There’s three major competition circuits in the United States (well, that I know of), and the similarities and differences between them can be kind of confusing, particularly to people who only frequent one circuit normally. So, I decided to write a basic guide to them.
First of all, a couple of definitions. Amateur means you have not declared yourself a professional. The designation is somewhat arbitrary…it used to be the case that once you earned money by teaching or performing, you had to go pro, but now that’s not the case, at least in the US. You are an amateur until you say you’re a pro. Professional means…you declared yourself a pro. Makes sense, no? I think the main incentive for going pro for most is that you can dance in pro-am, which involves teacher dancing with his or her student in competition. Pro-am’s a big money maker, since students pay their teachers for lessons and practice and to compete. Also, the other main incentive for going pro is just basically jumping into a theoretically more challenging competition circuit and dancing against different people.
Levels: the basic level structure is as follows, for amateurs: newcomer, bronze, silver, gold, novice, pre-champ, champ. Generally people progress through those levels in consecutive order, but if you’re especially awesome and/or have lots of dance experience you can skip one or two…or more. Newcomer is for people dancing their first year. Closed syllabus levels (newcomer – gold) means you have to stick to a certain list of steps. Open (novice – champ) means you can do any steps you want, though you do have to stick to the particular style you are dancing. So, for example, standard dancers can’t just decide to dance apart from each other, even if they are dancing in open. And they can’t just decide to do rumba during a foxtrot, cause that would be strange (I don’t know if it’s technically against the rules, but you’d get weird looks for sure). Also, you can’t do anything that could be dangerous on a competitive floor, such as lifts, except in special categories (theatre arts & cabaret). Competitive ballroom does not generally look like the fancy schmancy free-form stuff on Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. See WBRoth11’s Youtube channel for lots of examples of amateur competitions.
Moving on to the major competitive circuits…
Collegiate – Any competition hosted by a college team. They are generally unaffiliated with any major organization. Lots of college teams attend these together, so there’s lots of team spirit and team members cheering on each other. Usually anyone can register to compete in these competitions, whether they are a current college student or not, and individuals pay a single fee for an unlimited number of dances (unless it is a particularly large competition, then you may be limited by a certain number of events.) Usually you can double-register for two consecutive levels (e.g. bronze & silver, or gold & novice), but again this depends on the size of the competition. Some competitions go by the Youth College Network (YCN) point system for when you have to “graduate” to the next level. Basically if you beat most people in your level regularly, you are kicked out and move up to the next level. Some have costume restrictions (allowed for some set level and above) but rarely are these enforced strictly.
Levels include newcomer, bronze, silver, gold, novice (sometimes), pre-champ, and champ. In my observation, collegiate comps on the East coast jump straight from gold to pre-champ, and ones in the Midwest usually include novice in between gold and pre-champ. I don’t know about how it is on the West coast, sorry! These events are usually held in a student union, gym, or sometimes an outside venue like a high school. In most college comps, newcomer and bronze levels are very large, with anywhere from 40-200 couples and multiple heats for each level because you can’t fit that many people on the floor at once (so you get to hear the same songs play over and over. Yay.). The number of couples dwindles down with each level up from bronze, and most comps only have a handful of open (novice, pre-champ, champ) couples, with the exception of DCDI (DC Dancesport Inferno, hosted by U of Maryland) and the MIT Open, the two largest college comps with around 800-1000 competitors.
Bonus thing about college comps – many of them have fun dances, which are (obviously) for fun, and can be very goofy, such as straight-legged cha-cha, same-sex rumba, reverse-role (women leading, men following), or just random things.
USA Dance – The primary amateur dancesport organization, linked to WDSF (World DanceSport Federation). These offer the same levels (bronze, silver, gold, novice, pre-champ, champ, sometimes newcomer). Some competitions are National Qualifying Events (NQEs), which means if you do well enough at these, you can dance at the USA Dance Nationals. One difference here is that there are a lot of different age levels. There’s a bunch of age levels for kids and teens (many of whom are awesome and will make you feel vastly inferior), and then Youth (15-18), Adult (19+), Senior I (35+), Senior II (45+), and Senior III (55+). Also, at some of the bigger comps like the Manhattan Amateur Classic or the Mid-Atlantic Championships, there are a lot more open-level dancers than at collegiate comps, and often there are better open dancers at each respective level, as well as many championship-level dancers. Also, not all of the competitions offer the newcomer level. However, don’t feel too intimidated – there are still plenty of beginner and intermediate dancers at each of these competitions, and a lot of them are the same college students dancing at collegiate competitions, but just not quite as many couples. There’s a fair amount of overlap in the people that attend collegiate and USA Dance competitions.
Rules tend to be more strictly enforced, with a no-sparkly-costumes rule for syllabus dancers younger than Senior age, and more invigilation of the syllabus (meaning, you can’t dance steps that are more advanced than your level, or else you get reprimanded). These comps also tend to cost more than collegiate ones, but almost always have a discounted student rate. Usually you pay one fee for dancing up to a certain number of events, but some competitions charge by individual event. You also usually have pay to be a USA Dance member first, but this membership is good for a year. The annual membership has a discounted student rate as well. Many of these competitions are held at hotels and generally more upscale venues.
NDCA – I’m not 100% positive about this, but I believe most other competitions are affiliated with or sanctioned by the National Dance Council of America (NDCA), which is in turn affiliated with the World Dance Council. In general, these competitions are more focused on pro-am competition and professionals, but do have amateur events as well. Occasionally they have an all-amateur event, but this is fairly rare. Generally, these competitions are usually a lot smaller than collegiate and USA Dance when it comes to amateur, with the exception of champ-level amateurs.
Most of the day is spent on pro-am rounds, which often have just a handful of couples per division, who can often be uncontested (i.e., they are dancing by themselves and not competing against anyone else). In an average pro-am event, you probably rarely see more than fifteen couples, so the vibe is vastly different from the previous two types of competitions. Pros usually compete with multiple students, and the busy/popular pros might be dancing all day. These comps tend to be more expensive and usually you pay by individual event. Individual events are also broken up in different ways, with single dances and multiple dances. Also, the division levels in these pro-am events are often subdivided into things like closed bronze, open bronze, pre-silver, etc. (I don’t really get this either, so don’t worry about it). Since amateur competition is usually slim pickings here, it may not be worth it to go if you want to dance a lot against lots of other people, unless you are able to round up a bunch of friends to register, or if you just want to get some more floor time. However, attending these comps in the evening to watch the pros dance can be quite awesome, and sometimes there are even show dances, which are choreographed performances for the main purpose of entertainment. Volunteering at a competition is a great way to get in on this experience without having to pay the full price.
NDCA hosts the other amateur nationals in Utah w/ Brigham Young University, the United States National Amateur Dancesport Championships. Yes, there are two different amateur national championships, and they are both “real,” I guess. Which one “counts” just depends on which organizations (USA Dance (WDSF), and NDCA (WDC), correspondingly) you ask. Apparently, there’s lot of politics involved that I won’t get into here.
One note – Ohio Star Ball is slightly confusing because two events are going on at once there. The main event is Ohio Star Ball, which is NDCA and in this case there’s lots of couples for every kind of event (pro-am, am, pro), because it’s such a well-attended competition. Concurrently in another room in the same convention center is the National Collegiate Dancesport Championship, which is a USA Dance competition and one of the few competitions for which you have to verify that you are a current (or recently graduated) college student.
There are some competitions that are independently-run and/or hosted by ballroom studios or franchises, which might resemble the ones listed above, or not at all. I haven’t attended any of these personally, so I can’t tell you anything about them.
I hope this brief guide helped clarify some of the differences among the different competition circuits! If you have any questions, comments, or corrections, please feel free to let me know.
ETA: USA Dance competitions often have cash scholarships and sometimes other prizes for top placements, which sometimes aren’t even advertised and become an extra-nice bonus for doing well. College competitions sometimes have scholarships or certificates for dance camps, depending on who sponsors them. I’m not sure about NDCA stuff, other than certain pro-am events are labeled as scholarship ones.