“As long as you guys are going anyway, why don’t you compete?” Our dance teacher, Alex, tossed out this innocent-seeming question one July day in 2006. The three of us—Alex, my husband, Bob, and me—stood chatting in front of a window fan in the sweltering studio at the beginning of our regular lesson. We had just mentioned that we were thinking of flying out to Las Vegas to watch Alex and his wife, Maria, dance in a competition in December. At this point, Bob and I were still neophytes, with just over a year of lessons under our belts. Like most ballroom enthusiasts, we stood in complete awe of our teachers. Alex and Maria had already won an important championship in their division. Their star was on the rise. We couldn’t resist the prospect of seeing our teachers on the floor, just as they appeared in the large framed photos on our studio’s walls, Alex in his tail suit and Maria in one of her dazzling backless gowns, dripping in crystal rhinestones and decked with feathers.
Alex waited for our response. I glanced over at Bob, gauging his reaction. My heart fluttered. I really wanted to do it, but I was afraid Bob would suggest we “think about it,” and the dream might die then and there. “Yes, let’s do it!” I blurted. Bob’s curiosity and imagination must have gotten the better of him, too, because he didn’t argue. And just like that, it was set. We were going to Vegas. We had no idea what we were getting into, but we embraced the adventure, told our friends we were going to compete, and vowed to practice, practice, practice!
We added separate lessons to our regimen, so that Bob could practice routines with Maria, and I with Alex. Up to this point, we had taken lessons together and danced mainly with each other. Now, our teachers focused on us as individuals, creating simple routines and coaching us, about footwork, points of technique, and performance. Each of us was to dance in two different American styles, Rhythm and Smooth. In Smooth we would stick with the waltz, tango, and fox-trot, leaving the difficult Viennese waltz to the advanced students. In Rhythm, the sensual Latinate face of American style, we had routines in cha-cha, rumba, and swing.
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“I’ve always been a dancer—I just haven’t been able to dance,” is how Tanya put it to me. A statuesque dancer in her sixties, Tanya is a natural athlete and is drawn to the discipline and physical movement of dancing. As a girl, she studied ballet, but when she showed promise as a tennis player, she faced pressure to channel that energy into her sport. She became a pro and traveled the world with her diplomat husband. When we sit down to talk, she is still in her tennis whites, fresh from the court.
Many who are as new as she is to the glamorous-seeming competition circuit—she’s been taking private lessons just over two years now—wax positively starry-eyed about it, sighing over sparkly gowns, ultrafeminine shoes, and the Cinderella-like transformation of big hair and in-your-face makeup. Not Tanya. She is a competitor who doesn’t enjoy the actual competition. In fact, she says, she started competing only to get her teacher to take her seriously.
“[Alex] has a lot of students, so to get his attention focused on me, on helping me actually improve, I knew I had to start competing.” But she has never relished the competition itself. Even as a young and winning competitor in the tennis world, Tanya remembers, “I hated competition—that’s why I quit tennis. Losing was horrible, and winning wasn’t fun. I was just relieved not to lose.”
Like many pro-am dancers, Tanya struggles to reconcile the practical and financial reality. She is divorced and on a tight budget. She supports her dancing by teaching as many tennis lessons as possible. Ballroom is a newfound passion for her, but the cost of private lessons and competition is adding up fast, causing her a good deal of stress. She has felt pressure to pay for costly coaching and other extras that she would prefer to opt out of. Still, she says she can’t think about quitting, adding softly, “I just try not to think about it.”
Tanya is not alone. Many pro-am dancers feel sheepish about their expenditures. When competing, students pay travel expenses for their teacher, splitting it among those participating. There are entry fees for each “heat,” averaging around $60; half to the competition organizers and half remitted to the teacher for each heat danced. It adds up, not to mention costumes costing anywhere from several hundred (for a used dress on consignment) to several thousand dollars (for a custom dress). Men can have expensive tail suits made, specially tailored so the shoulders don’t ride up when they raise their frame—a miracle of dance engineering!
Some fortunate dancers have lucrative professions, wealthy spouses, or family money. Linda, an experienced competitor, observed, “The wealthy widows and divorcées—they have it the best. They have the money and no one controlling how they spend it.” Linda is a retired professional woman who never married. She pays for her own dancing and estimates she spends between $12,000 and $15,000 yearly for everything associated with her dance hobby. This is about average. Many dancers avoid telling friends and family what they spend, particularly pro-am “ladies,” as they tend to be called. When viewed through the lens of the larger culture—one that approves when men pay for the company of women, but not the other way around—pro-am dancing could look like a glorified escort service. You pay him to dance with you? ladies imagine people saying. They worry they might be perceived to be, as one dancer put it, “pathetic.”
Women outnumber men in the dance world by about three to one, and their experiences of lessons, practice, and competition are slightly different. The onus is on the males, as leaders, to “drive,” that is, to navigate a crowded and chaotic dance floor. In listening to Bob over the years, I know that male dancers have a somewhat different experience of competition. In contrast with the uplifting experience that women often have, men are often let down because their skills are tested in ways that seem unfair. OK, they learned their routine and know it by heart, but now someone’s in the spot where their partner was supposed to do a spin or a kick and they must improvise. There’s not the spontaneity of social dancing, where you actually do make it up as you go along, and yet the choreography they practice so hard is often thwarted, or else inadequate to fill the enormous sides of a regulation 60-foot-by-36-foot competition floor.
Couples are everywhere, moving fast and vying for the judges’ attention. You have no control over the music—please, you think, just let it have a discernible beat. You’re counting—“1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8” in your head, and your teacher is hissing in your ear to get your head back out of her space and keep your frame up. There isn’t the allure of getting to don flashy costumes or false eyelashes—you are wearing a suit or vest, much like what you would wear to any wedding. And yet you must get psyched up to perform, just like the women, without all those trappings. In this sense, the guys are cheated out of some of the transformative magic, at least the most obvious elements of it, that the women enjoy.
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Perhaps more than anything else, I love that pro-am dancing is largely populated by over-50 dancers, what I sometimes think of (fondly, since I count myself among them) as “Ballroom’s B-list.” The age classifications according to which dancers are grouped to compete go: Youth (under 18), A (usually 18 to 35), followed by B, C, and D. Bs can be anywhere from 40 to 60, depending on the competition. Cs are the sexta- and septuagenarians. Although not the official stars of the show—those would be the young, hard-bodied professionals who dance late at night—over-50 dancers, like myself and Bob and our compatriots, are the bread and butter of the DanceSport industry.
Author Robert Bulman describes the experience of attending a DanceSport competition from the perspective of a non-dancer—the carnivalesque atmosphere, ubiquitous visual indexes of gender and class, the twin American cults of the body and conspicuous consumption. Almost without exception, dancers of all levels frame their dancing as an “addiction.” As Bulman would no doubt agree, it’s easy to get sucked into this intoxicating world of art, sport, color, sound, and adrenaline. Amateur dancers value their dancing not just as a hobby, but as an indelible component of their identity. Their participation, and willingness to pay to participate, fuels a thriving social economy. Instructors, studios, competition organizers, costume designers, shoe vendors, and the hotels and restaurants that host the competitions, plus numerous other satellite industries, rely on the dollars spent by these “B” and “C” dancers—mostly women—for their livelihoods.
In Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry, Juliet McMains argues that pro-am competition is, in some ways, an equalizer. In our youth-obsessed culture, older women are devalued and made to feel inadequate on the daily. In the ballroom, they are center stage:
Where else in American society do women have the option of only competing against those in their own age category for recognition of their beauty and sexual desirability?
In competition, amateur dancers are sorted according to skill level—the most basic is bronze, then silver, and on up through gold. As a bronze-level dancer, all I cared about was getting to silver. Silver, silver, silver. I ate, slept, and dreamed silver. I evaluated myself according to what others around me were doing—who had advanced choreography, what styles and levels they danced. Once, when Alex danced with another student at the silver level while I was still “stuck” in bronze, I began pouting: Why, I wanted to know, wasn’t I dancing silver yet? I’ve worked so hard, blah blah blah. It smarts to remember that now. The pettiness seems out of line with my current point of view, but I can recognize it for what it was: a normal developmental phase. I cared, just about the wrong things.
Over the years I’ve listened attentively (because that’s what anthropologists do best) as new students poured their hearts out about their own obsessive concerns, whether it was wanting to advance levels, worrying that the instructor favored someone else, fee structure changes, or last-minute lesson cancellations (this last one never fails to send dance students into a tizzy). These days, I have the sage perspective of the Old Sheep in Charlotte’s Web. Like her, I’ve “seen many a spring pig come and go.” The longer I dance, the less I fret about choreography, standings, placements, or levels. Now it’s more about working on the simple stuff, basic elements of movement—just for the joy of doing it.