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.

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! 🙂

The Power of Mindset

Success is all about your mindset.  The struggle is just in your head.  Mindset matters.   These are all variants on a cliché we’ve heard plenty of times, probably a lot in sports especially.  But this is one of those cases in which the cliché reflects the truth, at least when it comes to one particular distinction between two types of mindsets: fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets.  This distinction was found by Carol Dweck and her colleagues, and dozens and dozens of correlational studies and experiments have found evidence that mindset matters.

Dweck’s book. Haven’t read it personally, but I’ve heard it’s good.

Basically, a fixed mindset is the idea that each person has a fixed trait that determines their ability.  This most often applies to intelligence, but it can be about any skill – so this is the idea that we each have innate talents that determine how good we are at a given activity.  Most people think of IQ this way, as something we are born with that cannot be changed, no matter how hard we try.  On the flip side, growth mindsets are the idea that we can improve our abilities over time with practice, dedication, and hard work, and that we are not limited by innate talents but instead can nurture them over time.   Going with our IQ example, this would be the idea that we can change someone’s IQ with things like education, nutrition, or other environmental factors.

Interestingly, fixed mindsets are tied to performance goals, in other words, trying to demonstrate your ability either to yourself or others, while growth mindsets focus more on improvement and learning, honing that ability over time.  Growth mindsets tend to be better for people both in the short and long term, particularly when they are not very skilled at something to begin with.  Why?  Because if you have a fixed mindset and fail, you are more likely to give up because you think, “I’ll never be better at this.”  On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset and fail, you are more likely to think about how you can improve and do better next time.  Fixed mindsets for people who initially succeed are nice and all (probably ego-boosting, in fact), but the key difference lies in when people fail, which they inevitably will at some point.

People tend to lean towards having a more fixed or growth mindset as a default, at least when  it comes to specific domains such as intelligence or sports performance or just about anything.  However, research has also shown that mindsets can be manipulated – if we learn about benefits of growth versus fixed mindsets, then people can shift their perspectives and benefit from the good things that come with growth mindsets.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I think it’s inherently really interesting and challenges a lot of people’s naïve theories on how people work, but it’s also super relevant to ballroom dancing.  Some people have the idea that they’ll wander in to a class, take a lesson or two, and immediately be able to dance, but us ballroom dancers know it’s not remotely that easy.  I would say it takes a year of regular instruction for most people to feel really comfortable with a full repertoire of ballroom styles, and of course many, many more to master them.

For some people, particularly those with a lot of previous dancers (you know who you are, having danced ballet/jazz/tap/etc. basically since being able to walk), ballroom comes very naturally and without much effort or struggle.  Sure, you have to correct a few habits, but learning steps is extremely easy.  For others, ballroom is fun but much more of a challenge!  The pesky alignment thing in standard, learning the difference between all the subtypes of styles, simply remembering what foot goes where.  Feeling like a total clod and thinking that it’s near impossible.  I was there, back in the day.  I had no idea what was happening half of the time, but it was still fun and after a while of mucking around, I realized I would have to put effort, money, and a lot of practice time into learning these skills.  Having a growth mindset is really much more conducive to learning and improving, compared to a fixed mindset.  Yes, _______ is hard, but once you get it, it’s all that much more rewarding.   I do have one caveat – I do think most of us have some innate ability to learn particular skills.  There’s no denying that some people are more “natural” at things than others.   In dance, some people are more flexible or have a more ideal body shape for a particular style or learn steps faster than others do.  However, each of us can make the most of what we have, and sometimes being not so natural at something can produce passion and drive to improve that many of the “naturals” lack.

Anecdotally, one of my friends was better at standard than Latin when he started, placing quite well at competitions in standard.  But he decided, I want to be a Latin dancer.  That’s what he really enjoyed and aspired to be, so he worked hard at it over time, practiced a lot, and got to be a pretty good Latin dancer.   If he had had more of a fixed mindset, thinking he couldn’t get much better at Latin, he might have just stuck to standard or maybe even given up dancing at all.

Every time we advertise the club in effort to recruit new members, I inevitably encounter the same sorts of reasons to not join.  “I have two left feet,” “I don’t know how to dance,” “I could never dance like that,” and so on.  Very fixed mindset, wouldn’t you say?  Hey, that’s where I and 95% of the people in the club started!  People have this idea that ballroom dancing’s some magical power that we just have, but we all start as beginners.  For those who have been dancing some time and can’t imagine ever reaching some level, be patient with yourself.  People tell me, “I could never be as good as you!”  Not true.  A few years ago, I never would’ve imagined myself competing at pre-champ or champ levels, but here I am (at least, in some styles).  It took quite a few years, but it happened.  So, if you ever feel like “ugh, I could never do that,” check yourself and remember that with enough hard work and dedication, you totally could.  Just keep chugging along.

America’s Ballroom Challenge Episode 2 Review

Episode 2 of America’s Ballroom Challenge: International Style!  I was surprised to find out that Mary was an Austrian (random) standard champion.  I pictured her as a rhythm dancer or something, but it turns out she did a bit of everything.  They played the everyone-on-the-floor-at-the-same-time mini-round of waltz, which was kinda cool.  In person, it’s pretty chaotic, but visually very cool, with 30-40+ couples on the floor simultaneously.  First were the “group rounds” of foxtrot and quickstep.  At least these were in order this time, as opposed to last week’s smooth dances.  Loved the bit of mini-formation team feather, reverse turn, three step sequence.  I timed it and they only showed about 50 seconds of each dance, which was really not enough to make anything of them.  Boo.  Would another 40 seconds really hurt?  Next was quickstep.

Showdances next.  Standard showdances can be kinda boring at times, so I was intrigued to see what these couples came up with.  These were more varied in dance style/theme than the smooth dances, so that was at least somewhat refreshing.  My favorite thematically was probably Andrey and Anna’s Marilyn Monroe piece, but the hair and costuming were a bit distracting, with her wig flopping around a lot.  A lot of hairspray would’ve helped with that.  Also slightly cringed when Anna overshot the lift and almost fell behind Andrey.  I’m pretty sure they’re one of the most attractive couples on the floor, especially when he doesn’t wear a shirt (from past years).  But I digress.  Oscar and Lenka had an awkward boy-themed foxtrot, with juvenile outfits, that I just didn’t get.  The cowboy-themed quickstep from Canadian couple Anton and Anna was cute.  Artem and Inna, the frontrunners, did a lovely emotionally expressive and technically sound foxtrot to My Heart Will Go On.  I giggled when he kissed her ear at the end (they’re married).  Loved her eye makeup.  Girl rocks the flowy dresses.  Denis and Lesya’s lyrical foxtrot was nice, but not very memorable.  Loved her green dress and loose hair.  Interestingly, she’s Max Sinitsa’s niece and used to dance with him.  The hosts might have mentioned that briefly at some point.  A quick search on Dancesport Info showed that Igor and Ekaterina had danced together way longer than the five and a half years reported by Mary.  They danced together, broke up, and then re-partnered and went pro together.  Their French-themed quickstep was solid but not super interesting.  In general, I found that the women were more expressive than the men, which is especially the case in standard, I think.  You tend to find a lot of tall stoic standard men.

Denis & Lesya

Anton & Anna

Ultimately, in the show dance, Denis and Lesya placed first, Andrey and Anna second, and Anton and Anna third, which surprised me.  Artem and Inna were in fourth, but will represent the standard style anyway, since they were first for the five other dances, I believe.

Brief featurette with the DJ Brent Mills, which was nice, I guess.  On to Latin!  They were gracious enough to show us one entire round of jive.  I wasn’t really familiar with any of these people except for Roman and Anna.  Was hoping that Riccardo and Yulia would show up this year, but no dice, alas.  I liked the plain leopard dress.  It’s nice when people go unconventionally simple and unadorned.  On the other hand, one male dancer decided to wear glittery pants.  No.

Showdances!  Lots of rumbas, of course.   Lots of rumbas in silky shirt-type outfits.  Kamil and Anna’s was nice, but I was confused by her wet-looking shirtdress.  Maybe it was on purpose, based on the storm noises in the music?  Or she was just really sweaty?  Also, they continued the Barbra Streisand theme from last week.  We had definitely heard this exact song, “Don’t Go Away”, during smooth for Mazen and Izabella’s showdance.  On another note, Kamil’s facial hair is an example of a goatee that really works for ballroom, at least in Latin/rhythm.  Roman and Anna did another version of angsty silky-shirt rumba.  A little too much running around for my taste, but they had a really cute moment together at the end.  Also, she is so freaking tan!  She made him look super pale in comparison, even though he’s not particularly white.  Dmitry and Olena did a jive to “Happy” with awkward NYC-themed outfits that I didn’t get.  For once, the hosts had some critique to offer about their side-by-side choreo and costuming.  Evgeny and Maria did a very traditional but good paso…at least it was to a song other than Spanish Gypsy Dance.  Vitaliy and Eugenia’s cha cha, with her in a catsuit, finished off the set.  Pretty fun, and the catsuit worked for the Michael Jackson theme.  The all-black look unfortunately led them to blend into the background a bit, though.  The slower music choice also made them look a bit sluggish at times.

Roman & super-tan Anna

I didn’t have any particular favorite out of the Latin showdances.  Top three showdance placements (at least, based on the lineups):  Roman and Anna, Andrey and Yulia, Kamil and Anna.  Which were, coincidentally (not really), the exact same rankings for the group dances. Side note, all 6 ladies’ names ended in “a”, and three of the men’s names ended in “I” or “y”.  Eastern Europeans!

Overall, solid.  Nothing especially stood out to me, but it was all great dancing and solid performances.  Definitely the best ballroom dancing you’ll see on TV.  In past years, I think people have been more creative in their choices, but it’s not something to expect on a regular basis.

To come soon: a review of Episode 3, the grand finale!  I still don’t understand how they can judge and compare dancers in completely different styles, but we’ll keep chugging along.

Click here for my review of Episode 1, which featured American style pros.

America’s Ballroom Challenge Episode 1 Review

The highly-anticipated America’s Ballroom Challenge aired on PBS this past Friday!  I lamented my sad TV antennae’s lack of PBS reception, but it turns out that the episode is available streaming online, at least for now!  It’s just under an hour.  This review will contain spoilers about placements, if you care about such things.

I had the fortune of being able to see all of the aired dances live at Ohio Star Ball, back in November.  Hmm, guess I didn’t write up a review of it then…should have, whoops.  Anyway.  The pro competition was all at night, in the Big Ballroom (I can’t remember what it’s actually called…maybe the Regency Ballroom or something similar).  There’s at least 3 different competition ballrooms in the Columbus Convention Center during OSB, with amateur, pro-am, and collegiate events going on.  People dressed up to the nines for the evening competition and we collegiate competitors were fortunately given admission to each of the nights as part of our registration.  If I recall correctly, the first night was rhythm and standard and the second night was smooth and Latin.  Or the other way around.  Doesn’t matter, I suppose.

They started with the normal four-or-five dances, whittling first rounds or quarterfinals down to 6-couple finals.  After the finals, each style’s finalists performed a short show dance.  Since this was at the end of the night and apparently most people didn’t care about them that much, a lot of the audience left, to the producers’ chagrin.  They all but begged us few stragglers to remain until the end to flesh out the audience for TV.  Also, we had to film audience reactions and clapping and such, which sometimes took multiple takes and hurt my palms.  But hey, the more important people with nicer seats left, so we could move up and get closer to the action on the dance floor.

The first ABC episode features American style smooth and rhythm.  They played brief clips of early rounds and for whatever reason aired part of the “group” Viennese Waltz first, then foxtrot.  Okay?  First of all, random order.  Second, I’d rather have shorter rounds of all four dances, if time is so limited.  I’m one of the cell phones in the audience during the VW! Totally cheesy but it looked cool.  Also, they caught a really nice moment of the Perzhus interacting with the audience and each other at the end of foxtrot.  They showed everyone briefly, and commentators Mary Murphy and Tony Meredith didn’t say anything particularly offensive, nor did they contribute a whole lot of insight.  However, having two ballroom experts is much better than having one ballroom person and one rando who doesn’t seem to know anything about anything and offers inane comments (see the last few years of the show…). They did mention that the Perzhus were current champions eventually, but didn’t say if anyone was poised to challenge them or anything like that.  Could have also mentioned how smooth originated from standard but has more freedom.

Mazen & Izabella’s showdance

After the “two” group dances, they showed the six couples’ showdances and made them sound way more important than being simply a fifth dance that would contribute to the overall placement.  Five out of six were beautiful but same-y angsty emotional contemporary-ish sorts of numbers.  Mary and Tony said they were all Viennese waltzes, but some were distinctly not – they were just kind of interpretive lyrical pieces or vaguely-foxtrots (4/4 at least, definitely not danced in 6/8 timing).  I enjoyed them all, but they did kind of mush together by the end of the night.  Nick Cherumukhin and Viktoriya’s piece was a nice surprise – I had never really watched them before.  Max and Michelle’s Viennese Waltz was refreshing with bare feet and pajama-esque costuming, but needed more polish, I think.  I loved her with Mayo Alanen, but this partnership needs more time, probably.  Loved the Tufts’ sassy, sexy foxtrot to “You Can Leave Your Hat On”.  Not what you would expect from dancers who originated from the Mormon-dominated Utah ballroom scene. Hello, suspenders.  Also no mention of how the Tufts do theatre arts as well (which is impressive in and of itself because she is much taller than most tiny theatre arts ladies) and are more seasoned in complicated lifts than the other smooth couples.

Brief break to show Mary Murphy “shopping” at all the OSB vendors.  Mostly it just made me sad that I can’t afford any of those amazing dresses and pieces of jewelry.  Show me more dancing!

Nazar & Irina’s showdance costumes. Yup.

Onto the rhythm section (the beat!).  Great representation here, in terms of the best rhythm dancers coming to compete.  Again, just showing two dances from the “group” section, out of order, with mambo and swing.  Okay.  And not paying much attention to the obvious winners, Emmanuel and Liana, until their showdance that featured a nifty costume transition.  The individual showdances for rhythm were more varied and interesting, even though half were mambos.  The Paramonovs were entertaining as always – I’ve seen them use this song before as a preface to a cha-cha version of the song “Why Don’t You Do Right”.  Of particular note were Nazar and Irina’s ridiculously over-the-top costumes, complete with huge tri-color ruffles and Irina’s tiny Swarovski-stoned bikini bottom…thing.  She was extremely naked, even if her legs/butt were technically covered with nude mesh fabric.  Funny how Mary and Tony didn’t say a word about that.  And that the episode was rated G.  Okay.  The Perzhus did the exact same matching-suited mambo as they did last year, but it was still awesome.  Wish I could pull off a stoned bra and suit combo.

What was very cool was spotting people I know in the audience.  It’s a small (ballroom) world after all…  I even spotted some of my team members for a hot second.  One of the best aspects of this program is that it’s the best TV depiction of ballroom dancing out there – a much more accurate, genuine take on the ballroom world, compared to shows like Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance that pretend you can learn and master, or at least fake, ballroom in a week.  This show seems to better appreciate how technical and complicated the dance form really is.  And nowadays, it can sometimes be hard to find free high-quality video of good pro dancers that uses multiple camera angles and pretty good editing.  If I remember correctly, PBS ballroom shows were probably my first exposure to ballroom dancing as a kid, though I didn’t have any personal interest in it at the time.  Funding has been limited or non-existent for the past few years, so it’s fantastic that they were able to bring it back this year, even if it was just in this limited three 1-hour-long episode format.

In the end, the overall winners are Peter & Alexandra Perzhu and Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine & Liana Churilova, who will go to the “grand finale.”  I still don’t know how this is really determined – how can you compare smooth to standard to Latin to rhythm showdances?

Next week: International style!  Spoiler – think of how much better it would have been if only the world champions and finalists had shown up!  Still some great dancing, though.  Riccardo & Yulia, Arunas & Katusha, and Victor & Anastasia have all shown up at OSB in the past, but have been mysteriously absent for the past of couple years.  I think sometimes they skipped because a bigger world competition was going on, but I don’t know about this time around.  Mysterious.  It’s basically my only chance to see them compete live, so it was too bad that they weren’t there.

Here’s an outsider’s take on the show: What happens in a ballroom can be little shocking.  Uh, okay.  Lovely last paragraph, though.