February 7th was my latest ballroom competition at the College of the Holy Cross. It’s the farthest one I travel to, an all-day affair though my partner and I only compete in American smooth and rhythm. Though I wouldn’t classify us as Silver dancers, there’s a time-out rule in certain collegiate comps: if you’ve danced in Bronze for more than a year and a half, you have to move up. So even though we’re intermediate Bronze at best, we registered for Silver.
In theory, this seemed like a good idea, a good way to practice with higher-level competitors. In practice, not so much.
American smooth started at 10AM. At 9:45, my partner and I ran-through our moves — that’s when a friend asked why we were dancing closed footwork. He explained continuous to us, a new basic which moves much faster and, as its name suggests, employs continuous motion quite different from our usual closed footwork. And you needed it to do well in Silver.
Fueled by horror and my competitive streak, I urged my partner to learn the new steps. We spent our remaining practice time trying to figure out this continuous footwork sorcery.
My partner and I belong to a small collegiate club. This differs from most competitive teams because we’re self-taught: a student president teaches the dances. We also pay our own comp fees and travel expenses as well as use our own outfits. Collegiate teams often have coaches, loaner dresses, and frequent practice sessions. My partner and I came from a club in which we were among the most competitive dancers; we had no one to teach us higher-level moves… or continuous.
My partner and I could’ve dropped out. But when the emcee summoned the Silver dancers to the on-deck area, we lined up with them. We chose to compete. We wanted to see it through. I think of it as an exercise in futility, a reminder that sometimes, things don’t work out. The rules don’t magically change to let us dance in Bronze again.
It’s a reminder that not everything is about winning.
As a high school tennis player, winning was the only thing I cared about. I was highly competitive and wouldn’t accept losing. On one hand, this made me very coach-able; I was always willing to hear pointers. However, it also gave me an unhealthy obsession with winning. If I wasn’t a professional tennis player, I wasn’t successful, and so I loaded the pressure on.
I saw other athletes do this, too. A classmate quit her sport because she wouldn’t be named captain. Others mentally checked out because they felt the competition was too steep for any success. We forget why we played sports to begin with: I convinced myself that I had something to prove. I devoted every moment to bettering myself at tennis.
And I failed.
I quit after high school. Even pick-up games became unbearable, reminding me of my failure, these memories I wanted to wipe away. It was a huge source of angst my freshman year of college.
But time passed; I grew up. I got over my obsession with winning. When I learned ballroom dance and decided to compete, I set my focus on what made dancing fun, not callbacks. So when I danced those foxtrot and waltz opening rounds, I was okay with losing. In fact, as soon as I stepped on the floor, the pressure vanished. We couldn’t wow the judges with our closed footwork. This dance was purely for fun — and that was relieving.
Even though we didn’t get any callbacks, my partner and I rocked six dances in Silver. It was some of the best dancing we’ve done with judges watching. We had fun. Yes, it was disappointing to get no callbacks. Yes, it was a long drive for very little dancing. But my goal as a dancer isn’t to be a professional. I’m not dancing so I can one day teach others. This is for me. I’m dancing for fun.
And losing in Silver, strangely enough, was just that.