At Ballroom Dance Chicago, we’re constantly examining and exploring our roles as dancers, teachers, and inspired individuals in the lives of our students and the wider Chicago community. To deepen and expand our understanding of these roles, we’ve taken to individually writing and sharing our responses to some of the principles we’ve devised to guide Ballroom Dance Chicago.

What are Ballroom Dance Chicago’s dance standards for students?

Matthew Sove:
While we are well aware and trained in the traditions of formal ballroom and Latin dance, we do not necessarily adhere to these “standards.” We’ve found that the traditional dance studio syllabus is a great way for students to approach dance if they seek to go to a competition (because the competition uses patterns and standards outlined in the syllabus), but it is not the end-all-be-all tool for our purposes - getting students to be confident, expressive dancers who also look good on the dance floor. That’s a way more complicated task than just giving someone a series of steps and exterior standards by which to perform those steps.

Someone once told me a story about a monk who was given a plant, a small pine tree, by his master and was instructed to care for the tree, to help it grow as quickly and fully as possible. “How do I do that?” he asked. “By giving it water and sunshine,” said the master.

So the monk watered the plant daily and kept it in the sunshine and after a few months the plant had grown taller and fuller. And he felt confident in his abilities. He showed the plant to his master, who smiled with delight. “Since you have been so successful with the first plant, I will give you another to care for,” said the master. This time he gave the monk a flowering orchid and placed it next to the pine that had grown so full and instructed the monk to also take care of this plant so that it would grow as much as possible. The monk very confidently went about his daily ritual of watering and sunning the plants and treated the two equally, giving them the same amounts of water and sunshine. A month later he check on the plants and the pine had grown almost two fold, but the orchid had completely withered and turned yellow, dropping all it’s beautiful flowers. While the story goes on to explain how this lead to the monk’s enlightenment, for our purposes it illustrates the fact that no two students are the same, nor should they be treated the same. Each should be cared for and taught in specific ways to their wants and desires. All we really care is that each student thrives and strives to realize their best dancer-self.

Lydia Feuerhelm:
Unlike other dance studios, Ballroom Dance Chicago doesn’t adhere to a syllabus for teaching beginning students. That’s not to mean that we don’t have goals, standards, or methods of teaching. We just understand that people coming to our space are unique individuals with unique goals and learning styles, which is why we use the traditional steps/figures/concepts only insofar as they serve us. It would be silly if a restaurant served only one dish and ignored any requests for alterations or additions; in the same way, we think it’s silly that dance studios teach students in exactly the same way and measure each student against the same standards of a competition syllabus.

We understand that dance is a performative art form, and therefore, aesthetics must be considered, but in our opinion, it’s not really imperative that a couple just learning to dance for fun has perfect, competition-ready technique. Primarily, we focus on relaying the joy of moving together, instead of highlighting a purely aesthetic end goal. But then what is our rubric for success, if we’re not going for a particular ‘look’? How do we know when people are proficient? Our standards fall more on the emotional, rather than technical, end of the performance spectrum: 1) Are they having fun? 2) Do they look competent and connected? (“competent” is a huge range, to be discussed at a later time) 3) Can you tell they’re enjoying themselves while dancing? If yes to all three, then we know we’re on the right track with our teaching.

While many of our students strive to accomplish more layers of complexity than the three I’ve just outlined, we know that if those initial components aren’t in place, there won’t be any real growth in our student’s dancing. The joy of dancing lies deeper than the footwork, people; and that’s what we’re after.

Cathy Gilpin:
Our students come to learn for 99 different reasons, but to be regarded as a dancer with perfect technical execution ain’t one of them. While it is important for students to understand how dancing a “foxtrot” box differs from dancing a “rumba” box, we aren’t going to judge them on how well they are rolling from the inside of their foot while performing Cuban motion. Instead, we base their success on how they look and feel in the dance. We ensure that their dancing is influenced by the music they’re listening to, and we assess how well they can put that expression into their bodies. We’ve found that it isn’t particularly necessary for our students to perform things with perfect, standardized technique in order to accomplish this.

Our standard for dancing is simple. We expect our students to dance with joy and confidence to the music and in a stylized fashion that makes the most sense according to the particular song they're dancing to. That’s it. While there is a lot to be learned from the techniques taught in each particular style of dance, we don’t think that our students need to necessarily be bothered with all those minute details. As instructors, we know and understand the technique in order to cultivate a strong sense of what the dance feels and looks like. From there, it is our responsibility to interpret and share that information to our students in the way that makes the most sense to them, keeping in mind their specific goals and visions of success.

Read more of the BDC Credo.