WASHINGTON – In a narrow, crowded studio in the middle of Northwest D.C., ballroom dance couples practice cucarachas. There are collisions and drops, leads and follows, slow extensions and quick feet.
The light is dim, but faces are bright and concentrated. The music is a smorgasbord of sounds — tunes clash and rhythms mix. But each couple, from 11-year-olds to those over 55, dances to its own beat.
These dancers are preparing for the biggest amateur ballroom competition in the nation.
About 1,100 athletes are heading to California this weekend for the 33rd Annual USA Dance National DanceSport Championships (Nationals) in Los Angeles. Many of them are from the D.C. region.
Sweat, blood and tears
Ballroom dancers hoping to turn pro train for up to eight hours every day. Competitive, as opposed to social, ballroom dancing, is referred to as DanceSport.
Kensington, Md. resident and ballroom dancer Joe Huesmann, 42, trains five days each week for two hours at a time. In addition to that, he and his partner schedule a private lesson once a week.
“Some mornings it’s hard to walk, and some days after a competition it’s hard to walk,” Huesmann says. “But I love dancing, so I keep doing it.”
In the Washington area, private lessons range from $80 to $100 for about a one-hour session. Group lessons are less expensive, ranging from $15 to $25 each.
Spokeswoman for USA Dance, Inc. Angela Prince says D.C. tends to be one of the more active regions in ballroom dance, saying it has a “strong selection of dancers.” The area is home to three ballroom dance studios in D.C. and more in Maryland and Virginia.
Huesmann has competed in Nationals for the last six years, placing first in 2008 against 26 other couples. He says participating in the competition, which he will do again this weekend in a more advanced division, is not something he takes lightly.
“It’s only the biggest amateur competition in the United States,” Huesmann says. “It’s the best way to determine your level of dancing and where you stack up against other dancers.”
Nationals: Numbers and nitty-gritty
Bethesda, Md. resident Dan Calloway, 54, is a retired professional dancer and the DanceSport coach for Georgetown University and the University of Maryland.
Calloway compares qualifying for Nationals to qualifying for the Olympics.
“The pressure is great being watched so microscopically,” Calloway says.
Contestants in the Nationals come from nearly each of the 50 states. Dancers compete over three days, each one lasting 15 hours, and dance in four different styles, including American smooth, American rhythm, international standard and international Latin. To watch the event live, visit USA Dance’s live stream.
The competition is judged by nationally and internationally acclaimed adjudicators.
“We make sure that the judges are of the highest esteem,” Richards says.
The competitors, too, are of the highest caliber, having placed in the top 75 percent of at least one of the 12 national qualifying events. However, not every dancer who qualifies attends.
“We’re not going for the largest number of dancers,” Richards says.
“We’re going for the quality of dancers because we’re trying to crown a national champion, not have days and days of lower-level competitions where we have to finally get to a champion.”
Behind the curtain
At ballroom dancing competitions, preparation starts hours before dancers step into the spotlight.
Women arrange their hair in extravagant designs, shellacking it with hairspray, glue and gems. They wear pricey, elegant gowns — costing hundreds or thousands of dollars — that sparkle and flow.
Depending on the level and style, men often buy or rent tuxes or tail suits for competitions.
Calloway, who has judged Nationals for more than 20 years, says many couples break up or make the pivotal move to compete at a different level after the competition.
“It’s a very emotional week for everyone leading up to this,” he says. “If your objective is to move up in levels or ranks, Nationals is a great checkpoint for that.”
The growing popularity of ballroom dancing
The number of people investing in ballroom dance has grown recently, with a 35 percent spike over the last 10 years, USA Dance reports. The most interest comes from college students. Prince calls the collegiate ballroom population “explosive.”
“The fastest-growing segment is youth,” she says. “I know about 120 active collegiate ballroom teams or social clubs nationally,” adding that there are 174 DanceSport chapters throughout the country.
Ballroom dancing’s popularity also can be attributed to shows like “Dancing with the Stars.”
“The shows plays a role in sustaining interest, but ballroom dance was already seeing a significant growth globally,” Prince says. “It already had a foundation. Those shows didn’t create it. They only spiked it.”
So what’s next for ballroom dancing?
“The major goal of the World DanceSport Federation is to bring DanceSport to the Olympics,” Richards says.
Until that moment, competitive ballroom dancers will set their sights on achieving a national title.
Lydia Petrigova, who possesses various championship titles, teaches at Chevy Chase Ballroom and Crown Dance Studio in Fairfax, Va. The video below shows Petrigova’s teaching style.