The 411 on Brigham Young University's Ballroom Dance Program

June 23, 2008

From Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s sizzling tango in Mr. and Mrs. Smith to J. Lo’s turn as a ballroom dancer in the film Shall We Dance?, the rest of the country is figuring out what a small but dedicated part of the population already knew: It’s cool to cha cha and social dance is a lot of fun.


If you ask the ballroom dancers at Brigham Young University about the dance form’s comeback, they’re likely to ask, “From where?” At this Provo, UT–based school, ballroom dance never went out of style. “It will surge in popularity here and there, but I don’t think it will ever go away,” says Curt Holman, BYU division director of ballroom dance.


From its humble beginnings in 1953 with one social dance class, BYU’s ballroom dance program has become renowned across the U.S. and in many other parts of the world. The university offers dance majors the rare opportunity for an emphasis in ballroom, with classes encompassing technique, theory, methodology and composition, along with required courses in modern, jazz and ballet. But the program is perhaps best known for its performing group, the Ballroom Dance Company, which comprises five teams: three beginning, a back-up touring and a main touring team. The main touring team, the most advanced, performs internationally and is the only one that competes. (The other teams perform locally.) It holds many prestigious titles and has been the undefeated United States Formation Champion since 1982.


Of course, there’s more to dancing at BYU than ballroom; part of the College of Health and Human Performance, the department is one of the country’s largest college dance programs. The university supports its robust dance department with plenty of help from its sponsoring organization, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In addition to the ballroom emphasis, the university also offers a BA in dance with emphases in ballet, modern, composite (a variety of forms) and musical theater, as well as a BA in dance education. Of the roughly 200 dance majors, 20 of them have ballroom emphases. Beginning in the fall of 2006, the university will also offer an MFA with a modern and ballet focus; no graduate program is currently available for ballroom dance.


Betsy Passmore, who graduated last spring with a double major in dance and communications, says she loves ballroom dance for its focus on partnership. In ballroom, partners must be well matched in everything from skill level and work ethic to body size, body type and even appearance. Passmore has been dancing with her partner, Judd Gines, since her freshman year at BYU. In addition to regular rehearsals and classes, the pair practiced on their own for one hour a day. Passmore says that dancing with a partner has helped her in her relationships off the dance floor, as well. “I love the social skills it teaches me,” she says.


The ballroom program is by far the most popular dance offering at the university, with more than 5,000 students, most non-dance majors, participating each year. Holman says the popularity of ballroom and social dance at BYU has its roots in Mormon faith. “Dancing has been a big part of what the Mormons have done for recreation since the beginning of the church,” he says, explaining that the program got its start using social dance as an outlet for “people to just interact with each other and dance.” Lee Wakefield, dance department chair and artistic director of the BYU Ballroom Dance Company, adds, “Few students go through the university without taking at least beginning social dance.”


It was in this way that David Stoker, who graduated from BYU last spring, discovered the artform. A high-school swimmer who had never danced before attending BYU for a degree in international studies, Stoker signed up for a beginning social dance class as a freshman “mainly to meet girls,” he says. “I thought, guys who can dance are pretty cool, so I took a class,” he explains. “I did fairly well.”


Stoker did well enough to make it onto one of the university’s beginning ballroom teams, and he spent the rest of his college years working his way up to the top squad. Along the way, he developed an appreciation for the artform. “Dancing is exhilarating,” he says. “I love the challenge. I felt I was on a steep learning curve, so there was always something new, and I was always improving.”


Passmore was one of Stoker’s fellow team members, but her journey to the team was very different. A dancer with a background in ballet, jazz and tap, Passmore started ballroom in eighth grade when the local high school team director created a feed-in training program for younger dancers. She performed in junior high and high school, and when she arrived at the university as a freshman, she came armed with years of experience and a scholarship to study ballroom dance. She danced on the back-up touring team her freshman year, then moved up to the main company as a sophomore.


Make no mistake: Getting into any level of the company is no easy feat. Each year, roughly 400-500 students audition, and that’s not counting those who are already in the program and vying to move up in the ranks. Members can audition for advancement once a year. Auditions are based on criteria such as technical skill, performance ability and willingness to be a team player. “It’s competitive, but there’s also room for people to come to the university and take a beginning social dance class,” says Holman. “If they have natural ability, they’re able to advance through the levels over time. Dave [Stoker]’s situation is not uncommon.”


The top company is composed of standard and Latin formation teams, and the directors decide which style the dancers will perform, according to their strengths. The two main forms of ballroom are International, which developed in the European dance competitions of the early 1900s, and American, which was popularized by studios such as Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire. Standard and Latin are based in the International style, while their counterparts in the American style are known as smooth and rhythm, respectively.


Standard includes dances such as the waltz, tango and slow foxtrot, while Latin encompasses cha cha, rumba and jive. “I love the elegance of [standard],” says Stoker. “You feel like you’re gliding, weightless at times. And then Latin lets your personality shine.”


The BYU Ballroom Dance Company performs and competes in formation dance, which means that the partners have to be in sync not only with each other, but with the other couples as well. “Our number-one goal is to make sure everything looks like a team, that everyone’s arms match and everyone’s lines are exactly perfect,” Passmore says.


It’s the team’s precision that has helped the company to excel. Last year, the dancers took first place in both the modern and Latin American formation competitions at the Blackpool Dance Festival in England, one of the most prestigious festivals in the world of ballroom dance. The company has won first place in both divisions each of the last six times it competed, and 18 times overall since 1971.


Indeed, the program takes competition very seriously. The company’s competitive medleys are choreographed by the current U.S. champions in the standard and Latin divisions, and original scores are created and original costumes designed. The dancers, Passmore says, put in “hours and hours and hours of rehearsing.”


Two things you won’t find in this company: scandalous costumes or overtly sexual dance moves. Because the Church of Latter-Day Saints is the sponsoring organization, the company works to maintain the church’s standards in their conduct both on and off the stage.


In addition to the school-sponsored team competitions, the BYU ballroom dance program encourages its couples to compete individually. Guest professionals visit the university several times a semester, and they are available, for an additional fee (paid by the students), to give private lessons to couples who wish to compete on their own. Passmore and Gines took advantage of this, and last March the pair won the U.S. amateur smooth competition at the U.S. National Junior and Professional Standard Dancesport Championships, organized by the American Ballroom Company.


BYU dancers have plenty of opportunities to compete on their home turf, too. In Utah, Wakefield says, ballroom dance is “a spectator sport,” and BYU hosts the largest amateur ballroom dance competitions in the U.S. Whereas many dance sport competitions draw hundreds of spectators, Wakefield says, thousands come to BYU. The last competition the university hosted, he says, drew about 11,000 people. “Dancers love to come here, because it’s such a fan-based event,” he adds.


True to its name, the touring company also does quite a bit of performing away from home. The company’s annual five-week tours have taken the dancers to China, Russia and Europe, as well as across the U.S. In fact, the company’s initial tour in China in 1984 helped open the country’s doors to ballroom and sparked an interest in the sport there, according to Wakefield. The company has visited China three times since. This year, it traveled to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii, and next year the company is headed to Ukraine. Thanks to the church’s sponsorship, as well as donations, the company members pay just $1,000 to participate in each tour.


When traveling, the dancers stay with host families. “I’ve been able to learn more about the cultures I’ve visited rather than just barely skimming the surface,” Passmore says. In New Zealand, they stayed with the native Maori people, who welcomed them with a traditional ceremony, cooked them meals, shared their songs and taught them basket weaving. In France last year, some team members stayed with a family who served seven-course meals and “literally cleared out all their bedrooms and slept on the couch,” Passmore says. “They were just so gracious.”


In addition to performing, competing and touring, BYU’s ballroom dancers strive for solid academic standing. “It’s not just about dance, even when you’re a dance major,” says Wakefield. Passmore knows this from experience. “I had to balance everything so I could find time to do my general education courses,” she says. “It definitely teaches you to prioritize and not procrastinate.”


Passmore also taught several beginning courses during her time at BYU; each semester, there are about 30 undergraduate- and graduate-student teachers instructing courses designed for the non-dance population. “I had on-the-job training,” says Passmore, who is considering teaching professionally. Stoker, who returns to BYU this fall as a graduate student, says he will likely teach one of these courses while pursuing his master’s in international studies. Though Stoker doesn’t foresee a professional career in ballroom , he says he plans to stay involved in some capacity.


For students considering the study of ballroom dance on the collegiate level, Wakefield recommends having a solid background in other dance disciplines, such as ballet, modern and jazz. “Those forms of dance are the fundamental foundation that we build off of,” he says.


Passmore adds that good dance training need not preclude an excellent academic education. “I feel so lucky to be able to have had a broad education and still have this ballroom dance program, which is a gem.”