Ballroom Dancing: the Strictly Effect
5 April 2011
Vernon Kemp discusses the influence of this popular television dance competition
No teacher, dancer or pupil in the Dancesport world can have been untouched by the media phenomenon that is Strictly Come Dancing. The latest series seems to have pulled it back on course and it was certainly popular across a wide spectrum of viewers. How has this impacted on teachers and what changes have teachers initiated to take advantage of this opportunity?
Modern Ballroom has in recent years been increasingly difficult to sell to children and, to some extent, adults as well. The emergence of firstly Latin American, particularly Cha Cha Cha, and then Disco Freestyle, followed by a renaissance of Rock ‘n’ Roll and later Ceroc, Lindy and Swing, have all slowly and steadily eaten away at the potential market for ‘The Standard Five’ (Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, Quickstep and Viennese Waltz). Argentine Tango has emerged as a strong contender and, along with Salsa and members of the Swing family mentioned above, has strengthened a trend towards single dance learning in the adult social sphere.
This was the situation before Strictly arrived; a gradual demise of traditional Ballroom in the social classes. Here, I should add, I am not at the moment looking at the medallist or competitive fields where, for example, the growth of the medallist festivals and Grand Finals at Blackpool tell a completely different story.
So what has happened since Strictly? Firstly teachers reported a huge increase in attendance at Adult Beginner classes; the proportional rise in attendance was hardly surprising given that many had stopped running them completely and others had seen little change or a decline over a period of years.One of the big changes was that new class members recognised the dances and their rhythms; Viennese Waltz was suddenly as popular as the other dances instead of being Cinderella. Foxtrot was known to be slower than Quickstep and Tango different to Argentine Tango. Ballroom dancing is talked about in a way it has not been for two generations. The media has been full of it from advertising to social gossip magazines. Dancers have appeared on game shows, talk shows and even fronted their own shows. Corporate events involving Ballroom and Latin have become very popular, mostly at Christmas but throughout the year as well. Sometimes these involve their own mini version of Strictly with employees having lessons to dance against each other. Other times they are more of the demonstration and give a class type of event. The popular image of Ballroom dancing has certainly undergone a transformation particularly with regard to men dancing because of high profile sportsmen coming out in defence of it. These are just a few of the positives.
On the other hand, pupils expect to learn in a few weeks ‘like on the television.’ They seem to readily forget the hours that are spent every single day by the celebrities. Anybody who had danced a couple of basic movements at some point in the past suddenly opened a class. In some cases these were free and therefore hard to compete against by established teachers. Conversely the professionals themselves from Strictly have become celebrities and so some now charge accordingly, which has a ripple effect with other teachers thinking these fees are the norm. In a number of areas business people, as opposed to dancers, have set up companies teaching classes and private lessons. A team of part time staff is used with bookings made centrally and facilities are often found to suit the client, sometimes in their own home. Sometimes this is beneficial to young dancers, finding them a much needed source of income, but difficult for the studio owner. A number of people, including two taxi drivers, have told me that they have ‘done’ Ballroom dancing (maybe having completed a four week course) and now are doing rock climbing or something else.
It is, of course, great that the general public are now aware of what we do. I remember one examiner telling me that they did not admit to teaching Ballroom/ Latin whenever they were on holiday because you were then having to justify it, but not any more! The more publicity we have the more we have to be prepared to change if we want to take advantage of it.
If you had a big influx of new pupils how many have stayed? There will always be a drop off rate but do you think yours is at a level you are happy with? Do you think we are teaching the right things? Should we be teaching, for example, a simple Oversway in week two? (Margaret Preedy gave a fascinating demonstration of this type of idea at Congress quite soon after Strictly was first aired.) Have we learnt from the single dance classes? It must be very confusing for our students to come along to learn a whole range of dances when they don’t know any dancing at all.
Certainly the instant fix has become normal in learning. The internet feeds us small, easily digestible tidbits of information. One of the traditional ways of keeping the interest of pupils is to enter them for an examination. The Social Dance Test (or at least its predecessor, the Popular Dance Test) was introduced for just this reason. Somewhere over the years some would say that it has been hijacked by medallist competitors. Teachers perhaps need reminding that it can be used with social dancers (adults, teenagers or children) who have attended a number of classes and are able to navigate the room and stay in time with the music. Of course some teachers still use these tests in this manner as we see in our exam sessions.
What experiences have you had as teachers? Have you had large numbers come in? Have they stayed? Have you altered your learning programme? Have you entered them for any exams?
Why don’t you write and let me know your ideas and experiences. Do you think that ultimately Strictly has been a good thing or not for you as a qualified teacher of dance? If you had the last few years again is there anything you would have done differently? I look forward to hearing from you.