Teaching and Culture: Ballroom vs. Ballet

Hello all! Good day and welcome back to my life.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the culture differences between ballet and ballroom. As I gear up to teach another ‘season’, if you will, of the SU ballroom team, I reflect on what I’ve done in the past, as well as what bits I will steal from others. Why do you need to borrow ideas and methods, you might ask? You’ve learned quite a lot of ballroom, just teach that.

Well, like most things in life–it’s complicated.

First off, let’s look big picture. I think the differences can be summarized as follows: Ballet is about the development of the individual as a member of a group, and ballroom is about the development of the individual. Ballet is taught–generally–in large classes with many students, each absorbing and applying what they hear in personal ways. ‘Make the dance work on your own body” is something I hear quite often–most recently last week in a workshop with ballet-turned-modern dancer and choreographer Kate Ladenheim of the People Movers. Ballroom, on the other hand, is primarily taught in private lessons, with the individual or the couple working with the teacher.

Why is this? Because the ‘way to do’ ballet is to be a member of a company with many dancers, while the ‘way to do’ ballroom is to compete as a couple against other couples.

But, like many things in my life, I refuse to follow the herd. I helped found and now run a Ballroom Performance Team, which has learning choreography and doing shows as its primary objective, not competing–though I try and encourage the members to compete at least once a semester to see what it’s all about. I have *feelings* about ballroom as a group art, and I know there is artistry and story-telling to be mined from this relatively untouched landscape. Very few ‘ballroom performance teams’ exist in the world, with a literal handful currently running in the US. The reasons for this are multitude, one being that ballet dancers are trained as non-vocal actors, in a way, and so it is easier to tell a concrete story with ballet. Obviously there are many many ballets with increasing degrees of abstraction, but ballroom starts at relative abstraction and goes down from there. Ballroom has a built-in narrative: a man, a woman, an emotion–which is both endless and limiting. When I sit and dream, I fantasize about bringing group ballroom to the stage alongside ballet….ooo and maybe throw in some West Coast Swing…[dreamy sigh]

But to return to my thesis–essentially I’m teaching ballroom with the mindset of ballet: development of the individual as a member of a group. All of the Ballroom Team members need to know their own parts as well as fit in with their colleagues. It’s about accountability–in partnership you are accountable to just your partner, whereas in a company you are accountable to all of the other members. My team is a combination of both, and that necessitates some creative planning to make all the cogs run smoothly. Add in the 4-to-5-year turn-over inherent in college systems, and I often feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants–which is not bad. Fast-paced environments necessitate innovation, and good art is nothing if not innovative.

That’s all for now, folks–stay tuned for musings on dance and language, technology, and maybe oh maybe just a wedding!

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