I'm often asked to explain the difference between social and ballroom dance, or even if there is any difference. It's not answerable in a short conversation, so here is a more complete answer.
Overall I prefer to consider what social and ballroom dance have in common, rather than emphasizing the differences. The two share the same historical roots, the same basic step vocabulary and similar partnering dynamics. In the entire World of Dance, social and ballroom are considered siblings. Yes, siblings are known to fight, but they can also be mutually supportive, especially as they grow older. Valuing other's truths is a sign of maturity.
There is no absolute definition of ballroom dance.
That makes answering these questions difficult. Everyone has their own definition of "ballroom dance." There is no official governing board to set parameters and limits. Even within competition ballroom dance, two dancers may have opposing priorities, aesthetics and values. If you look at my page which describes the "dark age of ballroom dance", one dancer today may say that's actually the way ballroom dance should be, while another might call it reprehensible. Dancers will disagree in many other areas as well. It's normal human individuality, and I think we can all respect that.
But it's helpful to know the differences.
Dean Paton clearly points out one way that it's helpful, in this page. He believes there's an essential difference between social and competition ballroom dance, and that different personalities are naturally drawn to one or the other. He points out that if you end up in the wrong camp — the one which doesn't match your personality — you can end up quite unhappy and frustrated.
It essentially comes down to knowing yourself, and finding the right match for you. It's not a matter of one being better than the other.
The only complaint I have with some studios is the occasional dishonesty I've seen, specifically a studio which specializes in competition dancing hiding that fact from their first-time "free class" students, instead telling them that they will emphasize flexible social dancing for weddings and parties. (I've seen this firsthand.) Then week-by-week they slowly retrain their students into wanting to exhibit and compete instead, requiring hundreds of private lessons. Dean Paton wrote, "We call your attention to these two kinds of dancing because, unless you understand something of their differences, you could land on the wrong dance planet and end up miserable." How can someone possibly find the right planet when they're told that Mars is Venus?
Fortunately most teachers are honest about their approach to dance, so this isn't a widespread problem.
My Web pages emphasize the more flexible and adaptive style of social dancing. I put them on the Web because there were already thousands of sites devoted to competition or rule-based ballroom dance, and I wanted to provide an alternative for the sake of balance. Here's another one that shares the same spirit. But that doesn't mean that one is "better" than the other. Find the one which speaks to you.
They can be the essentially the same.
How can social dance be called ballroom dance?
Our couple dancing tradition caught on during the 19th century, with the waltz and polka. At that time "ballroom dance" meant just that, dancing in a ballroom. But an important part of the 19th century mindset, in both Europe and America, was a selfless generosity of spirit, with an emphasis on enhancing the pleasure of your dance partners and the assembled company. You can find some wonderful quotes from this era at the top of this page. (It's short. Read it.)
And an important part of the original ballroom attitude was flexibility. DeGarmo wrote in 1875, "Gentlemen who acquire a diversified style easily accommodate themselves to different partners. No two persons dance alike. When their movements harmonize, this individuality is not only natural and necessary, but it pleasingly diversifies le tout ensemble."
For many social dancers, this attitude of generosity of spirit and flexibility has never ceased. Since they continue that original definition of ballroom dance, they continue to call it "ballroom dance."
How can a ballroom dancer be called a social dancer?
For some people, "ballroom dance" implies competition and exhibition dance, where the emphasis is often more on public display, following rules and winning. This dancing can be beautiful, graceful and impressive, and well worth the work. And for those who like sports — the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — dancesport is as good as any other sport.
But excellence in competition ballroom dance doesn't mean the dancer can't also be social. I also know many competition ballroom dancers who become completely flexible and generous on the social dance floor, easily adapting for both the physical and mental comfort of their partners. In essence, they leave their work at the office when dancing in social occasions.
Yes, we all know some sketchy guys who don't, who harshly bark to their partner, "You're doing it wrong! You have to do it this way." And we know some exhibition dancers who do their routines on crowded floors, heedlessly crashing into other couples. But I want to point out that there are also many friendly and accommodating ballroom dancers out there. Social dance vs. "strictly ballroom" is not an either/or choice. One can excel at both.
To clarify, I'm saying that (1) the two have many similarities, and (2) we don't have to demonize one in order to appreciate the other. But I'm not saying they're the same. Of course there are differences, as Dean mentioned on his page.
Some people call their preference "social ballroom dance," using both words. But how social is it? You can think this through yourself by simply reviewing what "social" means to you. What is especially social behavior? Friendliness, accommodating others, and mutual support come to mind. What is antisocial behavior? Think that one through too. How to you want to be with your dance partners? It's better to think this through yourself rather than hearing anyone else's opinion.
Value others' truths
Overall I prefer to acknowledge that both social and "strictly" ballroom dance are driven by a love of dance. We may each have our preferences — that's only natural — but there is no need to denigrate anyone who doesn't share our preferences. Let's save our criticisms for people who are doing true harm in the world, not for someone whose passions merely differ from our own.
About the Author:
Full-time instructor in contemporary social dancing and dance history, Stanford University Dance Division, Department of Theater and Performance Studies.
Principal focus since 1975 has been social dance forms from the Renaissance to today. Specializations include currently evolving vernacular dance forms, 19th century American and European social dance, dances of the Ragtime Era and Jazz Age.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the AccessDance Network. Be aware that imagery is copyrighted and often licensed for use on AccessDance only. Copying of images is strictly prohibited.
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