It's Not Like Dancing With The Stars: The Ins and Outs of Real Pro-Am Ballroom Competition

This article compares ABC's Dancing With The Stars with its inspiration, real-life pro-am competitive ballroom dancing. It describes the practices and features of pro-am competition, highlighting the contrast between the real and TV versions of the sport.

Have you ever wondered where producers got the idea for ABC’s smash hit show, Dancing With The Stars? Well, the show’s competitive format is loosely based on an actual practice called pro-am dancesport (a term which designates competitive, as opposed to social, ballroom dancing). In pro-am, student dance enthusiasts compete against each other across various national competition circuits, partnered by their professional teachers--hence the term pro-am, as each such couple includes a “pro,” and an “am.” Aside from this basic structural feature, however, the two are completely different animals. So, you might ask, just how does real pro-am competition differ from what we see on TV? 

It's Expensive

One important distinction is that DWTS’s celebrity contestants are paid to be on the show. Most are initially offered a base salary of $125,000.00, and then negotiate for bonuses depending on their popularity and length of tenure on the season (www.dwts.org). In contrast, regular dancesport amateurs (by definition) do not get paid, but instead spend a good deal of money on weekly lessons and periodic coaching. A 45-minute lesson will run you anywhere from $50-100 depending on your geographic area and the credentials of your teacher. In a coaching session, you are paying both your teacher and the coach, another competitive pro. Student dancers also must buy their own costumes and shoes, and females often pay professionals to do their hair and makeup.

It's Not Just You and Your Teacher

When attending a competition, it is customary for the students who are competing to share the costs of their teacher’s travel expenses and lodging. Unlike the celebrities on DWTS, as a student, even a competitive one, you will not have your teacher all to yourself. You must share your teacher with all his or her other students, and sometimes with a professional, competitive partner as well. You will have your private lessons maybe once or twice a week and otherwise must be willing to practice for hours on your own to master your routines. At the competition, you will dance with your teacher when it is your turn, and when it is someone else’s moment in the spotlight, you are expected to root and cheer for them in a spirit of good sportsmanship. The competition charges amateurs a fee for each dance (or “heat,” in competition parlance) entered, and the teacher also charges the student for each dance (the teachers are working, after all). This all makes for an expensive hobby. It is a testament to the sport’s popularity that so many continue to participate with enthusiasm in spite of the expense!

 It's Fair

Whereas on DWTS a diverse group of celebrities from teenagers to octogenarians, male and female, across a wide variety of experience in the entertainment world are pitted against each other, in an actual dancesport heat the playing field is somewhat more level. Real competitions are broken down by age, gender, and skill level, so that competitors are only being compared with others like themselves. In a live dancesport heat, the judges are all former competitors. They are not seated on a dais far away from the floor, but patrol the sidelines with clipboards, watching attentively and noting flaws (or excellence) in footwork, technique and performance. Experienced competitors will often vie for a spot as close to the judges as possible in order to capture their attention, thereby gaining an advantage over the other couples on the floor.

It's Long-Term

It should be noted that ballroom dancing is much more difficult than those celebrities make it look! What we see on television is an idealized version of pro-am competition. Although exhilarating and glamorous, to be performed well and look good, dancing requires great physical control and a lot of exhausting practice of intricate techniques. You may have noticed that most of those who finish in the finals on DWTS are  1) young, 2) either show biz professionals or elite athletes who may already have a lot of experience with learning and executing choreography or hard physical training, and 3) already in top physical condition before they start (and this last usually improves over the course of the show). Most amateur competitors in the real world are middle-aged, middle class women and men with average bodies and other responsibilities including the jobs that allow them to indulge their passion for this hobby. It is not possible for them to practice eight hours a day, nor afford more than a lesson or two each week. Therefore, for most students it would take years (literally) of lessons and practice in order to pull off some of the advanced steps and lifts we see on the show. Real pro-am requires long term dedication and passion, and is focused more on technique and mastery of basic elements than dazzling stunts. Moreover, while DWTS celebrities memorize and perfect a single choreographed routine to a particular piece of music each week (perhaps two in some weeks), many non-celebrity amateurs juggle nine or ten different competitive routines at one time and dance them all within the same competition. They must be able to dance all of their routines spontaneously to unknown music. This is part of the challenge and part of the fun!

There's Nothing Quite Like It!

Given the expense, the difficulty, the frustration and frequent bouts of soreness and injury, why are pro-am dancers so uniformly and vocally passionate about their hobby? What keeps them coming back? In a word, it’s FUN! Most competitors will tell you about the thrill they feel as they walk onto the floor of an elegant ballroom, dressed, made up and coiffed to the nines, and hear their heat announced, “Couples please take your places for heat 143, Ladies B-1 Full Bronze Cha-Cha…” and so on. Unlike solitary forms of competition, the teamwork and dedication involved can foster a special bond of friendship between teacher and student. And nothing beats the sense of camaraderie you feel when you hear your friends cheering you on from the sidelines!

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