NDCA, USA Dance, and Collegiate: Oh My!


While this post was prompted by Gina N’s comments to The Dancer’s Guide to Red Tape, it’s a post I’ve had a long time in coming.  This past February, my studio took some of its dancers to the Mid-Atlantic Dancesport Championship, a USA Dance ballroom competition in the DC area.  They had a great time and did very well, with most students making finals and receiving very high placements, but it was also a new, almost overwhelming experience for many of them, despite having competed for years.  What made this competition so different?  To understand, we need to look at the overall competitive ballroom world in the US.

Pro-Am vs. Am-Am
Before we get into the different competing organizations, we need to look at the different types of competitions.  In the US, amateurs have their choice of two competitive styles: pro-am and am-am. An am-am competition pairs two amateur dancers together and evaluates them as a couple, while pro-am competition pairs each amateur with a professional dancer, usually the amateur dancer’s teacher.

As we’ve said in previous posts, there are advantages and disadvantages to pro-am vs. am-am competition.  In pro-am, you know that your results are yours, not your partners.  You dance under ideal circumstances, with a partner who can be counted on for everything from knowing the choreography to knowing exactly how best to show you off.  The focus gets to be entirely on you.  The disadvantages are primarily financial, as not only do you pay the pro to come to the competition and dance with you, but anytime you want to practice you need to schedule private lessons to do so.

Am-am competition, on the other hand, is more social and more closely related to real-world dancing.  It is a more egalitarian relationship between the two dancers.  It is also significantly cheaper.  On the other hand, amateur partnerships are difficult to arrange, require much more coordinating of schedules, and amateur partners tend to be less reliable than professional partners if only because they have more demands on them outside of dance.

USA Dance
USA Dance, by contrast, is much more restrictive in what it allows but with the aim of creating bigger competitions at low cost.  While an NDCA competition may have less than half-a-dozen amateur couples, USA Dance events can have hundreds.  At the aforementioned Mid-Atlantic, although we’d prepared our students by telling them what to expect and even showing them videos of previous years’ events, it was still jarring to many of them to go from uncontested NDCA events to having over a dozen couples competing together.  At the largest events, up to three-dozen couples may be competing together, so many that they must be broken down into different groups.


For those dancers who want competition and want to know how they compare to other dancers, this is very good but it can also be an intimidating and humbling experience.  NDCA competitions are often more light-hearted affairs where many dancers compete occasionally and purely for fun, while USA Dance tends to draw dancers who are 100% focused on competition.  Not everyone takes this view, but many do and it is something to consider.

Furthermore, USA Dance is much more restrictive than NDCA, in terms of what people dance, how they dance it, and what they where while dancing it.  For example, a bronze smooth couple at Mid-Atlantic is only permitted to dance waltz and foxtrot for their smooth.  They must dance both of these dances, which will be evaluated together as a multi-dance, and they do not get to dance any other smooth dances.  In fact, all the bronze events are limited to two dances, silver three, and gold four.  To dancers used to dancing every dance they know, this often feels anticlimactic and restrictive.  The reason for doing so is to allow the dancers to focus on mastering a few things at a time rather than diffusing their effort (and progress) over multiple dances, and that at events where other dances are permitted as non-qualifying competitions*.

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Finally, we come to collegiate dancing.  We’ve talked about college teams before, but rarely about their competitions.  Many college ballroom dance teams host their own competitions, including UPenn, Princeton, and (my personal favorite), the University of Maryland’s upcoming DC Dancesport Inferno.  Collegiate competitions tend to be run very much on cheap side, often using a student union or gymnasium.  They are, however, the lowest cost to enter, usually $35-$50 depending on student status, and include unlimited entries at no extra charge.

Because there is no over-arching organization, each team organizes their own competition differently, but are usually similar.  Most, for example, follow USA Dance’s guidelines regarding syllabus and infractions (providing warnings, then disqualifying repeat offenders).  Most prohibit costumes in newcomer and bronze but allow them at silver and above.  Most allow three dances in newcomer, three or four in bronze, and four in silver and gold, often with an all-syllabus event for the fifth dance (Viennese waltz, paso doble, or bolero.  I keep working on UPenn, trying to get them to add a syllabus Peabody event but no luck so far.  I’M TALKING TO YOU MELISSA!).

All of this makes collegiate competitions very appealing to amateur dancers, especially since they are not limited to college students.  There is, however, one catch: collegiate competitions almost never run different age divisions.  A couple in their fifties will have to dance against couples in their late teens or early twenties.  

Dance Challenge
We’ve talked a lot about setting goals and pushing yourself to achieve them.  It makes you a better dancer but it also makes you happier.  We all love accomplishing things and, presumably, we love dancing.Today I received a subscription notification from Dance Class Challenge.  The blog is run by a young lady named Cathy who has challenged herself to take every dance class she can for the next year.  Her writing is fascinating and serves as a great example of the power of goals and motivation.  I highly encourage all our readers to take a look at Cathy’s articles.  Start by reading about her, then move on to her articles.

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