I don’t think I belong here.
That thought echoed in my head as I watched the pro-am American Rhythm session at the 2014 Holiday Dance Classic, held at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. It was my second competition as a pro-am ballroom student. I was there to dance American Smooth at the Bronze level. Smooth wasn’t until the next day, but Teacher was competing with other students in Rhythm and I wanted to show my support.
All morning, I watched ladies on the floor, dancing in rhinestones, feathers and fringe. During one of his breaks, Teacher pointed out students who seemed to be at almost every competition. I learned that some pro-am students were wealthy enough to fly themselves and their teachers around the country all year, dancing hundreds of entries at one competition after another.
And then there was me.
My entries at Holiday consisted of three rounds of single dances and one scholarship round, a total of 15 dances. I was sharing my hotel room with two other people, and I had a bag of mandarin oranges and a bag of trail mix to eat for three days while I was at the competition. I was making my morning tea with hot water from the bathroom sink because the room did not come with a coffeemaker and I couldn’t justify spending $4 on Starbucks in the casino downstairs.
I spent most of the night before I danced staring at the dark popcorn ceiling in my hotel room and thinking about those other women and everything I had done to scrape together just enough money to enter the competition.
What was I doing here?
When it was time to get ready for my hair/makeup appointment at the crack of dawn, I took my oranges and trail mix into the bathroom to eat so I didn’t disturb my roommates. I made my sink-water tea and sat on the floor, and that’s when I really started to freak out. It didn’t look like much because I was so sleep-deprived, but my anxious mind was filling with doubt.
My first competition was the 2014 San Francisco Open, but Holiday felt like the first “real” competition for me. The SF Open was like a practice comp; I went for the experience and with no expectations. I did really well, placing 3rd or higher in all of my dances.
Now there were expectations. I desperately wanted to be a great ballroom dancer. But what if I sucked? What if those high placements at my first comp were beginner’s luck and I ended up disappointing myself and my teacher? What if everyone could tell I couldn’t really afford this and therefore didn’t really belong in this world?
By the time I made it down to the ballroom, dressed to the nines in my rented gown with hair and makeup done up to match, a friend had already informed Teacher of my emotional state. He took me aside and instructed me to just breathe while he rocked me like a child. After a brief warm-up, he declared me ready. I continued to breathe.
All it took was one round of dancing for my mind to clear and my doubts to fade. Who cares how much money I had, I loved ballroom! Everything felt right with the universe when I danced; I belonged on that dance floor. My results showed it too, as I placed first in almost every dance, including the scholarship round.
I later told Teacher that the scholarship line-up was a bittersweet moment for me. I was full of joy and pride and, at the same time, I knew it wouldn’t last. There was no way I could afford more of these competitions.
Of course, I turned out to be very wrong! Six years later, I’ve competed at a total of 16 competitions. I still have to budget very carefully, though I’m able to afford more than a handful of trail mix and a couple mandarin oranges.
When there is such a great financial disparity between you and your fellow dancers, it’s difficult to ignore and almost impossible to not compare your journey to others. It’s made me wonder if I should just quit many times. It’s made me wonder if my love of dance was really enough to mean I belonged in the ballroom world. Then every time I think I won’t be able to afford a competition, I try anyway and somehow make it happen. That feeling of belonging returns when I walk out on the floor and the music begins to play.
Continuing on my dance journey took more of a mindset shift than figuring out how to make more money. I couldn’t afford the “luxury” aspects of ballroom, like the custom-made dresses, jewelry, and constant private lessons and coachings. So I started to focus solely on the dance. I focused on getting the most out of my 1-2 lessons per week instead of wishing I could take more.
I can see the effects of that focus in my dance journey even today. After 8 years of ballroom dance, my closet is not full of practice wear because workout clothes work just as well and that leaves me with more money to put toward actual dancing. I have one pair of practice shoes, which I bought after my toe finally poked through the last pair. I’ve never bought a competition dress new. I finally purchased the pink one I wore to Holiday all those years ago, with a payment plan, wore it for a couple more years, and then was gifted my blue dress. My competition jewelry collection is small, a mix of gifts and purchased items. I always buy pieces that will go with anything.
I still take just 1-2 lessons per week. To get the most out of my lessons, I cracked the secrets of solo practice so I would never waste lesson time re-reviewing something. Teacher and I also don’t dawdle during lessons. We jump right in with questions I have or me dancing a solo round or whatever else Teacher has planned.
I’ve never hobnobbed at a competition at dinners or after parties because I typically leave right after I’m finished competing (unless it’s out of town). I still don’t enter more than 3 rounds of dancing and always make sure I’m in a scholarship with a cash prize. I once entered the Open Smooth scholarship when I was still in Closed Silver because the Closed scholarships didn’t come with monetary awards. There were only two of us entered, so I took 2nd place and a check home!
What it all comes down to is focusing on my own dance journey and prioritizing accordingly. I love to dance. That’s what matters.
Incredibly, it’s not easy to just focus on your own path, especially when others’ paths look brighter, shinier and more expensive than you can afford. It can make you feel “less than.” It can make you question what you’re doing here in the ballroom world and if you really belong.
Please believe me when I say, you do belong. You belong here because you love to dance. You belong here because you work hard at your dancing. You belong here because you understand what it takes to get to that dance floor. And once the music starts, you savor and appreciate every moment that much more.
Six years ago, I thought my competition days were over. I turned out to be very wrong. Even now, after this insane year, I still believe that if I want to compete again, it will happen. Probably not in the way I expect or plan. But this journey has taught me that I am more capable than I ever give myself credit for, and with passion, determination and perseverance, I can make it happen.
Stay safe, and happy dancing.