Ballroom and Latin Dancing have, in the past few years, swamped the media with extravagant costumes and step patterns, as well as pulled us all in with the sheer force of the drama behind it. In so many movies, on stage, and on television, Ballroom and Latin dancing has made its way into our hearts; but what most people see is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are so many dances to choose from, it seems. As a matter of fact, most schools for Ballroom and Latin Dance will offer around 15-20 different styles! So where did all these dances come from?
Ballroom dances, such as Waltz and Viennese Waltz, originated in Europe in the late 18th century. At that time, these dances were mostly danced by the socially privileged. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that Ballroom dancing became a “norm” for working class people. As Ballroom dancing and Latin dancing swept the world, more dances were added, such as the Fox Trot, Cha Cha, Mambo, and many others. As the dancing grew in popularity, the Imperial Society of Dance Teachers, in the 1920s, regulated a system whose sole purpose was to standardize all forms of dance so that they may be easily learned. This is where such studios as Arthur Murray Dance Centers®, Fred Astaire Studios®, and many others got their starts. It is this time that really made these dances “accessible” to the average person so that they may be easily learned.
Over time, the art of Ballroom and Latin, also known as “social dancing”, drifted in and out of popularity. The demand would be brought back to life every now and then when it was put back in the media, for example, when Dirty Dancing hit the screens in 1987, the Mambo craze took over and gave us “Hungry Eyes” for dancing. In the past 10 years, we have probably seen the biggest and most consistent boom in the hobby through shows like So You think You can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, as well as such movies as Shall We Dance (the American remake of Japanese Shall We Dansu), Take The Lead, Strictly Ballroom, and so many others.
Today, there are literally thousands of social dance studios around the world. They specialize in either American Standard or International Standard. Yes, American Standard is done in many more countries than just America! The primary difference between the two is the styling. Certain types of styling are used in both standards. In International, straight legs are all the rage in the Latin dances, whereas in the American standard, it’s all about the bending and straightening. The outcome for both is very similar, but just a different way of achieving it. There are competitions held almost every week throughout the world. Many competitions are not like you see on t.v., with all the glamour and glitz— though this does play a role! Believe it or not, you actually have to win in a category a few times before you are even allowed to wear the flashy costumes—this way, you can focus more on your technique, as a new dancer. Levels range from complete beginner, to seasoned professional and everything in between! Of course, the Legendary Blackpool competition in England is where the best of the best strut their stuff once a year. Many studios even hold their own competitions within their respective studio or franchise so that anyone and everyone can have a chance to have some fun out on a competitive dance floor.
Aside from the competitive and social aspects of dancing, there are also the health benefits. I’m not just talking about the possibility of weight loss and stamina, but rather the mental benefits. That’s right! Ballroom and Latin Dancing has been proven to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease! Why or how you may ask? Well, at a very basic level… Think of something that you need to do that challenges your mind, your body, and your mind-muscle connection. Have you thought of something? Well, I hope you chose dancing! When you dance, you have many things to remember—steps, styles, techniques, lead, follow, navigation, etc… If you ask anyone who has danced for a period of longer than just a few weeks what they have to know when they are on the floor, their answers might surprise you. But don’t get too worried—it soon does become second nature. While you are learning, however, your mind and body will be exercised. And the beautiful thing about dancing is that you never stop learning!
Last but certainly not least, let us not forget the reason that many of us are here reading these types of articles—Musical Theatre! “DANCE: The candidate may be asked to return on another day to join a group audition in dance and further singing and acting work. The dance audition will consist of warm-up (stretching exercises, floor work etc) progressions and a short jazz combination. Please wear appropriate dance clothing and footwear. Applicants who have not had formal dance training, or who have not taken classes for a while are advised to take Jazz Dance classes prior to the auditions.” This is a segment from the Western Australia Academy of Perfoming Arts. Believe it or not, Ballroom and Latin has plenty of Jazz elements to help you along the way. We all know that any successful performer has to have at least some kind of “triple threat” aspect to them. 9 times out 10, however, when I hear people fear an audition, it is not about the monologue, or the song… It’s the dancing! Why? Well, a monologue and song you have prepared–Usually quite extensively. Even a cold read would be somewhat familiar if you have prepared a bit for the role you want. The scary thing about the dance audition is the fear of the unknown. Unless you are real chummy with the choreographer, there is no way of knowing what will be thrown at you. You may think you know the style that is coming but a lot of people like the word “re-imagine” when creating a show or dance number. You must be ready for anything! So what does this have to do with Ballroom and Latin dancing? Everything! With social and competitive dancing, the first thing you do is learn how to walk as a dancer, with someone else right in front of you. You develop a new sense of your own body. For example: Right now, close your eyes and touch your nose, or close your eyes and stand on one leg… How did you do? Could you do it? Could you keep your balance longer than a few seconds? Well, with Ballroom and Latin dance, you will learn how to do it. You will develop such a sense of how your body works and where things move, that you will wonder how you ever “faked” a dance audition without it! We’ve all been there… We are asked to do something at a dance audition and we think “how hard can that be?” “I can fake it!” But when we do it, it’s not quite what we were expecting. Whether you are auditioning for a show, a school, or a company in general, you need that sense of knowing what your body is doing. It will help make you flexible and able to cope with the dance challenge in a much easier way. Plus, what an awesome skill to put on your resume, especially with new shows like Strictly Ballroom taking on the theatre world. You never know what extra bit that casting director is looking for to give his character more dynamics. Ballroom and Latin, of course, does not and should not replace all other dances but it is something that is a bit easier to learn if you don’t consider yourself a ‘ballet’ or ‘tap’ type dancer.
The more people discover Ballroom and Latin dancing, the more they become swept up in its beauty, intricacy, health benefits, and pure pizazz! Next time you decided to dance that box step or wiggle those hips, remember that there is so much more to this amazing style of letting loose than meets the eye. Like anything else, dancing is a hobby that you will get out of it what you put into it—and the more you know about it, the more you can benefit. Keep your dancing shoes on and we’ll see you out on the floor!