Guide to Competitive Ballroom Dancing for the Spectator and Competitor (2022)

If you are new to DanceSport competitions, welcome to the energetic world of DanceSport! We’re thrilled to see you here! The following brief explanation can help you distinguish among the events you are watching or dancing. A dance competition allows dancers to demonstrate their skills and compare themselves with the other dancers. A typical ballroom competition consists of events in various Dance Styles, Proficiency Levels and Age Classifications.

Ballroom dance competitions are run in two main styles of dancing: International and American. International dances are taught and danced around the world. American Style is unique to the United States although it is danced in many other countries and is gaining in popularity. There are additional sub-categories of dance styles, as described below.

International Style

Standard dances include Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot and Quickstep. This is a classic style of dancing where couples remain in ‘closed hold’ (man’s raised left hand holds woman’s right hand; man’s right hand on woman’s left shoulder blade, bodies touching). The style is characterized by sweeping movement, emotions, body flight, control and precision. International Standard is danced in elegant attire –men frequently wear tail suits or similar evening attire while the ladies wear long full skirts or ball gowns.

Latin dances include Cha Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble and Jive. Inspired by Latin-American music and traditional dances, the International Latin is rhythmic and energetic. The dances are highly stylized, and feature fast, precise footwork as well as undulating body rhythms. Clothing for this style is more ‘costume’ than for the Standard, and is usually more revealing for both ladies and gentlemen.

American Style

Smooth dances include Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot and Viennese Waltz. Dancers in this style are permitted to let go of each other and dance in positions other than the ‘closed hold’ of International Standard. A quick description of American Smooth often refers to “Fred & Ginger.”

Rhythm dances include Cha-cha, Rumba, Swing, Bolero and Mambo. Often considered to be more ‘street-based’ than the International Latin, American Rhythm is danced to slightly different rhythms with an earthier interpretation than the Latin.


There are additional events that exist outside of both International and American styles, and which may be offered at any competition. Often referred to as Nightclub Dances, they include West Coast Swing, Night Club Two Step, Hustle, Salsa, Meringue, Argentine Tango, etc.

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The term proficiency level is used to describe the expertise with which a given couple performs – a combination of their training, competition experience, and natural talent. In each dance style, couples generally begin at the Newcomer level and work their way up through Syllabus levelsBronze, Silver and Gold. Each Syllabus is a list of clearly defined dance figures. Couples competing in a given Syllabus are not allowed to perform figures of a higher proficiency level, although couples competing in Silver or Gold usually incorporate some Bronze figures into their routines. You can see the allowed figures for the Bronze, Silver, and Gold Syllaus levelson the USA Dancewebsite.

Beyond syllabus, there are three open levels, namely Novice, Pre-Championship, and Championship. At the open levels, couples are not restricted to Syllabus figures, and generally combine Syllabus figures with original, non-syllabus choreography. Couples move upward from one level to the next as their proficiency and experience enable them to compare favorably with more advanced dancers. As a general rule, athletes may participate in a maximum of two proficiency levels and they must be consecutive.

USA Dance competitions may offer up to nine (9) age classifications. Not all age classifications are offered at each competition. These divisions allow all ages of dancers to compete fairly by dancing against couples in their own age group as well as skill level.

Your age classification is based upon your birth-year not the month or day of your birthday. For example, if you are turning 12 this year, you are eligible to dance at the Junior I classification, even if your birthday has not actually occurred yet, and are also ineligible to dance in the Pre-Teen II classification or younger. Pre-Teen I through Youth may dance up one age category and only one age category. So if a couple is eligible for Junior I they can also dance Junior II, however, they may not dance Youth or Adult.

Pre-Teen I 9th or less
Pre-Teen II 10th or 11th
Junior I 12th or 13th
Junior II 14th or 15th
Youth 16th, 17th or 18th
Under 21 16th to 20th
Adult 19th or greater
Senior I 35th or greater One partner must have reached his or her 35th birthday or more in the calendar year and the other partner must have reached his or her 30th birthday or more in the calendar year.
Senior II 45th or greater One partner must have reached his or her 45th birthday or more in the calendar year and the other partner must have reached his or her 40th birthday or more in the calendar year.
Senior III 55th or greater One partner must have reached his or her 55th birthday or more in the calendar year and the other partner must have reached his or her 50th birthday or more in the calendar year.
Senior IV 65th or greater One partner must have reached his or her 65th birthday or more in the calendar year and the other partner must have reached his or her 60th birthday or more in the calendar year.

Competitors may enter two consecutive age classifications but both partners must be eligible for those age levels. For example, if one member of the couple is 40 (and thus eligible to compete in Senior I) and the other is 50 (eligible to dance in the Senior II category), the couple can dance only Senior I and Adult – not Senior II (the younger member of the couple is not old enough to compete in Senior II).

The judges, or adjudicators are experienced competitors and instructors and in some cases are certified by various licensing agencies.

Judging is both an objective and subjective process. Couples are judged on their technical skill, their interpretation of each dance, and their showmanship. In addition, each adjudicator has his or her own personal standards. For this reason, several adjudicators will judge each event to ensure fairness.

Depending on the number of entries, competitors may be required to compete in a series of elimination rounds (1st round, 2nd round, quarter-final and semi-final) until six couples are recalled for the final round by the judges. These six couples will be ranked First through Sixth. A Final may be run with as many as eight couples.

Many people attending their first ballroom competition expect to find the audience sitting in serene dignity, delicately applauding at the completion of each dance. Instead, the spectators are yelling, cheering, jumping up and down, and generally carrying on the way they would at any other spectator sport.

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Ballroom dancers thrive on audience appreciation. Even if you don’t know the first thing about ballroom dancing, you still have an important role to play at a competition. Audience participation is not only allowed, it is encouraged and welcomed. If the audience is too quiet, the emcee will usually persuade them to shout out the numbers of their favorite couples.

Remember: the more you cheer, the better they dance! If this is your first ballroom competition, you may wonder what the appropriate ways are to show your support for the dancers as they compete on the floor.

Be Loud!

The dance floor is big (typically 48 x 80 feet) and the music is heavily amplified. For your expressions of encouragement to overcome such noise and distance, you will need to be loud. Shouting, whistling and foot stomping are great ways to show your support!

Be Specific!

Let your favorite dancers know you are cheering them on! If you know their names, shout them out. Better still, shout out their numbers (displayed on the gentlemen’s back). They may not acknowledge your call, but they will hear it and it will inspire them – especially near the end of their Heat when they are exhausted!

Be Generous!

Remember that everyone out there is giving it everything they’ve got. Don’t limit your support to the hottest dancers or the ones you may know. Root for all the dancers who are giving it their best, whether you know them or not. Enjoy seeing their faces light up with surprise when they get a cheer from you that they weren’t expecting.

Hoot and Holler, Whistle and Scream

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Competitive ballroom dancing is an artistic sport, and the dancers need to impress the judges. But they are also keenly aware of the audience, and often go out of their way to impress you, too. Much of their choreography is performed at the edges of the floor for the specific purpose of capturing your attention. So don’t be bashful! Hoot and holler, whistle and scream! The more you give, the more they give.

Play “Judge” During the Competition

You are invited to play “judge” during the competition and see if you agree with the judges results.

Congratulations! Like millions of DanceSport spectators around the world, you’re now “in the know” about how to show your support and add to the excitement of this unique and artistic sporting event!

Term Definition
Age Classification Junior, Youth, Adult, Senior I, etc.
Call Back You have received enough Judges’ marks to come back and dance in the next round.
Chairman of Judges Oversees the judging panel.
Dance Style International Latin, International Standard, American Smooth, American Rhythm, Theater Arts, Cabaret, etc.
On-Deck Captain
/ Deck Captain
Located in the “on deck” area and “checks in” competitors so that a final tally of the number of competitors may be accomplished prior to walking on the floor. Directs competitors onto the dance floor.
Eligibility Class Athlete, Mixed Proficiency, etc.
Frame – Closed Body contact is maintained.
Frame – Open Open or separate moves are used. There is little or no body contact.
Gender Male or Female
Heat When a round is too large to fit on the floor it can be separated into heats. A quarter-final is normally danced in two heats, meaning 12 couples dance then the remaining 12 couples dance assuming 24 couples in the quarter-final.
Judge Gives his/her opinion on your dancing and marks accordingly.
On-Deck Area Area just outside the ballroom floor where the couples check-in with the On Deck Captain, and line up in the order that they’ll walk on to the floor for their event.
Partnership Type
A partnership where both partners are amateur.
Partnership Type
Mixed Proficiency
A partnership where both partners are amateur and one is of a lower proficiency level than the other. The lower proficiency dancer is the only one judged.
Partnership Type
A partnership where one partner is a professional and the other is an amateur. Kansas City Dance Classic is an amateur-only competition.
Partnership Type
A partnership where both partners are professional. Kansas City Dance Classic is an amateur-only competition.
Proficiency Level Newcomer, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Novice, Pre-Championship, Championship.
Registrar Accepts and organizes the entries.
Registration Enters a couple in an event. Registration is not final until paid for.
Round Final round, semi-final round, quarter-final round, 1st round, etc.
Scrutineer A dance official who tabulates the judges’ marks from the competitive events.

How the Dancers are Scored and Placed

The Official Board of Ballroom Dancing adopted the Skating system of marking on January 1, 1947. It consists of 11 rules, which determine the winner and subsequent places in the Final of a dance competition.

Mostevents at the USA Dancesportcompetitions are multi-dance rounds. The Bronze International Latin events, for example, consist of Cha Cha and Rumba. Silver American Smooth events consist of Waltz, Tango, and Foxtrot. Championship International Standard consists of Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, and quickstep. If only six couples are entered in a given event, they are ranked 1st through 6th place in each dance. The couple with the most 1st place marks is the overall winner. The couple with the next highest number of 1st and 2nd place marks will place second, and so on. If there are more than six couples entered, the final six are selected through a series of quarter-final and/or semi-final elimination rounds. In each round, each judge selects, or “calls back” 50% of the couples. Those couples receiving the highest quantity of callbacks are invited back to dance again in the next round. This process continues until the event is narrowed down to approximately six couples to dance in the Final round.

The following is an overview of the skating system and is not meant to be used for a complete understanding of the skating system.

Here is an example analysis of a final round danced by six couples (A through F) officiated by nine judges.

The winner of an individual dance is the couple placed 1st by an absolute majority of the judges (five of the nine judges is the majority in this example). According to the placements table, Couple F with seven 1st places is the obvious winner of this dance.

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To determine second place, we look for a couple with the majority of second places or better. Couple D, with six, is clearly second.

For third place, we search the placement table for a couple with a majority of third places or better. Since none of the remaining couples has the required majority, we now have to include the next lower place, in this instance fourth place.

Looking for the third and fourth place Couples, we find that Couple A and Couple C have an equal majority of Fourth or better placements. To figure their placements, we multiply the number of marks in each place by the place number (1st through 4th), and add these numbers. The Couple with the lower total is awarded third place, while fourth place goes to the Couple with the higher total. Since the total for Couple A is 16 (1×2 + 2×3 + 2×4) but only 14 for Couple C (2×2 + 2×3+ 1×4), the third place position goes to Couple C, and the fourth place to Couple A.

The two remaining couples have a majority of fifth or better placements: Couple B, with six and Couple E, with seven. Therefore, fifth place goes to Couple E, who has the large majority, and sixth place goes to Couple B.

When all couples have been placed in each of the individual dances that make up the final round, the judges’ marks are transferred to a table of Final Results. Here is an example of the tally for a final round of Championship American Smooth (Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz).

The place marks awarded in the individual dances are added, and the couple with the lowest total score (i.e., the highest number of 1st places) is the winner. In this example, Couple A has scored two 1st places and two 2nd places, giving them a total of 6. Couple D has scored one 1st place, two 2nd places and one 3rd place, giving them a total of 8. First place would go to Couple A, and second place would go to Couple D.

There is a tie for third place. Couples B and C both total 14 and both have placed third or better in two dances. However, the total of these third or better placings for Couple C is 4 (1 + 3), compared to the total of 6 (3 + 3) for Couple B. Therefore, Couple C is awarded third place, and fourth place goes to Couple B.

Couple E has scored one 4th place, two 5th places and one 6th place, giving them a total of 20. Couple F has scored one 4th place and three 6th places, giving them a total of 22. Fifth place would go to Couple E, and sixth place would go to Couple F.

If two couples that are tied for a given place should win the same number of dances, both couples’ placings over all the dances would be treated in the manner described above for an individual dance. This is known as a Rule 11 decision. In our example, with nine judges and four dances, the required majority would be 19. If neither couple had that majority for a given place, then placements at the next lower level would be brought into calculations, and so on. The two remaining couples, E and F, have total scores of 21. Both have been placed fifth and better in two dances with an equal total of 9, so Rule 11 must be used to decide fifth and sixth places.

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The judges’ score sheets are posted soon after the marks are tallied. This enables competitors in the quarter-final and semi-final rounds to see how many call backs they received, and it enables finalists to see how they were ranked in each dance. This information can be used by a couple to discover their strengths and weaknesses, and to tailor their training program accordingly.