In a flurry of silk and rhinestones, backless gowns and flapping tux tails, a flock of competing ballroom couples revolves across the dance floor in the slow waltz. The dancers swoop, turn and lift all in the same pattern with alluring poise and technique.
A great ballroom couple can make the audience feel as if the slow waltz is totally new, but, in some form, it’s been around since the early 18th century. (The waltz originated in Vienna in the 1700s and was introduced in England in 1812.) England is where ballroom dance really gained momentum and began to blossom.
Ballroom got its name because couples would attend balls (social dance parties) in, well, large rooms. (Picture the scene in My Fair Lady in which Eliza appears at the ball.) By the early 1920s ballroom competitions like the Blackpool Dance Festival started to pop up. This is when the International Standard style became codified, or written down.
Meanwhile, in early 20th-century America, a married couple named Vernon and Irene Castle were breathing new life into ballroom. First they set Paris on fire when they introduced their American ragtime dances there. Then they came back to the U.S. (pre–World War I) to dance onstage and in films, as well as open up a ballroom school in NYC called the Castle House, where they taught social dances to anyone who wanted to learn. Soon, the Castles were famous and dances like the foxtrot swept the nation.
In the 1930s, ballroom in America exploded again when Hollywood duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lit up the silver screen in movies like Roberta and Swing Time. They danced what is now known as the American Smooth style.
By the 1960s, rock-and-roll music had taken over and ballroom dance began to fade out of fashion. Then in the 1990s sleeper movies like Strictly Ballroom and the original Shall We Dance brought it back again and stronger than ever! According to ballroom living-legend Pierre Dulaine, the internet was another reason people began flocking to lessons. “In the ’90s people stopped talking to each other in person and playing games together,” says Dulaine, whose life inspired the movie Take the Lead and whose work in public schools inspired the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. “We started multitasking and texting one another. People wanted to come back to basics. Ballroom dancing, the hold and the embrace, helped people do that.”
Today, the popularity of ballroom continues to grow. Not only is “Dancing with the Stars” one of the most-watched shows on TV, but private studios are packed with students and ballroom is now part of many college curriculums. Brigham Young University and George Washington University both have ballroom teams. Dulaine’s program in the public schools, called Dancing Classrooms, is also bigger than ever—it taught 30,000 kids in NYC alone this year and the program has expanded to cities around the world. And ballroom technique is not lost on dancers of other styles. For example, The School of American Ballet students learn the waltz, tango and other dances to help with their partnering skills.
Latin-dance champs Tony Meredith and Melanie LaPatin believe all dancers can learn from taking to the ballroom floor. The two of them, praised for their spunkiness, drama and connection, have been dancing together for 28 years. Their fiery qualities took them from their beginnings in San Diego, CA, to every major ballroom competition around the world. Their titles include: United States Professional Latin Champions, United States Representatives for the World Latin Championships (12 times!) and Dirty Dancing Champions.
Tony and Melanie have also made their mark on the screen. They have choreographed for “So You Think You Can Dance” and many movies—The Thomas Crown Affair, Take the Lead and Shall We Dance?, to name a few. The couple also currently runs a studio in NYC called Dance Times Square (dancetimessquare.com)! And they recently sat down with DS to talk about the secrets of being a great ballroom dancer and why everyone should take a little time to tango.
Dance Spirit: What qualities does a young dancer need to become a great ballroom dancer?
Melanie LaPatin: Determination is the only quality you need. Talent helps, but it’s not everything. You need to be obsessed. You need to be there because you need it, because you can’t live without it.
DS: How can practicing ballroom help dancers of other genres with their port de bras, footwork or carriage?
It really helps strength—you have to be so strong. There’s also line, posture and body awareness.
DS: How important is the upper body in ballroom dance?
ML: The frame [the position of the arms and head] is extremely important. It’s everything. You need to make a beautiful presentation and sell the choreography. If you’re hunched over, it’s ugly and you lose connection with your partner. It’s all one big package.
DS: What do you learn from dancing with different partners?
ML: I had a partner other than Tony once for a West Coast swing competition and we got killed. It takes a long time to master the art of partner dancing. It is meant to be for your partner, at your partner and with your partner. That connection makes it special.
DS: Are younger people ever intimidated by dancing with a partner?
TM: There’s a way you have to introduce partner dancing. Sometimes it’s about mirroring or working with each other. It becomes a fun thing and you introduce the discipline later.
DS: What is your favorite dance to perform and why?
ML: Whatever we’re dancing that week or that day! I like the cha-cha and the mambo. I like the percussion, the sensuality, the base and the drive.
I love the rumba. I love the slow sensuality and the music.
DS: How do you think that reality TV has changed the way people view ballroom dance?
ML: It’s made a really positive impact. There are so many more people talking about it!
There’s a newfound respect for the amount of work that goes into competitive ballroom dancing. Everybody is learning how great the sport is and there is this amazing social aspect.
DS: Has its increase in popularity made the artform more visible?
ML: What you’re watching is a diluted sense of the craft. The world has yet to see world-class ballroom on popular TV.
I think that PBS is doing it. “America’s Ballroom Challenge” brings some of the best together.
DS: What is the career trajectory of someone who is a successful competitive ballroom dancer?
ML: Once you find a partner, start training and go! We went professional locally in San Diego right away.
DS: How does someone get into competitions?
ML: They have to find a partner to dance with, or a teacher, so they can dance pro-am. There are hundreds of competitions that happen all over the world.
DS: What is the most prestigious ballroom competition?
ML: In the United States there’s Ohio Star Ball, which is shown on PBS as “America’s Ballroom Challenge”. In England and Europe there’s the British championships at Blackpool.
DS: What is it like to dance at those competitions?
ML: It’s huge. We made the finals in the Rising Stars the first time we went to Blackpool. It’s surreal. Every ballroom dancer in the world knows what it is and how impressive it is.
DS: The costumes are kind of extreme. Is there a reason for that?
ML: You’re competing against a lot of couples on a big floor. You want to stand out and make a statement. It’s getting a little more toned down now. I used to wear big lapels with rhinestones on them. They were huge. We put black handprints on a white dress once—that was really stunning.
DS: What’s the difference between International and American styles?
ML: The technique, music and tempo are different.
American adds the merengue movement to the hip. In the American Smooth you’re allowed to separate from your partner and in
International you’re not.
DS: What do you enjoy the most about doing International style?
TM: Our style is called International and it really is. There’s no difference in the way we dance and the way they dance in Japan or England. We can all dance with each other because there is one technique and that’s great.
DS: What does it feel like when you are dancing a ballroom dance full-out and to your best ability?
ML: You’re in another world in another moment. Nothing else exists but the music, your partner and the dance. I’ve only been there about five times in more than 20 years. You are being judged and you do want to place well, but when you get out there you’re not thinking about anything but living it. It’s a very difficult thing and it’s challenging, but it also is so satisfying.
What was winning all of those awards like?
ML: I was always grateful. There were times that I thought we should have won and we didn’t and times I though we should have lost and we won.