The Three Worlds of Ballroom Dance

First off.. What is Ballroom Dance?


The term “Ballroom dance” refers to traditional partnered dance forms that are done by a couple, often in the embrace of closed dance position (“ballroom dance position”). Ballroom dance is a product of globalization and its roots can be traced to countries and cultures from all around the world. The synthesis of a wide range of cultural music styles and dance forms has influenced ballroom’s shifting forms. This process has allowed ballroom dance to remain popular and exist for as long as it has.

The traditional ballroom dances include: Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, Quickstep, Viennese Waltz, Rumba, Cha Cha, Swing, Jive, Samba, Mambo, Bolero, and Paso Doble. Non-traditional dances also include: Salsa, Country 2-Step, Night Club 2-Step, Argentine Tango, Merengue, Bachata, Polka, West Coast Swing, Lindy Hop, Hustle, and many more!

The Dance Styles: American vs. International

There are two main styles of ballroom dancing — American and International. American style is danced primarily in the USA. It’s also not as standardized as International style, which is danced and known worldwide. Here in the USA, American style is practiced for both social dancing and competitions, while International style is primarily only seen in competitions.

latin-ballroom-dancing-london-playenable  Latin Dance Couple

So… What’s the difference between the formal dances with ball gowns and those with short and sassy fringe dresses?

Two broader categories of dances exist: In American style, the categories are called Smooth and Rhythm and in International style they are called Standard and Latin. The Standard and Smooth (ball gown) categories contain basically the same dances, which move around the full ballroom floor using elegant posture and step combinations. The Latin and Rhythm (sassy fringe) categories contain the sharp, fast, and flirty dances, easily spotted by the energetic leg action and hip movements.

  • American Style
    Smooth — Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz
    Rhythm — Cha Cha, Rumba, East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Bolero, Mambo, Samba
  • International Style
    Standard — Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot , Quickstep
    Latin — Cha Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble, Jive

The Three Worlds of Ballroom Dance

Unlike many dance styles such as ballet, contemporary, and tap- people of all ages and lifestyles can take up ballroom dancing. The three “worlds” of ballroom dance include Social, Competitive, and Exhibition forms.

University of Wisconsin-Madison student Michael Chay (center) practices his dance moves with another student during Prof. Tomlinson's ballroom dancing class in Lathrop Hall on Sept. 24, 2008. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Bryce Richter Date:  09/08    File#:  NIKON D3 digital frame

Social Ballroom Dance
Photo by: Bryce Richter


Competitive Ballroom Dance

1302-19 397.CR2 BLR Ballroom concert poster images February 20, 2013 Photography by Mark A. Philbrick Copyright BYU Photo 2013 All Rights Reserved  (801)422-7322

Exhibition Ballroom Dance                                    Photo by Mark A. Philbrick

“Ballroom dance” is the overall umbrella term, covering all three forms discussed on this page. Each share the same historical roots, similar step vocabulary, and music. In this post, we will explore the essential differences between the three worlds of ballroom dance.

Social Ballroom


Audience/audience expectations: Your partner. He/she wants to dance with you spontaneously, for fun, doing dance styles you both enjoy.

Attitude: Sociable. Friendly. Kind. Flexibly adaptive. As a leader, you must understand that your partner may not know the same steps as you. As a follower, you must be willing to try whatever moves your partner may lead. You learn to value and accommodate to styles that differentiate from your own.

Mistakes: They’re inevitable! Social dancers laugh them off and keep dancing. When a follower does something different from what the lead intended, he knows it’s just an alternative interoperation of his lead. Social dancers are happy if things work out 80% of the time- the other 20% is where learning and laughter come from!

Reward: The spontaneous enjoyment of dancing with a partner, whether you know them or not.

Standardized steps, technique, style: No. Each partner comes from different dance backgrounds and must modify their steps to adapt to each other.

Choreography: Absolutely not. You develop your own personal style and go with the flow.

Competitive Ballroom


Audience/audience expectations: The judges. They are scoring you based on how precisely and correctly you dance a particular style’s steps and the flair with which you do so.

Attitude: Rigorously correct and focused. Competitive dancers work hard to achieve 100%.

Mistakes: Judges deduct points for every mistake, so competitive dance culture is aligned against making mistakes from day one.

Reward: Competing. Impressing others. Adrenaline. Winning.

Standardized steps, technique, style: Yes. The competitors need to know exactly what technical details the judges expect to see. The steps that are allowed are based upon which level you compete in: Bronze, Silver, or Gold.

Choreography: Competitors usually perform choreographed routines that they’ve practiced over and over, but sometimes dancers will freestyle.

Exhibition Ballroom


Audience/audience expectations: An audience. They want to be entertained with beautiful and impressive moves.

Attitude: Excitement, somber, romance, etc- Varies widely depending on dance form.

Mistakes: For professional performances, audiences expect perfection, which requires extensive rehearsals. For amateur performances, audiences want to see the dancers enjoy themselves, so mistakes are okay.

Reward: Entertaining or impressing others. Enthusiastic applause.

Standardized steps, technique, style: Audiences often prefer steps and styles they haven’t seen before. A performance group works to create and master an engaging and dynamic style.

Choreography: Yes. Exhibitions are choreographed and rehearsed to ensure that everyone dances in unison. The exception– flash mobs, which are often improvised.

GOOD Things Come in Threes

The shared rewards of all three forms of ballroom dance are the self confidence and satisfaction you receive in becoming proficient in a dance form. Dancing is a great stress reliever and makes a wonderful hobby. No matter what world of dance you enter, participation in a regular program of ballroom dancing will produce significant mental and physical health benefits. It physically tones the whole body in enjoyable exercise- while leading you to meet incredible friends!

What are you waiting for? Try ballroom dance today: find your local USA Dance Chapter here!





4 Reasons You Should Start Ballroom Dancing – No Matter How Old You Are

4 Reasons You Should Start Ballroom Dancing – No Matter How Old You Are

Dance, whether social, theatrical, or ritually based, is a form of cultural expression that has been practiced in every part of the world throughout humanity. In particular, ballroom dance has begun to resurface over the years as it has become a part of American pop culture through TV shows like Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

I have been ballroom dancing for the past seven years, but not always competitively. I have competed with a partner, but I have also been able to use ballroom dance as an outlet to volunteer in my community, social dance, and find relaxation. Contrary to popular belief, anyone can ballroom dance because it offers different benefits based on what you are looking to get out of it, and it is a type of dance that all ages can do.


1. Exercise

Ballroom dance offers plenty of exercise opportunities, no matter what your age is. Although the elegant movements of ballroom dance appear effortless at first, a close examination of posture, poise, body rotation, single leg power, and foot strength reveals the incredible athleticism required to perform ballroom dance at any level. Many of the fast dances, such as swing and quickstep, provide challenging cardio workouts. The slower dances, such as bolero and waltz, help dancers to work on their balance and strength in all muscles of their bodies as these dances require control and grace.

2. Team Skills

Ballroom dance is a form of partner dancing- which means that it is done with a follow and lead. Without teamwork, ballroom dancing is nearly impossible. Both partners must work together to maintain the correct body frame and move as one. Through the process of working with my partner to match stride lengths and body styling for each step, I have learned that compromise and communication are essential to attain shared goals. The skills that you learn through ballroom dance will aid you in other aspects of your life as well.

3. Sport

One of the most athletic forms of dance is competitive ballroom and Latin dancing, also known as DanceSport. People of all ages compete at all different levels. In ballroom dance, there are three main levels- Bronze, Silver, and Gold. Although it may sound scary at first- the age groups and levels at competitions help to narrow down the competitors in each category so that everyone can relax and not feel too nervous.

4. Fun

Ballroom dance makes a wonderful hobby for people of all ages! For kids, it is a great after-school activity. For adults, it is the perfect way to find time to spend with your significant other, or to get your mind off of work. Even elders can ballroom dance, to take them back to their glory days. All types of music are used for ballroom dancing, so it is also a great way to listen to your favorite tunes, while learning something new!