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For most of us, ballroom dancing brings to mind the familiar black and white images ofFred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, gliding across the screen with an effortless elegance. But competitive ballroom dancing is a wholly different animal – at once sensual, artistic, and thoroughly athletic.

To the uninitiated, the regulations and standards of competitive ballroom (also referred to as DanceSport) events can seem confusing. Dancers must contend with the physical demands of the sport while quickly adapting their style and technical abilities to the music, which is kept confidential until their turn on the show floor. Depending on which organization is hosting the competition, there are also small – but key – differences in music tempo and length. The couples must not only be able to dance together flawlessly, but to adjust to these variable conditions while adhering to the strict style guidelines set forth by the International DanceSport Federation (IDSF).

During each competition, dancers are divided into age groups, and then in some cases, into their amateur or professional rankings. As in figure skating, judging is based on artistic merit as well as technical criteria – among them body alignment, posture, speed, timing, and grooming. While the types of dances may differ depending on the host country or organization, here is a short list of the dances you can usually expect to see, and the umbrella category they fall under.

International Standard

  • Waltz
  • Tango
  • Viennese Waltz
  • Slow Foxtrot
  • Quickstep

International Latin

  • Cha Cha
  • Samba
  • Rumba
  • Paso Doble
  • Jive

American Smooth

  • Waltz
  • Tango
  • Foxtrot
  • Viennese Waltz

American Rhythm

  • Cha Cha
  • Rumba
  • East Coast Swing
  • Bolero
  • Mambo

Though there are a few dances that are repeated under different categories, they are not in fact the same. For International Standard and Latin, dancers can only use closed dance positions, while the American styles allow for closed, open and separated poses as well as small differentiations in footwork.

DanceSport events are held internationally throughout the year, culminating in May with the sport’s most prestigious event, the Blackpool Dance Festival in Blackpool, England and featuring the top dancers from more than 60 countries. Performers may also have the opportunity to dance in World Championship and Grand Slam events, but as yet have not been added to the roster for the Olympics. While the Olympic Games’ governing body (IOC) has recognized DanceSport as a legitimate athletic pursuit, given the recent paring down of medal sports, it is unlikely fans will see its inclusion in the medal tournaments any time soon.

Blackpool Dance Festival – samba competition

DanceSport enjoys widespread popularity in Europe, Asia and the former Soviet republics, where elite dancers are household names and in some cases, receive government funding. In America, despite the growing television audiences for hit network TV shows, competitive ballroom has yet to establish a comparable fan base. Supporters of the sport are hoping to see this change soon, as more Americans are lacing up their dancing shoes. While we may not all be championship caliber, it is always inspiring to see some of the best dance teams in the world take to the floor.

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.”
- Martha Graham

Dance is not just a collection of steps and techniques, slides and heel steps, and posture and cadence. Dance is a story, a cultural history, and an inspiring expression of passion and life. Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the music and movement of Latin dance. Styles such as the mambo, cha-cha, and samba have evolved through an intriguing blend of several cultures, each influencing and building upon the past, to create something new.

So for the uninitiated, or for those of you with an already burgeoning interest, here is a primer on the three popular styles of Latin dance.


The spirited music of mambo has a rich heritage, drawing from European social dances, such as the French contredanse and the Spanish contradanza. The music evolved further with the arrival of black Haitians in Cuba, who are responsible for adding the distinct rhythms and syncopations that make the music so energetic.

In 1940′s Havana, Perez Prado developed a dance set to mambo music which gained widespread popularity when he fled Cuba for New York City. The mambo is characterized by the hip movement that occurs when you shift your weight, and the fact that you only move your feet on the second and fourth beats.

Helio & Julianne mambo


The Cha Cha was derived from the mambo and gets its name from the dragging movements of the dancers’ feet. Although the dance is known as a Cuban dance, it was originally created by French dance teacher Pierre Zurcher Margolie, who visited Cuba in 1952. Further simplifications were made to the dance by Arthur Murray, to make it easier for American audiences.

The Cha Cha does differentiate itself from other Latin dances in its rhythm in that the dancers’ feet move on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th beats.


Unlike the Mambo and the Cha Cha, the Samba is a dance of Brazilian origin and originally imitated some movements from Afro-Brazilian rituals. There are several varieties of Samba – among them Carioca, Mesemba, and Carnivale – all of which differ in tempo and technique. Done in triple time, the Samba was created with the restrictions of a crowded dance floor in mind, explaining its small foot work, and is represented by its smooth waltz-like style.

We are in the midst of a renewed interest in Latin dance, thanks in large part to the overwhelming popularity of American TV shows, “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars.” And while it may be easy to feel intimidated when watching the professionals, please don’t let it stop you from joining in. (And don’t worry – the sequins and spandex are entirely optional.)

Got that down-in-the-dumps, financial meltdown malaise?  Want to take your mind off the economy, learn something new and have some fun?  Well – West coast swing dancing could be just what the doctor ordered.

So what is West Coast swing?  According to Kurt Lichtmann of Cornell University, its origins were with the Lindy Hop, a form which borrowed heavily from the Charleston, and jitterbug (see video below).

The Lindy Hop

Says Lichtmann

It’s distinctive “dancing in a slot” approach derives from San Diego dancehalls as far back as 1938. The kicking jitterbugs would frolic in the center of the floor, with the smooth dancers grooving on the periphery.

Lichtman further notes that West Coast Swing has since been influenced by many dance styles over the decades, including disco, funk, Latin and the Hustle.  The “slot” in West Coast Swing refers to a slotted dance: the follower travels back and forth along a shoulder-width rectangle, called the slot, with respect to the leader. The leader is more stationary but will move in and out of the slot depending on the pattern led.  A general rule is that the leader leaves the slot only to give way for the follower to pass him.  The popularity of West Coast Swing led the California legislature, during the 1987-88 session, to make it the official state dance.

Want to give it a try?  Here are some of the basic moves, courtesy of the Wikipedia:

Open position

  • Underarm pass: A six-count basic where the follower is led to the other end of the slot, passing the leader underarm on the right.
  • Left side pass: A six-count basic where the follower is led to the other end of the slot, passing the leader on the left.
  • Sugar push or Push Break: A six-count basic where the follower, facing the leader, is led from the end of the slot to a one or two hand hold, then led back to the same end of the slot.
  • Tuck turn: This is like a left side pass in six counts, but the leader raises the left arm signaling the follower to turn under the leader’s arm (an outside turn).

Closed position

  • Return to close: In six counts, the follower is led 3/4 of the way around the leader into closed position.
  • Starter step: Two triple steps in closed position to begin the dance, so that the leader and follower can get in sync with each other.
  • Throw out: A six count basic where the follower is led from the closed position to open. Leads: Triple-step left, triple-step right, step forward with left and follow starts to move forward as well, push from frame of follow out down to the end of the slot.
  • Whip The follower starts at one end of the slot and is led around the lead, to the same end of the slot she started. The follower stays in her slot, pivoting, then coming back to where she started. The leader steps in and out of the slot, creating smooth, elastic look.

There are also many advanced moves with exotic names like “sugar tuck”, “cement mixer” and “basket whip.” Below is what West Coast Swing looks like when performed by experts competing at the annual US Open of West Coast Swing, held around the Thanksgiving holiday.

Competition at the US Open of West Coast Swing

West Coast Swing does not entail the drama and intensity of the Tango.  But if you are looking for a fun, exhilarating way to reconnect with your physical self, West Coast Swing might just be for you.  It’s instant relief from preoccupation with the dismal science.

The holiday period always puts me in the mood for dancing.  Ever since I saw the movie Shall We Dance starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopes and Susan Sarandon a number of years ago, I been interested in dancing.  In fact, I enjoy it enough to serve as a dance host passenger cruise ships.  One of my favorites is the Argentine tango.  If I were to select one dance as a metaphor for life, it would be the tango.

The tango is actually a musical genre and its various forms originated in the lower-class districts of Buenos Aries in the late nineteenth century. According to the Wikipedia, the word Tango seems to have first been used in connection with the dance in the 1890s.  It was initially spread via theaters and street barrel organs from the suburbs of Buenos Aries to the working-class slums, then populated with hundreds of thousands of European immigrants, primarily Italians, Spanish and French.  A detailed and compelling history of the Argentine tango can be found on Argentina-tango.com.

The appeal of the tango lies in its drama, sensuality and the seeming total absorption of the dancers into the dance.  There are many styles of tango practiced today including:

  • Tango Argentino
  • Tango Oriental (uruguayo)
  • Tango Canyengue
  • Tango Liso
  • Tango Salon
  • Tango Orillero
  • Tango Milonguero (Tango Apilado)
  • Tango Nuevo
  • Show Tango (also known as Fantasia)
  • Ballroom Tango
  • Finnish Tango

Another thing I like about the tango is that the basic steps are very straightforward to learn and you can improvise to many styles of music.

Hollywood has long had an infatuation with the tango, starting with Rudolf Valentino’s depiction of the dance in his film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1926)..  The film superstar played a gaucho (Argentine Cowboy) and performed the tango wearing wide trousers and leather chaps, while holding a carnation in his mouth and a whip in his hand.  Below are three more examples of the tango in the world of entertainment

First of course, there is the memorable scene in Shall We Dance where estate lawyer Richard Gere gets instruction in the tango from his beautiful instructor, Jennifer Lopes (“Don’t say anything; don’t think; don’t do anything you don’t feel!” she orders him).

Second is a scene from Take the Lead where some young teen rappers get a lesson in the seductive power of the tango.

Finally, is an example that shows off the playfulness of the tango as well in the French show, Tango-Pasion.

The tango, at its best, displays all of the emotional richness we seek in life.  Everyone should spend some time getting to know this dance and allow themselves to fall under its hypnotic spell and be swept around in its seductive embrace.