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To the beat, to the rhythm: Peering into competitive ballroom dancing

Under the floodlights, hand in hand, pairs take to the dance floor. On certain days, they hold each other close, hearts beating loud. On some, they glide across the expanse of the room, with one leading the other, twisting and turning together in long, elegant strides. And on others, they dance in a flurry to a high tempo beat.

Such is the nature of the world that ballroom dancing inhabits. It creates an electric atmosphere, where grace and power meld together into something so beautiful and daring. It’s only natural that so many would flock toward the art, with a few even daring to compete among one another on the dance floor. And yet, there are still many who are unaware that such a tantalizing world exists. Worse yet, there are those that fail to understand it properly, being dissuaded from it by preconceived notions and biases. Indeed, the world of competitive ballroom dancing deserves far better, for it has so much more to offer in terms of prestige and allure than meets the eye.

The keys to the craft

An understanding of the craft behind ballroom dancing is essential to being able to appreciate it, and Rosario Anna Araneta—a competitive ballroom dancer since 2007—is certainly someone who is successfully able to comprehend every cultured sway and leap the medium has to offer. According to her, the immense repertoire of dances in the realm of ballroom dancing falls into three main categories: social dancing, the Latin category, and a standard ballroom. “All of these, of course, have different sources or beginnings,” she explains. “But maybe in the last 20 years you know, federations have come up and have standardized a lot of [the steps and] the point systems for winning or for competing.”

There is also a multitude of facets that judges look at in competitions to gauge who dominates the dance floor, “One judge will now look at speed, one judge will look at partnering, one judge will look at timing, one judge will look at light and shape, meaning it’s not subjective anymore,” she says regarding the way competitions are judged.

Given the necessary conditions to achieve success in ballroom dancing, there is a gargantuan amount of effort and work that is required on the part of any aspiring dancer. Adrian Paurillo, an Economics student from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, used to grapple with this aspect on a regular basis, given that he used to compete in his middle school to early high school days.

“‘Pag pasok pa lang sa dance room, [we] have to make sure na maayos na kamimaayos ‘yung buhok ng mga girls, maayos ‘yung suot namin,” he says, reminiscing back to his training days. “Ayaw makita [ng] trainer o [ng] coach namin na parang [naka-slouch kami]…ang pangit tingnan ang posture.”

(Right when we enter the dance room, we have to make sure that we are ready. The girls’ hair has to be ready, our attires have to be ready. Our trainers and coaches don’t want to see us slouching.)

Based on his experiences, Paurillo stresses that discipline is absolutely essential to achieve successful training, while adaptability is key in meeting new people, working with multiple partners, and competing in various different environments.

Effort in elegance

As someone who became intertwined in the realm of competitive ballroom dancing at a young age, Paurillo looks back on when he was required to juggle both his dancing career and academic requirements at the same time. He recalls having to be at the dance studio immediately after a whole day of classes, an experience that led him to double down on the necessity of “intense body and mental discipline,” an ingredient crucial to attaining success in the field. 

Araneta echoes the sentiment, saying, “If you’re going to compete, you compete to win.” She reveals that there are other factors at play in competitive ballroom dancing and that the physical choreography of the dance is often not enough to secure a place on the podium. “It’s easy to dance, but it’s not easy to be in it to win it—not [everyone] has that mindset,” she conveys. The dynamic between partners on the dance floor often influences the persona that both individuals emit when dancing, resulting in a “give and take” relationship when in each other’s arms. 

Paurillo and Araneta are no strangers to winning competitions both locally and internationally, with both having raked in their own respectable collections of trophies and medals. Araneta estimates her trophy count to be at 50 and her medal count at a higher number than that. Paurillo cites that his most fulfilling experience in the field was when he was able to internationally compete as a Grade 8 student in Hong Kong, where he and his partner earned seven gold medals and one silver medal in differing competition dance styles. “It was a very fulfilling experience; for me, that was my biggest achievement because it was outside the country and at the same time, I bagged different [medals],” he shares. 

Although both personalities have made significant bounds and leaps across the proverbial dance floor of competitive ballroom dancing, there is still much to be amended in the way the field is perceived by their fellow countrymen. 

Correcting a step 

“[A major misconception is] that you have to be thin to win,” Araneta interjects wryly. She divulges that, if anything, as a woman who is neither thin nor muscular, she would like to be remembered as an inspiration to others on the dance floor. In a typical competition, the dancers’ mastery of the steps takes precedence over the intricacy of the choreography—meaning that Araneta and her partner usually choose to play it safe and use simpler, more graceful steps. “It’s very technical. So it’s not all interpretative dance,” she reiterates, highlighting that there is almost no improvisation in dancing and that they “plan everything”. 

On the other hand, Paurillo brings attention to a consistently heard fallacy: “There is also a misconception that wala namang pera diyan.” He expounds that the organizations that host prestigious ballroom competitions rack up large sums of money, especially when one wins a contest. But more importantly, he brings to light the fact that this passion is financially sustainable. 

(There is also a misconception that there is no money to be gained from it.)

Paurillo goes on to say that currently, the competitive ballroom dancing industry in the Philippines needs more exposure, calling the dancesport genre “underrated”. He laments the fact that it isn’t as well-supported as other sports or dance genres, and voices out his concerns about the wasted potential in the Filipino youth.

“There is a lot of potential in the Philippines, it’s just that the funds that they have [are] not enough,” he says ruefully. Paurillo hopes that one day, the country will be able to achieve the reputation that they are aiming for in the expertise of competitive ballroom dancing.

Deserved appreciation

Much like Paurillo, Araneta agrees that with the right support and attention, Filipinos would greatly excel in this specific industry. She notes the importance of new blood in the field, saying that she envisions more children being familiar with ballroom dancing, and eventually falling in love with the dancesport as she did. For those who are already involved in the dancesport, Araneta greatly encourages them to be serious in their pursuit and to always exert effort. “Practice is the mother of skill,” she quips. 

Undoubtedly, these graceful athletes exert a certain power, strength, and elegance that no other could pull off. There is no time like the present to give them the attention and recognition they deserve—no matter how overdue.

By Angel Peña

By Westin Perez

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