the Silver and gold levels. The Jack and Jill fun event followed - a most interesting event to watch for a newcomer. My partner felt too tired to participate, but I tried to, although there was a lack of guys for the available girls. I dropped out, feeling a bit uneasy about it as I'd never done it or heard of it before and also quite awkward when the master of ceremonies shouted out "We need 10 charming, gallant guys to partner 10 lovely ladies in the Jack and Jill medley."

What made each dance seem interminable was the fact that there were multiple rounds for each dance. There was a semi-final and final round for each part of the American Smooth as well as for the Jack and Jill and all the subsequent dancers. Whether there was a quarter, semi or final round, depended on the number of couples participating. These rounds often cause the competition to last longer than scheduled and fun events are sometimes taken out due to lack of time. Luckily, none of the fun dances were taken out, but the competition lasted way over time and ultimately, some members of our team could not even find out if they made the semi-final or final rounds because we had to catch a bus back to NY.

As we attended more competitions, it became apparent which teams had the stronger dancers, which dancers had the stronger skills and what the judges were looking for in each level. Like in every athletic activity, you will find dedicated devotees who, while may be intimidating, are also inspiring. For many, dancing becomes a source of breathing as continuous practice and progress transforms into desirable goals in life. The future doctors, programmers, PhDs, lawyers, politicians and artists are thriving within ballroom dancers as they take moments with the Biology, Economics and Calculus textbooks while Marc Anthony is singing his heart out and the Beach Boys pave the way for jiving. These dancers prove that college isn't always about being a strictly bookish academic; but it's about exploration and self challenge. For many students like myself, ballroom dancing holds the key to those very elements.

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