Things I Can Do Because of Ballroom

Along with learning how to dance, competitive ballroom dancing gives you lots of other random skills! I can now…

  • Wear heels higher than 2.5 inches
  • Change in about 2 minutes, in public (when necessary)
  • Put full crazy makeup on in under 10 minutes
  • Apply fake eyelashes
  • Grow my nails long
  • Do French manicures on myself (once without the sticky guides!)
  • Glue shoes back together
  • Judge Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance more harshly than the actual judges
  • Put a fake bun in my hair, invisibly
  • Have practically full body contact with strangers
  • Stand up straighter
  • Dance in front of people without feeling nervous
  • Wake up at 4:30 am
  • Go hours without eating and not even realize it (well, sometimes)
  • Stay in perfect strangers’ houses
  • Instantly tell if a particular dance can be done to a song on the radio
  • Pack very quickly
  • Rhinestone things
  • Drive up to 6 hours after a full day dancing with little sleep
  • Travel all over the place
  • Have conversations with people while dancing
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Dancing on a Budget

This one’s a bit tricky. Doing ballroom seriously can be a big time and money investment, and definitely not something you take on casually if you want to do it well.  Though if you want to learn some ballroom for fun, it doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank!

For someone primarily interested in starting out/social dancing:

Group lessons are your best bet for getting started.  Look up local studios and see what they have to offer.  When it comes to cheap group lessons, college/university clubs and teams are likely the best bargain.  So if you’re a current student, you’re in luck, but often non-students can join these teams as well.  It just depends on the school team’s  individual policy, so it can’t hurt to ask.  Dues can range from something like $15 to about $100 per semester.  These lessons might be taught by advanced dancers on the team or professionals, just depends.

Social dances themselves often have a group lesson or two included in the admission, so that’s another way to get the most out of your money.   Just about every ballroom studio has a weekly or biweekly social dance on the weekend, and sometimes multiple ones! Also look at other local clubs and USA Dance chapters for dance opportunities.

For competitive dancers:

You’ll still get a lot out of group lessons (see above), but you probably want to find someone who will teach you some technique. Not just what steps to do, but how to do them correctly.  One option if you want more individual attention is to get a couple of couples together to split up a private lesson, so that it’s a semi-private session.  This way, it’s inexpensive and you still get to address some of your individual questions/problems/issues.

Private Lessons:

Lots of coaches offer a student discount, so don’t hesitate to ask if this applies to you! One alternative is to take lessons with advanced open-level amateurs, who usually charge less than pros.  Another way to save money is to take lessons just every once in a while, and make sure that you really take all of the information to heart and incorporate it into your dancing, so that each subsequent lesson can focus on a new concept for you to work on.  Obviously, taking a lesson with your partner will split the cost in half.

Ballroom Dance Camps/Workshops:

The workshops at these events tend to be very technique-focused and are often taught by extremely accomplished professionals, at a decent price.  Independence Day Ball, for example, offers dozens of workshops over the course of 5 days, for a steal (if you attend all the sessions and sign up early, it can be well under $10 per workshop).  You could take all of the information you learned in one week and take months or years to actually incorporate it into your dancing successfully.  Big competitions often offer workshops as well, and often with very well-known professionals.

Videos:

I don’t have a ton of experience using instructional videos, but these can be a good alternative to lessons if that’s not very feasible for you, or if you want an easily accessible source of information.  DVDs with full programs are not super cheap but might save you money in the long run. Then there’s quite a few free ones on youtube, which can be a great resource to visualize how steps and sequences are supposed to look like.  Some are better in quality than others.

Practice Space:

If you’re in college, take advantage of the FREE practice space you get in student unions and gyms. You won’t ever have access to that so readily again, so appreciate it, even if it’s sometimes hard to find times when they are available.  Floor space at studios can get quite expensive, on the order of $25/hour/couple.  Some studios offer supervised practices with music, which can be a good deal, especially if you can get some input from a coach.  Certain gym memberships might give you access to a multipurpose room when it’s not in use by group classes, so this could be a good bargain if you also use a gym regularly.  Some studios might let you practice for free if you’re there for a lesson already, just depends on their individual policies.

Costuming:

It’s pretty easy to find dresses, skirts, and tops for Latin//rhythm – any trendy mall store should have stuff you can use.  One site with great budget stuff is eKclothing. I’ve heard that Men’s Dance Pants is good for relatively inexpensive Latin pants.  For upper-level costumes (ones with sparklies!), you can buy plain dresses and costumes and stone them yourself, purchasing stones online in bulk (Dance Shopper, Rhinestone Guy). Requires some crafting skills but it can save you hundred or thousands of dollars!  (If you’re really good at sewing, you can try making your own costumes from scratch, but I think it can be quite a challenge.) You can make your own jewelry as well – I’ve made a few simple stoned bracelets that end up costing much less than the ones they sell at comps.  Ebay has a number of overseas tailors (from China and Vietnam) who can custom-make decent budget dresses for collegiate competitors.

For higher-quality costumes, used ones are the way to go.  These are often offered on consignment or on websites with classified ads (Ballroomdancers.com, Kat’s Gowns, Art Rhythms, Dreamgowns, Dance Forums)  Online purchasing from individuals of course carries some risk, but just be smart about it – if anything looks sketchy (for example, “you should pay me extra and I’ll send you some checks I’m expecting to make up the difference!”), don’t go through with it.  Other options can include borrowing costumes from your team, coach, or a friend, or even renting one for competitions.  There are a few companies that specialize in rentals and have some really nice dresses – not cheap, but premium gowns at an affordable price (Kat’s Gowns, Rhythmic Rentals, Encore Ballroom Couture).

Shoes:

It may be tempting to buy cheapo shoes, but honestly I think buying nicer shoes that last longer will save you money in the long run.  I’ve had a cheaper-made shoe fray and fall apart on me in much shorter time compared to a more expensive one, which meant I just had to buy yet another pair.  If you order British-made shoes from the UK (e.g. Supadance, Ray Rose), you can save substantially – something like $30-50 per pair (Dance-shop.com, DuoDance, DancesportUK).  But that approach does require that you know which brand/size fits you, because it’s such a pain to return them overseas.  There are some pretty decent bargain brands though, which would suit beginners who don’t know how much they want to invest into a new hobby yet.  Very Fine and Stephanie seem to be pretty good.

Grooming:

You can use drugstore products for everything and be just fine.  Check out reviews on Makeup Alley and see how people like them. I recommend: NYX and L’Oreal HIP for eyeshadows, L’Oreal HIP creme eyeliner, Revlon lipstick/lipgloss, Ardell eyelashes, Duo eyelash glue, Aussie hair gel and hairspray, and L’Oreal Sublime Bronze tanning gel.

Volunteering at Competitions:

You can volunteer at competitions to get to attend for free, or even save on competition registration fees.  It’s a great way to watch awesome dancing or dance yourself while saving some dough.

How to spend a LOT of money on ballroom:

  • Do pro-am.  If you want to practice with your partner, you have to pay him/her.  Pro-am competitions can also rack up a huge bill, because you can enter so many heats and have to pay your pro’s costs.
  • Buy packages from chain studios that commit you to dozens of lessons.
  • Take private lessons from expensive pros. (This is probably worth it though, I can’t deny that.)
  • Well, I’ll amend that – take lots of expensive private lessons and not practice in between – then, it would be a waste.
  • Buy premium custom-made dance costumes, and get a new one every couple of competitions.
  • Fly across the country/world to compete.
  • Pay someone to do your hair/makeup.
  • Pay someone to take pictures and video of you.
  • Buy lots of nice dance clothing to practice in.
  • Pay to use practice space.

To sum up, ballroom can cost basically as much or as little as you want it to (well, up to a certain point).  It’s up to you how much you want to invest in it.

Here’s a list of ballpark estimates of costs for various things.

  • Ballroom Dress: $30 for a party dress, $200 for a Chinese-made ballroom dress with Korean stones, $1000 to $6000+ for a nicer one with Swarovski
  • Tailsuit: $300 for a Chinese-made one, $1200 to $2500 for custom tailored high-quality one
  • Men’s Latin shirt: $80 to $800+, depending on design, stoning, etc.
  • Group Lessons: $10 to $20 per
  • Private Lessons: $50 to $100 is typical, up to $250 or more for premium coaches
  • Collegiate Competition Registration: Free to $45 per person (some colleges offer free registration to open dancers)
  • USA Dance Competition Registration: $45 to $90
  • USA Dance Membership: $25 to $60
  • Dance shoes: $45 to $180, to be replaced about once or twice a year, depending on frequency of use
  • Hotel for the Weekend: depends on the location/how many people are splitting it. $20 to $200?
  • Practice Space: Free to $25/couple/hour

Any other money-saving tips?

Things I’m Good At vs. Things I Want/Need to Improve

This could very well be phrased as things I can do and all the things I wish I could do (or things I can’t do), but I’m trying to frame it positively.  It might be a good exercise for you to do for yourself and/or your partnership. Or just an interesting way to sit down and evaluate yourself and your goals and priorities for dancing. Looking at strengths and weakness, and what weaknesses you want to turn into strengths in the future.

Let’s start with the good.  Some of this has been directly commented on by others, or things I’ve guessed/observed myself.

  1. Spinning
  2. Being powerful in standard
  3. Having decent posture
  4. Being a generally good follow
  5. Helping with floorcraft when my partner is going backwards
  6. Looking elegant (haha, they haven’t seen me in my everyday klutzy mode, but I’ll take it I guess)
  7. Having a flexible back
  8. Recuperating after screwing up in action (aka wiping out then getting back up)
  9. Focusing on the upsides in competition, particularly if the results were not as good as we’d hoped
  10. Hearing the music

Things to Improve:

  1. (Not) straightening my right elbow in frame
  2. Stamina
  3. Feeling more comfortable doing side-by-side stuff (aka, dancing by myself)
  4. Remembering choreography
  5. My Latin, all of it
  6. Hiding my face expression when I/we screw up
  7. Using my ankles more
  8. Making bigger shapes
  9. Bowing not-awkwardly at the end of a dance
  10. Waiting before going

It was much easier to come up with things to improve than things I liked. I could’ve kept going for quite a while on the list of things to improve… I feel like this is typical for any aspiring dancer – focusing on what you can fix/be better at, rather than what you can already do.  Once you have a decent skill set behind you, it’s easy to perform, get in the mood, and kind of hide those insecurities, I think.  Maybe that typical uber-confident “I am sexy/super-classy/awesome” ballroom dancer persona comes out partially for this reason.  Trying to fake it ‘til you make it? Or fake it until your technique catches up?

I find a sort of inner discussion happening every time I watch a video of myself, and it’s easier for me to focus on what mistakes I made rather than acknowledging everything I did well.  Sample thoughts: “Uuuugh what was that?! What am I doing?!” “Huh, that wasn’t so bad,” “Wow, awkward.” “Oh hey, decent picture line!” “Ew, arms…” But we are often our worst critics, right? And occasionally, what felt like a horrible screw-up barely shows up in the video.  Other times, what felt awesome looked….not so awesome.  Alright, I’m starting to get a little off-topic here, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that improvement is a constant journey.  Sometimes it’s really good to look back and acknowledge what you’ve gotten better at, and at the same time it’s also good to look forward at what you want to achieve.  And really healthy to zoom out and take a good look at both, because if you focus on one, you think you’re great and have little drive to get better, and if you focus on the other, it’s easy to think you’re awful and feel dejected by the whole endeavor. Keeping the balance is probably what’s best in the long run, I’m guessing.

Also, how you frame things matters, to bring in some psychology stuff.  “I’m bad at this” vs. “I want to improve at this” have very different effects on how we approach things, even if objectively it’s the same.  For example, say you are not so great at posture.  Thinking “I have bad posture” vs. “I want to improve my posture” can lead to very different outcomes. The former lends itself to thinking that you’re bad at something and it’ll stay that way, while the latter acknowledges you’re not so great at something but that you can work at it and make it better, and that it’s not something you’re stuck with in the long run.

Overall Things I Want to Be Awesome At:

  1. Portraying the unique character of each dance (especially being sexy/sultry/seductive/some-other-adjective-starting-with-“S”…I just feel awkward doing that at the moment, haha)
  2. Having purpose and intent behind everything I do (telling a story? maybe?)
  3. Being a supportive and responsive partner, in both interpersonal and dance-y senses
  4. Marrying performance and technique (quite elusive, but sometimes it happens!)
  5. Having fun every time!

Ballroom Shoes

Here is a quick overview on how to choose a shoe (or multiple pairs), and a few examples of the many ones available out there.  These are just some basic principles/guidelines for finding a shoe, but if you have unusually-shaped/sized feet or any foot problems, you should probably consult someone much more expert than me to find the right fit for you.  I know more about women’s shoes (obviously), but will write a bit about men’s shoes at the end.

First of all, if you want to dance regularly, you should really invest in a pair of decent ballroom dance shoes!  You’ll find everything much easier to do compared to dancing in street shoes, socks, or other dance shoes.  Other dance shoes like jazz shoes, character shoes, or ballet slippers can substitute for a while if you happen to already have them, but they are (obviously) designed for different kinds of dance. They are cheaper, but not as well-suited for ballroom as ballroom shoes are.

For Women

Beginner women should start with a Latin/rhythm sandal, because it is a bit more versatile than a standard/smooth shoe.  You can dance standard/smooth alright while wearing a Latin shoe, but it’s just really awkward to do Latin in a standard shoe. (Oddly enough, it’s the opposite for men, but I’ll get to that later).  Your basic Latin shoe looks like this:

Supadance 1403

Latin shoes are generally strappy, open-toed, with a 2.5 inch flared heel, enclosed heel cup, suede bottoms, and some sort of strap that goes around the ankle and/or the instep to secure it to your foot.  For competitive dancers, you should get tan satin shoes for competition.  The idea behind this norm is that they blend into your foot and extend your leg line (like nude-colored pumps do) and don’t show footwork flaws as readily as flashy or contrasting shoe colors.  (If you don’t care about using them in competition, you can get them in leather and all kinds of colors. Black is particularly popular.)  They should fit more snugly than your average street shoe, with your toes just barely hanging over the edge of the shoe when you’re standing up.  It’s a little weird-feeling at first, but it’s so that you can point your feet and have a nice line.  The shoes will also stretch out over time, so if you buy them to fit more comfortably, then soon they will be too loose and unsupportive.  Latin shoes also often come in 3”, but these aren’t advisable unless you are more advanced.

Women’s standard shoes generally look like this:

Supadance 1002 Court Shoe

Women’s standard shoes generally are a court style, basically like a pump.  They also have a suede bottom, but have closed toes unlike a Latin sandal.  The heels are generally narrower, either a contour (kind of a mini-flare) or a straight-up-and-down “slim” heel.  The most common heel height for standard shoes is 2.5”, but many ladies also like the lower 2” ones.  Some come with a strap across the instep to secure them, like this (my go-to shoe):

Supadance 1004

I highly recommend getting ones with straps, because I used to have a pair without them and they fell off my feet in competition a few times.  No good. You can buy clear straps to keep them on, but these just look prettier 🙂

Like Latin shoes, Standard ones should hug your feet pretty closely.  They should be snug but not painful.  They come in round and pointed toes, so you should try different variations to see which fit best on your feet.  Importantly, they should be snug enough on your feet so that they stay on! When you rise up on the balls of your feet, the heel cups of the shoe should stay on the heels of your foot, and not be loose at all.  I will warn you, Standard shoes are harder to get used to because of the restricted fit, but they make dancing Standard so much better, compared to Latin shoes!  Similarly, competition standard shoes are usually tan-colored to blend in with your foot/leg.  Unless you wear a white dress – then, your shoes should be white to match.

Tips for Women’s Shoe Care:

  • Get heel protectors that fit your shoe heels and put them on ASAP! These keep the plastic heel tips from wearing down, which is almost inevitable.  Most are clear plastic, but you can also get them with suede bottoms.  Some people also use suede stars, which you kind of wrap around the bottom and secure with tape.
  • Brush the suede soles of your shoes regularly with a shoe brush to get dirt out of the nap.  This gives them some of the original grip that the suede had when new and will make your shoes last much longer.
  • For standard shoes, spray them with a fabric protector before you wear them.  I use Scotchguard (though I can’t find it in stores anymore)  or Kiwi Protect-All.  This makes them a little more dirt-resistant and easier to clean later. Don’t spray this on the suede soles though.
  • Cleaning shoes: you can use a sponge dampened with Woolite or regular detergent in warm water to gently scrub out scuffs.  Just make sure to get the whole satin surface damp so that you don’t get water marks.  Then let dry overnight.  I’m not sure how effective this is without having sprayed fabric protector first, though.

Smooth Shoes

I haven’t owned a pair of smooth shoes, since I just use my standard ones for both, but am considering getting a pair.  They’re sort of a Latin/standard shoe hybrid – they have closed toes but are often open on the sides, so that you can point your foot more easily and make a nice line.  So, they are more flexible than Standard shoes, but also less supportive as a result.  They come in more design variations than do standard shoes.

Practice Shoes

I don’t like wearing my Standard shoes all the time because they’re not super comfy for long practices and get dirty easily, so I like to wear practice shoes for everyday.  These come in all sorts of designs, but many are leather oxfords that are similar to a man’s Latin shoe (see below).  If you want to wear them with socks, you can buy them a little bit looser than your other shoes.  Bonus: they seem to last a lot longer!

Freed Roma

Men’s Shoes

Beginner men should get a Standard oxford in black leather, like this:

Freed Modern Ballroom Shoe

They look a lot like jazz shoes, but have much more support on the bottom, with suede soles.  The shoes should fit snugly but not painfully while wearing thin dress socks.  So, your toes should come to the end of the toe box, or very close to it.  These will work for both Standard/Smooth and Latin/Rhythm.

Latin/rhythm shoes have a higher “Cuban” heel, about 1”. (They’re awkward to take heel leads in, so I guess that’s why Standard shoes work for both at first.)

Ray Rose Thunder

They’re basically the same as Standard/smooth shoes, other than the higher heel, which helps you stay more forward-weighted.  Might feel a little weird at first, since most men haven’t worn heels before.  They’re also more likely to come in split soles or with shorter shanks (the metal part in the sole that supports your foot), which help with flexibility.

Keep the suede soles brushed and the leather polished regularly, and they should last you quite a while!  I’ve also seen guys keep shoe trees in the shoe when they’re not wearing them, to maintain the shape.   Lots of guys like to buy the shiny patent leather shoes later on, which require some more care and some petroleum jelly rubbed on the inside to keep them from sticking together.  Patent shoes in particular are vulnerable to cracking, so keeping them stuffed while not worn is even more important.

Finding YOUR Shoe:

The best way to find the perfect shoe is to try them on in person, either at a dance shoe store or at a competition/event.  Unfortunately, your average dance supply store is unlikely to have many ballroom shoes to try on, so an event is your best bet.  The vendors should also be fairly knowledgeable and give you advice about what models seem to suit your feet better.  If you can’t go anywhere to try them on in person, then you’ll have to resort to buying shoes online.  Find a place with a good return policy!  Once you find the right shoe for you and are sure it works well, you can find it online for cheaper, especially directly from the UK.  Personally, I think the more expensive brands (usually European brands like Ray Rose, Supadance, International, Freed) really are higher in quality, fit better, and last longer than cheaper ones.  I had a pair of Capezio Standard shoes that weren’t as comfortable and started falling apart, with the fabric shredding, while that’s never happened with my Supadances.  Though if you’re just starting out and don’t want to invest too much, it’s fine to start with whatever you can afford (I’ve heard that Very Fine and Stephanie are good cheaper brands).  Sometimes one shoe seems to work fine, but then you might find another model that’s even better, so if you get to the point that you’re wearing shoes out left and right (get it?), you can try lots of different ones to find the perfect fit.

Some Websites:

Showtime

Danceshopper

Backbay Dancewear

Duodance (the cheapest prices I can find)

Dance-shop.com

VE Dance