What the Heck is That?
This blog edition is questionably, yet understandably, titled, "What the Heck is That?" We could have called it, "The Evolution of Dance", but the more we watched the run-snap-jerk-stare of the 'romantic' Rumba, or the Paso Doble a la Star Wars theme music, and/or the International Waltz performed by a jacket-less dancer in a black sequined shirt, we thought the chosen title to be more apropos.
In a recent discussion during a break from judging, several of us were sitting around a cafe table having lunch, and discussing the evolution of dance over the past several decades. The general consensus was that most of the adjudicators at the table were okay with the current trend/s, but a couple of us expressed concerns and even disdains for much of the way dance has evolved in the world of Ballroom and DanceSport. My personal opinion was/is that I am not opposed to dance evolving... changing with the times, enjoying fads, facelifts, etc., but when the dance loses all trace or characteristic of its original intent, then it has "evolved" too far.
To find the start of 'modern day' trends, we only have to look back to the mid '90s, and the beginnings of DanceSport. Now, I am NOT opposed to DanceSport, although I do believe much of it to be not well thought out. For the one or two who might not be in the know, DS was conceived largely for 3 principal reasons; 1- to acknowledge the athleticism of the art (and make it more appealing to becoming an Olympic sport), 2- to modernize the genre of Ballroom dance (relieving old stigmas and paradigms and make it more appealing to all ages), and, 3- to make it more accessible/acceptable to other dancers.
All three of these reasons, though merited, are the very reasons, though not alone, for what has become of Ballroom dance as we knew it. For example, if the early powers-who-were had not tried to change Ballroom dance to fit it into an Olympic image of what is 'sport', perhaps the dance would not have lost so much of its artistry. In those early days, if one were to look at the rule book for Figure Skaters, they would have realized that it almost mirrored the rule book for many Ballroom dance competitions. This would have been a more positive platform for why the art is also a sport, rather than trying to change the art. Changing the name to DanceSport fooled no one. Those who were dancers still danced. Those who were athletes still affirmed that "real athletes" don't dance.
Perhaps, the greatest contribution to the demise of traditional Ballroom and Latin was the opening of the art/sport to other styles and even other genres. During this time, it was not a secret, though arrogance will still argue against it, that the Americans were being out-danced by the Europeans and, more so, the Russians. Many things contributed to this. Our pros would train for a few hours per day; the Russians would train for an average of three times longer. Our pros were more focused on teaching; theirs... more on performing. Yes, there were mitigating factors such as cost differences, opportunity, etc., but this is not a political discussion. The styles were different; one called the American style, and the other called International. It is also no secret that Americans are obsessed with everything 'International'. Ours is also a society largely awed and obsessed with flash, stardom, and Hollywoodism, and this was making all the difference.
Our school was sister schools with one in Magadan, and we would visit/co-train often. The Russian teacher once commented, much to the dislike of the teen aged dancers, that we (Americans) seemed to be better (more technically) trained, but that they were better dancers (because while we only danced our syllabized patterns, they performed). Evidently, our dance industry leaders agreed, because as the USSR divided and became opened, and their dancers were freed to leave, the US dance world became inundated with Russian dancers competing and winning literally everything. It was sad. There was not an American name amongst any of the top American title holders. Why was this sad? It was because these dancers were not really out-dancing the Americans, they were out-performing us, and our normal behavior was to be more awed by the performance than by the technical training.
At this time, more and more dancers from other genres were entering the 'New World' of Ballroom dance, bringing ballet, jazz, modern, and even tap techniques to the art/sport. This wasn't a bad thing either, or, in fact, entirely unheard of. Cabaret and Theatre Arts were two very well known categories of Ballroom dance which were based on the integration of ballet and jazz techniques and styles. On the pro side, the allowance of more of these outside elements breathed a new life into a floundering art, and provided opportunities for dancers that were before unfounded. On the con side, however, it was poorly monitored and managed, and the Ballroom leaders of the time allowed substandard techniques and dancing to grow within an already techniqually waning art. Some of the problems of this still haunt us today; the change of when Theatre Arts used to be Cabaret and vis-a-vis, the loss of the American Swing (because the International dancers only knew Jive, and thus danced the Swing as a slower version of Jive rather than with the style of Swing), and the loss of the traditional meanings of the Ballroom/Latin dances (because the outside genres never knew these when they brought their styles into the art).
Today; we have Waltzes that might as well be Foxtrots because they have no glide, and Tangos that have no resemblance to the Argentine style. The Argentine Tangos are more like Theatre Arts to Tango music. We have Swings with 'big knees', Rumbas without one romantic element, Cha Chas that can be danced to Samba music (I've seen and done it... more than once), and Paso Dobles where the man and the woman are snarling and growling at each other with equal passion fighting for dominance of the dance. The Viennese Waltz is a spinning, clipping mess danced way too fast, and the backs of the ladies are so far leaned into an L shape that, in all other situations, they would require a brace.
I do not mind dances evolving, or fads changing, or individuals interpreting and imagining the dance in some unique and even unconventional way. These things are what make dance exciting, and keeps it fresh and new. Yet, is it wrong to want to judge a Foxtrot because of its hover and waved smoothness against a Waltz because of its soft swing and glide? Is it too much to ask for a little romance in the Rumba instead of the run-snap-jerk-and stare that is the current rage, or maybe to see a Cha Cha basic triplet at some point during a Cha?
What is a judge to do? If we do not go along with these nonsensical trends, we do not get asked to adjudicate (because we are not popular). If we go along with the status quo, just because, we lose the core values and true meanings of the dances forever. If we teach good and proper techniques, our pros and students do not win, yet, if we teach pomp and circumstance and showmanship, we cheat our dancers out of learning to truly dance. Next topic, perhaps.