Six Years Ago, I Thought My Competition Days Were Over

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.

2014 Holiday Dance Classic Bronze A Smooth Scholarship lineup

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.

Fred Astaire West Coast Dance Championships – January 2020

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.


6 thoughts on “Six Years Ago, I Thought My Competition Days Were Over

  1. Nikki M says:

    I commend you for finding a way to fit yourself into the expectations of that competition system. I love the idea of dressing up and dancing with others, but I most definitely don’t want to belong in competitions how they are now and that is my own choosing. I try my best to only spend money on things I support.

    I’ve experienced many cultures of extreme competition in my life. In Academia as well as the dance world. I’ve seen too many people get stuck in the pursuit of an image while maintaining the opposite reality. My last partner competed, and made a point during our lessons to talk about their expensive suit, and how they were training weekly with their elite coach. But the suit no longer fit, their car was falling apart, and they couldn’t afford rent. It’s hard to agree with the things people tell you should be inspiring you, when you see what people give up to claim them. Of course, not everyone is dancing into debt, but I’ve worked in a few studios now, and I can tell you there are more experiences happening on credit than people are willing to admit.

    In my opinion, there are too many dance teachers and studios who unintentionally enable their students to go into debt or financial stress pursuing a dream to compete or perform. Dance dreams are their business and inspiration gets students buying more lessons. Some dance teachers are amazing, but there are also a lot of them could care less if you leave your money at the studio or in their pocket without reaching the goals they sold you on.

    I’d love to see a change in the way competitions welcome dancers. Along with students telling other students to budget so they can afford competition, the competition systems and studio businesses can reflect and be more accepting of the diverse range of potential participants and their budgets that exist in the dance world. They would still make money, and would be providing a true competition experience. What if attending competition events actually meant testing your skills against the best dancers, and not just the ones who are willing to pay the current high price?

    Just a thought.


    • TheGirlWithTheTreeTattoo says:

      I’m right there with you! It’s crazy how much money some people spend that they don’t have. And at the same time, not so crazy because of how hard some of the studios sell them on the fantasy. I’ve always made it a rule for myself to not put anything dance-related on credit card. Trying to do my part to help my fellow dancers as always with my blog and books. 🙂 This issue is why I wrote my 2nd Dance Diaries on Ballroom Budgeting.


  2. Kathleen A Dobek says:

    Katie, hi. This is an interesting post about how the studios market themselves and try to inspire students to keep coming back and dancing. The staff are very, very strong salespeople. I’ve felt my teacher was really selling strong once the pandemic arrived and I stopped dancing. Routine text messages (not only to me, but all his students, I’m sure) asking how I was, that he missed dancing with me, etc. I picked up on the comment that NIKKI M. mentioned about the teachers following through on the students’ dance goals. Another reason, in addition to the primary one of the pandemic and the cost, that I am taking a break in lessons and dancing is that my teacher didn’t seem to be working with me on what dances I wanted to dance, what my dance goals were, so I kept wasting time and a l lot of money warming up on dances that did not interest me. He would always remark about “…to be a social dancer…”. I just wasn’t being heard, and there really isn’t a personalized dance program, unless you are adamant about it, and then you run the risk of coming off as bossy. If I return, I have to insist that since I’m not interested in being a social or professional dancer, that I want to just dance the waltzes, which I adore. I would be happy to be able to dance the two waltzes reasonably well. And, yes, I probably do need to create a specific budget for the lessons so it doesn’t feel so bad shelling out a little over $400 for 5 lessons? Yikes!


    • TheGirlWithTheTreeTattoo says:

      Yes, you definitely have to be clear about your goals if you have them because otherwise they just take you down a more typical path. And you are the paying client, so don’t worry about being perceived as “bossy.” That being said, it is always beneficial to become more of a well-rounded dancer. Taking Latin styling classes has helped my waltz dances, for example, because I was learning different ways to move my body and to express with my arms.
      Any good teacher knows this, but maybe yours just isn’t taking the right approach (and not hearing you when you try to indicate your goals). You can certainly work on your waltzes and explore concepts from other dances at the same time. My teacher pulls a lot of ideas from ballet for example, but we’re still working on my Smooth routines.
      When you return to dance, hopefully your teacher will hear you. Maybe he’s also worried you’ll get bored with just the waltzes? You can always change your mind later, after you become a waltz master. 🙂 There is always more to learn!


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