Last week after a class I attended was over, I got pulled into a conversation with one of the ladies who had been in class with me. The conversation started out awkwardly, with her lauding praise on me for how good of a Lead I was. Luckily the topic soon shifted to her asking me how I had improved so much, because she wanted to work on getting better at her own dancing. I told her about the things that I was currently learning in my coaching sessions, about using the technique-based group classes I attend during the week to help refine what I know, and I also told her that much of my recent improvements were completely due to setting up regular sessions to meet up with Sparkledancer for practice. After hearing my tidbits of wisdom, she sighed and said that she wished she could find an amateur partner like me.
That last wish of hers is something I’d like to take a moment to comment upon, since I hear it quite often. I’ve met a lot of ladies who dance Pro/Am over the years, and several have asked me if I was interested in switching partners to dance with them instead, or if I knew any single men that they could dance with, or they want to lament to me about how they think it must be so much better to dance Amateur rather than Pro/Am. I have also read lots of postings online about women who want to switch from dancing Pro/Am to dancing Amateur with a male student. I’ve also had ladies tell me all about how they dream of meeting the perfect dance partner to compete with, falling in love, and (as one girl put it once upon a time) Tangoing down the aisle together on their wedding day.
I don’t think that many of these ladies who dream about this sort of dance partnership actually know what they would be getting themselves into. Dancing Amateur competitively, which is something I’ve done for years, has its good and bad points, much like dancing Pro/Am does (which is something I’ve also done, though it’s been a while). So before you sign up somewhere looking for an amateur male to dance with, let me tell you about some things that I have learned and seen over the years I’ve been doing this. I believe that once people have information about the Amateur path in ballroom dancing, they can make an informed decision about whether dancing Amateur instead of Pro/Am is right for them.
Two notes before I begin: A) this is totally from a male perspective (since I’m, you know, a guy) and B) several of these points assume that you and your amateur partner are roughly the same ‘level’ of dancer, since that seems to be what many ladies I know who are looking for an amateur partner are looking for. That said…
- In your lessons together, ladies won’t usually get much attention
This is the biggest thing which many of these ladies that tell me all about their desires to compete Amateur don’t seem to realize. If you are dancing with an amateur male who is roughly the same level of dancer as you, much of your lessons/coaching with instructors will end up focusing on improving what he is doing. Oftentimes it will feel like you are just being used as a dance prop in your lessons together. If you think about it, you shouldn’t be too surprised by this. If you are good at Following, and you already are capable of getting into a strong dance frame, all you really need to know is your basic footwork for the figures that are in use.
One of the instructors that I have taken lessons from over the years explained things to me like this: he and his professional partner practiced together all the time early in their careers, but they never seemed to do much better when they would compete. It wasn’t until he went off to get some intense coaching on his leading skills that both he and his partner started to get better marks, even though she didn’t go off and get any extra coaching herself. Because everything she was doing was working off of what he was doing, he was the one holding their partnership back. The better he danced, the better she was able to use his dancing to execute her shapes and steps, so the better they scored together in competitions.
So if you have been dancing Pro/Am for a while and are used to spending an hour or so in each lesson getting picked on for everything you do wrong to make you improve, you have to prepare yourself to not be the primary focus anymore, because how well he does will have the biggest impact on how well you both dance together.
- Dancing as an amateur couple allows the Lead to regularly work with male instructors
This is the biggest reason why I like dancing with an amateur partner myself. Alone, I would need to have a female instructor to dance with, and she would be my primary teacher unless I was willing to pay for her time and the male instructors time. Studying under male instructors regularly really helps me to learn all kinds of things from people who have primarily danced and competed doing my part of the figures, so they know all kinds of tricks to help me out. I know this information doesn’t really mean much to ladies looking to find an amateur male partner to dance with, but I personally see this as a positive point.
- You will advance at a much slower rate
This one should be obvious, but I feel like I need to point it out anyway: there are now two of you who are learning to be better at the same time, so unless you start taking twice as many lessons together (which would totally negate point number four), you will advance as a dancer at a slower rate than you would if you stick with Pro/Am, since in Pro/Am half of your partnership (the Pro) already knows what he/she should be doing. If they don’t know that, you probably shouldn’t be paying them to teach you…
Also, if you switch from dancing Pro/Am to Amateur, you will probably have to spend some time with your new partner going back to basic/Bronze steps in practice until you get comfortable dancing with each other. If you have spent a lot of time dancing socially over the years, learning to adjust to a new partner won’t be so much trouble for you, so you should be able to get comfortable quicker. However, if you have only ever danced with a single person who was a higher level instructor, or even a small team of instructors, you will find that there is a big difference dancing with an amateur, so there will definitely be an adjustment period before you can perform at your peak together.
- Amateur does, generally, cost less, but limits some options available
It’s great only having to pay half the cost for the lessons you take and the competitions and dance events you sign up for. I’m pretty sure all of you who might read this are aware that ballroom dancing can be an expensive endeavor, so having someone else who will shoulder half the financial burden is awesome. Who wouldn’t like that?
However, there are some things that the community makes available to people competing Pro/Am that don’t show up much for people competing Amateur. Do you prefer to go to competitions and dance heats, running each of your routines several times in the course of the day and getting feedback/placements for each one? Don’t expect to get that option often when you compete in Amateur. Sure, some local studio-based competitions will allow amateur couples to sign up for multiple heats in an event, but in bigger competitions run by national organizations the option for amateurs to dance heats is usually nonexistent. Unless you sign up to dance in multiple levels or multiple age categories, expect to go out, dance once (or twice if there are enough competitors for semi-final and final rounds), and be done. And hope to all the gods above past, present and future, that your first round of the day isn’t Viennese Waltz at butt-crack-o’clock in the morning, because you won’t get another shot…
- You have to be motivated to practice
This may seem like an obvious point whether you are dancing Amateur or Pro/Am, but one of the points that comes up when people talk to me about how they want to dance with an amateur partner is that it will save them money because then they don’t have to pay a professional to dance with them when they want to practice. This may be true, but then again if you are not scheduling a time with and paying someone to dance with you, there is less pressure on you to stop everything else you are doing and go meet up for practice. I’ve experienced this myself – the siren song of my pillow is strong some days, so I know how hard it is to find the motivation to get out of bed on a Sunday before lunchtime just to go practice dance.
- Expecting to have romance with your amateur partner is often a bad idea…
This nugget of wisdom is actually from an off-hand comment I got from a high-level dance coach I worked with. He and I had gotten off on a tangent about some recent single’s event that I had attended, and that led him to talk about his previous professional dance partner. He told me that they had a fairly typical story – while training to be champions, they spent almost all of their free time together. One thing led to another and, as you can imagine, the close physical contact they had been working on to perfect their dance frame became close physical contact they worked on in bed sans clothes. They started dating, and even moved in together to save money while they continued their training.
Things were good for a while until they both started to get more into the professional coaching side of their careers rather than focusing solely on competing. This changed things so that they didn’t spend their entire balance of free time practicing dance together, so they tried to use their extra free time to… you know… date. They began to realize that even though they were incredibly compatible as dancers, they were not incredibly compatible as people when they weren’t dancing. Rather than wait until things got too ugly and they couldn’t stand to be near each other anymore, they decided to see other people and maintain a cordial friendship. Since that time they have both also moved on to new professional partners to dance with as well, since their interests in competing have also diverged.
As much as ladies I talk to want to believe the fairy tale that they can find an amateur partner to dance and compete with and then fall in love, you can’t base a romantic relationship solely on dance and expect it to work for ever and ever. What would happen if one of those ladies came to find out that while she only likes to eat waffles for breakfast on the weekends, he will only eat pancakes? So much incompatibility!
- …but friendship and trust are essential to a good dance partnership
There’s a reason why you see so many older couples who have been married for a long time take up dancing after their kids are out of the house and do very well dancing and competing together. They are already friends, and they trust each other (at least, I have to assume that they do, since they got married in the first place). If you have a hard time trusting people, then dancing with a partner who you aren’t paying to tell you what to do becomes very difficult.
Trust is essential. Think about it – training together as two amateurs, especially when you are practicing without an instructor hovering nearby to help, requires you to be comfortable with things like:
- close body contact
- getting sweaty and gross around someone during intense practice sessions
- communicating with your partner when things don’t feel right
- understanding when to move on to something else before frustration causes anger
- learning not to fight about dance-related issues
- asking your partner to help you out if needed
- if neither partner is sure about a figure or technique, seeking out help from a professional
You don’t want to be that amateur couple that constantly gets caught up in “dance fights” instead of practicing. I’ve never seen any amateur couples over the years go through a “dance fight” that had positive results when it was resolved! Have you?
(I guess the overall theme of points 6 and 7 can be summed up as: taking on an amateur partner and falling in love with them doesn’t seem to work out as well as finding someone you love and then taking up ballroom dancing together. Your mileage may vary, of course.)
- You won’t have a professional dancing with you to fall back on
This is a major sticking point that most people don’t even think about until it is brought up. If you are competing as a Pro/Am partnership now, only half of your couple is scored during a competition. The Pro can also give you reminders about things you need to fix in mid-dance if need be, because the Pro knows your part of the figures. Until you start dancing at a high-enough level where you and your amateur partner are learning each-other’s half of your figures, there is really a limited amount of items your partner can remind you of when you dance together, even when not under the pressure of a competition.
- Finding a worthwhile amateur male partner is going to be difficult
Male leads are hard to come by, as any female dancer can tell you. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a dance class, a social dance, or a competition, there just don’t seem to be enough of us to fill the demand. That is the biggest problem many ladies I’ve talked to have when they set out looking for a guy to compete in Amateur with. I’ve looked at postings online for people searching for amateur partners in my area – the number of ladies who have posted ads is huge compared to the number of men!
There’s another underlying problem I’ve noticed though, and this one is what gives guys like me a bad reputation, even if we do our best to try to overcome the stigma: I’ve met many unattached males during my years in the dance community – males who only like to go out social dancing, males who are only interested in competing, and those that will do both. Because unattached males are hard to come by, when they come into a dance studio to take lessons, it seems like a lot of ladies fawn over them to try to get them to stick around. This behavior can go to their heads, and I’ve seen many a young man turn into essentially a diva (would that be a divo?). Suddenly he is sure that he is better than everyone else, and needs to go out of his way to prove his dominance.
As an example, I knew one young man who, after a few months of lessons, had gotten such a big ego about his perceived skills that he would go out of his way to point out all the things he thought ladies who had been dancing for years were doing wrong during a social dance. The ladies would just smile and nod at his comments, but would then go and complain about it to each other when he wasn’t in earshot because they didn’t want to scare him away!
Rumors also have it that sometimes these men can also get… skeevy. Expecting… favors, in return for their help as dance partners. You know what I mean. I’ve never met a guy who has admitted to such things, but the rumors are out there that it happens in the ballroom world. Crazy.
Anyway… that’s probably enough on this subject. I have been making these notes in my head since I had that conversation last week, so I thought I should write them down. Hopefully they are helpful to others who are considering making the switch from Pro/Am to Amateur. Having done competitions over the years with both a professional partner and an amateur partner, I can honestly say that one is not necessarily better than the other – they are just different tracks on the same path. Do whichever one is the most fun for you, because ultimately that’s what it should be about!
These are my personal thoughts, and have not been evaluated by the administration to determine fitness for human consumption. Should you take this advice and notice discomfort in the appendix or swelling of the hands and feet, please seek medical attention immediately as these reactions may be life threatening. Always consult an expert before beginning this or any other regimen.
Feel free to ask me any questions!