How to Tan for Competitions

So one odd thing about ballroom culture is that you’re expected to tan.  For whatever reason, pale skin is not “in,” even in the dead of winter.  How this came about originally might have been just the desire to not get washed out by the dance floor lighting, but some, particularly those who dance rhythm and Latin, have taken it to the extreme.  Some people tan so much, their skin color practically looks like that of another race!

My personal opinion on tanning is that no, you don’t absolutely have to do it until you reach the higher levels (open amateur, maybe silver or gold if you’re doing pro-am), and even then, it’s not the most important thing when it comes to grooming.  Looking pale but having your hair and makeup nicely put together is probably fine.  And, if you’re a standard or smooth dancer, you can get away with tanning less (or not at all).  If you’re an open Latin/rhythm dancer, it’s much harder to get around it, and coaches may say that you have to do it.  (Another way around it is to wear costumes that cover up most of your upper body, wear dark fishnets, and plenty of bronzer).   Anyway, it’s a personal decision and ultimately you can decide whether you want to try it out or not.  And, if you decide to do it, please do it correctly.  I have seen many a tanning disaster, and trust me, people notice and will talk about it. And you don’t want to be that person on the dance floor.

Personally, I tried tanning a couple years ago, and have done it a few times this past year, particularly for bigger competitions.  I don’t think it affects my results at all, but it does help me get into ballroom mode.  And I do get relatively pale over the winter, though not nearly as much as some Caucasian people are.

Tanning Option 1: Get a real one.

So, this means tanning bed or hanging out outside and sunbathing.  Not recommended cause of the whole skin cancer risk thing, but it is always an option if you can get darker naturally and easily.  (I would actually prefer to do this because my natural tan color is nice, but again, skin cancer risk thing.)

Tanning Option 2: Spraytan at a salon.

This is a bit pricey, from probably $15-$50 depending on what you get.  I haven’t tried it personally, but basically you can get sprayed down in an automatic booth thing (Mystic Tan), or personally airbrushed by a professional.  They use the same DHA stuff that is in all fake tan products, but this will probably ensure a nicer tan than you doing it yourself, and even a darker one.  Also it’s just more convenient to have someone else do it for you.  Some businesses will even come to you to perform their airbrushing services.  Try checking Groupon or Living Social for discounts on tanning services.

Tanning Option 3: Fake tan at home.

Probably the most viable option for most people.  There’s bazillions of fake tan products on the market that fall under a wide range of prices, but they all work the same way.  DHA (dihydroxacetone) is the active ingredient, and it reacts with the dead skin cells in the top layer of your skin to dye your skin brown/orange.  The higher the DHA content, the stronger the effect.

Within the at-home products, you have lotions, mousses, and sprays.  Lotions are probably the easiest to use for beginners.  My current favorite is a spray product, Body Drench Quick Tan, but it’s a bit trickier to get the hang of.  If you’re especially flexible you might even be able to spray your own back without the help of someone else.

Step 1: Exfoliate.  For a few days before you plan on tanning, make sure to exfoliate really well in the shower, using a body scrub product or a good loofah or exfoliating gloves.  If you have dry skin, those spots will absorb more product than others and become darker and you’ll look blotchy/uneven.  Dry hands in particular are prone to this, but also elbows, knees, and ankles, so make sure to pay special attention to those spots. Afterwards, moisturize well with a good lotion!

Step 2: Prep.  Shave a day before tanning, since shaving afterwards will take off some of your new fake tan and applying tanner immediately after shaving might irritate your skin.  Either shower right before tanning (making sure to dry off completely), or shower and moisturize well ahead of time (like in the morning) so that your skin has plenty of time to absorb the moisturizer.  It’s best to tan right before bed, so you can leave the stuff on overnight to develop fully.

Step 3: Moisturize dry spots – use a light moisturizer on your elbows, knees, and ankles, which will create a barrier and also dilute the product.

Step 4: Apply tanner.  Best to do this naked in the bathroom, or in your underwear.  I’d start from the bottom up, so get your legs, then torso, then arms.  Get a friend to help you with your back, or resort to awkwardly bending around yourself.  Whatever works!  If you use a lotion, really rub it in evenly, more than you’d would with a typical lotion.  Circular motions may help avoid streaks.  They also sell tanning mitts that protect your hands and help the product go on evenly. With a spray tan, make sure to keep the nozzle 8-10 inches away from you, or else you’ll get dark stripes of color, and keep the spray going back and forth, not staying in one place for too long.  Also, if you go the spray route, do it in the bathtub or else spray residue will get everywhere.  Generally you do not rub the product in with sprays, unless you get a weird blotch or runniness.  In that case, blot lightly with a tissue or you can try rubbing it in lightly.

Step 5: Cleaning up – wash your hands.  Repeatedly.  Or else you’ll get the orange-palm effect, which is not pretty.  (Wearing disposable glove is another option.) Hang out while everything dries, and go over any uneven spots with more tanner, with caution.  Once everything is done, put a bit of tanner on the back of your hands and rub them together, making sure not to forget your fingers.

Step 6: Put on some dark, loose-fitting clothes, and go to sleep.  If you have light sheets, you may want to lay down a towel.  I personally haven’t had trouble with tanner rubbing off on my bedding, but it’s a potential issue.

Step 7: Wake up, take a shower.  Don’t worry if it looks like all of the tanner is going down the drain – if it worked, your skin should be a couple of shades darker than it was yesterday.  Just avoid scrubbing too hard.  Out of the shower, keep your skin well-moisturized to prolong the tan.

Some Notes:

You can tan your face or not.  You might want to go with a lighter coat, since you can always darken with makeup, but you can’t really go lighter.  Don’t forget your neck and ears.  I don’t think my face reacts well to tanner, so I prefer to just tan my body and make my face match with darker foundation + bronzer.  Another option is to mix tanner with a face lotion to dilute it, and apply that.  Don’t forget to go all the way to your hairline! Also remember your neck and ears.

Tanner has a very distinctive smell that occurs with the chemical process.  I used to think it was super gross, but have gotten more used to it.  Beware!

If you want to get darker, you can do multiple coats the same night (let dry in between!), or put on another coat the following night.  Some products are also designed to get you darker (those advertised as a dark shade rather than a medium shade), but that carries more risk of streaking/unevenness if you haven’t done this much before.

If you use lotion, wearing plastic/latex gloves are a good option to protect your hands from getting dark.  Another option is to use a tanning mitt.

Recommended Products:

Body Drench Quick Tan Mist – smells like vanilla or chocolate or something, which helps a lot with the icky fake tanner smell.  I think you can just spray it on the competition day too, if you wanted a boost, since it has a nice dark instant color.  It’s relatively rub-resistant once it’s fully dry, but I don’t know how sweat-resistant it is.  I’ve gotten good results from it each time, so long as I am careful about applying it evenly.

L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Lotion – available in most drugstores and very popular with my team.  Easy to use, smells alright (sort of fake lemon-y).  One weird thing about it is that it is super glittery, so it’s not advisable for application day of, particularly for men.

I haven’t tried the following products personally, but have heard/read good things about them.

Jergens Natural Glow – another good option for first timers, this is a gradual self-tanner that you apply like a regular lotion over multiple days.  It’s much more subtle and buildable.  Might not be enough for a competition, though.

St. Tropez Mousse –It’s supposed to be a very good product, and even has some kind of odor-neutralizer.  Disadvantage – much pricier.

Protan – super intense liquid that you use to paint yourself, with a sponge brush.  This stuff will get you super dark, so I’ve heard, and is favored by pro ballroom dancers and bodybuilders.  I think it also can be pretty drying, however.

Sex Symbol Aerotan – instant tint (does not dye your skin) that is good as a last-minute boost to whatever you already have. It is also shimmery.

Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs – another instant tint available in drugstores, that is kind of a paint that you can use all over, either in addition to or instead of self-tanner.

AeryJo – super shimmery makeup that will get you instantly dark.  Favored by a lot of Latin dancers.  It’s pretty pricey, though.

Other Fitness Activity Ideas

So, sometimes you might want to do things other than ballroom dance.  Shocking, right? So, here are some ideas for other fitness stuff you might consider.  Some could benefit your dancing, some might just be fun random things to try out.  Any and all could be good for general physical health, weight loss, mental health, having fun and relaxing.  Doing the same physical activity over and over simply isn’t as much of a challenge anymore because your body wants to be lazy and adapts to it, so throwing in new activities can be really beneficial. 

More Related to Ballroom Dancing:

Any other type of dance.  Duh. Keep in mind, the technique is often quite different, so don’t let it interfere with your ballroom technique too much, but moving in different ways might inspire your ballroom dancing.  Ballet, jazz, contemporary, and Broadway styles might be particularly useful for American Smooth dancers, to work on arm extensions, getting waltz and foxtrot character inspiration, and flexibility.  Other styles to consider: hip-hop, belly dance, tap, Bollywood. 

Zumba. Super popular nowadays, and can be pretty fun and high-energy.  It claims to be based on Latin dances, but keep in mind this is a super loose interpretation – for example, their version of cha cha goes “1, 2, cha cha cha” rather than the normal counting, so you just have to kind of forget your normal technique and go with it.  Can be good for cardio, some endurance, and just letting loose!

Yoga. I love yoga! It just suits my strengths – being fairly flexible, mostly.  It’s great for developing/increasing flexibility, balance, some muscle strength, and also being more aware of your breathing, which can be important for dancing. Lots of different styles of yoga – vinayasa, hatha, power yoga, hot yoga (literally hot, in a heated room), relaxation, etc. 

Aerial arts. I just tried this out briefly recently, but it seems fun and I have a couple of friends who are really into it.  It’s sort of dancing/posing/acrobatics on various apparatuses while suspended in the air.  The most commonly known variant is aerial silks (pieces of fabric hanging from the ceiling), but there’s also trapeze, hoop, and other stuff. Seems good for flexibility and very good for upper body strength. Related: Pole dancing. Big fitness trend lately and has some of the stripper-esque associations removed, at least a bit. (This video elicited a lot of “What the crap?!!!” and “What are you doing?” reactions from me, in a good way.)

Less Related to Ballroom But Still Fun: 

Rock climbing! My campus has a climbing wall in one of the gyms and one of my former partners introduced me to it.  I’ve been doing it on and off for the past few years.  Good for strength (physical and mental), and surprisingly requires flexibility as well.  You’d think it requires a ton of upper body strength, but it’s really more of a whole-body activity.  Not for those who have fear of heights, obviously.  Unless you want to try and conquer that fear; in that case, go for it!

Weightlifting.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think strength training is probably underrated among dancers.  I like it waaaay more than cardio – it’s not boring and you get to see steady progress if you keep at it.  And women especially should try it – I can assure you that you’re not going to get huge unless you take steroids or have really particular genetics.  Go heavy! Don’t just use those little 1-to-5 lb colored “Barbie” weights.  And I suppose skinny men should consider adding it to their fitness routines if they’re self-conscious about baring their chests in Latin/rhythm costumes.  Ballroom dancing doesn’t really do a ton for your upper body strength, so this is a good way to work on it (if it’s something you want).  Crossfit is an especially popular circuit-style training program nowadays that combines cardio and weightlifting. 

Of course there are plenty of other countless possibilities: running (ew, personally), biking, hiking, basketball, bowling, swimming, gymnastics, rowing, martial arts, spinning, ice skating, skiing/snowboarding, tennis, Pilates.  Find whatever floats your boat and have at it 🙂  Or just dance a lot; that’s fine too. 

Dance Documentaries

I’ve seen three pretty good dance documentaries recently – two are about ballroom dancers, one was on ballet.  For dancers, you get a glimpse into elite dance life and a fair amount of inspiration from the dance scenes themselves.  For non-dancers, some parts may be more or less compelling, but these films still provide great insight into an unfamiliar, beautiful world of dance, revealing how much hard work gets put into this art form.  Either way, they’re worth a watch!

Dance for Me

This new coming-of-age documentary aired on PBS recently as part of their POV series and is available to stream online here until August 20th, 2014.  (If you are not in the US you can purchase it on iTunes.)  The star is 15-year-old Egor, a Russian teen who has moved to the foreign country of Denmark for a partnership and elite Latin dance training.  His mother is thousands of miles away in China and they rarely get to see each other, but Skype often.  Fourteen-year-old Mie is his partner and new “sister”; Egor now lives with her and her family.  The film follows them through the newish stages of their partnership, practicing, and attending a few big dancesport competitions.  But the focus does really seem to be Egor’s adjustment to a new country with different norms and culture while being away from family.  It’s also a character study into a quiet perfectionist with an intense drive and passion for what he does.  He isn’t comfortable sharing his feelings with others, which contributes to some frustrations.  I’m not sure how interesting this documentary would be for non-dancers, but it was pretty enjoyable to me.

Ballroom Dancer

Also by Danish directors, this documentary focuses on the famous Slavik Kryklyvyy’s attempt at a comeback with partner and girlfriend Anna Melnikova in the professional Latin division.  He’s said by some to be the best male Latin dancer today.  If you have kept up at all with these two, you know how the story ends already (more or less), but the journey is still compelling.  Slavik is an unrelenting perfectionist.  He’s tempestuous and demanding of Anna (an amateur world champion in her own right) in his pursuit of a professional Latin world championship – a title owned by his former amateur partner, Joanna Leunis.  This film is full of interpersonal drama, but is also an intimate portrait of dancers, athletes, and artists in pursuit of being the best.  Sometimes they talk a lot, other times everything is communicated through facial expressions and body language in silence.  The studio rehearsal scene for their “Always On My Mind” rumba showcase is fantastic – moving, raw, intimate.  I think it’s even better than the actual performance.  You can watch the movie here.  It used to be on iTunes but has apparently disappeared.

First Position

And now for something different! Ballet!  First Position follows six young dancers (aged 10-18-ish) on their journey to the Youth American Grand Prix, a major international event that leads to apprenticeships, scholarships, and coveted jobs for young ballet dancers.  This is where all the major ballet companies can see them and where talent can be discovered.  We meet dancers from all sorts of backgrounds, but it’s clear that they have several things in common – dedication, passion, hard work, and unrelenting willingness to sacrifice.  Their families must often do the same to support their children.  Joan lives in the US, far away from his family in Colombia.  Aran’s family commutes hours to his studio.  Miko’s family decided to homeschool her so she would have more time from dance.  Michaela was adopted from war-torn Sierra Leone, is one of few Black ballet dancers, and has to deal with an injury as the competition looms near.  Each of the featured dancers has truly amazing skills, often surpassing those of the dancers you would typically see on So You Think You Can Dance.  What’s nice is you see that while these dancers are amazing, there are some struggles – occasionally they do mess up, which can be very noticeable in the super-precise, technical dance form of ballet.  Again, common in these three documentaries, is the strive for perfection.  It is also striking how many of these kids know what they want to do for the rest of their lives at such an early age, while many of the rest of us have no clue.  Naturally, you can expect lots of really beautiful dancing in this film! What’s nice is how they show other competitors, dancers, and parents as well, carving out a more complete depiction of this competitive ballet world.