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Julie Hatfield
United States
Cambridge, MA

Competitive Ballroom Dance at Harvard and MIT

by Julie Hatfield
September 22, 2008
Cambridge, MA
College football teams have been around since colleges have been around. So have college wrestling teams, swim teams and debating teams. But ballroom dance teams?! Competitive college ballroom dance teams?

They're everywhere in the U.S., and growing in number. More than 900 people have already signed up for the USA Dance Collegiate Dancesport Challenge in Columbus, Ohio, on November 22 and 23. According to Andrew Pueschel, collegiate vice president of USA Dance, Inc., "we've seen a 51 percent increase in the number of college dancers in the country, to 2965 dancers. In the past five years. They're coming to college as dancers because they started dancing as youngsters. More and more children and teens are dancing, probably because they've listened to pop music that's good for dancing, they've seen the movies such as "Take The Lead," "Mad.Hot.Ballroom"; the television shows such as "So You Think You Can Dance,"; and they've had access to world class instruction and dance videos on the Internet. It's cool to ballroom dance now."

It's also good training for the business world after college, Pueschel points out, in that it teaches teamwork, following directions, working closely with a partner, etc.

Right here in Cambridge, Mass., two of the biggest and best teams are working on their turns and dips and promenades as much, it seems, as they're working on their studies. When you dance on a competitive team your dancing is called "dancesport"and you're called a dancesport athlete. Already, competitive dancing is being considered for inclusion in future Olympics games, and USA Dance, Inc., is working with the International Olympic Committee toward that end.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ballroom Dance Team (ballroom.mit.edu) and the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team (www.harvardballroom.org) each spend hours, and money, polishing their routines for competition, and with campuses just separated by a few miles, they compete against each other but also sometimes share professional coaches and social dances, calling themselves "friendly competitors."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ballroom Dance Team (MITBDT) has been an official team for about 20 years and now boasts 120 members and the largest collegiate competition in the country every April, with 1000 competitors in a two-day marathon of skillful fancy footwork. The public is always welcome to see these competitions.

Student dancers may choose from 14 different classes, four different styles, and several different levels. The four styles they practice, with professional supervision, include Standard, Latin, Rhythm and Smooth, the latter the American version of waltz, foxtrot, tango and Viennese waltz. Team members can work on all four styles or concentrate or specialize in just one style if they so choose.

Ben Moss, captain of the MIT team, joined when he first entered MIT as an electrical engineering major. He specializes in Latin and Standard. The Team, he notes, is dedicated to competition, whereas the Club pursues the art of social dancing. The Club and Team usually hold separate socials but collaborate about four times a year on joint events. One such event is coming up on October 11, from 8 p.m. to midnight at MIT's Walker Memorial in Cambridge (142 Memorial Drive). The dance lesson at 7:30 p.m. is free with the cost of admission. For more details, visit the Team's web site at ballroom.mit.edu.

Anna Chen, majoring in biochemical sciences at Harvard, has just been elected president of the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team. She came to it as a sophomore in 2006 with no dance training save for the Chinese folk dancing she'd done at her California high school, so was called a Rookie, or first year dancer. When she took a year of study abroad in China in 2007 she continued dancing, taking classes at a dance school there. Chen danced with the same partner during her sophomore year, and now is dancing with one partner exclusively, although the team encourages its members to dance with different people if they wish.

Back in Cambridge now, as a team member she is required to spend at least four hours per week in dance class and two more hours of supervised practice. To remain on the team a member must participate in two official competitions per semester, but can, if they wish, compete in all three offered. The Harvard team dances 10 dances in international and nine more in American style, and they, too, sponsor a large competition every March called the Harvard Invitational, using both professional coaches and judges, at the Malkin Athletic Center, 39 Holyoke Street, Cambridge. The competition includes a performance from a professional dancer and the Saturday night Hanlon-Ford Ball. But before that, the Harvard Beginner's Competition will be held October 25. Just for fun, the Harvard team sponsors social classes for dance styles not included in their competitive training, such as the Lindy hop and salsa.

A team since 1990, the 150-member HBDT is, as is MIT's team, one of the oldest teams in the country.

We have seen a few of these competitive team members dance at the Harvard Club social parties, and they truly cut an incredible rug.
Ben Moss (The MIT team captain) and Jing Wang dancing international Tango at the pre-championship level during the April 2008 MIT Open Competition. (Note: Photos of the MIT Open Competition were shot by both Cara Baudette and Moses Goddard. It is unknown which of these two photographers shot this particular photo.)

Ben Moss (The MIT team captain) and Jing Wang dancing international Tango at the pre-championship level during the April 2008 MIT Open Competition.
(Note: Photos of the MIT Open Competition were shot by both Cara Baudette and Moses Goddard. It is unknown which of these two photographers shot this particular photo.)

Photo © & courtesy of Cara Baudette

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