Get Your Cha-Chas Out

Collegiate dancesport teams give nondance majors a chance to show their stuff.

Students competing in the BADC, held at Columbia University

It’s a chilly March night, but there’s plenty of sweat inside Columbia University’s Roone Arledge Auditorium. As music blares overhead, scores of college students—proudly sporting school jackets—crowd the perimeters, hooting, whistling and cheering, smartphones held aloft to record their teammates in action.

No, this isn’t March Madness. It’s the Big Apple Dancesport Challenge (BADC), hosted by the Columbia University Ballroom Dance Team. More than 584 competitors—dressed head to toe in sparkles, feathers and tails—flaunt their fox-trots, tangos, sambas and cha-chas over the annual two-day event. While some are amateur ballroom dancers, most competitors are college students representing 67 different schools—just a sampling of the country’s hundreds of collegiate dancesport teams. These student-run organizations are open to all skill levels and coached by professionals. For those with dance backgrounds, joining a college ballroom team can provide not only a fun outlet for their skills, but also valuable social and leadership opportunities.

 

Ballroom’s Learning Curve

Etta Iannaccone, a senior science, technology and society major at Scripps College, grew up dancing ballet, tap, modern and jazz in La Cañada, California, and admits it felt strange not going to the studio every day after high school. “I knew I wanted to keep dancing, but I wasn’t as committed to ballet anymore,” she says. “I decided to go another way, and that way was ballroom.”

Joining her school’s ballroom team also seemed like a great way to meet people. Indeed, Yuehwern Yih and Daniel Dilley, professional American Rhythm competitors and head coaches for Purdue University’s team, admit most students initially join for the social experience. “We have to trick them into learning the technique,” says Yih, whose team has performed on “Dancing with the Stars” and is ranked second in the nation.

Most college dancesport organizations are divided into different categories based on commitment level, from social dance classes to team practices. Iannaccone soon found herself practicing four nights a week, with her weekends spent either social dancing or competing at collegiate ballroom events.

Dancers compete within their skill levels, which range from beginner (called newcomer or pre-bronze) to very advanced or championship. Yih notes that while students with previous dance training usually excel, they have to start from the beginning. “You’re in heels,” she says. “The way you plié is different. In ballroom you bend one knee at a time, and it has to roll inward—that’s what makes that crazy hip action.” Plus, there’s a lot to learn. Dancesport includes two different styles: International, which is recognized worldwide, and American, which is similar but mostly limited to the United States. International Standard/American Smooth dances are characterized by formality and grace (think waltzes, flowing dresses and tuxedos), while International Latin/American Rhythm dances are faster and sexier (lots of hip action, short skirts). Some colleges also have a formation team, which performs group numbers.

A Hard-Core Hobby

Once bitten by the ballroom bug, many students become serious about it. Nonie Shiverick—an amateur competitor and Barnard College/Columbia University alumna who, along with partner Jason Seabury, took first in champion-level Smooth at the BADC—had never had a ballroom lesson before joining Columbia’s team. Her background in figure skating, ballet and jazz came in handy, however, and it wasn’t long before she threw all of her energy into dancesport. “I took every dance form I could at Barnard,” says Shiverick, who filled her electives with dance classes. She sought out private ballroom lessons, and while studying abroad in England she trained with world champion Standard dancer John Wood. Back home, weekends were spent traveling to competitions. “It’s like being on a varsity sports team,” she says.

Iannaccone devotes up to 10 hours a week to the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company, which competes and puts on independent performances. “Our performances are more theatrical—there are lifts, tricks, a bit of a story,” says Iannaccone, who serves as CCBDC’s president. Dancers on the tour team, who are the most advanced, also have opportunities to coach other members. “It’s a good way for them to spread the knowledge that they’ve learned and have a chance to choreograph,” she adds.

Leadership Opportunities

Since dancesport teams are student-led organizations, there are plenty of opportunities to develop business acumen. Most schools host their own competition, which often requires months of planning. Shivrat Chhabra, who graduated from Columbia’s chemical engineering department in May, served as this year’s competition chair for the BADC. Not only did he and his committee have to book a venue a year in advance, they had to organize housing, raise funds, secure sponsorships and negotiate guest artist contracts. The experience gave his resumé an edge. “I spent half of one job interview talking about putting this event together,” says Chhabra.

“I developed a lot of skills that will help me long after I stop dancing,” says Iannaccone.

Shiverick, who co-chaired the 2012 BADC, agrees. But while students develop valuable leadership skills, the dancing is what keeps them coming back. Since graduating, Shiverick continues competing full-time as an amateur; she and Seabury are among the top Smooth couples in the Northeast. “I’m currently looking for a job that is satisfying as a career but will still allow me to ballroom dance,” she says. “When I think of my life without ballroom, it just seems kind of empty.” DT

 Photo by Joseph Pasaoa, courtesy of Shivrat Chhabra

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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