Borderstan contributors-editors Michelle Bradbury and Mike Kohn competed Sunday at USA Dance’s 2011 Mid-Atlantic Championships in Bethesda. Several Borderstan team members were on hand to cheer them on at the ballroom dance competition (they do not dance together). Mike and partner, Sara, took 5th place in the Adult Novice Latin category.
Here’s what Michelle and Mike have to say about ballroom dancing — and what it takes in terms of time and skills.
Borderstan: How long have you been ballroom dancing?
Michelle: I have been dancing ballroom for the last two-and-a-half years. I got started through school my freshman year. But I did ballet and jazz for seven years before college.
Mike: I’ve been ballroom dancing for seven years now. I started when I was a freshman in college and I got hooked — I’ve been dancing ever since. At the beginning it was more about social dancing and having fun with my friends, but I slowly got more and more into competing, which I do about once every two months or so in a full year.
Borderstan: How often do you compete? What’s the prize for winning?
Michelle: My partner and I currently compete three to four competitions per semester, so somewhere between six and eight a year. But, we don’t compete in the summer because we aren’t in the same state and can’t practice together.
At some competitions the prize for coming in first is a scholarship if that event is sponsored. Often times, making it to the final is an indicator as to whether or not you are ready to be moving up to the next level… placing several times in a row is a pretty good way of knowing that you are ready for the next step. But you don’t have to be number one to make that decision.
Mike: For me, the “prize” of winning has always been an intrinsic one: knowing that I’m getting better, having validation from a judging panel that I’m improving and generally loving being out on the floor. At the highest level, there are some scholarship awards in the competitions that I attend, but they tend to be just enough to offset the cost of registration for the event with a little leftover, not enough to earn a living.
Borderstan: Where and how often do you rehearse for a competition?
Michelle: My partner, Alex, and I practice with our team for about six hours a week, give or take, and we take lessons on top of that. Weeks that we have multiple lessons we can practice up to nine hours and we always try to work in some extra time in the weeks leading up to the competition.
The week before is the only real “competition” practice where we work on stamina and running a lot of rounds rather than focusing in on larger issues and really working on a particular routine or part of one. Practice is pretty much constant and even the week after the competition is spent preparing for the next one.
Mike: There’s never an end point in dancing (or with anything, really), so we don’t prepare for one competition. I look at the competitions as more of a snapshot in time — this is where we were at that point, and we can gauge our improvement since then. But as far as rehearsal goes, we practice together three to four times per week for about two to three hours at a time.
On the off days, I try and practice by myself for about one to two hours. Our main practice locale is the Chevy Chase Ballroom in Friendship Heights (which offers great beginner classes!). I also spend some time working with the team at The George Washington University in Foggy Bottom and the Ballroom at Maryland team in College Park.
Borderstan: Any tips for people interested in taking up ballroom dancing?
Michelle: There are a lot of great ways to get involved in ballroom, especially in the D.C. area. You can look for social dance nights. There are a lot of great professionals that teach group lessons — these are a great way to really learn a lot in an environment that is a little more informal. I guess I would say group classes are the best way to learn and social dance nights, especially the ones that will have a lesson beforehand, are a great way to become a part of the ballroom community and practice.
Mike: Don’t be afraid to mess up. I know I did plenty of that when I first started — and to be honest, I still do. Part of the fun is figuring out how to do it right and then building that into your muscle memory. And for anyone who says they have two left feet, I’ll tell you that I was never coordinated when I picked up dancing. My friends from high school still can’t believe I’m the same person they watched walk into walls and trip up the stairs. But, practice, dedication and enthusiasm won out. So get out there and have a great time!