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Thanks to the popular television shows Dancing with The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, the profile of Dancesport in Victoria is currently stronger than ever. Officially recognised as a sport by the state’s Department of Sport and Recreation in 1986, Dancesport, also known as competitive ballroom dancing, is now a highly organised activity with its own set of institutions, competitions and army of dedicated individuals.Neville Parry and Siobhan Power
Strictly speaking, “Dancesport” refers only to the competitive aspect of ballroom dancing. At this level, couples in Australia can specialise in one or all of the three main dance styles – Standard (Waltz; Tango; Slow Foxtrot; Quickstep; Viennese Waltz), Latin (Rumba; Cha Cha Cha; Samba; Paso Doble and Jive) and New Vogue (described as “Traditional Australian Style”). There are also “medal” levels spanning from Bronze to Gold for dancers who like charting their progress through formal examinations.
Typically, however, beginners take up ballroom as a social activity. Julie Jones, a former professional competitor and Director of Just Rhythm Dance Academy located in Thornbury notes that most of her students are adult beginners; those with additional tap or jazz experience from their youth, meanwhile, often choose to choose to take up Ballroom dance in adulthood as a social outlet and fitness regime.
Daryl Lee, president of the University of Melbourne Dancesport Club says the sport is popular with students from overseas; “Most of our dancers are Asian and a vast majority come from the international student population.” Whilst most are looking for a change from their studies, Daryl adds that “there are also experienced dancers in the club who have come from different styles such as contemporary, and who are looking to further their experience.” Whilst the Melbourne University club focuses on the social side of ballroom dance, Daryl points out that “we do have a few members who move on to private lessons and compete after experiencing Dancesport and finding an affinity for it.”
Serious competitors such as Victoria’s current top-ranked couple Zalie Merritt and Jacob Grech, however, usually start young.Julie Jones “After my mum took me to see Strictly Ballroom for my birthday, I was inspired to take up Latin American dancing,” says Jacob. “I started with medals, then moved into competition, and went through a range of partners travelling around Australia and overseas.” He then found a surprising kindred spirit in Zalie. “I found Zalie through a mutual dance teacher. It was quite funny, as we had been fierce rivals during our respective competitive careers!”
Dancesport Victoria’s Executive Officer Andrew Howlett says competitors usually train anywhere from ten hours to upwards of twenty hours per week. For Zalie and Jacob, practice involves twelve hours a week of dance lessons with a mentor coach and various interstate and international coaches. Victorian competitor Timothy Earl and his partner, meanwhile, train for three nights a week and a day on the weekend for an average of fourteen hours per week. “During the course of a week we have a lesson for each of the three ballroom dancing styles with the rest of the time devoted to practice.” Cross-training is also important element of the weekly routine. “We walk, jog and run most days, attend a gym and take pilates lessons,” says Zalie. “I also undertook ballet classes when dancing competitively in the Latin style, and studied dance as a Year Twelve extra subject to allow me a better knowledge of the art form.”
Ambitious Australian competitors aim to take home the title at three main championships: The Australian Championships (Melbourne, December), The National Capital of Dancesport Championships (Canberra, June) and The South Pacific Dancesport Championships (Sydney, September). Female competitors arrive at the competitions with fake tan applied, and their hair and make up done before meeting up with their partners. After enquiring about the start time of the first round of their particular event, the dancers then settle, focus and talk through such aspects of performance as floor craft with their partners. Finally, it’s show time.
But the dreams of the most gifted ballroom dancers can be found overseas, says Zalie. “To dance overseas is also a dream of ballroom dancers. The pathway is very different though [compared to other forms of dance such as ballet] in that there are not companies, but individual studios. Those who have a passion to remain in the scene all their lives work hard to earn Australian titles then gain recognition overseas, returning home to coach and adjudicate here in Australia. Uni of Melbourne Dance Sport Depending on titles gained overseas coaches can demand up $200 per hour for lessons.”
Geography and expense, however, makes it difficult for Australian competitors to compete on an equal footing at the international level. “Travelling around Europe is, after all, much easier than getting to Europe from Australia,” says Dancesport Victoria’s Andrew Howlett. None the less, there are many who believe the trouble is worth it. “Unfortunately it is an expensive sport, but I don’t know any top dancers who wouldn’t live under the kitchen sink just to dance,” says Just Rhythm Dance Academy’s Julie Jones. “The advantage for Australian couples is that our Australian lifestyle in general allows us to be dancers and still live comfortable lives. In other countries, you’re working to survive, not to dance.”
At the state level, organizations such as Dancesport Victoria help to lessen the burden on regional dancers. “We [at Dancesport Victoria] are looking at ways to assist with travel subsidies for competitors moving to Melbourne for competitions and are also looking at different ways to send some of our better coaches from Melbourne out towards the regional areas,” says Andrew.
With a number of major international championships being held in Melbourne in the next couple of years and the continuing popularity of shows like Dancing with the Stars, participation numbers would seem set to rise. Andrew is cautiously optimistic about the coming years. “There are positives and negatives to everything. The main positive [of the greater television publicity] is that the activity has become more visible to the public eye. However, so far it has actually had little to no impact on participation numbers, as it has also made the activity appear more elite.”
If early predictions of exponential increases in Dancesport participation levels were somewhat premature, however, Dancesport remains one of the most high profile dance forms in Victoria and enthusiasm for the sport doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
“I enjoy how Dancesport gives university students the opportunity to spend time outside of studies in the world of dance,” remarks student Daryl Lee. “It makes uni life more enjoyable as a whole.”
“Dancing has taught me confidence. This has helped me not only in dancing, but in all other aspects of life,” says competitor Timothy Earl.
“You have to love it”, insists Julie Jones. “In Dancesport, you will always lose more than you win and those who keep coming back are the ones who achieve.”
“The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Neville Parry and Siobhan Power
Published in Kinesis Magazine (Ausdance Vic)