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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Sports Spotlight: Competetive Dance at Carleton

<’clock on a Saturday morning and next to me at the mirror, my teammate is carefully arranging her hair into a tight bun. The rest of our team is sleepily trickling into the hotel room bleary-eyed, spreading cream cheese on bagels and slipping dance team jackets over brightly-colored dresses or crisp dress shirts. We know that we must shake off this sleepiness soon; within an hour or so, we will be spinning around on a crowded dance floor, hoping to get noticed by the judges.

As a member of Carleton’s Competitive Ballroom and Latin Dance Team, I have become oddly used to this routine. The team was formed as a club sport in 2010, and the next year began offering gym credit. Three times a year, about fifteen or twenty of us drive to various locations in the Midwest to compete in Waltz, Tango, Cha Cha, Swing, and many other partner dances. The details of competition that once would have seemed unusual—the feel of a shoe brush scraping against the suede bottoms of my dance shoes (to keep them from slipping on the floor), the ever-present smell of hair spray (dancing can shake down done-up hair surprisingly easily), the giddy anticipation of waiting with your partner to dance or see if you were called back—now seem natural.

Attending these competitions, though, is only one aspect of being on the team. A number of people have joined our practices just to improve their dancing after taking a Social Dance PE class or coming to Social Dance Club, and prefer not to compete. The team meets formally three times a week, and offers two additional open practice sessions where members can come and ask questions of the captains (Karen McCleary ‘14 and Hannah Neville ‘14) or work on the dance of their choice alone or with a partner. We focus on both moves and technique; some practices are spent learning new routines, while others include precise exercises in footwork, balance, or partner frame and connection. While we are assigned partners for competition purposes, which lets us focus on developing a partnership with one or two other people, in practices we rotate partners frequently, allowing everyone to dance together. Nearly everyone joins the team without any previous experience, or with minimal experience in social dancing here at Carleton. The atmosphere of practice is casual, energetic, and collaborative, and we are able to learn from and help each other.

But we don’t just have to rely on the knowledge of our captains and teammates; twice a week, our coach Andrea Mirenda ’93 comes to lead practice. Andrea was a part of Social Dance Club here at Carleton; now she runs a Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Rochester, judges and MCs competitions, and has been instructing the Carleton team for four years. As part of her work with us, Andrea offers brief private lessons following practice once a week, and individuals or couples can ask her specific questions. “Each individual and couple…has different issues they need to work on: timing, footwork, posture, frame, connection, technique, style and expression,” Andrea says. Commenting on the roles of each member of the partnership, she remarks, “Partnership dancing doesn’t work unless you learn how to work together…yes, traditionally the men lead, but that only means they decide what move the couple will do next based on how much room they have and who is in the way. The follower is equally responsible for technique, connection and styling—and steering when the lead is moving backward. If she isn’t doing her part well the couple won’t get very far—literally!” In fact, some team members are beginning to learn and compete in the roles of both follow and lead.

No matter how much we feel like we have improved, Andrea will always find ways to help us keep working. We leave practices with her exhausted and challenged, but the most gratifying moments are when she remarks on our progress and what we are doing well.

This past competition was an especially good indicator of our progress. Friday of first week we drove to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to compete in the Iowa Dancesport Classic, an annual dance competition for collegiate and other teams. From rounds beginning with nearly seventy couples, most of our team members made it to final rounds of six or seven. We had couples place first in the Newcomer, Bronze, and Silver levels, and many of us returned home with ribbons. “Before joining the team, I thought competitions would be stressful,” Dimitri Smirnoff ’15 says, “but they are really a ton of fun!” It is always exciting when we come away feeling as though we have both had fun and accomplished something.

Newcomers first joining the team are sometimes surprised by how physically demanding and technically precise ballroom dancing can be, but quickly realize that it is also rewarding, engaging, and fun: “the social interaction and physical contact are also hugely important to counter balance Carleton’s intellectual intensity,” Andrea notes.

“Dancing is a workout,” Sasha Blinnikova ’17 observes, “but it’s a sneaky workout. When you’re learning ballroom or Latin, you’re so focused on being graceful, or learning the technique, or on working with your teammates that you end up having fun without realizing that you’re exercising.” As Calvin Phan ’17 explains, “It’s a little bit unnerving at first because everyone is reputably frighteningly good.” But he says that when Andrea comes and leads the team in exercises, “it’s like we’re all learning something new, or at least practicing the same thing.”

This seems to be the general sentiment on the team: we are working and learning together, developing our dance skills as an individual, as a partnership, and as a team. Phan adds that after joining the team, “I feel more officially dancy. And powerful. With my danciness.” And this, too, is accurate. Lately, I’ve found myself able to give tips to the newcomers, and they will occasionally ask questions of me; it gives me confidence that even though I am constantly working to improve based on suggestions from Andrea and the team captains, there is also so much I have learned.

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