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Gaining Perspective

Learning Formation

By Joel Torgeson

We’ve almost certainly all seen them at one point or another, drifting or snapping from one move to the next, all in synchronization. Their outfits match, their smiles are on, and they are certainly there to perform, with lifts, dips, and tricks all around. But a question nagged my elitist mind and me: is that really ballroom dancing? Something about doing elaborate choreography and only dancing to one song seemed to rub me the wrong way. And could they dance socially? Do the leads lead and the follows follow? And how do they fit into the broader dance community?

Formation team dancing is absolutely ballroom dancing. First off, there are leads and follows. Partner dancing, in a very basic sense, is two people dancing as one, and ballroom certainly falls under the partner-dance category. “What about the choreography?” I asked. Well, look at the top-level dancers in all categories and styles. It’s about 90% choreography on a good day, especially smooth, rhythm, and Latin. Standard has its frame, so I’ll give it a slightly better shot at being lead-follow.

But then, what do I mean by lead-follow? Are lead-follow and choreography mutually exclusive? Here is where things get a little interesting. I’ve spoken with several dancers, mostly social ballroom dancers or west coast swing dancers, who say that lead-follow and choreography are not compatible. When talking with formation team members, however, they stressed that while both parties know what move is about to happen, they work on properly leading and following it, because often the move simply does not work if you don’t lead.

Think about it this way: could a follow lift herself without a lead? Certainly not, and any attempt would certainly look off. This holds true, to varying degrees, for every move on down to the basics. Ballroom dance has a certain look and feel, and that comes from the nature of leading and following. The best formation teams also tend to be those with the best leads and follows, as it turns out. There are some things about connection, initiation, counterbalance, etc. that you simply cannot get away with faking.

From a purely anecdotal standpoint, I have, on occasion, found formation team follows more difficult to lead, but only when formation was their only major ballroom experience, or they were relatively new to dance in general. I’ve also danced with some amazing formation team follows, and I’ve seen incredibly competent formation leads. There really is little correlation to be seen.

So where do formation teams fit into the community? As with many things, it depends on the individuals and the team itself. Teams are often coached by professionals, sometimes with those same professionals performing with the group. Some people only dance formation, while others are social or competitive dancers who also partake in formation dancing. Some teams coalesce for particular performances only, while others compete year-round and are very exclusive (search “Brigham Young Formation” on YouTube and be amazed). It really does depend.

In general, I see formation teams as basically like a new style of dance. Think of it as the broad counterpart to smooth/standard/rhythm/Latin that also happens to draw heavily from those styles. Formation teams do many things that singular couples do, like basic actions and lots of technique, and they also do some things that a couple can’t (see that Brigham Young video). At the end of the day, neither one is better than the other, and I, personally, am just happy to have more dancing to watch!

In case you were unaware, the ballroom community in and around the Twin Cities contains several formation teams. The St. Olaf Ballroom Performance Team is the only local collegiate formation team I am aware of, and there are a good many adult teams as well, including Beyond Ballroom Dance Company (not always formation, but for my purposes I will count it), Rhapsody & Rhythm, Dancers Studio Formation, and Cinema Ballroom’s Formation team, to name a few. Note that I did not speak with members from all of these teams when writing this.

Lastly, on a more personal note, I would like to thank both of my wonderful competition partners for this year! At our most recent ballroom competition in Michigan, I was lucky enough to place in ten out of my thirteen events, the highlights being a first-place finish in bronze smooth waltz/tango with Tijen Petersen and a second-place finish in silver rhythm swing/mambo with Rosemary O’Connell. It’s been a pleasure working with both of these lovely ladies, and I must thank them again for making my shoddy (though consistently less shoddy over time) leads look like something presentable on the dance floor.

I hope to see you dancing!