BY BETTE ANNE DUFFY
You may know me. Or maybe you don’t. I’m best known as “BA,” but my parents know me as “Bette Anne Duffy,” and I’m here to tell you about life as a competitor. If you know me, you know I compete. A lot. If you don’t know me, let me tell you that I have been a serious competitive amateur from the Buffalo Grove studio for the last 7 ½ years. I have competed at 57 competitions. Regional, National and Independent, I’ve done them all. I have been a national champion. And I have been an “also-ran.” I do it because I love it. I’ve learned quite a lot in my competitive history, and I’d like to share some of that learning with you, in the hopes that my experiences can help make yours more rewarding.
1. Are you there for yourself? Or are you part of a team? I’ll start with the most controversial. The answer is yes, on both counts. You have spent time, energy and money to get yourself to a competitive level. And you need to do everything in your power to perform well. You want to win. And you should. But you are not alone. You are part of a team. Your fellow dance partners are there doing their very best alongside you. They are your friends, even though they might be competing against you. They deserve your cheers, accolades and support. While you are competing as an individual, don’t lose sight of the fact that every placement, every entry, scores points for your studio and your instructors. If you cheer for others in your studio, they perform better, just like you do, and you all have an opportunity to make YOUR studio TOP STUDIO. You and your fellow competitors have the opportunity to make your teachers TOP TEACHER, which is money in their pocket that they so rightfully deserve. So, if you’re not competing, get your butt in the ballroom, and cheer on your teammates. That makes a WORLD of difference for everyone involved.
2. Ladies: Learn how to do your own makeup. This is the fun part. Set aside an hour or more before you need to be in the ballroom. Have fun playing with all the colors. Go crazy. Do things you’d never do in your normal life. Make it fun. Go over the top. Practice. Ballroom is the first and only place I’ve ever used orange glitter eyeshadow. Do it. Play. That’s what it’s all about.
Aside: Learn how to put on your own eyelashes. Competition eyelashes are easy to do; they are so big that they almost put them on themselves! Don’t be intimidated. I buy mine in bulk on the internet, and they are really cheap, so it was easy to learn and make mistakes. An added bonus: once I learned how to put on competition eyelashes, the street-worthy lashes from MAC/Sephora were a breeze, and I use them often in day-to-day life.
3. Hair? No worries. Just get it done. After almost 60 comps, I have to admit, I cannot do my own hair. I have ONE comp hairstyle that I can do myself, and I use it in a pinch. It’s boring, but it will suffice. ALL comps have an opportunity for you to purchase time with a professional that can do your hair. It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to get your hair done. Don’t rely on your partner; he has other things to worry about. If you can’t do it on your own, find someone who can. YOU have to make the appointment. It will cost you $50-$75, depending upon the comp and the stylist. You can sleep in it if you want. (If you do choose to sleep in your hair, buy a satin hairnet from Sally’s. You will look like your grandmother, but no one will see you as you sleep, and you can save money and time the next day). Hair is INCREDIBLY important. Competition is all about impression. If you are a competitive lady, you need to be PERFECT from the moment you step onto the floor.
Aside: I learned something vital from a trusted mentor of mine, and I will share: Ponytails are cool. They look amazing. But they do you a disservice on the floor. They slow you down. You can have the fastest spins on the planet, but your ponytail spins slower than you do, and it will make it look as if you are spinning at half-speed. Unless you think you can spin faster than the greatest of pros, forego the ponytail! For this reason, I have NEVER competed in a ponytail, and I never will, although I really, really want to. GRRR…
4. Trust in your partner. Your professional FADS dance partner is an incredibly unique human being. They are not a FADS professional because they have nothing better in their lives to do. They are sought after by other studios throughout the country. Why? Because they not only know how to teach; they are also incredibly well versed in how to showcase YOUR talents. They position you on the floor from the moment you take your first step from lineup. They are there to make YOU look the best you can possibly look. Trust me when I say this: I have seen hundreds of professionals simply “go through the motions” with their amateur partners in competition. Those pros look bored while they are dancing. They don’t even cast a glance in their partner’s direction. I can tell you with the greatest certainty I have that if you are dancing with a FADS pro, that pro is fully engaged with you while you are on the floor. They are connected to you, they want you to succeed, and you will score higher than the average bear. So, even though you may be nervous, look at them. Dance with them. Connect with them. They are putting themselves out there for you. Return the favor.
5. No jeans in the ballroom. I know it sounds crazy. And sometimes I hate it. But FADS competitors are known for their class. And jeans, no matter what color or how “couture” they are, are not appropriate. Jeans are never appropriate for a FADS competitor in the ballroom at any time. This rule doesn’t hold true for other competitors at an independent comp, but we are not your average competitor. We are FADS, and we always present ourselves a “step above.” In my experience, you can NEVER be too overdressed in Ballroom. If you have any doubt, overdress, and you will represent FADS (and yourself!) well.
6. Sleep? Who needs it? Know this going in… You may get a bit of sleep at a regional competition. But once you hit Nationals or Independents, consider sleep a luxury. Mark my words: you will be up at 4AM for hair and makeup (if you’re lucky), on the dancefloor at 8AM, and you will most likely dance til after midnight. If you are going to travel, sleep up ahead of time, and take your psyche back to the days of college. There is no sleep for the wicked. And the wicked are the ones that dance the best.
7. Coaching. My opinion is to take EVERY coaching opportunity you are offered. Your coaches today will be your judges tomorrow. And while judges have to live by a set of rules and pro-formas, it is in your best interest for those judges to know who you are. Meet them. Make friends with them. They will become your choreographers and assets in competition. While they will always be duty-bound to select the best dancers on the floor, they will know who you are, and they will take the 6 seconds they have to look at each of the couples on the floor, and they will recognize YOU.
8. Stage lights change everything. When you compete, you are the equivalent of a Tony-Award winner on stage in New York City. Lights are on you. And, most likely you are showing more skin than you are accustomed to. When the stage lights are on, you MUST be tan. You can be tan naturally (if you naturally tan DARK), or you can have a manufactured tan. Men: get over yourselves, and put some bronzer on your face and chest. Ladies: invest in spray tanning or bed tanning at least a week before a comp. There is nothing more unsettling than seeing a competitor on the floor that is as white as a ghost. And no matter how many hours you may have spent at the pool, once you get under stage lighting, you need to be more tan than is ever acceptable in normal day-to-day life. Tan for competition is probably 2x more than you’ve ever been tan in your life. It’s not normal, and your friends will say you are “too dark,” but “too dark” is probably not dark enough for competition. When I compete, I go for the “double-dark/blackout” level. I do it twice. And I am considered not tan enough.
9. The week before… My perspective: The week before a big competition, do nothing other than run rounds. Get your muscle memory attuned to what you have to do. Don’t take on any large-scale coachings that will change choreography or make you think about things you’ve never thought about before. Don’t take on anything new. Work on what you already know. Hone it. Perfect it. Don’t make any changes to it. It is what it is, and make it the best it can be. Leave any big changes for the next comp.
10. Fred Astaire Comps are the BEST Comps. Just gotta say (and I, in NO way, am being compensated for saying this – wish I was!)… For many years, I have been swayed by the possibility of competing at different competitions throughout the country and North America. I’ve been lucky enough to do so. It is great to see how you fare against folks that aren’t dancing the same syllabus as you. And it does make you feel good about what you know and what you can do. HOWEVER, independent competitions never have, nor never will, offer the same sense of familiarity, warmth, or friendship as a Fred Astaire National or Regional competition. And, frankly, no other competition is run as well. The Fred Astaire National Competitions offer equal competitive “juice” as any independent I’ve experienced, and they are SO MUCH MORE friendly and better run. When I go to a FADS National, I truly feel as if I’m going to a family reunion. I’ve done it so long, and I’ve made so many FADS friends throughout the country, It’s really like coming home for me. There are wonderful independent competitions out there, but NONE of them offer the familiarity, the friendship, the comaraderie, the sheer joy and fun of a FADS comp. If you can only do one BIG competition, do a FADS National. You will not be disappointed. They are the best out there. And, frankly, they are better than the comps you might have heard of – even the ones you might see on TV.
I’d like to leave you with one last thought… A thought I constantly need to remind myself of, because it really is true. Whether or not you “dance the circuit,” or you pick and choose how you compete, this is a thought for all of us…
There will always be a “NEXT COMP.” There’s always another competition on the horizon. The great thing about Ballroom is that there’s a competition every single week. Each competition brings its own set of “must do’s.” Take your goals one comp at a time. Set new goals for each. Enter each of them with a mantra: Mine have been, “I will stand taller,” “I will not break my side,” “I will not lean on my partner,” etc… use each one as an opportunity to change one small thing, and over time, you will change many things…
And you will become a better dancer.
Remember that this is a process…
All we can do is strive to be better than we were.
And the only person we truly complete against is the person we were before.
To all the great dancers out there, and to all the great dancers that are to come, I say “Merde.*” I will be at the next competition, and I will be cheering for you.