How to: Ballroom Hair

Doing a proper hairstyle for competitive ballroom dancing is an important part of the aesthetic package, and really adds polish to your look. Wearing a blingy dress, shiny jewelry, and lots of makeup just doesn’t have the same effect when they’re paired with a floppy, messy, stringy hairstyle. Also there’s a practical element to it – when your hair is neat and out of your face, it’s not distracting to you or the audience.

Messy hair – chic and cool for everyday life and all, not so much for ballroom dancing.

Classic low ballroom bun on Anna Melnikova.

Ladies, learn to tame your hair into an immovable (but pretty!) sort of helmet. The ubiquitous and simplest style to do is a low bun, one that comes out just about at the nape of your neck.  Start with relatively clean hair.  You might find that leaving it a bit dirty (not washing it for a day or two) helps it be more tameable, and not as slippery.  Brush it out to make it as smooth as possible.  If you have normal hair (unlike my baby-fine, thin strands that require an artificial boost, i.e. fake hair), all you have to do is smooth it back into a tight, neat, low ponytail, and twist it up into a bun.

Part it neatly however you like with a center part, side part, or no part.  Just make sure the part is razor-sharp and precise – a tail of a comb can be useful for accomplishing this.  Use lots of hair gel (I like Aussie’s Instant Freeze Sculpting Gel , and another good one is got2B Ultra Glued Gel) and a very fine-toothed comb or boar-bristle brush to smooth it back, tie it back tightly, and spray the whole thing copiously with a strong-hold hairspray.  Use a hand mirror and larger mirror to look at the back of your head to make sure it looks good.

I use minimal gel and only hairspray for the most part, because gel makes my fine, thin hair stick/cling together, which allows my scalp shows through. No good.  A “freezing” type of hairspray is the best. I recommend Aussie Instant Freeze for a good drugstore brand, and also Tresemme Tres Two. Lots of people swear by the got2b glued brand in the yellow can.  It has a slight tendency to flake, however.  Make sure to tame any loose bits or flyaways.  You can use a hairdryer with high heat to speed up the drying process and really set things in place.  You may need multiple coats of hairspray…it’s really hard to use too much.  Secure all the little baby hairs and flyaways with bobby pins, gel, and spray.  Give your head a good hard shake once everything has set to make sure nothing will come loose.

While making a bun, you twist the ponytail and roll it around the base, sort of like a cinnamon bun, then tuck the ends in behind and pin around the circumference, poking the pins through the middle. I like using hair pins for this, but bobby pins work as well. Use pins that match your hair color, so that they are less visible.  Use more pins than you think you need, and make sure they’re very secure. One trick is to insert them in one direction, twist them about a quarter or a half a turn, then push them all the way in.  See this if you need a visual (keep in mind, you probably need closer to at least 10 pins at minimum, 2 will not suffice for a competition). Give your head a good shake to make sure it’s secure, after spraying some more.

Then, wrap a hairnet (one that matches your hair color) around the whole thing, twice if you need to make it tight, tucking in the edges underneath your bun so that they are invisible. Secure the hairnet with a couple of pins as well. I’ve had a hairnet somehow hook itself to something while on the dance floor and get pulled off.  I still have no idea how that happened!  Spray the whole thing some more once you’re done, taking care to not get product in your eyes/face. Stay in a decently ventilated area and be mindful of who is around you!  So many toxic fumes.

Option: a sock bun or a bun form, to fill it out and make it a perfect doughnut shape.  I haven’t tried this personally, but I think a lot of dancers use these.

Add a flower or crystals as accents, and you’re done! Those crystal lacy appliqué things are great and only require a few bobby pins to keep secure.

What to do if you have:

Short hair: You can gel it back, similar to a men’s style, but with a bit more flair (but not straight back, that would look kind of weird. Maybe with a part?). For smooth/standard, finger waves look awesome.  (I have no idea how to do them though, sorry!). Alternatively, a bit of teasing and spraying might do the trick.  You can also experiment with curls and various pins/decorations. If it’s super short you probably don’t need to do much other than spray a bit to keep it relatively neat.  Here are some short hair styles I’ve tried personally.

A few of short hairstyles:

Joanna Leunis with a more voluminous/teased short hair look

A cool wavy style on Maria Nikoloshina

Finger waves. Obviously, Halle Berry and not a ballroom dancer.

Natalie Paramonov’s awesome hair. I don’t understand how it works, though.

A short bob: leave it down for Latin/rhythm and controlled with some product, but slick it back with tons of product or tie it back into a ponytail and add a hairpiece (fake hair) for smooth/standard, whichever works better for your length. Style the fake hair into a bun as above, or use one that is already in a bun/chignon form.

Curly hair: straighten it first with a straightening iron. Or find some way to make the texture work for you.

Bangs: slick them back with some gel and/or hairspray, or leave them loose (but still sprayed) if they don’t stick to your face and you don’t mind them moving around. Longer side bangs are good for a styled swoopy thing.

For open-level standard/smooth fancy hair, experiment with knot-style buns and swirling your hair into designs. I’m still getting the hang of this, but practice helps a lot!  Looking at high-level competitors for inspiration is great.

Swirly fancy standard hair

Kat has a lot of cool hair experiments documented here. I find that using a bunch of strong-hold gel (the Aussie gel mentioned earlier) and working quickly is key.  If you do a normal bun, just leave some of your bangs separated out while you do the ponytail.  You can loosely pin swirly designs in place and let them dry, then take the pins out and use extra-strong gel (got2b Glued Spiking Gel) to glue them to the rest of your hair.  Strategic use of a hairdryer will speed up the process.  Using eyelash glue or washable Elmers (yes, the white glue you used in elementary school) to glue crystals on top of the designs is a great look, especially if you have darker hair that shows up less on the floor.  With both glues, let it dry for about 30 seconds to get tacky. Here is a fantastic video on how to do a swirly low bun with decorative bits.  I’d recommend using Elmers on your hair and eyelash glue if you want to glue any stones to your skin/scalp.  The eyelash glue is a bitch to get out of your hair and requires a lot of conditioner to slide it out.  Elmers will just dissolve in hot water pretty quickly.

Here’s my first successful attempt at doing swirly hair! I can’t do anything super complicated cause I don’t have enough hair…or coordination.  (Sorry the picture’s blurry.)Image

I had help with the crystals.  You can also glue the crystals in your part, on your scalp, or wherever really.

If you don’t want to do the standard low ballroom bun look (which is nice because it works for all styles), you can experiment with different heights of buns, French twists, and French braids.  For Latin/rhythm, you can do a long ponytail (only for those with very long hair, like mid-back or longer) or a braid, but make sure it doesn’t whip your partner or yourself painfully in the face, and make sure it stays neat. Some people like this sort of high genie bun/cone look, but I’m not a huge fan, personally, especially when it’s super pointy and severe looking. If you’re adventurous you can try a half-up half-down look, but generally people don’t leave their hair loose because it flies around and obscures the neckline.  Also it gets sweaty (ick).

Men: Unless you have a buzz cut, use some product! You don’t want your hair flopping around and being distracting. The most common “ballroom” haircut is short on the sides and a bit longer on top, so you can slick it straight back and close to your scalp. A side part may work as well. If your hair tends to move around even with product in it, set the whole thing with a hairdryer on “hot.” A combination of hair gel and spray seems to be best for this (gel & comb first, then dry, then spray, then let that dry), unless you want to go for a softer look, then pomade or hair wax should do the job. If you use a lighter product, keep in mind that sweating on the dance floor has the potential to undo the whole thing.  You may also want to do a couple cycles of gel/dry/spray/dry, or whichever products work for you.

If you have long hair, pull it back into a neat ponytail and use all of the advice for pulling hair back listed above for women.  Longer hair is more acceptable for Latin/rhythm than standard/smooth, generally.

Former professional standard world champ Mirko Gozzoli with slicked back hair.

World professional finalist Victor Fung with similar hair. And Anna Mikhed looking classy as usual.

I hope that helps! In the meantime, I’ll be experimenting with swirly bun things in attempt to jazz up my usual look.

Standard’s Pretty Different, Too!

Standard’s changed quite a bit over the last few decades as well.

My partner and I finally finished up our open standard tango routine (woot, all done with learning our standard routines now!) , so I figured I’d post this vintage take on it. The poofy short dresses are pretty amazing. I think it’s interesting how the frame is smaller and shapes are more upright/natural looking than today’s hyperstylized, athletic shaping. But the top dancers of today also seem more technical and precise, at least as far as I can tell.

Here’s a more recent showdance from the Hiltons 15 years ago- more modern but still pretty different from today. Also, boa-feather skirt!

On Self-Related Motivations and Ballroom Dancing

Motivation in the conventional everyday sense refers to what drives people to do the things they do, which corresponds pretty well to the psychological study of motivation.  But motivation in the psychology sense not only refers to what underlies people’s behavior, but also how they seek out information, interpret information, and encode it in memory.  Specifically, self-related motivations underlie much of our everyday doings and thoughts, and there are a few that psychologists study in particular.  These scientists might even go so far to dub them the fundamental motives.  And, surprise surprise, these can all relate to dancing and how we learn how to dance!

Self-Enhancement

Basically, people like to do things and think things and find out information that makes them feel good about themselves.  They prefer to read positive feedback to negative feedback and remember it better.  Some argue that this motive overpowers all other ones and is the automatic one, the one that kicks in without us even trying (Sedikides).  Most people think they are better than average at any given thing (driving, social skills, and so on), which is statistically impossible (Svenson, 1970).  People are very accepting of positive feedback and more critical of negative feedback.  Self-serving bias makes us take credit for success and blame outside factors for failure.

How self-enhancement relates to ballroom: Well, who doesn’t like getting a compliment?  Whether it’s from our longtime coach or a complete stranger, getting complimented on our dancing is a fantastic feeling.  Getting a compliment on hair or makeup or an outfit will more than suffice as well.  Particularly when we have put ourselves out there in front of a bunch of strangers, getting confirmation that we don’t look like idiots is indeed a nice feeling.  I would say most people think they are better than the average person in their lesson/class, unless they are anxious and particularly clumsy-feeling.  In competition, most people probably think they danced better than the average person, and therefore deserve a callback – that’s why not getting a callback is so disappointing.  It’s probably easier to remember competition successes than to remember failures, for the most part…or at least we spend more time trying to think about the successes.  When we get negative feedback from a coach, we probably automatically think, “What? I don’t do that” and then have to override that impulse to fix whatever problem it is.  Also, self-serving bias can definitely play a role in how we understand competition results.  When we win, it’s because we danced great! When we didn’t do so well, it’s because the floor was slippery or our partner did something wrong or people kept bumping into us or the judges didn’t like our outfits.  Also, even if we do badly, we socially compare downwards to make ourselves feel better, finding a standard of comparison to whom we can feel superior. “At least we were on time, unlike couple X.”

Self-Consistency

We like to find out things that confirm what we already know about ourselves.  We like to think we have a good sense of who we are and seek out information that supports that idea, because we like consistency and predictability (Swann, 1985).

How self-consistency relates to ballroom:  This might sound directly counter to self-enhancement, but if someone thinks they are an awful dancer, they (at least on a conscious controlled level) would prefer to hear negative feedback to positive feedback.  “I’m terrible, and these people agree.”  People with low self-esteem prefer negative feedback, because then they have a consistent view of themselves and get confirmation from others about their view.  What’s interesting is the cognitive-affective crossfire situation – people with a negative self-view emotionally (affect = emotion) prefer positive feedback, but cognitively prefer negative feedback (Swann et al., 1987).  I know, it’s twisted, but it makes sense – they have both the self-enhancement and self-consistency motives going on at the same time. Haven’t you encountered this social exchange before? “You did a great job dancing out there!” “Ugh no, I did horribly!”  I’m not saying that dancers who are self-critical (which might just mean they have high standards for themselves) necessarily have low self-esteem, but perhaps they had a low evaluation of their dancing at the time, and at the time would like a compliment on one level but prefer criticism on another.

Self-Appraisal

Basically this just means that we want more information about ourselves, to see where we stand.  An accuracy motivation, to see if what information we have about ourselves seems to be correct.  Often this ties in with the motivation of self-improvement, which I think is pretty self-explanatory.  You have to know what you’re good and bad at before you can take steps to improve.

This motive I think plays the most into the learning process – we take lessons, seek feedback from more advanced dancers, and pay professionals lots of $$ to tell us how we are doing now and how we can get better.  Looking at judges’ scores and scouring YouTube videos of our performance help to fulfill this motivation, to see where we stand.  Practicing and staring at ourselves in the mirror for hours on end definitely help to fulfill this drive (though staring at the mirror and convincing ourselves of our innate, undeniable hotness is more in the lines of self-enhancement 😉 ).

Overall, I think the most interesting motive is self-enhancement.  There are so many ways that people make themselves feel better, even if they are deluding themselves just a little bit (or sometimes a lot!).  As someone studying psychology, it’s interesting when I catch myself or someone else using one of these self-enhancement strategies.  Hell, it feels really good to have my dancing or my dress complimented by a rando.  Didn’t get a callback? Judges didn’t see us.  Or the music was weird.  Or my shoes were super slippery. Obviously.

But hey, on the plus side, having these slightly positive illusions about yourself is good for happiness, mental health, and well-being in the long run, so they can’t be all that bad (Taylor & Brown, 1988).  Being ever-so-slightly arrogant (or confident, self-assured, positive, whichever word you’d like to use) about yourself seems to work out well for people in the ballroom world and everywhere else.

Having Fun on the Dance Floor!

I want to write a whole post on this because I totally understand the performance-anxiety thing.  As a kid I used to perform in piano recitals and would literally be shaking in fear as I approached the front of the room.  Once I screwed up so badly I had to start the whole piece over again.  Somehow though, the prospect of dancing in front of people no longer makes me nervous – at least in the competition setting.  If my heart is pumping faster than normal, it feels more like positive adrenaline that will help me perform my best.

Remember that you are not alone. Your partner is there to support you and will (hopefully) fill in the blanks of your routine if you suddenly forget what comes next. (By the way, this happens to me more than it should…whoops.)  Even if something happens, your lead and following abilities should kick it and it’ll work out fine.

If you forget your routine completely, you can always fall back on lead-follow.  That is the essence of ballroom dancing, isn’t it? Good technique and practice should take care of it.

There are tons of other couples on the floor! No one will notice if you screw up. And even if you do mess up, no biggie. No one is perfect. I’ve even seen a video where Riccardo and Yulia had to do a balance check.

Even if you screw up and fall on your face, it’s okay. Really, it is. Trust me, I’ve wiped out at least twice on the floor (literally, my butt was on the floor, dress flying up all around me, and I had to find my shoe that had popped off) and it’s okay! You get back up, you start where you left off, and often the audience applauds you.  It happens.  And if and when it happens, you know that probably the worst possible thing happened, and you moved on with your dancing and your life.

I don’t do this as much as I should, but just really feeling the music and translating it into movement of your body is really part of the essence of dancing, isn’t it? So really get into it, feel the music in your bones, and the rest of your body will take care of itself – that’s what those hours and hours of practice are for.  Don’t overanalyze your technique and worry about what your feet and arms are doing.  Just think about being big and showing the music in all that you do.

Play with your partner and the audience!  Easier to do when you’re apart, but you can still do this in standard, even. You can catch his eye and slip him a coy smile when you shift from closed position to promenade.  In a corner, flirt with the audience. Find someone to connect with and try to make them smile.  If you’re ballsy you can even play with the judges, but tread with extreme caution.

Express each dance’s character. That means, don’t just plaster a smile on your face.  Let your face be expressive but not cartoonish.  Be romantic in waltz and rumba, sassy in samba and smooth foxtrot, and cold and bitchy in tango.  Reflect these characters in your movement as well, and your performance will be that much better for it.  Figure out what story you want to tell for each dance and narrate it with your body and face.  Sometimes the music is atypical and has a different feel from what is typical – the best couples can embody that.

Just letting go can do wonders for enjoying yourself, and often it makes your dancing even better than when you’re thinking about everything you’re doing. Good luck!