Forty-five minutes. Only 45 minutes left before my round was to begin. I was frantic as I tried to put on mascara, gel back my hair, and stumble around in barely slipped-on heels to find a partner. There was a desperate scan through a list of names, a scurry about the area outside the men’s dressing room, and a terrible pounding in my chest.
Welcome to the world of competitive collegiate ballroom dancing!
My experience is common to most collegiate ballroom dancers. Sleep-deprived from a night’s trip to another college, most competitors are able to dance round after round only because they are so motivated to win (though caffeine usually works too). While at times draining, it is simply electrifying to dance. We keep doing it, dancing, striving for ribbons time and again.
A desire to win is not my only motivation for being part of this world. I enjoy ballroom dancing because it is accessible to people who have little dance background and because it is social. The collegiate ballroom community is a strong one—people from different colleges and countries gradually come to recognize each other at various competitions. Some we may remember as people we have danced with in the past, while others may have left an indelible impression of their talent—I even encountered a Singaporean friend from high school at one of these competitions. Regardless of how we identify these people, there is a sense of community that is created because of a common passion, a shared experience, a bond established through dance. Unlike many other dances, ballroom dancing requires connection between two people. This isn’t something that can be honed through practice—it requires trust in one’s partner.
Often, this trust has helped me break down the barriers that stand between me and another person. I experience this when I have to find a stranger to partner me at competitions—I currently have no long-term partner—but even more when I am dancing in more social contexts, such as in salsa bars. In such places, as a lady, I have to wait for a man to ask me to dance. The moment I take his hand, I have to trust him to take care of me—to make me spin without tipping over or to do an underarm turn without crashing into another couple.
This often requires me to ignore any prejudices I may have against people based on initial impressions. It requires me to ignore how they look, dress, and even smell. (Believe me, smell is very relevant on the dance floor, especially if it’s not well-ventilated.) In fact, it can even bridge gaps in language or culture. With trust established through the physicality of dance, I have little trouble accepting social codes that I may not have grown up with, be it a kiss on the cheek or an awkward bow. I have even danced with people who do not speak a word of English, and yet, through dancing, have been able to laugh with them.
Ultimately, ballroom dancing shows me the power of art to bring people together and create communities. It is fascinating how one does not really have to enter this twirling world with any deep understanding of dance and its aesthetics—one simply has to enjoy it, and be brave enough to trust others so as to make something beautiful.
Joanna Lee is a first-year in Columbia College from Singapore. Found in Translation runs alternate Fridays.