How to Properly Film Ballroom Dance (and What NOT to Do)

In the era of YouTube and ubiquitous smartphones, it’s pretty easy nowadays for people to record video of themselves dancing, whether at practice or in competition. If you have never had someone take a video of your dancing, I highly recommend doing so at least once. You’ll see a lot of things that you can’t see when watching yourself in the mirror. It might be rather painful in the short run (“I had no idea I made those faces!” “What the *$()%@* am I doing?!”), but it will be good for your dancing in the long run.

There are many, many ways to go about recording video that are not optimal, and I see people doing this All. The. Time. Luckily, there are also many ways to do it right. Lots of credit goes to WBRoth11 for providing me with sage advice and some edits, as well as ES for input.

Here are some rules, roughly in order of importance.

1)      Hold your phone horizontally.

DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT hold your phone vertically like you typically would while using apps and scrolling through Facebook. Okay, so maybe you’ll have to use both hands, but vertical video is literally the worst. If you play back the video on a computer or upload it to YouTube, you’ll have those awful black bars on each side of the video. Vertical video is a cardinal sin – don’t ever do it!

Image result for vertical phone filming

  • “But I’m going to watch it on my phone later!” Well, you can also easily rotate your phone to watch it, but you can’t magically change a video to be horizontal without cropping out the vast majority of the frame. And sometimes, rotating your phone while watching a vertical video just makes the video extra extra small, with a whole thick black frame around the whole thing. Awful.
  • If you accidentally start recording vertically, just stop and start over vertically rather than rotating the phone mid-video. It’ll be difficult to edit and totally unviewable without some awkward neck-craning.


2)      Know how the video function works.

This is especially important if you are using a phone/camcorder that is different from your own. Once, one of my friends had video of the breaks in between their dancing, rather than the actual rounds, because of a misunderstanding of the indicator symbol on the phone. Hint: if there’s a stopwatch-like set of numbers on the screen and the numbers are going up, it is probably recording.


3)      Film from a high point.

Things just look better from above rather than from waist height or below. So, do not take a seat right next to the dance floor and record – it’ll just look weird. If there are risers, go to the highest back row. Another good option is finding some place around the dance floor where you’re not in anyone’s way and standing up while you record. In especially crowded events, standing up on a chair all the way in the back works well.

  • As a bonus, filming from a high point helps you avoid filming any people’s heads or judges that might block the dancing. (See next point.)


4)      Don’t film the audience members’ heads.

No one wants to see that. It’s hella distracting, and worse, it might block the dance couple from view. This is where strategic framing, positioning, and zooming can help you avoid this issue. If you have a judge standing in front of you, either move your arms or your whole body to avoid the same issue.


5)      Use the zoom feature.

Probably by putting two fingers on the touchscreen and moving them away from each other. If you are focusing on one particular couple, you can’t see squat if they are tiny little figures at the opposite end of the dance floor. If they happen to move closer to you, zoom back out. A dancing head is equally unhelpful.


6)      Follow the intended couple with your video frame.

If you are zooming properly, this will be a necessity. You can’t just float about aimlessly, or you will miss the dancing you’re trying to film. This means that you need to watch the video you are taking. Don’t get distracted by other dancers and sort of hold the phone/camera loosely and then realize you’re missing the couple you should be filming and scramble to reframe. Keep your eyes on the frame and the frame on your couple. (If you are recording the whole heat and no one in particular, then this doesn’t apply.)


7)      Record each heat, rather than each full event.

This means making separate videos for, say, waltz, tango, and foxtrot. This makes finding a specific dance easier and minimizes random time between heats that no one cares about.


8)      Be aware of your surroundings.

Don’t stand up where you would block people behind you. Don’t be in a place where lots of people are walking by. Don’t be right next to a group of loudly gossiping people. [Loudly gossiping people, also be aware if someone is filming in your vicinity!]


9)      Position yourself in an ideal location around the dance floor.

For standard/smooth videos, a great position is about 2/3 down a long wall (so dancers are coming toward you for most of the wall when following line of dance). You get a better view of the routines there rather than at a short wall.

For rhythm/Latin, ideally you would have the couple dance right near where you are. But, since they move around, the best option is to be in the middle of a long wall – then, you have a good chance of being able to capture them anywhere they go.


10)      Use a tripod if you have one, to steady the camera. This is also ideal if you plan on filming many heats and don’t want your arms to fall off. (Relatedly, try to avoid using an iPad or other tablet to record – they’re heavy and also likely to block other people’s views.)


11)      If using a phone, switch it to airplane mode to avoid texts, phone calls, and other notifications from popping up. Calls are actually dangerous, because they will stop the record.


12)      Bring an extra battery/power bank/etc. Videoing can drain a lot of power.


13)      This next one is for when you are archiving / uploading the videos. Label the videos with as much as detail as possible – the event, the year, the level, the dance, the round (semi/final), etc. “Silver rumba” is not going to tell you much a few months from now, unless you only have one set of videos. “MVI 2049” is even worse.


14)      If you want to put videos online, don’t use Facebook. I repeat, DO NOT use Facebook for video hosting. It’s super difficult to locate them again, particularly if you just post a single video on your wall. It’ll just get lost. Upload on YouTube, then link it on Facebook and get all the likes.


15)      Finally, if you want to get some decent video of yourself, then make sure you have a trusted friend/team member/family member who knows all of the above information and is attentive regarding when you are dancing. Don’t just hand it off to a random person who you can’t trust to do a good job or someone who will space out and miss your first two dances.


Here’s an example of not-great video, graciously provided by my friend (who has much better videos nowadays):

First, it’s vertical. Cardinal sin! It’s filmed from the short side, with no zoom, so you often can’t see the intended couple clearly at all during the dance, and when you can, they look like dancing ants. People’s heads are distracting. And even when the couple is not super tiny or obscured, it’s still pretty vague regarding whom is even being followed due to the framing floating around. Also, vague video title.

Here’s an example of a much better one:

Watch it until about 1:00 in for a fun surprise!

This one’s horizontal, filmed from above (standing on a chair, on the back riser) and about 2/3 down a long wall, zoomed appropriately, and has relatively minimal shots of audience heads. The frame follows the intended couple. Very specific labeling so that it’s easy to search for later, if you are so inclined.

I hope those two examples show you a clear distinction between good and bad video. Happy filming! Please comment if you have any other thoughts or suggestions.

Ballroom in a Few Gifs #8

When a rando dancer you’ve never met sends you a friend request on Facebook


Where everyone puts their stuff at a competition


Seeing all the hot ballroom dancers


Floorcraft during novice standard and smooth


Standing spins in smooth Viennese waltz


Getting rushed back onto the on-deck area immediately after dancing


Dancing 10+ open choreography rounds in one day of competition


When the obvious winners congratulate you on making the final


Attempting to do a body roll


Watching videos of myself dancing

Ballroom in a Few Gifs #7

Seeing a whole floor of dancers breaking on 1 in mambo


Seeing 85% of the people in a rhythm event doing straight-up Latin technique


My arm styling


When someone wears an awful costume


When everyone tells you they can’t wait to see your new routines


Making that final when you thought you had no chance


Trying to shake hands with a judge while they are handing you your ribbon

Gender Roles and Ballroom Dance

One central part of traditional ballroom dancing is that of gender roles.  A couple consists of a male leader and a female follower.  For some organizations, this is an actual written rule; the rest of the time it is implied.  Dance teachers tend to refer to each person as the gentleman and the lady, or the man and the woman.

One view of ballroom: The man is strong and powerful.  He decides what steps the couple will take at what time, dictating direction and timing.  The woman responds to the man and does whatever he leads, and her job is to be beautiful and expressive.  Some people really appreciate this very traditional (others would consider it antiquated) aspect of ballroom – each gender has a particular role and they complement each other, and if everyone does what they’re supposed to do, then it works out beautifully.  Men are men and women are women.  Men act gentlemanly with chivalry towards graceful ladies, who follow what they are asked (told?) to do.

As an aside, gender is something we all learn at a very young age, and something that is instilled as part of our identity even before we are born – our parents refer to us by gendered pronouns and dress us in traditionally female (pink) or male (blue) colors, before babies even begin to act differently.  Girls are described as pretty and boys are described as strong and handsome.  Behaving in a sex-consistent way is reinforced, while behaving in a sex-inconsistent way might be punished.  Boys are supposed to play with trucks, not dolls, and so on.  Girls are supposed to be ladylike and nurturing, while boys are supposed to be rambunctious and tough.

However, the state of gender is not so black and white.  (Fortunately, in the past few years, we have seen more and more gender nonconforming individuals who may identify with the gender that is opposite of their sex or neither gender.) I’ll switch to my preferred terms here, leader and follower, which are inherently less gendered.  The leader does control direction and timing, but whatever the leader decides to lead is more of a suggestion than a command.  The follower needs to always be sensitive to these suggestions, taking a hint and turning it into a full expression of the figure, but does not always “have” to do what the leader intended.  The follower interprets whatever she or he believes the leader to have suggested, and if it happens to be different from the original intention, the leader needs to just go with it and adjust accordingly.  This relationship is an ongoing conversation that requires both parties to be sensitive to each other, it’s not a relationship between dictator and passive servant.  Usually, the leader provides the power for a movement, but many figures require the follower to take over and provide power as well.

Both roles also look out for each other – primarily, leaders do the steering and try to prevent the couple from hitting others, but followers also need to help out when the leader is going backward and cannot see where he or she is going.  Couples should develop a subtle signal for this situation, but also a quick verbal “Watch out behind you!” also works in a jiffy.

More recently, some standard couples, particular in the WDSF divisions, have changed up styling, such that leads create more dramatic shapes rather than staying relatively straight up and down.  This trend also blurs the line between gender roles of the woman being the “pretty picture” and the man providing the frame for her and showing her off.  (Personally, I like some shaping from both parties, but not so much shaping from leaders that it’s distracting.  But it comes down to a matter of personal taste)

In the past few years, with more marriage equality and openmindedness about gender roles overall, there have been more and more opportunities for same-sex ballroom dancing.  (Technically, sex refers to biology while gender refers to social identity, but we’ll just go with that conventional terminology.) USA Dance officially announced that they would offer same-sex events, to be run separately from the typical ones.  In the U.S., there have been such events as the Gay Games, the Boston Open Dancesport event, and the Glitz and Glitter Ball.

Same-sex partnerships really offer interesting interpretations of each person’s role, and people can approach them in dramatically different ways.  One person might fulfill a traditional masculine leader role while the other is a traditional feminine follower.  They could switch off leads.  Styling choices might be consistent with their conventional role or their actual gender.  There is actually a lot of debate about whether same-sex couples should compete against different-gender couples, because of certain perceived advantages that they might have in terms of athleticism, power, speed, or gracefulness.

Another variant of playing around with gender roles is reverse role dancing, with the female leading the male.  There are fewer avenues for this arrangement, at least competitively, but it’s a literal flip of the gender roles in traditional ballroom.  Naturally, you’ll have to deal with some height situations not being ideal, but it’s definitely a fun and educational way to get an idea of what challenges your partner has to deal with.

Makeup Inspiration

I’ve been mildly addicted to watching YouTube makeup gurus lately, and it’s fun to see what they can do with makeup! Not all of it translates directly into ballroom makeup, which tends to be way more dramatic and verging on drag-queen level than even the most smoky party makeup, but there are a lot of great ideas and inspiration for incorporating into your competition or showcase makeup routine.  And, they show a lot of great techniques and tricks.  My current favorite look is a cut crease, so I will endeavor to try that at my next comp.  Maybe with some vampy lips if I’m feeling sassy.

I’ve also included beauty tutorials from ladies of different ethnicities, since I’ve noticed that there is not a huge amount of diversity in ballroom-specific makeup videos.

Bonus video! (Has nothing to do with ballroom makeup inspiration.) What the crap.  This girl is a-maz-ing.  I think I’ve gotten competition makeup down to maybe 15 minutes if I’m in a real hurry and everything is cooperating, but this takes mad skillz – check out how well she does that eyeliner wing in literally 3 seconds.  Also how quickly she puts on fake eyelashes!  Not to mention the rest of her videos, especially some of the crazy Halloween ideas.

Ballroom in a Few Gifs #6 – First Comp of the Season Edition

Purdue is in three weeks! Woot!  For all those prepping for their first big competitions this fall:
Trying to meet all the newbies before the competition

via MTV

Learning difficult new steps and panicking about making them work in competition

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The two stages of realizing how soon the first competition is

via The Odyssey Online

via The Odyssey Online

The prospect of doing rounds

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Not being done with routines two weeks before the comp


Trying to find a partner at the last minute

via The Odyssey Online

Trying to remember how to do ballroom makeup


Cram practicing. All. The. Time.

via The Odyssey Online

Deciding to go shopping for new ballroom stuff

via The Odyssey Online

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Shopping for Your First Competition

For your handy-dandy convenience, I’ve done some research on the Internet in search of some affordable essential ballroom dance competition items for a first-time competitor.

Below is a list of some of my finds that total of under $250 for your first competition!  I suppose it might sound like a lot for a typical college student or first-time dancer in general, but once you have all of this stuff, you’re pretty set for the next few comps until you want to upgrade items or get a second pair of ballroom shoes.  It also assumes that you don’t have some essential things most people already have, such as makeup, a short party dress (for women, obviously), and a white shirt, black dress pants, and black socks (for men).  Click here for more information on ballroom attire, here for more information on makeup, or here for more information on shoes.


Grand Total: Approximately $232 – $280

A couple tips – colorwise, I’d suggest avoiding black and red for Latin outfits, since those are super common on the floor.  Go for neutral (shades of brown, gold, gray, or black) but dramatic eyeshadow if you’re not practiced in applying it, paired with a bright lip color like a dark pink or red.


Grand Total: Approximately $228 – $247

Experienced dancers, if you have any links to awesome online finds, please comment and share!

Ballroom in a Few Gifs #5 – Back to School Edition

Welcome back to school, all those who are still getting their formal education on!

Reuniting with all your dance friends whom you haven’t seen all summer

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When you and your partner realize you are in no shape to run rounds

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Newbies watching veterans dance

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The brand-newbies just learned a cha cha basic!  

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Realizing that some of the freshmen were born in 1997

(new life goal: be out of grad school before the new freshmen were born in the 2000s)

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When your biggest rival just got way better this summer while you lazed around

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How some home-made ballroom gowns look

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What to expect at syllabus levels at collegiate competitions now that USA Dance costume rules have been relaxed

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Social Exchange Theory and Partnerships

In today’s post, I’d like to talk about dance partnerships through the lens of social exchange theory.  Social exchange theory (Homans, 1958) and related concepts such as investment theory (Rusbult & Buunk, 1993) were developed to explain social relationships in general, in a sort of relationship-math way.  They can help us answer certain questions: What elements make relationships more satisfying?  Why do people stay in bad relationships?  What predicts how long relationships last?  When do people ditch their relationship partners to go look for other ones?  It’s probably easiest to understand this approach when you apply it to romantic relationships, but I’d say finding a solid dance partnership can be even harder to find than someone to date!  And this theory is just as applicable to dance relationships.

In any case, here’s how it all works.  First equation:  satisfaction = benefits – costs.  Pretty simple.  Level of satisfaction is benefits minus costs – if there are more benefits than costs, then you are more satisfied.  Too many costs and not enough benefits means less satisfaction or even dissatisfaction.  Examples of benefits from a dance partner: he’s very talented, she is a hard worker, they have a good match in ability, they enjoy doing 10-dance together.  Costs: he is always late, they both have to travel over an hour to practice together, she has a limited budget so that he can’t take as many lessons as he’d like to,  she also wants to dance smooth but he doesn’t.  In short, the more good things about the relationship, the happier you are with it.  A lot of benefits can cancel out some negative aspects, but obviously the more benefits and the fewer costs, the happier the relationship partners are, overall.

Here’s a caveat though – some people expect more out of a relationship than others.  Two people might be equally satisfied overall, but one person might stay in that situation and another might not.  This is because of individuals’ different comparison levels (Thibault & Kelly, 1959).  What are your standards?  Do you expect to be really happy or just fine with your partnership situation?  Do you expect a really good partnership or a perfect one?

Another important aspect that you have to consider is perceived alternatives.  Are there lots of other potential partners out there or are the pickings really scarce?  The more possibilities out there, the less commitment you have towards your current partner because you have more opportunities to “play the field” and find someone better.   This idea might explain why there is often so much partner switching in a large college ballroom team.  Whereas on a small team or in a small studio, there’s not many options, so people are more likely to stick with their current partners.  This aspect also explains why people might stay in crappy, toxic partnerships that make them unhappy – they don’t really see any good alternatives out there, and this partnership is the best they can get.  Specific to ballroom, often men have more possible partners than women do, so they can afford to be more selective and choosy.

So, let’s take our satisfaction from earlier – satisfaction will then interact with comparison level and alternatives to factor into commitment level.   Higher satisfaction, lower comparison level, and few alternatives?  Super high commitment.  Low satisfaction, high comparison level, and lots of alternatives?  Small chance of that partnership lasting…good luck!

One more important thing to consider is investments into the partnership.  If you’ve been in the partnership for a long time, have spent a lot of money for coaching/routines/costumes, have moved a far distance for a serious partnership, and so on, then it’s a lot harder to end the relationship, even if you’re not super happy in it.  It’s similar to the idea of sunk costs – it’s hard to walk away from something into which you’ve put a lot of time, money, and energy.  If it’s a newer relationship and you haven’t put much into it, it’s much easier to dissolve it and part ways.

The ultimate overall formulas:

Benefits – costs – comparison level = satisfaction level.

Satisfaction level – alternatives + investments = commitment level.

In the end, these theories are more descriptive than anything when it comes to relationships.  If you’re in a dance partnership that is not going so great, maybe it’s time to reconsider all these aspects and if you need to reshuffle your relationship math a bit and seriously think about whether it’s worth the trouble.  If you’re really happy in your partnership, then great!  Don’t overthink it! 🙂

Ballroom in a Few Gifs #4

Sorry for the lack of updates recently!  I know everyone enjoys these, so…have at it.  We’ll open with a Stefon theme.  If you don’t know who I’m talking about, go watch some of the SNL skits on Youtube.  Now.

Every single time “A Thousand Years” comes on for a Viennese waltz

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Spotting someone I know in the audience while I’m dancing

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Noticing a brand new person in silver class

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Getting to see my professional dance idols in person

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When a veteran dancer has no idea how to register for a competition

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After popping on some fake talons for a competition

via Popsugar

When someone just blatantly dances right into us

via Buzzfeed

Every competition, ever.

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