What Happened to Theatrical Ballroom

Theatrical Ballroom Dance has and always will be very close and dear to my heart, since it was one of the divisions that I competed and was a champion in. My partner David Van Hamilton and I also wrote a Theatrical syllabus in manual and video format.

Date added to ADN: Friday, May 13 2016
Originally Published: Friday, May 13 2016
By Susan Silva

Theatrical Ballroom Dance has and always will be very close and dear to my heart, since it was one of the divisions that I competed and was a champion in. My partner David Van Hamilton and I also wrote a Theatrical syllabus in manual and video format. I have taken a long time in thought and preparation before writing this article in the hope of shedding some lost light on a lost art. For many of you reading this article and even watching a Theatrical Ballroom competition what I am about to say will probably be very foreign to you. The word Theatrical by itself in definition in Webster's dictionary has some of the following meanings: "relating to the acting or presentation of plays, marked by extravagant display or exhibitionism, to be showy, spectacular." The word Ballroom Dance in definition states, "a social dance adapted to the modern ballroom and including couple dances in embrace position (such as the fox trot, tango, waltz, etc.)"

When I was competing in the Theatrical Ballroom Division in the United States Ballroom Championship the rules were that two pre-selected ballroom dances were given to couples months in advance of the competition for them to choreograph without the music. We were given the length of the music, and tempo. For instance I remember at one time we had Waltz and Paso Doble. There were six couples allowed on the competition floor at the same time, in those days we had at least a semi-final round before the final. So couples for sure had to know floor craft especially since lifts were involved. As the division progressed over the years, after dancing the two pre-selected dances, the final six couples were given a chance to also do their own individual solo routine to their own music. Scores were then tallied together to find the winner.

The NDCA rules state the following: "Theatrical events are those in which all couples dance at the same time to pre-selected music". Most Theatrical Competitions are not done like this anymore. It is rare to see a Ballroom Dance done with the beauty of lifts within the choreography as the individual solo routine, even in the Cabaret/Exhibition Division Theatre Arts Dancing was originally created many years ago by adapting lifts, drops, and techniques from Adagio, Ballet, Jazz, and Modern dance to enhance Ballroom Dances. These techniques were meant to add to the individual Ballroom Dance being performed, it was not meant to overpower it or actually remove the Ballroom Dance completely. It gave the opportunity to offer to a creative dancer whether professional or amateur more individual expressive choreography in conjunction with the standardized ballroom dances. In the syllabus that David and I wrote we took the different elements such as a lift or drop and adapted it to a specific Ballroom Dance. This brought a new dimension to the art of ballroom dancing that we knew as Theatrical Ballroom.

Theatrical Ballroom was never meant to be an acrobatic competition, a strength contest, or spin and win. Today, the beauty of this division has been lost. I recently spoke with one of the most prestigious Theatrical/Cabaret Judges, which I will not name here, who also was a champion in this division. His blunt comment on the Theatrical Ballroom/Cabaret division was: " it has become the worst Cirque Du Soleil". I also had the pleasure of being interviewed by Anton Gazenbeek, a world-renowned Argentine Tango dancer, choreographer, as well as historian and author. He has been compiling information for a new book for the last fifteen years on the lost art of Adagio and Theatrical Ballroom Dance; and has interviewed the world's most famous Adagio and Theatrical Ballroom teams. He has kept up with the changes in this dance form, and this is what his comment was, "Adagio, and Theatrical Ballroom, it's derivative in the ballroom competition world, used to always be based on romance. The music, movement, feeling and attitude of the dancers all worked in harmony to project a beautiful, loving experience shown through dance. In the 1990s, the Gladiator came to town and not only did the costuming change, so did the music, the character and the intent: it was libido over emotion, tricks above grace and the magic packed up and left town."

To be honest, I have to agree with the comments made above. To add to these comments what I am seeing today in this division is a contest as to what dance team has the most lifting strength, what team can stay in the air the most without touching the ground, what lady can split her legs the farthest apart in the air, which by the way is not a very pretty picture at all, and recently what men from a prone position on the floor can stand while lifting the lady in an overhead position. Are we trying to promote the art of Ballroom Dance or Acrobatics? What happened to the elegance of the Ballroom Theatrical Division, the feelings between the man and woman dancing while they interpret the music?

This is an excerpt from the Theatrical Ballroom syllabus that David Van Hamilton and I wrote on Musical Interpretation, "Music is the magic ingredient that unites the dancer's movements together and brings it to the performer's audience's enjoyment. By learning to execute the Theatrical Movements technically, musically, and with style, a magical excitement and energy is created within the dancer's whole body. The dancer must take the music and allow it to encircle him/her, carrying every movement to every part of their body. As a result, the dancers become totally in tuned with the music; this is the key that unlocks the entire presentation to something magical and truly Theatrical!"

Now I would like to address what constitutes the qualifications and credentials of a Theatrical Ballroom/Cabaret Judge? This is not an easy question to answer; yet I feel it needs to come to the light. I would like to go back in time and share with all of you my own experience, one in particular during the United States Ballroom Championships when they were held at Madison Square Garden many years ago in New York City. After all the couples had done the required two dance Theatrical Ballroom heats in the afternoon, where as I mentioned before six couples are on the floor at the same time, the six finalists came back in the evening and did their solo dances. David and I were in the finals, and that year did a very different type of piece that was based on the movie "Casablanca". We used some of the original music, and portrayed the characters even in costume. The judging panel was so wide spread on marks we got firsts and also sixth. This type of judging is still the same today, as we look at the recent Ohio Star Ball Professional Theatrical-Solo Exhibition division. In the last issue of Dance Beat it is quoted: "The scores were quite varied, however, and five of the finalists had at least one first place. That meant there were no majorities in the first place column." There were eleven judges in this event. My question is how many of these judges had ever studied, performed and competited in this style of dance or division? What qualification test did they take on Theatrical Ballroom/Cabaret Dancing and from whom have they gotten their credentials?

In this article I have mostly addressed the professional division of Theatrical Ballroom Dancing. Today very few students try to dance in this division because it has become far too difficult and does not relate to the ballroom dances they are taking lessons in. During the years I competed there were many students that had talent in other styles of dance like ballet that did compete and also perform solo routines in the Theatrical Ballroom division. My former partner David won the USBC championship in this division with his student Nicole doing a beautiful Theatrical Bolero.

Foundations are a key to success, and we have lost the beautiful art of the original foundation of Theatrical Ballroom Dancing and it's true beauty. Here is a saying I heard that takes thought: "We need to look behind us in order to see where we are going!" Perhaps the Ballroom Industry needs to take a closer examination of where we are headed in the future of Theatrical/Cabaret Dancing. At the progression we are seeing, this division will eventually die and disappear because it will no longer resemble Ballroom at all. My hope is that this does not happen!


Susan Silva is an NDCA National Championship Certified Adjudicator in all styles of Ballroom Dance plus the Performing Arts. Former Theatrical, Exhibition, and American Style Champion. Broadway, Television, and Film Performer, toured with the Beatles in the mid 60's, Author of a Theatrical Ballroom Syllabus, Choreographer & Lecturer. Available for judging, lectures, choreography, and coaching. Susan is also a Personal Dance Life Coach, certified and ordained to council people in all areas of life.

About the Author:

Susan Silva is an NDCA National Championship Certified Adjudicator in all styles of Ballroom Dance plus the Performing Arts...

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.

smalladnseal.png Contributing Member

Susan Silva
West Palm Beach, FL 33404