We didn't dance very well in the college competition on Saturday. We were scheduled to dance at 4:30 so I was warmed up and ready at that point, but we didn't go on until after 6, when my muscles were cold again. We should have won, but placed third, with a couple who hadn't made it to the quarterfinals the day before placing first. (They embarrassedly offered to switch ribbons after the results were announced.) But the Saturday night session was incredible. In addition to the usual competitive rounds, the competition included a professional Standard and Latin "showdance" competition that I'll describe below, frequent performances, and lots of general dancing (which, paradoxically, is not often present at ballroom dance competitions). The evening started with an hour of general dancing; there were several ten-minute general dancing interludes between events; and after the competition ended, many competitors and spectators went to a social dance downstairs that lasted past 4 a.m. (which is about when I left). It was great to be able to dance with so many good dancers, and I think all competitions should include this for decompression and enjoyment. (What are we doing all of this for, anyway?)
The highlight of the Saturday evening show was Victor Fung and Anna Mikhed dancing a tango to Beethoven's fifth during the professional Standard "showdance" competition. (Usually all competitors, both amateur and professional, just dance one and a half minutes of each dance, all on the floor at the same time, to arbitrarily-chosen music. In this competition, there was an additional event for professional Standard and Latin finalists where they performed on their own to music of their choice. I assume they were judged by their musicality, their innovativeness in choreography and staging, and their skill as performers, things not readily assessed in the traditional competition.) I was feeling pretty crappy before that because of our poor showing at the college competition and my general disillusionment with the whole ballroom dancing culture, but Victor and Anna's performance made me forget all of that. They started before their music did with a dramatic entrance, simulating (in classic tango style) a lovers' tiff. Unfortunately, the DJ had issues finding the right music (as he had with several other showdances), so they had to stand in their dramatic pose for several minutes while he sorted things out. They kept the audience from losing interest by goofing around, pretending to feel each other up, and responding to the audience's laughter. As for their dancing, if you have seen high-level competitive tango and have heard Beethoven's fifth (the famous da-da-da-DUHHH one), you can imagine the dramatic effect these would have together. I don't think I could do it justice with mere words. They deservedly received a standing ovation and first place in the showdance competition (third in the other competition).
Some of the other showdances were also memorable. One couple, dressed in tiger-prints, danced a tango to an African drum base. Other couples, including our coaches, performed more traditional show-dances with a cursory opening and lift tacked on the beginning and end of their usual routine. The more innovative, non-traditional performances were definitely favored by judges, though.
Several of the Latin showdances were more like modern dance than Latin. The winning couple were dressed in silver unitards and were attached at the waist by a length of stretchy silver material, which was wound many times around each of them. The connection between them was through this material rather than from arms. They would spin to release more of the silver material and change their distance, dancing from one foot to twenty feet away from one another. (Sometimes they'd both spin at the same time, just maintaining the amount of cloth between them.) This couple also received a standing ovation. The couple who placed third did very little Latin movement at all; quite a bit of their routine was on the floor. (I think the piece was a rumba, but I'm not sure.)
There were other performances as well. Three couples announced their retirement from competitive ballroom dancing, with one doing a show. (It's customary to do this when transitioning from competing and performing to teaching and judging.) All of the winners in the Junior, Youth, and Under-21 categories in first Standard then Latin did an honor dance together. (The Junior category was split into five divisions with the youngest competitors no more than six years old! I often have mixed feelings about kids under twelve or so starting ballroom dance, and especially dancing Latin which is overtly sexual, but the youngest couple looked like they were having fun.) Later, the winners of the Junior pro-am competition, an eight year old girl and her teacher, danced a rumba honor dance. At first I was apprehensive - the dance of love, between an eight year old and an adult man? - but they danced it very tastefully, with the teacher just presenting his student and letting her dance to the audience.
These performances are definitely my favorite part of ballroom dancing, and what I think the point of competitive ballroom dancing really is. Many ballroom dancers take themselves and the sport so seriously, so it was refreshing to see performances that were playful and showed that the performers actually enjoyed dancing (the shock!). Without these, it's easy for me to become cynical about ballroom dancing, especially since my partner appears to have completely bought into the more insidious aspects of the culture.
I love to dance and love to perform, but I really don't like dealing with politics such as kissing up to certain coaches or high-level couples, name-dropping to prove you're part of the "in" group, or trying to look and act like a "professional" both on and off the competition floor (tan skin, coiffed platinum blonde hair, push-up bra, lots of makeup, designer clothing, skinny frame, etc.). The sexism abrades the feminist in me, and the shallow glamor undermines my desire to be unassuming and utilitarian. (I saw more fur in the audience on Saturday night than I have perhaps in my whole life; even with my nice conference-garb slacks and my sequined top I felt very underdressed.) I hate feeling like an outsider, but sitting in the bandstand with Russian being spoken and yelled all around me, I can't help but feel like I'm cut off from others in a world very different from the one with which I usually identify.
It's telling that I have a hard time explaining ballroom dance competitions to others. Social dancing is understandable, but many of the customs at ballroom competitions just don't make sense to the uninitiated. There is something bizarre about many couples dancing their own predetermined routines on the floor at once, unsynchronized and more or less ignoring each other (except to avoid colliding), to arbitrary music. Moreover, while it consumes the life or many who are involved, it serves little external function: the culture is insular and sustains only itself. When I tell people I ballroom dance, they often reply with "Oh, I saw that on public television once ... that's where the women wear the garish makeup and costumes, right?" Other styles of dance are more interchangeable - for example, if you know ballet, you can pick up jazz and modern, and most professional dancers can dance many styles - but from what I know, good ballroom dancers don't (and maybe can't?) just pick up other types of dance.
Anyway, I enjoyed the Saturday night of the Ohio Star Ball more than I have any other competitions and even many other dance performances - it reminded me of some of the things I love most about ballroom dancing.