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A Spectator's Guide to DanceSport

Alexandra Caluen

There are a growing number of ways to watch ballroom dancing. In the Los Angeles area alone, the eager spectator could, in the recent past, have found a nearby performance of the Dancing with the Stars tour; the So You Think You Can Dance tour; Louis van Amstel's show "Ballroom with a Twist;" Cate Caplin's show "Fascinating Rhythms;" the international sensation "Burn the Floor;" Twyla Tharp's "Come Fly Away;" and numerous other shows built around partner dancing – including USA Dance Los Angeles' own chapter Showcase.

In addition, of course, there is the regular calendar of actual ballroom competitions. This is your guide to getting the most out of attending a competition as a spectator.


There are two main sanctioning bodies for dancesport in the U.S. The National Dance Council of America (NDCA) is the governing body for professional and pro-am competition. That means that those who make their living as dancers compete under the NDCA umbrella, and that amateur dancers who compete with a professional as a partner ("pro-am") do so as well.

USA Dance, Inc. is the governing body for amateur DanceSport in the U.S. The Adult and Senior division winners of Standard and Latin Championships at USA Dance Nationals become the U.S. representatives to the WDSF World Championships and the World Games. USA Dance helps to cover the costs of our champions attending these world events.

Why would someone choose to compete "pro-am"? Well, for one thing, it is a great way to advance quickly from beginner Bronze to Championship. Within the pro-am structure, dancers are still competing against others of their own gender, age group, and proficiency level. This helps to ensure a level playing field, and a dancer who really puts in the work can advance quite quickly with the help of a professional partner.

So, when you are watching a pro-am event at an NDCA competition, what you are seeing is an amateur dancer being judged alone as he/she dances with a professional partner. Most pro-am events are single dances, meaning the dancer is judged individually on his/her cha-cha, rumba, jive, waltz, tango, etc.

A dancer may enter in up to two adjacent proficiency levels and up to two adjacent age levels. A dancer may also enter multi-dance "scholarship" events at the syllabus levels, or multi-dance "open" events in the Novice, Pre-Championship, and Championship proficiency levels.

Once a dancer is permitted to advance to Novice, the only limitations on choreography are that no lifts or props are allowed. In any of the syllabus levels (Bronze, Silver, or Gold), specific lists of allowed moves are published and the competition has invigilators to ensure all dancers in an event are staying within the bounds.

The structure of amateur events under USA Dance is almost exactly the same as pro-am events under NDCA, with the exception that most USA Dance sanctioned competitions schedule only multi-dance events – you won't often have the option of doing just one dance at a time.

It should also be noted that in many cases, USA Dance competitors are determining their own competition level: there are no "competency tests" to be passed, and no medal exams are required.

The most important distinction, of course, is that those competing through USA Dance are amateur partnerships: leader and follower are both non-professional dancers. The spectator might be quite amazed by the performance quality of these dedicated athletes.

The official dance selections for each level are laid out in the USA DanceSport Rulebook, which is available for download free at . The lists of dances included in each division (American Smooth and Rhythm; International Standard and Latin) can also be found in the rulebook. Anyone even remotely interested in competitive dancing is encouraged to read this fairly short publication, which will address most questions.

By attending a competition, the spectator can quickly learn to see the differences between, for example, International Standard Foxtrot and American Smooth Foxtrot; or between International Latin Rumba and American Rhythm Rumba. The prospective competitor can also quite easily see which divisions are the most hotly contested, and which may be more accessible to the newcomer.

DanceSport truly is a sport accessible to all – from age 4 to 84, from absolute beginner to multi-title-winning champion. Where else can you find such variety of competition, combined with great music and fabulous costumes?

You may find yourself inspired to participate. And all you need to get started is a piece of floor and some dance shoes.