I had saved my Physical Education classes required for my degree at Penn State for the final two years of my five year program. In my fourth year, I signed up for Beginner’s Ballroom Dance. It was a very popular class and therefore difficult to get into.
I had never had a dance class before. I had always loved watching dance, and wished it was something I was innately good at, but I was discouraged from all of the high school dances I went to. Grinding was the cool way to dance, but for some reason, it was not something teenage-Chandra was entirely comfortable with, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect from my Ballroom class.
The class was completely addictive for one reason which became very clear to me over time: the teacher. Jolene was a former French teacher who had studied ballet her whole life before being introduced to ballroom dance in college. She was organized, charismatic and not just passionate about dance, but passionate about teaching dance. She had a skillful way in making the class subtly competitive. She made sure to highlight the students who were performing the best in a way that made everyone else want to try harder. Under her leadership Penn State Ballroom dance had developed a reputation for success at competition and a cult following of students.
I couldn’t take Ballroom dance my second semester because I was studying abroad. I thought about it all of the time and was jealous of all of my beginner’s classmates who were learning more than me. I signed up for the Advanced Ballroom class for the first semester of my fifth year, and I wasn’t alone. My friend Jesús from my architecture program who I was in Rome with was taking the class with me.
In the Advanced Ballroom class you only work with one partner instead of switching partners throughout class. You also get to go to collegiate Ballroom competitions. Jesús and I were great partners because we were both competitive, we loved to dance, we had the same schedule, and we were great friends. There are five levels that you can compete in: Newcomer, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Champ, and Pre-Champ. These levels dictate which dance figures you can perform. Competitors are whittled down through four rounds of dance to the top 8 couples that perform in the finals. Judges rank the dancers from 1-8 and these scores are averaged to determine a winner. If you make it to the finals in a dance, it means you are probably ready to move up a level in competition.
In our first semester as partners, Jesús and I competed at the Newcomer and Bronze levels. At our first competition we were full of nerves, but managed to win a few ribbons. However, seeing some of our classmates perform better than us brought out our competitive sides and at our second competition, where we won all three blue ribbons for the Newcomer American-Style Smooth dances, and earned ribbons in most other dances we competed in.
In ballroom dance there are two styles: International and American Style. In International Style dance there are two categories of dances: Standard and Latin. The Standard dances include Waltz, Quickstep, Tango, Foxtrot and Viennese Waltz. The Latin dances are Cha-Cha, Rumba, Jive, and Samba. The American-Style categories are called Smooth and Rhythm. The Smooth dances are Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot and Viennese Waltz. The Rhythm dances are Cha-cha, Rumba, Swing, Bolero, and Mambo. The American style and International style dances are very similar to each other but they may differ in tempo, timing, and have different competition rules that exclude some figures.
In Jolene’s classes we were taught International Style, but we also competed in American Style at the Newcomer level, since the dances were so similar. I, perhaps biasedly, far prefer International Style, as it requires more technique and structure.
Because of our schedules, Jesús and I could not take the next level of ballroom dance, but we could repeat the level we had just taken. We were worried this would stall our progress, but as we started competing our worries disappeared because we were dancing just as good as ever. We started competing in Bronze and Silver and were ecstatic when, in our first competition dancing Silver Level, we made the finals for almost every dance.
Sadly our collegiate ballroom glory had to come to an end with graduation. And it would be sorely missed. Dancing made me feel like whole person. Before I started dancing there was definitely a void in my life, but the ballroom classes at Penn State gave me a physical hobby put me in touch with my body and brought me close to an amazing group of people who could all share dance with each other.
Since graduation Jesús has moved to New York City, and just today he e-mailed me to say he started doing Contemporary Dance. I moved to London, and have been taking beginner’s ballroom lessons again with my husband Jon, who has never danced before. Really he is too tall to be my parter (or I’m too short, depending on how you look at it I guess), and at first, going back to beginner’s classes was frustrating. However, just having dance back in my life and having a partner who is willing to dance with me has been making me very happy. While there certainly is no replacing Jolene or the environment for dance she created at Penn State, I feel lucky to have been introduced to a hobby I have such a love for at all and am excited to continue my journey with it.
Video’s of Jesus and I dancing are included below: