Ballroom Dancing Classes – Different Styles

What can be confusing for beginners taking Ballroom Dancing Classes is deciding on which style to get started in. This article explains the differences between International Latin Ballroom Dancing and other styles like American Rhythm, American Smooth or International Standard and how to choose the style is that right for you.

There are 2 main styles danced in the US. International Style and American Style. In the American Ballroom social dancing scene, American style is danced at social ballroom parties. There are some smaller social groups that dance International style but that’s rare. Social ballroom dancing is mainly dance in the US. The rest of the world do not dance Ballroom socially like we do here, they train in International Style and compete or take their medal exams. I would love to hear from you if you have examples where social ballroom dancing is happening outside of America – what I mean by social is true leading and following, men and women turning up dancetokyotama at a dance party and dancing with each other and not couples dancing a routine together.

American style is also danced in competitions, but only in the US. American style is also only taught in Ballroom dancing classes or private dance lessons only in the US.

International style ballroom has 2 divisions – International Latin and International Standard. This is the style danced in competitions throughout the world including the US.

International Latin Ballroom Dancing is made up of the following dances – Rumba, Cha-Cha, Samba, Paso Doble and Jive. The International Latin technique is different from American Cuban Motion for Rumba and Cha-Cha.

International Latin is danced on a straight leg ie. every step for Rumba and Cha-Cha is danced on a straight leg with weight transfer completely over the leg. American Cuban Motion is on a bent leg ie. every step for Rumba and Cha-Cha is danced with a bent leg or flexed knee, the weight transfer is delayed until after the beat usually on the ‘&’ counts.

International Rumba timing is danced with the Slow on the 4-1 counts and a slower tempo than American Rumba which is danced with the Slow on the 1-2 counts. The technique for Samba is the same for both International and American styles. Paso Doble and Jive is unique to International Latin Ballroom Dancing.

International Standard Ballroom Dancing is made up of the following dances – Waltz, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Tango and Quickstep. The International Standard technique is the same as American Smooth.

The International Standard figures are mainly in closed position and because it’s not danced socially, uses a body contact closed position hold. Amercian Smooth has many figures which are in open positions and because it is danced socially, the hold can vary from body contact to 3-8 inches apart between a couple. There appears to be a discrepancy in the timing of the Slow counts between Standard and Smooth. In Standard, the Slow count is danced on count 2. In Smooth – the Slow is danced on count 1.

I was told by Ron Montez (my old coach and well known judge and ballroom TV host) that this is sometimes taught as beginner timing (Bronze). In my observation and interviews with many other Smooth instructors, this is due to lack of good technique training of their part. Many are teaching Smooth Silver and Gold figures (advanced) and still dancing the Slow on count 1.

I have had to fix the timing of many of my more advanced students and this was a difficult process for them. It’s easier with beginners as I teach them the correct timing from the start.

American Rhythm is made up of the following dances – Rumba, Cha-Cha, Bolero, East Coast Swing and Mambo. These five dances are the core competition dances. The other dances are Merengue, West Coast Swing, Samba and Salsa. Rumba, Cha-Cha, Mambo, Merengue and Salsa uses the same technique – American Cuban motion. East Coast Swing utilises Swing Hop action, Samba technique is the same as International Samba. Bolero is unique to American style – utilising cuban motion and rise and fall.

American Smooth is made up of the following dances – Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango and Viennese Waltz. The technique is the same as International Standard but danced a lot in open positions.

There is a recent new category called Nightclub dances which is made up of Nightclub Two-Step, Hustle, Lindy Hop, Salsa and Argentine Tango.

Each of these Ballroom Dancing styles comes with a syllabus with 10-15 figures each for Bronze (beginner), Silver (intermediate) and Gold (advanced) levels. Learning the syllabus figures first is like learning the abc’s of a new language. You will learn important ballroom dance elements and ballroom dance steps which are then put together into figures. Just like using the alphabet to make a word. Then when you dance the figures in a particular sequence, you have choreography – just like stringing words together to form sentences, into paragraphs into a song, poem or book.

There are several different syllabuses out there – DVIDA, NDCA, ISTD, Arthur Murray, Fred Astaire etc and for each, many revisions. Don’t let the many differences worry you. I have found that my focus on learning the ballroom dance elements well instead of just ballroom dance steps means that I can adapt easily to any syllabus. It’s just a variance or a resequencing of something I already know.

I teach ballroom dance elements to my beginners and I find that they can easily adapt and adjust much faster than other dance students who only memorised figures and ballroom dance steps but did not understand the ballroom dance elements that made up the figures.

That’s like learning how to speak a new language by memorising the words of a song. You do not understand what the words mean and therefore you cannot apply it to create another song, use the words in conversation or even create your own words. This is why my beginner students can dance 4 different dances in 1-2 months and 8 different dances in 3-6 months.

It is generally easier for a total beginner to start with the American style dances. This is because it is more forgiving from a movement and technique perspective. International style requires a certain proficiency in coordination to begin with. You also need to be clear on your goals…. if you wish to social dance, go out and have fun and meet other dancers, start with the American style. International style dancers don’t social dance. If you wish to compete and/or do shows or eventually turn pro, start with International style. You can also start with American style if you wish to compete only in the US. If you want to look good, the technique training in International style is best. That is why I always stood out as a social dancer… I invested in good technique training in International style.

The term Latin Ballroom dancing is rather broad and can encompass either the International Latin Rumba- Cha-Cha, Samba, Paso Doble or Jive or American Rhythm dances – Rumba, Cha-Cha, Mambo, Salsa, Bolero, Merengue, Samba or East Coast Swing.

For anyone learning to ballroom dance, I don’t recommend only learning one dance in your Ballroom Dancing classes or private dance lessons. There are so many cross-training benefits from learning both Rhythm and Smooth or Latin and Standard. Once you get the foundation in, then specialise if you wish.

Karen Mills loves all forms of dancing, in particular partner dancing. She started dancing street salsa in 1991, then street swing and street hustle. Karen was a former Champion competitor in International Latin Ballroom from 1995-2001 and graduated top of her class (High Honors) from the Teacher Certification program at Ballroom Dance Teacher’s Academy. She teaches ballroom dancing classes and private dancing lessons in American Rhythm, American Smooth, Nightclub Dances, International Latin and International Standard. Karen is a technique specialist and focuses on adults. She has successfully taught 100+ beginner adults how to partner dance, transforming their lives.

For over 20 years, Karen has been coaching, mentoring and teaching – introducing new concepts to many people – from her days in the computing industry introducing innovative new technologies to hundreds of large corporations and thousands of people, to her life as a coach, dancer, artist – helping others find happiness and helping business owners get their lives back!

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