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Just A Few Seconds More
Inside a ballroom competitor's body. A look at what dancers put themselves through in elite competitions
Chindu Sreedharan comment 0 Comments access_time 10 min read

It begins before. Before you hear the first bar of music, before you claim your corner and look around with the cultivated casualness that is part of your pre-event routine — why, before you even step on to the floor, the process that will spit you out as a winded wreck on shaky legs with a fake smile fixed to your face is already in motion.

You feel it in the changing room: in the collar that won’t fasten, in the cuff link that slips out of your clumsy fingers and loses itself. Again. As you search for the renegade in the scattering of semi-unpacked bags of semi-dressed competitors, cursing under your breath, you put it down to nerves.

An inconvenient state of being for now, but necessary — crucial — for how you want to perform today.

British National Professional Standard Ballroom Champions Warren and Kristi Boyce executing an elegant Waltz. Competitors perform three other dances in the early rounds — Foxtrot, Tango and Quickstep — and are recalled based on their combined score across the four dances. From the semi-final, couples perform a fifth dance: the Viennese Waltz. See Warren & Kristi dancing the Waltz. Photo: John Sinclair.

This state, you know, is part of what they call, in sports, arousal. Within you, millions of synapses are firing, prepping the cardio-vascular system for increased oxygen intake, the adrenal gland for the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline: much is happening to redirect blood to working muscles, to speed up circulation, to ensure adequate energy sources are in your blood stream when you need it. In essence, to energise your body into a state of alertness, of anticipation, for what is to come.

You know of the danger of hyperarousal: of the Inverted U Hypothesis, the Processing Efficiency Theory, the Catastrophe Theory. Control arousal, keep it optimal, and you could perform well. Allow it free rein, and your anxieties about your own form could debilitate your competence, even make you fall apart.

And you know this state is costing you. In energy. The biochemical process of keeping you in readiness requires fuel, calories from your energy store.

You feel it, in a more pronounced manner, when you actually get on to the floor. The first rounds are easy, the alternating heats allowing you to catch your breath.

You are not dancing full out yet. The floor is crowded, the music some seconds shorter than what you can expect in the semis or the finals. But you know from extrapolations that you will burn 77 calories in every round of four dances, 19–20 calories in each bout of 1-minute-30-seconds dance, over and above your basal metabolic rate. The Waltz costs you the least, Quickstep the most, Tango and Foxtrot somewhere in the middle.

After the round, you tell yourself to rest. Your tailcoat off, carefully hung up where you can keep an eye on it, you mop your face. You smile at your partner, breathless. Your mind is replaying your last performance, still to obsess over your mistakes.

That can wait till you pay back your oxygen debt. You draw in quick, shallow breaths to make up for the deficit you created with your near-maximal efforts. You know you performed in an anaerobic-aerobic zone, the energy for your activity mostly fuelled by your oxygen intake, but majorly supplemented by the alternate anaerobic metabolism somewhere from the third dance on. Now your system is striving to achieve equilibrium: replenishing adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate, the quick-fire energy currencies that got you going at the beginning and kept you on time during the explosive bits in your choreography; and flushing away lactic acid, the by-product of the anaerobic energy production.

Professionals Craig and Eveginya Shaw. See them dancing the Quickstep. Couples are scored for musicality, movement, connection, choreography, and ‘topline’. Topline is determined by the upper body positions partners maintain from each other. An expanded topline requires significant core strength and upper body stretches from both partners. Photo: John Sinclair.

Rehydrated, rested, you walk into the semis. No heats anymore. Now you need to perform with shorter breaks between dances: 15–20 seconds instead of the 90 seconds earlier. And you have the fifth dance, the Viennese Waltz, to tackle. It is taxing in terms of endurance, costing more energy than even the Quickstep. All told, you will burn 100 calories in the semis, in 7.5 minutes of intense activity. Much of that time, you will function at 80–90% of your maximum aerobic capacity, your heart pumping out some 200 litres of blood into your system. If you dance all out, you know the semis could, on an average, well burn more calories per minute than squash, than cross-country running, than basketball.

Oh, there is relief as you walk back. Not too many mistakes. You feel the cramp in your right shoulder, down your right forearm. Your partner massages the spasm in her neck. Right shoulder for men, neck for women. Always, it is those muscles that pay the most for tension in your structure, your incorrect poise.

You begin a slow warm up before the final. Five to ten minutes are needed, experts say, to raise your body temperature by the 2–3 degrees required to loosen up muscles and tendons, to elevate your pulse gradually to somewhere between 100 and 140 beats per minute. Arguably this is the ideal post warm-up state to encourage optimal performance. You go about it diligently, trying to focus, visualising the routine, mentally reminding yourself of the two, perhaps three, changes your partner has asked of you.

It is time. As you connect for the Waltz, you focus on attaining the right upper body tone. Clean shape, good swing, move into space. You know the music could last somewhere between 1m 30s and 1m 45s. You know, within a bar or three, how far into your routine you need to dance. By the end, you know you will burn at least 17 calories, roughly 25 per cent more than your partner. Your heart rate will clock 150–160 bpm.

Besides movement around the dance floor in an anti-clockwise direction, couples are required to execute ‘line figures’ (where they produce artistic shapes through hyperextensions) as part of their choreography. Junior competitors Justas Zagurskas and India Phillips at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool. Photo: John Sinclair.

You launch into the Foxtrot with an already elevated heart rate. Again, you focus on the connection. Aim for smooth drives, you remind yourself. Careful with the third side, where you know you will begin to tire, your hold will tense.

Tango. Sweat drips off your face. Your heart rate is around 150 bpm even before the start. It climbs, steadily, towards 170 bpm, as you progress beyond the first minute. You feel the muscle function deteriorate, especially in your right deltoid. Subconsciously you compensate, tilting your rib cage. Under the padding of your suit, you feel the horror of every male dancer: the tensed right shoulder. You pray it doesn’t show.

Two more dances to go. Surreptitiously you stretch your right arm to ease the spasm you feel creeping in. You can’t let on you are tiring. You fake-smile. Halfway through the Quickstep, you feel the stress. You pull in your core, reenergise your topline. When the music stops, your heart rate is nearing 180 bpm.

The last dance now. The killer, Viennese Waltz. You know it will draw on your final reserves of energy, push your pulse higher than Quickstep did. But you have no intention of ‘dying’ on the floor. You will not. As you come around once, you feel heaviness in your thighs. Lactic acid builds up, muscular contractions slow. You are chasing the music; you ‘skip’ to avoid flagging. By now the fake smile has turned into a fierce grimace. You are powerless to relax. Keep shape, keep moving. Just a few seconds more…

This article was first published in the Dance Today magazine in May 2013.


Competitive ballroom — or dancesport as it is often referred to — has seen increasing popularity worldwide since 2005, in part buoyed by a string of successful reality television shows based on the popular Strictly Come Dancing in Britain. Thousands of competitors in the UK, Europe, Russia, China and Japan, among other places, dedicate themselves to disciplined training, putting in hours every day, across many years. For many, it is not just a sport, but a way of life, and couples often move countries to find partners. Top amateur and professional couples travel extensively to train, teach and compete.

Amateur dancers Alex Gunnarsson and Liis End at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 2013. Alex, from Iceland, and Liis, from Estonia, teamed up late in 2011. See their Tango.

Ballroom competitions traditionally fall into two categories: Standard (or Modern) and Latin. Standard competitors are marked for their performance of Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, Quickstep and Viennese Waltz (see the YouTube video of a standard world competition), while Latin couples are judged across Cha Cha, Rumba, Samba, Paso Doble and Jive (see the YouTube Video of a European Latin competition). Though this article touches only on standard dancing, the issue of fitness is equally applicable to Latin dancing as well — in fact, both category of dancers are found to expend similar levels of energy during competitions.

In both Standard and Latin, couples compete at different levels, from beginner, novice, intermediate, pre-championship/pre-amateur, championship/amateur, and professional. Five-dance competitions like the one described in the article are at the championship and professional levels.

2014 British National Amateur Ballroom Champions Kyle Taylor and Izabela Skierska at Winter Gardens, Blackpool. Izabela from Warsaw partnered up with Liverpool-based Kyle in September 2014.

Competitive ballroom is governed by two world bodies, the World Dance Council (WDC) and the World DanceSport Federation (WDSF). The WDSF is currently lobbying with the International Olympic Committee to make the sport part of the Olympic Games.

Dr Chindu Sreedharan is a principal academic at Bournemouth University, England. Dancesport is among his research interests. For this article, he interviewed more than 10 dancers (not the dancers photographed above), and drew from his own personal experience as a competitor. The calculations of energy expenditure are drawn from an Australian study that estimated the oxygen consumption of competitive dancers (Blanksby B A & Reidy P W, 1988, Heart rate and estimated energy expenditure during ballroom dancing, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol 22, Issue 2: 57–60). Material from other academic sources has also been used for this article.

Dr John Sinclair, whose photographs grace this article, is a molecular biophysicist. When he’s not shooting from the hip, he is a successful competitive dancer.

Ballroom Competition Dancing Nonfiction Sport