The Dancer’s Journal: Demystifying the Language of Dance Competitions

by Katyusha Schaffer
Author, FADS Student Extraordinaire, and Amateur Competitor

You’ve told your Fred Astaire Dance Studio Instructor that you feel ready to do your first competition – CONGRATULATIONS!! You have a great conversation with him/her and come up with a plan to dance several heats in your current division, participate in championships and scholarships and do a few proficiencies. You smile in agreement and go on with the rest of your lesson. But on the way home from the studio you realize, you really don’t have a clue what you just agreed to despite the overview your instructor gave you! I remember my very first competition, I had no idea what “heats”, “proficiencies”, “divisions”, “championships” or “scholarships” meant.  I barely understood the difference between Jive and Swing, or American and International. I was flying by the seat of my pants at that first competition and I wasn’t as comfortable as I could have been. So I thought it would be helpful to explain some of these terms, and give you a feel for the language of ballroom dance competitions.

Levels – Levels are the categories in which you dance, and apply to both American and International style. The recognized levels at most competitions are Bronze, Silver and Gold broken down further into the closed or open divisions. In the closed division you are only allowed to dance the current curriculum of your particular level. These typically require you to be connected to your partner in some way. In open, you are allowed to step outside the prescribed curriculum and devise routines that suit you and your partner. Open Gold or Open is the highest division of pro/am competition. Most competitors dance in the Bronze or Silver levels although over the last few years there are definitely more gold level dancers. Levels are further broken down into relevant age categories so that someone in their sixties is not dancing against someone in their twenties. Age divisions are usually notated as A, B, C divisions.

Heats – Heats are the individual dances that the organizers have put together to allow everyone who has entered the competition to have an opportunity to dance against competition. Heats are divided into the various dance categories; American Smooth, American Rhythm, International Ballroom or Standard and International Latin. Over the years many competitions have added Argentine Tango as a dance category due to the high level of interest in this particular style.

Usually a heat has multiple couples of the same level, but not necessarily the same division. So in any particular heat there may be 10-15 couples on the floor dancing in the Silver level but they may be a combination of closed and open divisions. If you are dancing in a closed division, you are judged only against those in your heat who are dancing the same as you. Open division couples are judged against their open competitors only. Having a mix of divisions on the floor is a strategy to help keep the competition moving along.

The number of competitors attending the competition and the duration of the competition will determine the number of heats.  I have been to some competitions where there were less than 300 heats, and to others where there were over 1,000 heats.

In the old days after a number of heats had been completed, we would all stand around and have our places in every single heat announced and receive a little square ticket that said 1st, 2nd, 3rd or R (for runner up). With the advent of technology, the results of the heats are now computerized and a summary sheet of your placement is made available at the end of the categories or at the end of the competition.

Proficiencies – This category of heats are unlike other heats as proficiencies provide you an opportunity to have the judges look at your individual performance instead of judging you against other dancers. Proficiency scores are given as percentages. Proficiencies are done on the dance floor with multiple other couples, just like a regular heat. Many people like proficiencies because they feel less pressure in these heats.

Championships – Championships are a multi-dance event, meaning that you will go out on to the dance floor and dance Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot and Viennese Waltz one right after the other.  Depending on the number of people entered into a championship you might be dancing quarter-final, semi-final and finals, meaning that you could very well have 3 rounds of dancing in a row.   I have actually been in a championship/scholarship combination where I danced 24 dances in a row. Championships are usually done at the end of the dance category.  For example, after all levels and divisions of American Smooth have danced their heats, championships will follow.  Championships require you to compete in your age division as well as your dance level and usually precede Scholarships.  The big difference between heats and Championships and Scholarships is ladies and gentlemen in the same age and dance division compete against each other.  There are separate categories for men and women in heats.  Finalists are announced and medals given at the end of Championships.

Scholarships – Scholarships are a multi-dance event as well and they typically follow Championships.  Again, you compete against couples who are in your dance level and age division. Only this time, if you happen to take a 1st, 2nd or 3rd place you win a check and a medal! Scholarships usually draw the most competitors from the various divisions and levels. But again, these are danced immediately after Championships so be prepared if you are entered in both Championship and Scholarship to have your stamina challenged!

Each competition has its own unique brand that brings excitement and fun to it, and may run slightly different than what I have described. However, this is the general structure of most ballroom dance competitions. I hope this explanation of the language of competition helps remove some of the intimidation factor as you go to your first competition. You can also feel free to talk to your FADS Instructor about competition terms that may be unfamiliar to you. Whether you’re ready to sign up for your first Fred Astaire dance competition, or are taking that first step on your ballroom dance journey, get started today, at Fred Astaire Dance Studios. 

Good Luck! to all – Please write and tell us about your experiences. I can’t wait to hear about them!

Congratulations, Katyusha, our valued FADS Dance Blog Contributor, on the publication of her first book! Life Lessons from the Ballroom is about the lessons that moved a 53-year-old woman from a mediocre life, to a fulfilling adventure.  At the age of 53, Katyusha realized some harsh truths: her mental and physical health were in danger, and she needed to do something about it. Fighting low self-esteem, self-doubt and emotional eating, she took a leap of faith and started Ballroom dancing. As the saying goes, “art imitates life”, and ballroom dancing is no exception. While she was learning to dance she was graced with a period of life-insights that “allowed me to acknowledge my place in the world and provided me with a purpose in life.” Now, Katyusha brings those insights to readers in Life Lessons from the Ballroom.  In sharing these lessons with others, she hopes her readers will be inspired to listen to their hearts and create the life they long for. Find Life Lessons From the Ballroom on Amazon.com.