USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘ballroom dance’
Customs

Bonding over complaints about governing body

“One of the things I learned from the previous club president was all about the body of students and staff that runs all the recreational sports teams on the USC campus called the RCC, and what I learned was that they are terrible and that they don’t do anything right, and that all of our problems can be traced back to them. What I then discovered on my own was that is not quite true, and so what I’ve passed down to other people is that the RCC does a lot of good things for us. However, one of the things is that they don’t quite know how to open doors for us properly. For as long as anybody’s been around they have not come on time to open doors. So, what we have to do is, every time we go to practice, somebody has to go at least 15 minutes early to make a phone call to the people in the Lyon Center and have them come over and open the door for us, and every time they’re surprised. There’s rarely an occasion where they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. We already knew about that.’ This happens because the staff changes so regularly over there, it seems, but if nobody was sent at 5:45, then nobody would be sent until 6:15 or whenever we called them. We learned to get out our phones and make that call, which meant a conversation every week about how terrible the RCC was and how all of our problems were their fault. It was a team bonding thing weirdly in the end, commiserating over doors. It’s a little odd.”

Background Information and Context:

The interaction between team members about the RCC’s inadequacies happens prior to almost every practice, which occurs three times a week. Usually, it will take place in the halls outside the Physical Education building, outside the South Gym or the basement exercise room that the team reserves for practice. The informant decided to start with this anecdote when he was told that he could freely speak about his experience on the SC Ballroom and Latin Dance Team and interesting things that an outsider wouldn’t know about it. The informant has been on the team for multiple years and served as team president for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years.

Collector’s Notes:

I have stood outside the doors of the PED basement and south gym more times than I can count, engaging in exactly what the informant described, but until we had this conversation, it never crossed my mind that this was a sort of bonding tradition. It makes sense when compared to the way citizens complain about their government. Even though the government is responsible for a lot of good things, we choose to focus on the negatives, and the act of complaining about the same experiences connects us as citizens, uniting us against those who are perceived to be separate from us because they have more power/money/influence/authority and tell us what to do.

Customs
general
Material

Appropriate Apparel for Ballroom Dance Competitions

“When we go to competitions, everybody dresses different ways. There’s this expectation that all the girls are going to be in dresses, and boys are going to be in suit jackets and/or, like, pants and other things (He gestures toward his torso, then his legs, as he names the items of clothing). This is a trend that we’re not happy about because people should be able to wear what they want when doing things, but ballroom is such a stereotyped endeavor that you tend to conform to these norms, and it is expected that you conform to particular gender norms. One of the gender norms that we have to go for is that the men all have their hair slicked back (He makes a hand motion above his head, miming slicking back his hair). There is, like, one hairstyle for men. If you have very nice hair that you already know how to style, like a part, and it’s a little bit high on top anyway, then you can leave it exactly how it is. Otherwise, you gel your hair directly backwards. I have seen some people recently try to do a part, but I’m not wild about that. It should be as directly back as you go, and this is stuff that I got from the University of Minnesota ballroom dance team as well. Everybody’s got the same hair. Some teams take this a step further, and all the men are wearing the exact same outfit. The BYU team, the Bringham team, all of their leads look exactly the same. They are cookie cutter copies of each other. They are all wearing the same black tie, black best, white shirt, black pants, black shoes, same haircut, same everything. They’re very uniform, and it’s terrifying because when they dance the same, it looks very scary. While the boys are expected to be cookie-cutter versions of themselves, the girls, from my perspective, are expected to wear different things to be flashy and show off. The standard is for the boys to look as boring as possible and the girls to look as exciting as possible: a dress that flows (he stretched out the work, gets louder, and starts making big gestures with his hands), and does a thing (he flutters his hand, mimicking the way skirts twirl when dancers turn), that is colored. It’s nice when boys’ outfits can match their ladies’ dresses, but it is usually done by maybe a matching a shirt. It’s becoming more common these days, often by matching a tie or sometimes socks, but never the pants. Never does the whole outfit really compliment her. It goes with the idea in the ballroom world that it’s more about showing off your partner as a lead than about doing the things yourself. That isn’t always true when you become a professional dancer, but mostly it’s about ‘Look at my partner! Isn’t she great? Isn’t she sexy?’”

Background Information and Context:

The traditional dress and gender roles that the informant shares here are based on his attendance at collegiate dancesport competitions as well as some observations of professional dancesport, which collegiate dancesport mimics in many ways. What he described is how almost all members of the SC Ballroom and Latin Dance Team dress at competitions. The informant has been a competitive ballroom dancer in the collegiate circuit for about six years and has taken on a sort of mentor role on the SC Ballroom and Latin Dance Team, frequently giving new members advice on what judges expect of them at competitions. He began talking about the gendered differences in dancesport apparel when prompted to talk about competition costumes, which look unlike what most people would see in regular fashion.

Collector’s Notes:

Gender norms exist in every culture and aspect of society, but the strange world of dancesport (competitive ballroom dancing) often seems backwards, and not just because the dances in which we compete are very old. Even though it is appropriate for women to wear pants in everyday settings in America, even in more formal situations like business meetings or award shows, the sight of a woman in pants on a competitive dancefloor would be strange, even unwanted. The gendered nature of dancesport seems to be ingrained in the concept of a male lead and a female follow, mirroring (somewhat declining) societal expectations of male authority and female subservience. I found it interesting that this inequality is approached a slightly different way by informant, who seems to regret the absence of clothing choices for males and the nature of attention-grabbing turns and tricks, which mostly place the female at the center of attention. Still, the nature of this attention is questionable, as one could argue that it is not beneficial that the roles require the “sexy” partner to be shown off by her male partner.

general

“Don’t date your dance partner”

“Something we tell our new people is a warning that you shouldn’t date your dance partner. So, here’s the thing: this used to be followed all the time. When I got here, nobody was dating anybody on our team, and this is out of 50 people on the dance team – I don’t know the real number – and about 20 competitors…wait, I take it back. There was one couple: Nick and Claire. Nick and Claire were dating, but nobody else was dating. Nick and Claire came in as a couple already, and so they became dance partners. They didn’t dance together for everything, though they did dance together for some things. What we don’t like is when people meet through the ballroom dance team, dance with each other for a while, and then say, ‘You know what? I’mma date you.’ This happens in the professional world a lot. Professional dancers, they’re usually 16-17 years old – they’re young – when they meet each other. Well, sometimes they’re 23-24 years old when they meet each other, but usually it’s fairly young, and they dance with each other for a while. Whatever the exact age, they’re young, and they’re all kinds of hormonal, and they’re dancing with a very attractive person, these professionals. ‘I’m hormonal. I’m dancing with a hot person, and this hot person knows how to use their body. Yes, I’m going to try to make something out of this,’ and they do, all the time. They get married sometimes, and then they divorce each other. It almost always happens. I mean, there are a few cases where it doesn’t happen – they’ve learned how to make it work – but it’s usually a disaster in the professional world to date your dance partner, because you break up, and then you can’t dance together anymore, and the you gotta go find a new partner, but you’re older, and everybody’s already taken. Then, your career is done. So, finding somebody you click with is important, and then not trying to have sex with that person is equally important once that first part is done. On our team, we recommend the same thing. If you have a dance partner, that’s great. Work really hard to not date them or try to be more than friends with them, because if you do, when you try, it’s an easy way to lose a dance partner. So, it’s a little odd that we had a lot of people over the last two or three years end up dating the people that they dance with. Sometimes, they started to dance with the people that they’re dating. That happened to me. That happened to…actually, I think that happened to most people. They met first, started dating, and then said, ‘hey, we’re going to dance together.’ Usually, we’re still pretty good about being like, ‘We’re going to dance together. Oooh, I like you. Let’s do this thing.’ It’s easier when you go from dating to dance partners than from dance partners to dating, but it still carries risks, so we advise people to treat your dance relationship like your regular relationship: talk about things and seek help from others when you need it.”

Background Information and Context:

What the informant is describing is based on his years of experience on the SC Ballroom and Latin Dance Team. There is no way to say – at least, not without surveying members of multiple dance teams – whether the phenomenon of having a lot of couples on a dance team is exclusive to the SC Ballroom and Latin Dance team or, if it is not exclusive, if the couples on other dance teams act like those on USC’s team. Although, I have heard similar advice of being wary of the person with whom you start a relationship in other teams and in other contexts, such as work. This part of our conversation was more personal in nature than the topics that preceded, and I was mildly surprised that the informant, for the most part, kept his personal opinions out.

Collector’s Notes:

What was interesting about this topic is that I hadn’t originally intended to ask about it but noted to the informant that I found it odd that both of us are dating our dance partners. I’d heard the general opinion that dating your dance partner leads to unnecessary complications in both the romantic and dance relationship, but still, nobody dissuaded me when my boyfriend first asked me out, months after we’d started talking about becoming competition partners. On our team, there didn’t seem to be any negative examples of such a relationship to make me worry beyond the passing thought. I think it’s interesting that dancing, especially ballroom dancing, is heavily romanticized, and performers are criticized if their dance lacks passion, romance, tenderness, etc., but actual romance, specifically a new romance, is met with wariness. Moreover, it is interesting that popular media so often portrays romance/attraction and drama/angst as inextricable from each other. The connotations of dancing and romance seem at odds with each other.

Folk Dance
Kinesthetic
Musical

If you hear this song, stop what you’re doing, and warm up

“Jonathan likes to use the same warm-up song over and over again if he can, and he does these exercises that are always the same for warm-ups because they work. Tendus and other things, exercises where you work your hips while pointing your feet (still seated, he locks the fingers of both hands together, holds his arms in front of him, and moves his feet in an approximation of one of the warm-up exercises) and other actions to really build up muscle memory for the articulations that you need to have in order to do good rhythm dancing – cha cha, rumba, etc. So, whenever I hear, ‘She’s up all night ‘til the sun. We’re up all night for good fun,’ (he sings these lyric) or whatever the actual words of the song are. Get Lucky, I think. Daft Punk. Whenever I hear that on the radio, or in the supermarket, or especially next to Jonathan, I’ll immediately stop what I’m doing, stand up, put things down, and get into my warm up posture (he demonstrates the warm-up posture again), and do the stuff, because that’s the song that I warmed up to a lot a couple of years ago. He thinks it’s pretty funny. It’s ruined the song for me. Actually, it’s made the song great for me. It’s a pretty good song, and it suits the warm ups well.”

Background Information and Context:

Every coach has a different style of teaching and different preferences for warming up (if they even guide their students through warm ups at all, instead of expecting them to warm up before class). What the informant described is a pre-class ritual of sorts that seems distinctive of Jonathan’s rhythm classes. Jonathan is the rhythm coach of the SC Ballroom and Latin Dance Team, which means that he instructs cha cha, rumba, east coast swing, mambo, and bolero. His style of teaching and warm-ups are very different from those of the team’s smooth coach, who teaches waltz, tango, foxtrot, and Viennese waltz. He never skips warm ups, even when running late, and plays the full length of the song at least once, if not twice, until he feels that the students have been properly warmed up before reviewing figures from the previous class. The habit of breaking out into the warm-up routine at seemingly improper times is not unique to this informant, as it is a habit shared by multiple active members of the team.

Collector’s Notes:

Traditions and associations are no less powerful because they only affect a small group of people. It doesn’t matter that nobody else knew what was going on when a handful of team members started twisting their hips and pointing their toes in perfect sync in the middle of a restaurant because it was a sign of their connection, formed through shared knowledge and experience. On a small scale, the warm-up exercises also have their own multiplicity and variation based on when one joined the team. The informant described an association with “Get Lucky,” but my friend Sara and I (who joined the team last year) have the same association with “Moves Like Jagger,” while my friend Queenique (who joined this year) associates the warm-ups with “Feel It Still.”

Customs

Don’t correct your ballroom dance partner

“So there’s a whole, uh, laundry list of tips for doing well at a competition, and uh, interacting with a dance partner. As it turns out, interacting with a dance partner is a lot like having a life partner in the sense that you’re stuck with them, uh, until something terrible happens and, well that’s we call them your dance wife. I don’t like those terms myself, but they’re on t-shirts, too, you can find, uh, I’m, uh, you know, ‘I heart my dance wife’, uh. Uh, so, there are some rules, though, like there are rules for being in a real relationship. Rule one is that you, um, never ever want to correct your partner, if you can help it, because if they are your dance partner, then that means that you two are probably at the same dance level, which means that if they are doing something stupid, you are also doing something stupid, probably even more stupid than them, because you are the kind of person who wants to correct them, and you probably never realize the stupid things you are doing yourself, and you never get called out on because your dance partner doesn’t want to do the same thing, so your dance partner because it’s rude and you are probably the one to make a mistake in the first place. They’re probably doing just fine. So there’s that.”

 

The informant is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, studying linguistics. He is also a member—and next year’s president—of the University of Southern California’s Ballroom and Latin Dance Team. He specializes in the American Smooth dances (Waltz, Viennese Waltz, Tango, and Foxtrot), though also knows the International Latin dances and many social dances, like Hustle and Salsa. He has been in the USC Ballroom and Latin Dance Team for 2 years, and did ballroom dance at the University of Michigan for 2 years. He competes in the Silver and Gold level Smooth dances, and has placed highly in numerous competitions.

 

The collection was made after asking the informant about certain customs of ballroom dance for when you are interacting with your dance partner. What he speaks of is a common concept among many ballroom dance couples, and is considered necessary for a successful dance partnership.

 

Ballroom dancing is different than many other dance forms, because it is entirely danced with a partner. If there is solo work, it is in connection with what your partner is doing. How dancing with a partner works in ballroom dancing is that there is one person who is designated as the “lead” and one who is the “follow.” Leads are generally male and follows are generally female, but that is certainly not exclusive. As the names suggest, it is the leads job to lead the follow in the many dance. The lead is in charge of moving the couple around the dance floor, deciding what moves to do where, and matching the tempo of the music. The follows job is to follow all of this, without any verbal communication with the lead. All the follow has to go on are hand signals and what ballroom dancers call “connection” which is the tension between the two dancers’ hands which allows the lead to move the follow where he will.

A dance partner, as the informant explains, is often compared to a life partner because of the amount understanding and respect that must be felt by both dancers. Even the least active dance couple is still required to be in incredibly close quarters with their dance partner for at least a few hours, and the most active dance partners practice a few hours a day together. Any anger or mistrust can escalate quickly and dissolve the partnership as easily as any relationship. That is why dance partners are often referred to as “dance wife” and “dance husband” as the informant says.

One of the main guidelines to a successful partnership is to never correct your dance partner. This is not something anyone is officially taught, but something that can only be learned by listening to other couples mention it or watching how they work together. Each dance couple has a different dynamic, yes, but all of the very successful partnerships, the ones that last for years, have this in common. It is as the informant says: if you are correcting your dance partner, than you are likely doing something even worse because you are focusing on them not yourself. There must be come constructive criticism during practices, especially if one person is teaching the other a new move, but the corrections should never be constant and should never get personal. This will lead to the deterioration of the partnership over time.

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