USA Dance Nationals

I’m currently chilling in my bed, watching the livestream of nationals. Fun stuff! Too bad there’s the 3-hour difference, since it’s in Los Angeles, but I have no problem staying up late :). Yang Chen, the MC, just announced that someone in China’s watching with us! Pretty awesome.

It’s fun chatting with other people watching on the livestream and spotting people I know or recognize from other comps.  Occasionally couples will even look straight into the camera, or you’ll notice something funny, like a judge rocking out to the beginning of a fun song.  Not quite the same as being at a live comp (I think watching live is just so much better than video) but pretty fun, and doesn’t require a plane ticket across the country.

If you want to join in, just check it out here!

Basic Ballroom Wear

One of the first questions new competitors have is, “What do I wear?”

Ballroom is a very image- and aesthetics-focused art/sport/hobby, and what you wear while you dance, particularly when you compete, can be quite important.  While attire does not trump quality dancing, it can have a big impact on the impression you project on the floor, to other dancers, the audience, and judges.  Essentially, don’t wear anything that says “I don’t care” or “I put 10 seconds of thought/effort into this” or “I have no idea what I’m doing.”  Be clean and presentable and your dancing and performance can shine through, without any obstructions!  I’ll focus on what to wear in this post, and discuss grooming, makeup, and hair in future posts.


Men: Undershirt, white dress shirt, black vest, black dress pants (or proper ballroom pants), black socks, black or white tie (normal or bowtie), standard/smooth shoes. This is your basic “ballroom waiter” look. You can vary it a little by color (e.g. throw in a colored or striped tie), but this depends on the dress code rules of the competition.


More details:

  • Black socks are really important! Don’t be stuck wearing white athletic socks, they look awful.
  • Tuck your shirt in and make sure your vest is long enough to overlap with your pants’ waistband, so no white shirt poofs out in the back.
  • Also make sure your dress shirt is fitted enough, we don’t want any huge poofy sleeves obscuring your beautiful strong frame. Make sure everything is fitted and tailored to your body – not tight, but fitted.

Women: long (somewhere between calf and bottom-of-ankle-length) dress or skirt, coordinating top if it’s a skirt, closed-toe shoes (open-toe sandals are ok at the lower levels).  Pantyhose/tights if you want. Proper undergarments that are safely hidden under your clothes. Avoid wearing a strapless bra if you can. So, if your dress is a halter, wear a halter-style bra as well.

More details:

  • Aim for a flowy skirt that is big enough for you to take large steps in.  A medium-weight fabric is probably best, one that goes with you but moves and doesn’t just hang there stiffly. Lightweight fabrics like chiffon can also be pretty, but more delicate.
  • Make sure you won’t step on the hem when you move backwards, because that is a recipe for disaster.
  • Something that shows off your shoulder lines, like a halter or a tank top, is great, or you can go for a flowy shawl-type look as well.
  • If you do smooth, especially, go for something that allows for a lot of free movement – e.g., nothing that will fall down or restrict your arm and torso.


Men: black dress shirt or fitted stretchy long-sleeve shirt, black dress pants (preferably Latin pants), black socks, black Latin shoes (standard shoes are ok at the lower levels).


Sorry, you don’t get much variation here.

  • Occasionally guys will wear a white shirt or a vest for a slightly different look.
  • Higher level Latin shirts include stretch fabric, sheer panels, lace, ruffles, and/or cutouts. And an awesome attached-shorts onesie.  
  • Tuck your shirt in and make sure it stays there! A well-fitted dress shirt is especially important here, because you’re unlikely to have a vest to keep it under control. One option is to safety pin it (carefully!) to your pants.
  • Please make sure your pants are properly hemmed for your shoes, whether you’re using standard shoes (0.5-1-inch heels) or Latin shoes (1+ inch heels).  The hem should be about a quarter to half an inch off the ground when you’re standing.  Absolutely do not wear pants so short that they’re flapping around your ankles.  It’s just awkward.
  • Fun potential accessories: suspenders, untied bowtie, necklaces with pendants.

Women: Knee-length or shorter “going-out” or party dress (or top and skirt).  These tend to be more sexy or body-conscious/revealing than standard/smooth dresses.

  • Something with a lot of movement, like a ruffly skirt that twirls when you spin, or fringe, is ideal.
  • Again, appropriate undergarments, in particular dance pants/shorts for adequate butt coverage when you do said spinning (preferably in black or in a matching color to your dress). No one wants to see cheeks.
  • If you go for a fitted skirt, there should be some movement elsewhere in the dress, and keep in mind that those skirts tend to creep up while you dance.
  • Fishnets are pretty popular for these styles.  Skin-colored is ideal (you can use a darker fishnet to cheat a tanner look), unless you’re going for an all-black look with black fishnets and black shoes.

Santoria Dress EK Clothing - I actually have this in blue! Fringe dress from

Colors: What you see most commonly are bright solid-color dresses, in whatever shade looks best on you. You can go for an unusual color to “pop,” but make sure it looks good on you! Basic black is ok, too, but you might want to avoid that if it’s a particularly big competition with a crowded floor. There’s a chance you might get lost in the midst of everyone (but not if your dancing is good enough). I personally like tasteful patterns, particularly black and white florals, but in general simple, body-conscious, flattering cuts are better than super frilly designs.  Try to avoid colors that wash you out or that are kind of bland.

Test your clothes out before you actually wear them in a competition! This is very important, for performances and social dancing as well.  Something that fits fine and seems fine when you’re just standing there is nice and all, but you won’t know how it moves and allows (or doesn’t allow) for movement until you try it out.  Importantly, some clothes may fall down or move around while you dance, which could lead to seriously awkward issues on the floor! (I know this from personal experience with a slightly-too-large Latin skirt that steadily creeped downwards in the middle of dancing…)

Where to find all of these items? Dance-dedicated brands are your best bet (found online, in dance stores, and at competitions), but you can certainly find clothes that work from mall stores and department stores.  Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Wet Seal, and perhaps H&M are good for finding inexpensive women’s Latin dresses and separates. For men’s fitted shirts, I’m told Express makes a good relatively inexpensive dress shirt.


  • Forget about well-fitting, comfortable undergarments
  • Wear wrinkled or stained clothes
  • Forget to get your clothes cleaned regularly
  • Wear anything too long (or too short, for that matter)
  • Wear worn-down, hole-y, stained shoes (more on this in another post)
  • Wear an outfit to a competition that you have never danced in before
  • Wear anything too revealing (more specifically, more revealing than you are comfortable with)
  • Wear something you cannot move in

Any other pointers on what to wear/not wear? Your input is very welcome and encouraged!

Images from: DSI, Dance America, ekClothing, Dance Shopper,

The Power of Expectations

I received some good news this morning! I applied to the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship program back in November, and found out that I have received an Honorable Mention.  I hadn’t expected much of anything to come out of it, since I had applied last year and didn’t get anything.  The program is super competitive and nationwide, involving thousands of applicants. So, it was a very happy surprise this morning.

Anyway, this reminded me of the power of expectations on how we interpret events.  If I had thought I was a shoe-in for the fellowship, “only” getting an honorable mention would have been pretty disappointing.  This idea of expectations can be easily applied to ballroom dancing.  Expectations can produce sort of a contrast effect – if we performed better than we originally expected, we’re really happy about it! But if we performed equally well and had originally expected to perform even better, we feel pretty disappointed about ourselves.  Another way expectations can change how we view the world is confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is when you look for evidence that confirms your beliefs, ignoring evidence that discomfirms your beliefs (Klayman; Nickerson).  This can lead to people having beliefs that are not true.

Bringing this to a more concrete example: I like to come into a ballroom competition with relatively modest expectations.  So my goal for a pretty large and competitive event might be to get a callback or two.  Then, if my partner and I make the semifinal, that’s really awesome because we exceeded my expectations.  Once you start improving and placing better, however, this tends to raise your expectations.  So, making a semifinal might not be so great anymore because a final is what you expect.  Or you get even better and expect to win your event.  This would be fine and dandy if you do win everything, but if you fall short…then you might just feel disappointed, even though your objective achievement is pretty damn good, making it to a final in a competitive event.

On the flip side, sometimes expectations can lead to confirmation bias and even self-fulfilling prophecies (Diekmann, Tenbrunsel, & Galinsky).  If I think I am a bad dancer, when I watch a video of myself, I would only notice all the little mistakes I made and would conclude that I did a horrible job.  I might ignore all the things I did pretty well, and become discouraged when I didn’t have a real reason to be.  When it comes to self-fulfilling prophecies, if I expect to dance badly, I might feel more nervous and unsure, and then actually make more mistakes, which in turn causes me to perform worse.  If I expect to dance well, I might feel more confident, put more energy into my dancing, and perform really well.  Someone faced with the prospect of learning how to ballroom dance might shake their head and go, “Oh, I’m so uncoordinated, there’s no way I can learn how to do that.”  Because they hold this belief, they might not even try to learn, and would as a result continue to be a “bad dancer.”  To sum up, a pre-existing belief can bias how I interpret new information, or even change the situation itself to confirm that belief.

What might this mean for you?  I suppose it’s difficult to give any concrete advice, given the different ways expectations can work, but I think keeping in mind how your expectations might affect how you feel about your outcomes is a good practice.  Maybe changing your expectations can make you a happier person, or even a better dancer.  Maybe it could make you be a more patient partner, or even a more understanding, accessible teacher.  It could be that setting realistic and achievable expectations and goals is the best way to go, whether they are for yourself or others.

Edited: Added some citations for those of you who are particular psychology/empirical-research oriented, or merely curious.

How to Improve

First of all, I’ll start with a bit of personal history, so you can see things from my perspective for a second.  I’ve been dancing ballroom for about eight years.  I could have been super-crazy-awesome by now, but I’m just getting back into competing open standard and smooth (with my awesome current partner who’s just been dancing three years).  I’ve witnessed some people shooting up into the championship-level ranks after just a couple of years, yet I haven’t gotten to that exponential trajectory myself.  Which is okay by me.  When I started, I sucked.  There’s no denying that.  And now, I’d like to say I’m a pretty good dancer, if not awe-inspiring.

How did I get to this point?  I danced very casually my first couple of years.   Showed up to ballroom lessons a couple times a week, learned some steps, done.  Didn’t have a lick of technique and wasn’t even aware of how bad I really was, but I was still having lots of fun!  No one expects you to “get it” right away.  I did my first competition the spring of my first year in college and was hooked from that point on.  Even competing, it was still a casual thing – find a partner a few weeks before the comp, practice a couple times, and go.  No wonder I didn’t do all that well!

Fast forward a year or two – compete regularly with a partner, practice a little more regularly.  We started taking lessons with our school team’s coach and looking more respectable on the silver-level floor.  Graduated, moved back home to the DC area, and started taking lessons with another coach, one who really kick-started our improvement.  We took private lessons about once a week, attended practices weekly, and continued to take group lessons.  We also took lessons with other coaches as well.  We were dancing at least 3-4 times a week.  Boom, started getting placements in silver, eventually callbacks in gold and decided to take a leap into open material.  I wasn’t quite ready (or so I thought), but my partner was ambitious and our primary coach supported that goal.  Those two years led to a LOT of improvement.  Finally I could feel like I was actually a pretty good dancer, not just okay.

So, how do you get good fast?

1. Find a regular, committed partnership.  More on this in another post.

2. Practice a lot.  Probably obsessively, even.  Establish a regular practice schedule, go as often as you can stand, just do it. Also, practice efficiently, don’t just run through things and decide that they’re “good enough.”  Practice to improve.  Some people claim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, so you probably have a long way to go, even if your goal is to be very good and stops short of expert.

3. Take private lessons.  Group lessons and figuring out stuff on your own can get you relatively far, even in gold if you are a talented natural dancer, but you need private lessons to get to that next level.  Lots of times coaches can correct some major issue you have that can transform all of your dancing.  Consider traveling to really excellent coaches, to find the best you can.  If you think the idea of taking private dance lessons is weird, what about taking private music lessons? Isn’t that the same thing?

4. Be dedicated.  Really enjoy what you’re doing, and practice will be fun, not exhausting.

5. Seek as much knowledge from as many resources as you can. Take classes with different people, watch lots of videos, read up on technique.  Find what works for you and use it!

6. To get really good really fast, specialize.  This entails focusing on one or two particular styles out of the four (Standard/Smooth/Latin/Rhythm), or even stop doing whatever is weakest or the one you like the least.  I would recommend learning and competing in all four styles at least through silver if possible, but this is really a personal decision.  The few championship-level people I know who got there in a couple of years only dance standard.

7. Always look ahead. Dance up a level and enjoy the challenge.  You might do better than you think and find that you should be competing at a higher level.  That being said, don’t feel pressure to dance up until you feel like you’re ready. Unless you’re winning every single competition, then just move up already! 😛

8. How to be competitive without suffering disappointment when things don’t go your way: Focus more on personal performance than competition placements.  You can only control how well you dance, you have no say in how everyone else dances.  So if you felt like you danced your best but got last place, don’t get discouraged! Be proud of how you danced!

9. Set realistic but ambitious goals for yourself.  What do you want to be doing in 6 months, a year?  How do you want to perform at the next competition?  How do you want to push yourself?

10. Go outside your comfort zone and consider taking some classes in different styles.  Whether that’s jazz, ballet, yoga, salsa, a ballroom style you don’t specialize in, doesn’t matter.  It might give you some ideas or help you work on things from a different perspective, which could help your main style of dancing improve.  It might also help keep you from burning out or getting bored.