Sayaka Ogata NUR ’06 sits on the floor of the Lanman Center in Payne Whitney Gymnasium, watching a colorful flurry of skirts move in time across the gym floor as she catches her breath before the next dance begins. Ogata, an accomplished ballroom dancer, is decked out in a bright, nearly fluorescent, orange dress, complete with silver sequin and orange feather accents. A white flower adorns her hair.
Ogata and her partner make up one of over 320 couples from 36 schools and independent organizations who gathered at Yale this Saturday for the 13th Annual Regional Ballroom Dance Competition, a day-long competition attracting dancers from all over the Northeast. The competition drew record numbers this year. Yale’s team entered 28 couples, including more graduate students than in years past.
Hosted every year by the Yale Ballroom Dancing Team, the competition includes four stylistic categories: American Smooth, International Standard, International Latin and American Rhythm. The categories break down into 30 events ranging in type of dance and level of difficulty. From 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., the basketball court is temporarily converted into a classy cotillion.
“The best thing about ballroom is that you don’t do a choreographed dance,” Ogata said. “It’s about presentation. You have to smile. You have to look like you know what you’re doing.”
While the other couples on the floor have a male lead, Ogata is led by Celeste Yang ’07, who dresses the part, donning black slacks, a white collared shirt and a black vest. Although female couples are not uncommon in ballroom, she and Ogata are the only girl-girl couple in their division, Yang said. The two started dancing together in June 2004, and practice two to three times a week. As Ogata and Yang take their place on the dance floor and begin a Viennese waltz, Ogata’s fluffy, calf-length skirt gathers and flows according to her movements — always a second behind — creating the appearance that the skirt is executing a dance of its own.
As they dance, the two are all smiles. With heads held high, they waltz across the floor, threading through other dancing couples, perfectly in sync.
“It feels like theater to me,” Ogata said. “Even if you’re in a fight with your partner, you have to go out there and dance like you are the best couple in the world.”
The popularity of ballroom dancing in New England, and particularly at Yale, has increased over the past few years, Ogata said. Last year, only 196 couples entered Yale’s annual competition, in comparison with the over 300 present at this year’s event. Internationally, ballroom dancing is gaining recognition as a sport. Ballroom dancing, officially referred to as “Dancesport” by the International Olympic Committee, is currently on the IOC’s list of 29 recognized sports, including bowling, karate, polo, rugby and surfing, that are not featured on the Olympic Program.
But though ballroom dancing’s popularity has increased, Yale’s team, which practices weekly, lacks the funding necessary to provide its dancers with costumes, shoes and constant coaching, Joanna Wu ’07, one of the competition’s coordinators, said. The team currently dedicates much of its money to new dancers, thus leaving returning dancers at a disadvantage, she said. But while Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University are some of the strongest teams, the Yale team is improving despite a relative lack of funding, Wu said.
Wu said she hopes that as more students take interest in the sport, the team may get more funding from the school.
“I’m hoping that as ballroom dancing becomes more popular, they will take us more seriously,” she said.
As the final dance of the International Standard category draws to a close at Saturday’s competition, couples swarm the dance floor for a general cha cha. Team and audience members are all invited to take to the floor and participate in the general dances that take place throughout the day as time permits.
The dancers have made it midway through the competition, and the style of dance changes from International Standard to International Latin. The music becomes faster, the beat stronger, and the dresses shorter and sexier. A high-pitched, Latino voice croons “Salsa! I like the way you move your hips!” as the “newbies” take the floor.
The competition is lively. Upbeat music intermingles with yelps from the crowd as swift feet fly across the gym floor. Both audience members and teammates shout encouraging words to their favorite couples.
“Often times people find it strange that ballroom dancing is very formal, but people are still yelling and cheering,” Yang said.
In Latin dancing, there is less body contact, as opposed to a waltz or tango, said Yang. This means that communication is all about the hands.
Difficulty levels in collegiate ballroom dancing are newbie/beginner, bronze, silver, gold and open. Dancers move up in skill level in one of two ways. They either “time out” of a level, or ambitious dancers can move up by accumulating a certain number of competition points, Wu said.
Wu, who competes in the bronze division with partner Howard Wang ’07, said she had never received any formal dance training before she joined the ballroom team at the beginning of last year. But once she started, she fell in love. Ballroom dancing helps individuals build self-confidence, she said. Through practice and performance, dancers become more comfortable with their bodies.
“A lot of people are not comfortable with the way their body is shaped,” she said. “[Ballroom] teaches you to be proud of what you have.”
Detelina Kalkandjieva ’06 said she enjoys the competitive aspect of ballroom dancing. Competitions like this one make the dancing more exciting, she said.
Other dancers have simpler reasons for taking up ballroom dancing.
“Girls like guys who can dance — ballroom,” newbie Amelie Hutchings ’08 said.
And while most members of the Yale Ballroom Dance Team enjoy ballroom dancing as a hobby and extracurricular sport, others aspire to be professional dancers, Wu said.
Following the success of the competition, the team plans to hold some large-scale dances next semester in order to raise funds for additional coaches and for travel expenses.
“Hopefully, we will get enough revenue so that we can help support all our team members according to their individual needs,” she said. “Yale has a really good team [with] many strong dancers, and we want to keep them.”