Want to be a top ballroom dancer? Be prepared to travel
As ballroom dancers move up the competitive ranks, travel becomes not only the norm but an elemental necessity – whether it is for competition, coaching, taking lessons, performing, or judging. Top couples move not only on the ballroom floor but also around the world – and the more elite is the dancer’s status, the more travel becomes part of his or her status and identity.
Where do we go?
Large annual events such as dance camps and major competitions are surely important destinations. They serve as hubs bringing together top-skilled dancers and teachers, provide an opportunity to take lessons or get inspired by the crème de la crème and evaluate one’s level.
Mind you, there is no such thing as the competition location, because competitions occur at different locations as part of an ongoing, annual cycle. A similar pattern repeats itself as competitors travel to work with different coaches, at competitions, studios, or dance camps, and as coaches are brought in to coach at different locations.
Putting these pieces together, we start to see the dynamics by which ballroom community members live their lives and how fundamentally travel shapes them. We can begin to understand how and why such circulation itself can be said to serve as a “destination” within dancesport, since being in circulation emerges as a goal – a cornerstone of membership, competence, and identity.
Why do we do it?
Access to top quality coaching
Ballroom dancers start their careers locally, but as they climb up the competitive ranks, they eventually outgrow the training available to them nearby, regionally, or, for the best of the best, nationally, so they start to travel in order to receive better coaching. At lower levels, this usually involves travel to various “dance camps,” but as competitors continue to succeed, increasingly they bring in more advanced coaches or travel for regular coaching sessions.
Being up to date
The goings on of the competition circuit set the parameters and the direction in which norms are evolving for the larger world of ballroom practices. Participants take careful note of which competitors were there and how they placed in the competition. They ask whether there were any new partnerships. Which judges were there? Who was the DJ? Who was the photographer? Were there any particularly noteworthy new dresses and new trends? Was there a special performance and, if so, by which couples? Where was the event held, how was the accommodation, food, access to the local attractions?
All these items are part of the knowledge and activities that constitute the competition circuit. They are elements that can be confusing to the newcomer but become comfortingly familiar to the regular participant. Yet, as people come and go, as partnerships start and end, as champions arise and retire or get dethroned, the configurations shift. One needs to be there to stay “in the know”. Yet more than just familiarity with current goings-on is at stake.
Just as the dancing and costumes of ballroom dance competitors are designed to help them be seen on the competition floor, their wide-ranging travel raises their visibility and status as competitors and performers. This dynamic continues later in their careers as former competitors travel as coaches and judges. While little monetary reward comes from winning competitions, the most successful competitors are offered opportunities to perform and coach. Similarly, there is very little money to be earned by judging, but being a frequent judge, especially at the prestigious events, generates more demand for one’s services as a coach.
Being an expert is acting like one. In the case of competitive ballroom dancing, acting like an expert is certainly about how one dances but also about one’s participation in the ballroom community’s annual circuit. Active top competitors and coaches cannot leave the circuit without losing their status. For example, regardless of dancing ability, it is impossible to be credited as a ‘national level competitor’ (let alone finalist or champion) without actually competing at the national championships. This same dynamic is at play locally for newer competitors and geographically more broadly for top dancers.
Certainly, competitors of past years may be recalled with reverence and greeted with fond reminiscences and nostalgia, but their position as active participants in the ballroom world quickly shrinks when they are no longer seen regularly.
Whereas the casual participant is unlikely to invest the considerable time and money that go into developing competitive dancing, serious participants book multiple lessons per week – and even per day, with lessons typically priced from $50 to over $200. Perfecting a single step at the highest levels in the world can, quite literally, amount to $10,000 a step!
And precisely because other participants know the costs of participation, those who participate powerfully demonstrate their commitment to belonging. And the belonging, in turn, serves as a declaration of identity— who else would go to the trouble and expenses, after all?
Dancesport community is quite elitist. Travel is fundamental as a signal of one’s belonging within the competitive ballroom world. It provides the context in which ballroom identities are formed, and the arena in which the members mark their belonging by being seen.
What does it take?
First, it’s the cost and effort: the ballroom training, teaching, partnering, and competition opportunities regularly clash with the national residency restrictions, standards of living, and visa eligibilities.
Furthermore, serious dancesport competitors, judges, and vendors often spend more time on the road than at home each year. This has consequences for one’s family and non-dance friends, as holidays, birthdays, and various anniversaries are regularly missed. This creates a gradual disconnection, so that while dancers may enjoy coming home to their residences after a competition, they eventually start to feel out of touch and isolated if they stay there too long.
In fact, home residence stops being “home”. Instead, home comes to be found in a routine set of practices, a repetition of habitual interactions, in styles of dress and address, in memories and stories in one’s head. Home can be defined as place where one best knows oneself. And so, for more serious participants, the competitive ballroom circuit itself, with its familiar persons, practices and activities, becomes home.
The globe trotter Maurizio Vescovo
Italian-born and- trained Maurizio Vescovo partnered with Hungarian-born-and-trained Melinda Torokgyorgy. They lived in Italy, represented Hungary, and regularly trained in England for ten years. After winning the Amateur World Championship and competing together as professionals for another year, they dissolved their partnership. Maurizio went on to partner with Lithuanian Andra Vaidilaite and dance for Canada, while his former partner Melinda chose to partner with Andrej Skufca and dance for Slovenia.
Looking more closely at the image of Maurizio and Andra, we see not only the partnership between an Italian and a Lithuanian dancer, dancing for Canada, seen on the picture competing in the US, but also the international judges standing behind them, including:
- Michael Wentink: former World and Blackpool Professional Latin finalist, originally from South Africa. He competed as a professional for South Africa, US, and Japan (seen on the photo at the far right).
- Donnie Burns, MBE: former World and Blackpool Professional Latin Champion, from Scotland, president of the World Dance Council (WDC) (second from right).
- Rufus Dustin: former Professional US Champion in American style, International Latin, and Theatrical Arts, and World Exhibition Champion (third from right).
- Maxim Kozhevnikov: former World and Blackpool Professional Latin finalist, World Latin American Showdance Champion, and US Professional Latin Champion, originally from Russia (seen at far left).
Who the hell is Jim Gray?
Jim Gray and Sunnie Page lived in Oregon when they won the national Novice Standard title in 2001. With no significant dancesport population in the state at the time, it is understandable why a somewhat shocked and obviously disappointed fellow competitor was later overheard in the men’s changing room saying, “Who the hell is Jim Gray?” What this person failed to realize was that Jim and Sunnie traveled to New York on a monthly basis, staying for up to a week at a time, to receive coaching from then U.S. National Standard Champions and World Standard Finalists Jonathan Wilkins and Katusha Demidova. They also took lessons from the visiting coaches Jonathan and Katusha brought from England. In the years that followed, Jim and Sunnie went on to compete in Blackpool, England, the most prestigious ballroom competition in the world, and they used these trips as opportunities to seek out and obtain further coaching from many of the best in the world.