It’s a chilly March night, but there’s plenty of sweat inside Columbia University’s Roone Arledge Auditorium. As music blares overhead, scores of college students—proudly sporting school jackets—crowd the perimeters, hooting, whistling and cheering, smartphones held aloft to record their teammates in action.
No, this isn’t March Madness. It’s the Big Apple Dancesport Challenge (BADC), hosted by the Columbia University Ballroom Dance Team. More than 584 competitors—dressed head to toe in sparkles, feathers and tails—flaunt their fox-trots, tangos, sambas and cha-chas over the annual two-day event. While some are amateur ballroom dancers, most competitors are college students representing 67 different schools—just a sampling of the country’s hundreds of collegiate dancesport teams. These student-run organizations are open to all skill levels and coached by professionals. For those with dance backgrounds, joining a college ballroom team can provide not only a fun outlet for their skills, but also valuable social and leadership opportunities.
Ballroom’s Learning Curve
Etta Iannaccone, a senior science, technology and society major at Scripps College, grew up dancing ballet, tap, modern and jazz in La Cañada, California, and admits it felt strange not going to the studio every day after high school. “I knew I wanted to keep dancing, but I wasn’t as committed to ballet anymore,” she says. “I decided to go another way, and that way was ballroom.”
Joining her school’s ballroom team also seemed like a great way to meet people. Indeed, Yuehwern Yih and Daniel Dilley, professional American Rhythm competitors and head coaches for Purdue University’s team, admit most students initially join for the social experience. “We have to trick them into learning the technique,” says Yih, whose team has performed on “Dancing with the Stars” and is ranked second in the nation.
Most college dancesport organizations are divided into different categories based on commitment level, from social dance classes to team practices. Iannaccone soon found herself practicing four nights a week, with her weekends spent either social dancing or competing at collegiate ballroom events.
Dancers compete within their skill levels, which range from beginner (called newcomer or pre-bronze) to very advanced or championship. Yih notes that while students with previous dance training usually excel, they have to start from the beginning. “You’re in heels,” she says. “The way you plié is different. In ballroom you bend one knee at a time, and it has to roll inward—that’s what makes that crazy hip action.” Plus, there’s a lot to learn. Dancesport includes two different styles: International, which is recognized worldwide, and American, which is similar but mostly limited to the United States. International Standard/American Smooth dances are characterized by formality and grace (think waltzes, flowing dresses and tuxedos), while International Latin/American Rhythm dances are faster and sexier (lots of hip action, short skirts). Some colleges also have a formation team, which performs group numbers.
A Hard-Core Hobby
Once bitten by the ballroom bug, many students become serious about it. Nonie Shiverick—an amateur competitor and Barnard College/Columbia University alumna who, along with partner Jason Seabury, took first in champion-level Smooth at the BADC—had never had a ballroom lesson before joining Columbia’s team. Her background in figure skating, ballet and jazz came in handy, however, and it wasn’t long before she threw all of her energy into dancesport. “I took every dance form I could at Barnard,” says Shiverick, who filled her electives with dance classes. She sought out private ballroom lessons, and while studying abroad in England she trained with world champion Standard dancer John Wood. Back home, weekends were spent traveling to competitions. “It’s like being on a varsity sports team,” she says.
Iannaccone devotes up to 10 hours a week to the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company, which competes and puts on independent performances. “Our performances are more theatrical—there are lifts, tricks, a bit of a story,” says Iannaccone, who serves as CCBDC’s president. Dancers on the tour team, who are the most advanced, also have opportunities to coach other members. “It’s a good way for them to spread the knowledge that they’ve learned and have a chance to choreograph,” she adds.
Since dancesport teams are student-led organizations, there are plenty of opportunities to develop business acumen. Most schools host their own competition, which often requires months of planning. Shivrat Chhabra, who graduated from Columbia’s chemical engineering department in May, served as this year’s competition chair for the BADC. Not only did he and his committee have to book a venue a year in advance, they had to organize housing, raise funds, secure sponsorships and negotiate guest artist contracts. The experience gave his resumé an edge. “I spent half of one job interview talking about putting this event together,” says Chhabra.
“I developed a lot of skills that will help me long after I stop dancing,” says Iannaccone.
Shiverick, who co-chaired the 2012 BADC, agrees. But while students develop valuable leadership skills, the dancing is what keeps them coming back. Since graduating, Shiverick continues competing full-time as an amateur; she and Seabury are among the top Smooth couples in the Northeast. “I’m currently looking for a job that is satisfying as a career but will still allow me to ballroom dance,” she says. “When I think of my life without ballroom, it just seems kind of empty.” DT