You walk in the cavernous ballroom in the afternoon, and it is almost empty.  Lights are dim, spotlights shining onto the floor and a Tango is playing.  Seven couples are on the floor, numbers on the men’s backs tell you right off these couples are competing.  For them, this is serious:  few smiles, expensive gowns and all the men in the uniform of the day – black and white, neat hair, clean shaven, and shiny shoes.  They are working to get their best moves in front of the judges.  If asked few if any of these competitors could tell you if the ballroom was full or empty.  Most will tell you they don’t care.  They are there for the judges.

The judges are the big celebrities here and the only ones that matter.  The fact that Mary Murphy and Jean Marc Genereaux of So You Think You Can Dance were among them only adds to their status.  It is not important how or why the judges were selected.  The sanctioning offered by the National Dance Council of America provides all the credentials the organizer needs.  People accept that this organization, the United States representative to the World Dance Council, will do what is best for the sport.  Judges stand right in front watching, checking, deciding and marking all the couples to cumulatively decide who will receive the big award, a medal.

The image of Pro-Am dance competitions suffers from the past: when dancing was thought of as something done mostly by little old ladies, or a guy wearing a toupee looking to make out and dancing at some lounge where all the drinks come with umbrellas.  The fact is that these amateur competitors work hard, learn their steps, and practice the moves.  They come to these events for the same reason amateur golfers participate in the untelevised pro-am golf tournaments so often held before major events.  The grandstands and seats are set up and empty.  They won’t be filled until the weekend when the blimp shows up.  The television audience rarely sees these pro-am events but the amateur golfers still love it.  They get a chance to play with the stars.

It is just plain fun to engage in a sport, especially when you are an amateur, with someone so much better than you who is helping you and not tearing you up.  It would be like being across the net from Agassi and he is actually hitting the ball so you can hit it back.  You know that the longer the rally continues the better you will feel.  The competitive experience has its own rewards.  Once you have decided to compete, you approach all phases of the sport differently.  Practice takes on a new meaning.  Conditioning really matters, and learning the routine has consequences.  No matter what the skill level or even age for that matter, competing enhances the experience.

Even though celebrity status is conferred upon the judges, the professionals dancing with these amateurs were often stars themselves.  Retired and even competing professionals occasionally try to cash in on their previous titles by running their own competitions or in some cases exercise programs.  Sort of like professional golfers designing golf courses that will bear their name.  More often these top flight competitors end up back on the floor, but now teaching amateurs and dancing Pro-Am.  These same stars, while competing professionally, dazzled audiences, performed in front of full houses, and never saw the empty dark ballroom they now compete in.  Now they must be satisfied with the amateur partner in their arms, and, with a little luck, a good enough score to satisfy their student’s expectations.

If this is disheartening they don’t show it.  Their love of the sport shines with or without a big audience.  These professionals don’t fly across the floor quite as far as they did when competing on the tour.  One of the skills that separate dancers from so many other athletes is that a couple’s teamwork must be continuous and fluid.  It is not like a football coach trying to match the quarterback’s throwing skills to a receiver’s speed but more like asking them to throw it back and forth while running down the field with others still chasing them.  Yes, some of the couples look out of place.  The old guy with a young teacher or a really tall one with a really short lady just does not seem to fit the expected image.  Watching you might even think they shouldn’t bother.  The same is true about American Idol.  Some think they can sing better than the contestants.  Some probably can, at least in the shower.  Out in front of people it is another matter.  Even American Idol singers voted off in the second round have fans.  More than that, they put it on the line, stood, sang, or in our case danced in front of the judges and whatever audience was there and had their time being a star.

There is no doubt that stardom is admired in our society.  Dance shows and movies are easy to find.  Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, Ballroom Bootcamp, Mad Hat Ballroom, Shall We Dance, Step Up, Take the Lead, Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom & Charm School or Idlewild just to name a few.  Each of these shows or movies has helped promote dance as an art, sport, or reality show.  Dance also works as a backdrop for shows on love, despair and beating the odds.  Student dancers often expressed how competing in the National Championships fulfilled their dreams.  Once you have decided to participate in a sport, just getting to the point where you can be around top athletes is delightfully satisfying.  It might mean playing Pebble Beach or the Blue Monster, or getting a chance to drive the Sebring race course after the race, or coming out of the stands to walk onto the field.

For this alone the organizers of the United States Dancesport Championships must really be commended.  Regardless of whether the stands are full, or whether the competitors are world renowned professionals or middle aged ladies dancing with their teachers, the organizers made sure the ballroom was in full color.  The majestic podium is lit with all its columns, banners and stars, and spotlights flooding the dance floor.  The stands and seats are dark and quiet.  Standing on the floor a competitor would have a hard time telling if the stands are empty or filled in quiet admiration.  The organizers made sure that there was a full and broad panel of judges standing and considering each move made by the couples.  The Masters Of Ceremonies was deliberate and in full deep voice, maintaining the pageantry of the Championship while announcing the judges, introducing the contestants and later presenting the awards.

Hopefully the majesty will remain when the venue is moved to Orlando Florida next year.  With all the activities that are within walking distance, one can only expect an even greater turnout.  Attendance and gate were reported to be up by 30% this year.  Plenty of amateur competitors are still scared to try the big event, as previous organizers did little to make students and amateurs feel comfortable or welcome, and seemed to cater mainly to the foreign competitors and judges.  If the current organizers continue to work as they did this year, it won’t take long to attract more American professionals as well as more pro-am couples and amateurs to the new venue.  Then the United States Dancesport Championships can be what they were meant to be, the premier Dancesport event for all divisions, amateurs, pro-am competitors, professionals and top flight world competitors.  So if you like dancing, put Labor Day week on your calendar next year, and come and play with the big boys.

Michael Reichenbach

NDCA Certified Adjudicator (#117)

Arthur Murray Dance Studio Owner & Director, 1980-2001

Sunshine State Dancesport Championships Founder & Organizer 1994-


Dance Week

September 26, 2006

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