The Three Worlds of Ballroom Dance

All three forms are valid, each enjoyed by their adherents for good reasons. But it's helpful to know how and why they differ from each other. As you'll see in the third section below, it's sometimes essential to know the differences.

Date added to ADN: Thursday, Oct 27 2016
Originally Published: Thursday, Oct 27 2016
By Richard Powers




Which one is better?

Yes, that question is intentionally provocative, and is easily answered. All three forms are valid, each enjoyed by their adherents for good reasons. But it's helpful to know how and why they differ from each other. As you'll see in the third section below, it's sometimes essential to know the differences.

First, what is Ballroom Dance?

"Ballroom dance" refers to traditional partnered dance forms that are done by a couple, often in the embrace of closed dance position ("ballroom dance position"). These include waltz, swing, tango and salsa.

"Ballroom dance" is the overall umbrella term, covering all three forms discussed on this page.

Social/ballroom dance forms are important. The earliest dance forms ever described in detail (in the 15th century) were partnered social dances. Many of today's performative dance forms, including ballet and jazz dance, evolved from social dance forms that came first.

The three worlds of ballroom dance share the same historical roots, similar step vocabulary and music, so the three forms are considered siblings, related by birth. Yes, siblings are known to fight, but they can also be mutually supportive.


What is the essential difference between the three?

The main distinction is that they have different audiences. Who are you dancing for, beyond your own enjoyment?

Social Ballroom

Your partner

Competitive Ballroom

The judges

Exhibition Ballroom

An Audience

Then looking closer at the differences...

What are your audience's expectations?

Your partners want to interact with you spontaneously, for fun, doing steps that are also enjoyable for them.

Judges want to see that the steps and styles are done precisely and correctly, with great flair.

Audiences want to be entertained, often with a preference for beautiful and impressive moves.
What is your attitude?

• Sociable, i.e., friendly and kind.
• Flexibly adaptive. You value and accommodate to styles that are different from your own.

• Rigorously correct, expansive.
• The many styles outside of the official syllabus are usually considered to be incorrect.

• Performance attitude varies widely, depending on the dance form.
What is the attitude concerning mistakes?

• Mistakes are accepted as inevitable. Social dancers laugh them off and move on.
• When a Follow does something different from what the Lead intended, he knows it's a valid alternative interpretation of his lead.
• Social dancers are happy if things work out 80% of the time. And the other 20% is when most learning happens.

• Judges deduct points for every mistake, so competitive dance culture is aligned against making mistakes from day one.
• When a Follow does something different from what the Lead intended, he considers it a mistake, which is to be eliminated.
• Competitive dancers work hard to achieve 100%.

• For professionalperformances, audiences expect perfection, so dance companies rehearse extensively to avoid any mistakes onstage.

• For amateur performances, audiences mostly want to see that the dancers are enjoying themselves, so mistakes are generally accepted.

What is your reward?

• The spontaneous enjoyment of dancing with a partner.
• The satisfaction of becoming proficient in a dance form.
• Self confidence.

• Competing. Impressing others. Winning.
• The satisfaction of becoming proficient in a dance form.
• Self confidence.

• Entertaining or impressing others. Enthusiastic applause.
• The satisfaction of becoming proficient in a dance form.
• Self confidence.
Are there standardized steps and technique?

No, standardization doesn't function because each partner is different. You must modify your steps to adapt to each partner.

Yes, rigorously standardized, because competitors need to know exactly what technical details the judges want to see.

Sometimes, but in today's sampling culture ("been there, seen that") audiences prefer something they've never seen before.
Is there a standardized style?

Absolutely not. You develop your own personal style, different from others. Some social forms like swing, tango and salsa especially discourage copying other's styles.

Yes, you are trained to copy the style of champions before you, working hard to imitate the shape of that standardized style. Individuality can be admired, but only within the parameters.

Styles may be unique to the choreographer, thus not standardized. But the performing group usually works on copying and mastering that one style.
Is there a fixed choreography?

No. You make it up as you go along, often based on what the Follow is doing at the moment, and what occurs to the Lead spontaneously.

Both Lead and Follow engage in a highly active attention to possibilities.

Yes. Competitors usually perform choreographed routines that they have rehearsed.

An exception is Jack and Jill competitions, usually in WCS and Lindy hop, with a partner that one has not danced with before.

Yes. Exhibitions are usually choreographed and rehearsed. Furthermore group routines often have everyone dancing in unison.

But improvised exhibitions do exist, occasionally in swing, tango and blues.

Do you make your own decisions?

Yes, both Lead and Follow roles are continually engaged in split-second decision-making.

Usually not. Most decisions have been made by others, first in providing a syllabus of acceptable steps, then in choreographing the routine for you. You work mostly on style.

Not often. Most decisions have usually been made by the choreographers, and you work mostly on style.

Difficulty of technique

To state the obvious, competitive ballroom technique is designed for competitions. If dance technique is easy, judges won't be able to separate the good dancers from the very best. Therefore competitive ballroom technique is intentionally difficult, so that only the very best dancers can master it. It requires many years, and extreme focus, to master this technique. U.S. Ballroom Dance Champion Stephen Hannah said, "You must want to go to the very top and be the very best dancer. You must be able to use your time seven days a week without allowing any other influences to interfere."

Conversely, social ballroom technique is intentionally easy. Dance partnering is challenging enough as it is, to coordinate one's movements with another person. And most people want to dance with their friends as soon as possible. Therefore social dance technique is intentionally expedient, so that dancers can focus on their partners instead of intricate footwork.

A brief history of the three forms

For the first century of closed-couple dancing, only the first category of ballroom dance existed: noncompetitive social ballroom dance. This was the 19th century, the age of the waltz and polka, when "ballroom dance" meant precisely that – dancing in a ballroom.

An important part of the 19th century ballroom mindset, in both Europe and America, was selfless generosity, with an emphasis on enhancing the pleasure of your dance partners and the assembled company.

"In general manners, both ladies and gentlemen should act as though the other person's happiness was of as much importance as their own." — Prof. Maas, American dance master, 1871

"True, genuine politeness has its foundation deeper than in the mere conformation to certain rules, for it is the spontaneous and natural effect of an intelligent mind and kindly heart which overlooks annoyances in consideration for the happiness of others." — Edward Ferrero, American dance master, 1859

Another important part of the original ballroom attitude was a flexible mindset and adapting to your partner. The American dance master William 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 the whole."
Fred Astaire wrote, "Cultivate flexibility. Be able to adapt your style to that of your partner. In doing so, you are not surrendering your individuality, but blending it with that of your partner."

For most social dancers, this attitude of generosity, kindness and flexibility has never ceased, and continues to this day.

Exhibition ballroom dance came next. Performative social dance forms were occasionally staged in cabarets and Vaudeville at the end of the 19th century, but the performance of social dances for an audience mostly took off in the 20th century. Vernon and Irene Castle (pictured right) were foremost among professional dancers who started to perform social dances onstage, from 1912 to 1915. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers surpassed the Castle's fame and influence two decades later, through the medium of film. The tradition of performed ballroom dance continues today in many films, such as "Take the Lead" and Broadway shows like "Burn the Floor."

Competitive ballroom dance came last, growing out of the Sequence Dancing movement in the working-class suburbs of London, where hundreds of dancers would memorize choreographed waltzes like Arthur Morris' Veleta (1900). These expanded to include sequenced one-steps, two-steps, tangos and saunters (foxtrots).

Different populations of dancers in London had different preferences, and by 1914 there was a class division between those who preferred freestyle vs. choreographed dance. The upper classes in London preferred freestyle dancing, while the working class in the outskirts preferred sequence dancing, and would hold weekly balls where dancers would gather to learn, memorize and perform a rapidly growing number of sequence dances.

The next step was standardization. The creation and standardization of these sequence dances was controlled by several organizations which appeared at this time, most notably the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. Today's "International Style" (i.e. British style) ballroom dancing is overseen by the Imperial Society, which was founded in London in July 1904 for "The fraternal co-operation of properly qualified teachers of dancing in the British Empire for the safeguarding of our mutual interests" (quoted from their Charter). The original focus of these organizations was the standardization of steps, technique and style into only one "correct" version. Competitions didn't arise for another two decades.

A primary motivation of the middle classes is upward mobility. You can raise your position in life through the mastery of skills. The working class ethic embraced the mastery of sequence dances, which led the the Frolics Club and Queen's Hall in London to create the first judged competitions of ballroom dance in 1922, as a way to elevate one's social position through perseverance and hard work. This work ethic is still visible in competitive ballroom dance today.

Competition ballroom dance style

In the early years of competitive ballroom dance, the preferred English style was natural and understated. To quote the 1923 London dance manual, The Modern Ballroom Dance Instructor, "All movement is easy, unaffected, which can be so easily ruined by exaggeration. The best dancers are the quietest; they do not flourish their prowess." In other words, early competitions were simply exhibitions of the dance sequences, evaluated by judges, based on the values and aesthetic of polite social dancing.

See a more complete page on the evolution of English ballroom style here.

Then competitions introduced the format of the elimination round, where the competition began with a fairly crowded floor, filled with all of the competitors dancing at once. The judges thinned the crowd down to a few finalists – those to be individually evaluated. This change in competition format resulted in a dramatic change in the look of competitive ballroom dance. The dancers had to perform far more expansive movements, to stand out from the crowd. Extreme, exaggerated movements and costuming were a matter of survival, either outshining the others or being quickly eliminated.
To this day, these extremely expansive movements remains a distinctive stylistic difference between social and competitive ballroom dance.


Of the three forms, which one is best? It depends on you. Dancers usually have a preference for the one that especially suits their personality.

It's important to know the differences, for the following three reasons:

To recognize which form(s) best match your personality.

Dean Paton points out the differences in this page. (Click on the first article, "Before You Sign Up.") Dean believes there's an essential difference between social and competitive ballroom dance, and that different personalities are naturally drawn to one or the other. It essentially comes down to knowing yourself, and finding the right match for you. Quoting Dean, "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."

To avoid the unfortunate mistake of applying the rules and attitudes of one form to another. This isn't just an abstract differentiation — the repercussions can be serious.

For instance, occasionally a ballroom dancer will pedantically insist that his partner conform to competitive stylistic details at an informal social dance, "You're doing it wrong. You have to do it my way," resulting in the contradiction of antisocial behavior at a social event. (See more on the "Sketchy Guys" page.) Conversely, socially adapting to your partner's mis-step at a competition may eliminate you from that round. Both forms are equally valid, within their own arena, but they have almost opposite attitudes.

Some dancers do both social and competitive dancing, or all three forms, and some of them are wonderfully adept at knowing which attitudes are appropriate for each. At a social dance, they're friendly, spontaneously adaptive, and warmly supportive of their partner's differing style. Then they are rigorously correct and expansive when competing. They understand and respect the differences.

To sharpen your ability to spot deceptive marketing practices.

As the competition ballroom dancer Juliet McMains points out in her eloquent book Glamour Addiction, some (not all) ballroom studios attempt to change the minds of students who arrive wishing to learn social ballroom dance. She wrote:

Primarily because teaching competitive ballroom dance has proved to be so much more profitable than teaching social dance, the industry rhetoric implies that social ballroom dancing is merely poorly executed DanceSport. Students usually embark on a social dance program with the expectation that they will take a few lessons, learn how to dance, then leave the studio in a month or two. From a business perspective, studios and teachers are deeply invested in altering this plan. If a teacher can sell a student on competition dancing, their student will have to spend years taking dance lessons to master the difficult competition technique.

Very few students enter the studio as aspiring competitors. It is only through calculated encouragement by their personal dance teacher that new students are persuaded to enter categories of competition, initiating them into the DanceSport lifestyle.

Dance studios know that some of their customers are seeking easygoing social dancing for pleasure, not the daily hard work to master competitive styling, so some (not all) studios attempt to give the misimpression that competitive ballroom dance and social dance are the same thing. Quoting McMains again, "Such attempts to emphasize continuity between these two groups, and downplay the chasm between social and competitive ballroom dance, represents a crucial apparatus of the Glamour Machine."

Competitive ballroom dance is a perfect fit for those drawn to competing, so neither we nor Juliet McMains (who is a professional competitor) are criticizing competition ballroom dance, nor the many honest studios.

The point is that it's smart to be aware of the many differences:
Difficulty of technique

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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