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W.T.F. is Ballroom Dance?

By Joseph Gotchnik

Dance? I believe that’s where one flails like a car dealership AirDancer only on certain occasions: high school formals, weddings, and while waiting in line for the bathroom--or so I once thought.

To start, I joined the UMN ballroom team this semester as an oblivious, yet curious, dancer with three or four left feet. The only knowledge I had of ballroom dance was from the movie Take the Lead (a 2006 film about a group of problem kids learning to ballroom dance), which gave me hope that anyone can start ballroom dancing. I knew it took two to Tango but I had no idea what a Tango was; so I knew nothing about ballroom dance.

That said, I still remember the first time I danced, UMNBDC’s Spring into Dance, as if it was only a few months ago. Those Cha-Cha and Rumba circles gave me the heebie dancies as follows one by one back led me with smiles and laughs at my attempt to move to “Smooth Operator.” My hands must have been unbelievably sweaty. Even so, it was a grand ol’ time, but I wouldn’t be coming back. Or so I once thought.

The following Tuesday I was at the rec center buying a climbing pass and decided to come to tryouts with a few nudges from Josh Dowell and Jackson Fossen. It was again those Rumba and Cha-Cha circles. The thrill of learning this new foreign language was exhilarating, but then it happened. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about: the twist.

“Cooooome on baby… Let’s do the twist” said Chubby Checker.

“Say no more Chubby” I thought to myself.

I love the twist because it’s the one dance I can actually do. The twist also spreads happiness like wildfire, and I don’t care if anybody disagrees. However, I have now learned that the twist is just a gateway to cuban motion—which is not easy whatsoever.

After twisting at tryouts, I figured I’d come to club lessons. It’d be useful knowledge to know a few moves, but there was no way I’d make the team. The next day I was skiing at Theodore Wirth with the Nordic Club. My headphones were in, and I couldn’t remember what song I was listening to (probably “The Twist”) when I received a phone call. Fumbling to take my poles off, I missed the call and the unknown number left a voicemail.

“Hey Joey, it’s Hannah from the ballroom team. I just wanted to congratulate you on making the team and I’ll see you tomorrow! PS your voicemail is pretty darn awesome.” I swear I laughed out loud because I thought either Josh or Jackson were playing some joke on me. Nope. The only joke was my actual dancing.

So I took the risk and never looked back. Up until college, athletics were definitely the biggest part of my life. I’ve learned more about dance than I ever thought possible in these past few months, but still haven’t broken certain habits—namely that leading with your head and sitting into athletic position does not fly well in ballroom dance.

There are plenty of similarities, however, like the mental game of tennis, or the fine details of a football play relating to a united Viennese Waltz going down a long wall. Touchdown or well-counterbalanced spin turn in the corner, it's all the same. It all stems from the “you get out what you put in” mantra, the old give and go.

On the other hand, the musicality of dancing left me in the dust. Whether it was “quick quick slow” or “get get go Joey” I still didn’t know. Trying to hit the one beat was like trying to find the right piece of hay in the haystack—and don’t even get me started on Samba or Bolero. Also, why is every follow able to hit it perfectly? On top of that, it’s pretty hilarious when I would ask someone how to improve my timing, in which they would respond “give it time.” But it’s true. With time, my timing has improved. I just wish they would allow me to wear a watch during competitions.

Overall, ballroom dance has really broadened my horizons both physically and mentally. Seriously amping up my wardrobe is one example. Traveling to Notre Dame for the first time was an all-around amazing experience, but Dance Fest was the perfect way to start my dance career—it blew off my Sunday shoes. From seeing the open levels compete, to competing in a great atmosphere, to a dance floor full of people doing the twist, it really confirmed my suspicions of continuing dance.

Although after reflecting on my newfound knowledge, I strongly believe it should be Waltz Twist Foxtrot—what a competition that would be. Maybe next year at Dance Fest? I guess I can only hope.

Anyways, I know most of the dances at this point (not that I can dance them), and even though I first asked “Waltz Tango Foxtrot is ballroom dance?” I can now confidently tell another that Waltz Tango Foxtrot (WTF) is ballroom dance. Period, not question mark.

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to improve my dancing, because I don’t even know what I don’t know. But that’s the beauty of ballroom dance (and life really)--there’s constantly new ground to be covered and one will never stop learning. I may have learned a lot from first questioning what ballroom dance even was, but the amount I still need to learn far outweighs the latter. And the best part? It’s so much fun.