San Diego, California

More Than Two To Tango: Inside the world of Russia and ballroom dancing

I was on YouTube earlier last year and found a video of a couple dancing at a world championship for ballroom dancing. Little did I know at the time, I was watching the top ballroom couple in the world, Yulia Zagoruychenko and Riccardo Cocchi, dancing to the fast paced rhythm of a hit Queen song. Ever since watching that one performance, I have been mesmerized with the competitive arena of dancesport.

I had stumbled upon a world where sport and music intertwine, where fake tans and sequins make all the difference in getting an edge in the semi-finals, and where men are considered the leaders. After over a year of being immersed in this environment, I seemed to forget how different dancesport was from other sports.

As a whole, dancesport incorporates critical thinking, partnership dynamics, and awareness of music, all while attempting to move across the floor with the correct technique. One thing I have learned about dancing is that mainstream forms and notions of dancesport lack the complexity and attitudes that are present in the intensely competitive arena of ballroom dancing.

Cultural Collision

Sports, especially ones played at the high school level, have a distinct culture that surround them. Dancesport has a similar unifying factor among competitors, but extends into a deeper way of life for dancers. For example, dancers from Eastern Europe have a natural inclination toward pursuing dance from a young age due to the strong cultural connection to the sport. From this early stage in their lives, it is one of the only aspects they focus on. This is especially due to the immense volume of dance studios in this region of the world and how many universities are dedicated to sport-centered curriculums, such as the National University of Physical Education and Sport in Ukraine. Also, due to the fact that their parents and relatives belong to a long bloodline of ballroom dancing, the younger generations tend to gravitate towards this path more.

Because of the European competitors’ drive to achieve higher levels in dancing, most seek to immigrate to the U.S.. Take my partner Dmytry, for example. He immigrated to the US from Ukraine when he was 16 years old in order to further himself in the competitive realm of dance. He left his family behind, forcing him to acclimate to a new culture all while trying to learn to speak English and improveing his dancing.

Studios in the U.S. and in local areas have emerged as products of these immigrants’ search for a better opportunity. These establishments have manifested themselves to further the idea of ballroom as a cultural touchstone for the European immigrants, especially that of the Russian-Jews. As a result, national and local studios in San Diego and the competitive teachers that they employ are also bringing back the American culture that used to heavily feature and revere ballroom dancing, which was prominently seen in the form of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing “cheek-to-cheek” on the silver screens.

Moreover, a large portion of these immigrants, some of them refugees, have been shaped by the culture of the former Soviet Union, which restricted varying social aspects such as religious observance. Therefore, they had to find an alternate way to form a community among their people. With this in mind after immigrating to the U.S., they brought the idea of forming large groups of people from their culture that revolved around this activity in order to establish a network of relationships among themselves. Their serious intentions help them focus on this sport as a necessity and as an intrinsic part of their lives. Many It is possible that high schools and universities in the U.S. do not find the need to include ballroom dancing as a sport since they simply do not have as many students with the same cultural aspects that value and prioritize dancesport. American culture, and especially that within the school systems place emphasis on the sports that are played seriously at the collegiate level and those that are considered Olympic sports.  

“[Russians] approach dancing as a sport, like we approach baseball or football. Their box of Wheaties should have a picture of a dancesport athlete on it," says the Vice President of U.S.A. Dance Ken Richards in an interview with NPR.

My Experience

My interaction with this sport was originally intended to be for a brief amount of time. The only reason I decided to begin ballroom dancing was for Independent P.E. credit. I did not want to overly commit myself to a school sport due to my other extracurricular activities, so I thought social dancing would be the right fit as an activity I would briefly pursue.

As I became more and more in tune with the steps and technique, I began to enjoy dance and view it more as a potential hobby. I still, however, remained a bit distant because I was the only person under 30 years old at the studio. School sports allow for students to interact with their team members and relate on the same level, whereas the studio environment lacked this type of experience for me.

As I began to progress in the basics of dance, I had realized after being introduced to Yulia and Riccardo that possibly there was another side of dance that would interest me more. I also was interested in the benefits that would result from a heightened regimen of the sport. According to BioMed Central, this includes the strengthening of neural pathways due to the rapid fire decision making that occurs in practicing the routines and improving memory.

I prepared myself for my first competition last summer and ranked high among the competitors. However, I still wanted to push myself and be able to participate in competitions that were on a more open circuit, one that professionals in the dance community internationally recognized. This opportunity presented itself when I found my partner Dmytry. The studio he belonged to had a more strict environment since it was more competitive-centric. The transition from an American-based studio to that which was surrounded by the Russian culture was intimidating. I felt as if I could not live up to such strict standards that were imposed on the dancers that have been there as long as they have been walking. Being there in that environment felt like I was in an entirely different country. It was difficult to remain and train in this studio, but my drive to compete was stronger than my desire to leave.

Come February, I had the opportunity of competing in my first widely recognized and nationally sanctioned competition: The California Open. After months of practicing with Dmytry, I was afforded the experience of being able to witness the top dancers in the world compete, which had only previously played out before me in a tiny rectangular square on Youtube. Once arriving to the venue, the feeling was surreal. Numerous couples, with some of the female competitors dawning Swarovski crystals and others feathered dresses embroidered with the names of their sponsors, and men wearing perfectly tailored tailcoats, filled the hallways outside of the competition floor. Each of the couples vigorously rehearsed their routines that they had been practicing for months. In that moment, I realized how meaningful the sport was for these competitors, not only in the sense of winning but also as an outlet for expression.

The next morning I competed and ranked first place in the 10 Latin dances that I performed. Being out on the same floor the professionals were on the night before, I finally felt as if I belonged to a greater movement of reviving a declining art for most Americans.

With this competition behind me and with possessing an enhanced mentality towards the sport, I set out to compete at the San Diego Ballroom Beach Bash. Again, I trained with Dmytry to refine the routines and have precise timing on each of the steps.

On competition day, I felt even more exuberant to be competing, especially in San Diego where it is difficult to find large scale events that promote the sport. Filled with With this excitement, I went onto the dance floor and experienced a feeling of fulfillment. To a certain extent, I had joined the ranks of world class dancers who have dedicated their entire lives to dancesport. Although I was not performing the same routines the professionals did that night, I was a part of the commitment and effort that they had put into showcasing the legacy of the sport.

(Quick)Stepping into The Future

If dancesport were recognized as an Olympic sport, it would be difficult to tell if that would make more people recognize how powerfully unique it is. With renowned events like the Blackpool Dance Festival and the World Dancesport Federation Grand Slam, hopefully that will keep dancesport alive in the minds of people who do not directly participate in it or observe the classical form of the sport.

Although the more well known forms of dancesport such as Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing with the Stars may garner more viewership, maybe that could at least lead people to find the hidden and complex world of dance that I recently discovered. I hope to pursue the sport in college and possibly dedicate more time to it after college and professionally compete on the side. Who knows, maybe someone will find me on Youtube performing in the future to a contemporary classic and be inspired to be a part of the world that I know and love.

(Photography courtesy of Jeff Comunale) 

Breanna C.