Men and women stand an arm’s length apart, and when the lilting sound of a Strauss composition fills the air, these couples come to life and begin waltzing around the room. This could be a scene from a period film, except for the fact that the dancers are wearing jeans and sneakers.
“It’s almost a throwback to the Victorian era where people would go to a dance, and the man would ask the lady for the dance,” one of the dancers, Amy Spohr (NHS ’14) said, “they would dance the waltz and thank each other for the dance and split off.”
When the waltz ends, the vibe in the room quickly changes as the Latin music blares and everyone starts dancing the cha-cha.
Each weekend the members of the Georgetown University Ballroom Dance Club attend socials like these where they can mingle with other college students as they dance the night away.
“It’s just two hours of straight dancing but pure fun,” said club captain Michelyne Chavez (SFS ’15).
Chavez explained that these events are casual gatherings where members can practice the new moves they learn in her technique classes. They also get to meet dancers from other colleges in the area like The George Washington University and the University of Maryland.
The club, which was founded by a Russian exchange student in 1995, welcomes dancers at all levels to learn ballroom dance. The club now consists of about 60 members, mainly newcomers, but plenty of experienced dancers are involved as well. They learn both standard styles like the waltz, foxtrot, tango, quickstep and Latin styles, including the cha-cha, rumba, samba and jive. The group practices five days a week with professional coaches who teach at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
The members agree that mastering ballroom dance requires a lot of time and effort. While there is only one mandatory practice a week, Spohr emphasized the importance of going regularly, especially when dancers are competing. Since ballroom requires a partner it is important to get comfortable dancing with others because one does not want to step on anyone’s feet.
“The more you practice, the better you get, so it’s important to go,” she said.
While many members enjoy the light-hearted social atmosphere of the gatherings, the club has a more serious competitive side as well. Each semester members participate in two competitions. This semester the club competed in the USA Dance Mid-Atlantic Championships held last weekend in Bethesda, Md., and they plan to compete at the Harvard Invitational later in late March.
Referred to as the Team, the club’s competitive members mostly compete at the bronze (beginner) and silver (intermediate) levels, but there is one couple who competes in the open level (above gold), which is for highly experienced dancers. While each couple competes individually, team spirit runs deep among all the competitors.
“Every couple dances on their own and gets called back on their own, but we still compete as a team,” said Spohr. “We cheer for each other even if we are in the same round and we are happy when everyone makes it to the next round.”
During this past weekend’s competition, some of Georgetown’s bronze level dancers reached the quarterfinals, and the couple dancing in the open level, Andrew Sue-Ako (who graduated from Princeton in 2010) and Ying Zhang (an employee of the School of Nursing and Health Studies) reached the semifinals.
Team member TC Huang (COL ’15) said, “Competitions are somewhat stressful, but still really fun.”
Each couple is placed in a heat, and while they know they will be dancing the samba or the jive, the music they will dance to is always a complete surprise. They have just a few seconds to figure out the speed and rhythm of the music before they start dancing.
“The beat could be good, it could be bad,” said Spohr. “Maybe you’re not able to hear the music so well, which is a real challenge, and you can get a little choked up.”
Huang described competitions as a sort of parallel universe, where all the women are in heels and the men are in white dress shirts. Only dancers in the open level are required to wear glitzy costumes like the ones seen on “Dancing with the Stars.” For standard dances, collegiate-level female dancers must wear long skirts, and for Latin dances, they wear short skirts. Men must wear long-sleeved white button-downs. According to Spohr, the addition of the vest has become popular among men since her freshman year. Even though the dancers must dress according to protocol, they can still express their individual style.
Members try to balance the social and competitive aspect of the club with the normal rigors of being a Georgetown student. Huang says the club can take up a lot of time depending on how involved you become. He goes to practice just a few times a week and tries to his best to go to the social events, but there isn’t always time in his schedule to do everything.
Chavez pointed out that the competitive side of the club can be just as social, if not more so, as the weekend dance nights.
“Through nervous, stressful times, people bond with each other,” she said. “I see the team right now after this weekend’s past competition, and they really get along well now — or more so than they did before — because they had that experience of calming, encouraging and wishing each other the best.”
The team is looking forward to their weekend trip to Harvard later this semester. Members claim that competition allows them to strengthen the bonds they make during practice and truly form friendships within the group.
“You can look at it as, ‘I am stuck with these people for four hours,’ or ‘I can get to know these people for four hours,’” said Chavez. “At the end of the day, the whole point of why we compete is to dance all day and to have fun. And the most rewarding thing for me is seeing my teammates out on the dance floor truly enjoying themselves.”