Competitive “ballroom” dancing, or “Dance Sport” in the USA takes place under the Rules of USA Dance, DanceSport Division and the Dance Sport Council. USA Dance is the member body of the WDSF.
DanceSport invites audience participation. Members of the audience frequently call out their favorite couple’s number and cheer for them which energizes the couple and can help bring the judges’ attention to that couple.
Dancers are segregated by skill levels (proficiency), age and dance style so that they compete on a “level playing field”. As skills and proficiency improve they advance and move up to the next higher level and compete against dancers at the higher proficiency level.
Syllabus (fixed dance figures)
Open Levels (no fixed figures – increasing difficulty)
- Championship (highest level)
In addition some competitions have events for beginners or newcomers who have never competed before. Whether these categories are offered is dependent on the event organizer.
Each dance has a list of recognized steps associated with it. This list of steps is known as the “Syllabus”. (and yes, International Waltz and American Waltz have two, separate, distinct syllabi). The syllabus for each dance is broken into three parts – the bronze steps, silver steps, and gold steps.
Generally, the steps of a given level are grouped together because of the level of difficulty. For example, the bronze level steps are fairly basic and provide a good grounding and understanding of the nature of each individual dance. The silver level comprises all of the bronze steps plus a few more, slightly more advanced steps. Predictably, the gold level incorporates all of the bronze and all of the silver steps, with the addition of more advanced steps. At all levels, attention to technique will always aid in the execution.
Dance Styles and Competitive Events
Competitive events take place in the following dance categories, most of which are “group” events, i.e. multiple couples dance and are judged simultaneously.
- Viennese Waltz
- Paso Doble
- Viennese Waltz
- All 10 International Standard and Latin dances, judged as one event
- All 9 American Smooth and Rhythm dances, judged as one event
- Routines to a preselected set piece of music with at least 50% recognizable dance figures from other dances, plus lifts (props are forbidden).
- The 2020 Theatrical Ballroom music can be found here.
A solo competitive event 75% of which is comprised of a combination of dances from the selected dance discipline (Latin, Rhythm, Smooth Standard) and may include lifts but no props.
- A solo competitive event (one couple dances at a time); couples perform interpretive routines to music of their choice, with lifts required and props allowed.
- Some competitions will add additional events in other dances, or hold a team match (where multiple couples each dance one dance and the winning team is based on the combined score of all couples on each team) or a “Jack and Jill” competition (male and female dancers are randomly paired with someone other than their regular partner in a dance that challenges their lead and follow skills)
Proficiency Level and Age Categories
As you participate in competitions, you earn proficiency points. When you accumulate sufficient points at a given level you are precluded from dancing at that level and must move up. You can dance at any higher level, but you cannot dance down once you point out. If you and your partner accumulate sufficient points that you are at Gold level, you may no longer dance Silver and below. The Proficiency Point system is defined in the rulebook.
As a new competitor, you can choose to declare your current proficiency or start from the bottom (bronze) and work up. Once you declare, i.e. that you are a Silver Syllabus dancer, you may not dance Bronze. In summary, you do not need to earn your way to dance at higher levels, but as you move up in proficiency, you are no longer eligible to enter a lower level.
From Bronze through Gold level the competitors are limited to dance figures out of a strict syllabus, though how those figures are strung together choreographically can, of course, vary. Novice, Pre-Championship, and Championship levels allow “open” choreography. For most dance styles there is a no lift rule.
The ability levels are further defined by the number of different dances in an event — Bronze typically has only two dances at a time, Silver or Novice three, Gold or Pre-Championship four, and Championship five. This means less skilled dancers can prepare fewer dances to compete: for example, in the Latin dances at the Bronze level, they only have to prepare a ChaCha and a Rumba, but in Pre-Championship they are required to have ChaCha, Rumba, and Jive prepared. These two, three, four, or five dances are danced as one “event.”
Age classifications also assure a level competitive field and cover Preteen, Junior, Youth, Adult, Senior I, Senior II and Senior III. The age classifications are defined in the rulebook. Age is determined by the year a dancer was born, not his/her actual birth date within that year. Senior competitors may dance down with a younger age classification, but not up to higher age classification. As Senior II, you may dance in Senior I but not dance in a Senior III event until you meet the appropriate age. Senior competitors may not dance lower than Adult age classification. Dancers are allowed to dance up to two consecutive ability levels (i.e. Bronze and Silver, or Novice and Pre-Championship), and can dance in any age group for which they qualify.
Most competition dance floors can really only hold about 12 couples dancing at a time. If the field for an event is larger than that, organizers will hold qualifying rounds (several groups in separate rounds of about 10-15 couples) until they whittle the field down to about 24 couples, then the quarterfinal round (2 separate rounds of about 12 each), then the semifinal (1 round of about 12), and finally the final (1 round, usually 6 or 7 couples). The rounds for a particular event may run in succession or may be interspersed with other rounds for other events.
Keep in mind that each round can comprise 4 or 5 dances at about a minute and a half each, and you’ll see that the competition can last all day. Each multi-dance event is given a “heat number” so the Adult Pre-Championship Latin event, designated Heat 230 in a program, for example, will be announced as “Quarterfinals for Heat 230, Adult Pre-Championship Latin, the dance is the Samba.”
But my favorite couple didn’t win: some words about judging
Judges (also referred to as adjudicators) are certified by various Professional DanceSport Organizations. They are often or formerly experienced competitors and instructors. Judging is both an objective and subjective process — for this reason, several adjudicators will judge each event to ensure fairness.
What sorts of things do judges look for? Posture, correct musical timing, pleasing lines, musicality and expression, appropriate characterization, and overall performance are elements crucial to judging any form of dance. On top of those qualities, DanceSport adds elements related specifically to dancing in partnership, such as:
• how the couple holds each other (is it symmetrical between the two partners and does it always look relaxed and pleasant?),
• how connected they look (does each partner fulfill their lead or follow role in a technically correct manner without negatively affecting the other, so that the couple looks effortlessly synchronized?),
• how grounded they look (is the couple correctly using their feet, legs, and bodies to achieve a controlled, powerful, movement across the floor?)
• how well they navigate a floor full of couples (does the couple navigate its way around the floor as much as is appropriate for the dance without interfering with other couples?).
Having a large judging panel helps to ensure that different views and philosophies of dance are represented, as each judge may have his or her own beliefs and opinions about what constitutes good dancing. Some judges may emphasize some of the above factors over others.
The dancers also have the challenge, especially in earlier rounds, of trying to get the attention of the judges during the ninety seconds or so that they are dancing. As noted, this is one of the reasons that audience participation is encouraged: with more than a dozen dancers at a time, the judges only have a few seconds to spend on each dancer on the floor to make their picks.
How Dancers are Scored & Placed
In preliminary rounds leading up to a final round of an event/heat, the judges are asked to “recall” a certain number of dancers to the next round. Judges select to recall couples they think are the best and the couples with the most marks moves into the next round.
Once six or seven couples reach the final, DanceSport uses the skating system method to determine the results. This means that the judges rank every couple in every dance from 1st through 6th or 7th. The couple with the most 1st place marks is the overall winner. The couple with the next highest number of 1st or 2nd place marks will place second, and so on. Tiebreaker rules determine which couple finishes higher in the event of a tie. These rules can be very complex, and an official known as a Scrutineer has the painstaking task of taking all the judges’ marks and tabulating the results for callbacks and making the necessary calculations to determine the placements, applying the tiebreaker rules in close cases.
Ideas For Getting Started
1. Go a USA Dance Competition as a spectator and observe how it works. Talk with the
competitors and ask them questions.
2. After you join, enter a USA Dance Competition at any level that you feel you qualify.
As a new member and competitor, you are not restricted in any way except for age.
You could start in one of the smaller local competitions.
3. Contact your local USA Dance Chapter and talk with any of the members who compete
and find out more about their experiences.
4. Most competitive dancers take lessons from a professional or DanceSport Athlete as teacher. Your teacher or coach should be able to assist you in deciding how to enter your first and subsequent competitions. Be sure that your teacher is competent, experienced, has some credentials and is familiar with USA Dance Rules.
5. As an aid to the beginner, many USA Dance competitions have events entitled “Mixed Proficiency”. These are syllabus events where the DanceSport Athlete only is judged but is partnered by a higher-level (proficiency) and more experienced partner. This is also a good way to get your “feet wet”.
6. Review our DanceSport Rule Book available on our website at Rules, Policies, and Bylaws. Additional information about our Dress Code and a Guide to Proficiency Points are there as well.