Embassy Ball, home of the World Championships under the NDCA and WDC, took place in Orange County, CA this past week. Seeing so many social media posts with photos and videos from the event had me waxing nostalgic over my own Embassy memories. I’ve competed at Embassy Ball three times – 2017, 2018 and 2019. Embassy Ball has been a place of highs and lows for me, each triggering a significant turning point in my dance journey.
I thought we’d take a trip down memory lane, if you’ll indulge me!
My first time at Embassy Ball was three years into my competitive career. Since my first competition at the 2014 San Francisco Open, I was enjoying a lot of success on the dance floor, consistently taking home first places in the Closed Bronze A category in American Smooth. In February 2016, I debuted at the Closed Silver level at California Open and then Life promptly forced me to take a break from competition for over a year. I finally got back on the floor in April 2017 at Ballroom Beach Bash.
2017 was an unusual year for me, as far as competitions go. At Beach Bash, I tied for 1st in the Closed Silver scholarship but ended up with 2nd place after a Rule 11 tiebreaker. After being off the floor for over a year, I was thrilled just to be dancing and competing again. My next competition was at the Desert Classic in July. This time, I placed 3rd in my scholarship. I struggled with my stamina at Desert and even though I still placed in the top 3, which is nothing to scoff at, I couldn’t help feel a tinge of disappointment. I started the day with a clean sweep of 1st places in my single dances, then took 2nd place in my championship rounds, and finally ended 3rd in my scholarship. I couldn’t help notice how my placements got worse, not better, through the day.
Finally Embassy Ball arrived at the end of August 2017. I had been working hard with my limited private lessons to prepare for my first shot at a World Championship title. The day started out a little rough in the singles, but each round felt better than the last. By the time I danced the scholarship (world champion) round, I felt amazing. It felt like the best I had ever danced. I was happy and proud of myself.
And then we lined up for the awards and they called our number for 5th place. Out of 7 couples, I landed in the bottom three. I remember mentally preparing myself to get called for 4th place because even though I thought I danced my best, I knew the competition was tough. I was not prepared for 5th. I kept a smile on my face as I lined up for the photo, and then got out of the ballroom as quickly as I could without drawing attention to myself.
That result was a major low point for me. All of my inner demons and self-doubt felt validated and all of the previous praise received for my dancing felt like lies. After throwing myself a pity party of one and throwing a tantrum or two on subsequent lessons (thank you for your patience, Teacher), I picked myself back up, determined to do whatever I had to do to never feel that way again. I solicited feedback from other coaches who had seen me dance that day. Post-tantrums, I listened to what Teacher told me during lessons and asked as many questions as I needed to ensure I understood what he was saying. I also renewed my solo practice efforts and began building the framework that would become the basis for The Solo Practice Guide for Ballroom Dancing. I was on a mission.
2018 was another unusual competition year for me. I usually only competed two to three times per year due to financial circumstances, but in 2018, I competed a whopping five times! After a challenging 2017 ending in bitter disappointment, I came back feeling stronger and ready to dance. The first three competitions were only weeks apart instead of months and I was drafting the Solo Practice Guide at the same time, so things felt a little crazy! I was in it to win it though. #cantstopwontstop
Another shift was also happening in 2018. Some of the feedback I received in 2017 was that I seemed to be looking for approval while I was dancing. Instead of conveying an attitude of “look at me dance!”, I was coming off like “is this right?” I realized in my quest for the podium, the focus of my dancing became more on other people (i.e., the judges) and their approval rather than myself and my partner. By caring too much about what the judges were thinking, I became less appealing to watch.
So I stopped caring. Well, a better way to put it might be that I started caring more about what I thought and felt about my dancing than what others thought. I was dancing and competing for me, not for the judges. I was the only one who had the right to give her stamp of approval on my performance.
Ironically, this attitude shift brought me better results! I was placing 1st and 2nd in everything again!
Then came Embassy Ball. This was my chance at redemption. Although in reality, I didn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone but myself. This competition was for me and only me. I felt calm and confident on the dance floor. I was there to revel in the joy that dancing brought me. The scholarship/world champion round had 11 couples in it this year. We danced a semifinal and then a final round. I was in the zone. Everything clicked. I have never felt more grounded and free at the same time on the dance floor.
By the time we lined up for awards, I knew that I had won. I don’t know how; it was a feeling deep down inside that sat there calmly dismissing every inner demon that popped up saying we should prepare for a lower mark. There was no need. Our number was called for first place. I was officially a World Champion ballroom dancer.
It felt like I was in a Cinderella story except instead of a fairy godmother, there was me. The ballroom dancer who wrote a book on solo practice because she couldn’t afford to take extra private lessons or coachings. The tattooed ballroom dancer who refused to show up on the floor as anything less than her whole self. There I was on that champion podium.
After celebrating our victory at the 2018 Embassy Ball, Teacher and I were hungry for more. He felt I was ready to move into the Open level of American Smooth. This was the most advanced category available to pro-am students and our chance to get more creative with our choreography because we weren’t restricted to the syllabus anymore.
Moving into the Open level was like graduating high school and starting at a new college as a freshman. You go from feeling confident and experienced to feeling like a total beginner. I didn’t compete at all in 2019 until Embassy Ball came around again. It was frustrating because I wanted to be out on the floor. I missed it, but I didn’t fully grasp how much different it would be to compete at this new level and how much more preparation was needed to get our routines competition ready.
When Embassy finally came around, I couldn’t wait to dance! It felt so good to get back on the floor during my round of single dances. My dancing was far from perfect, but I enjoyed every moment. I was home again.
In the hours leading up to the scholarship round, my mood descended from the happy clouds and nerves set in. There were 14 couples in the Open scholarship. I began to worry about whether I would be able to hold my own in a crowd that had more experience dancing at this level. I fought feelings of intimidation and held my head high as we walked out onto the floor for the semifinal round.
My dancing was decent, but not enough to make the final. This was the first time I had not made the final round at a competition. Granted, usually the categories I’m in don’t have semifinal rounds, but if they ever did, I always passed to the final. I knew not to expect much as far as results go because it was my first time in Open and I hadn’t competed in a year. I knew I did my best. Still, it was disappointing and I couldn’t help feeling like I let Teacher down, despite his reassurances that he was proud of me.
Watching my videos from my debut in Open, it was obvious to me that I was the newbie in the scholarship group. That’s when I realized this part of my journey would not be like the previous chapters. I would have to work harder to make smaller increments of progress. I was climbing a steeper mountain now.
My debut in Open triggered more exploration into body awareness. I began developing a more refined connection with my body and how it moves. My dance training shifted from learning how to dance a move correctly to learning how to interpret a move in a way that best suits my body. I started exploring all of the space in between a predefined structure like “heel-toe, toe, toe-heel” in which I could allow my body to move the way it’s meant to move.
I competed in Open two more times in 2020 before the pandemic shut everything down. Not my best dancing, but each one felt like a mile marker along a greater journey, rather than a final destination. I was only passing through. The journey was far from over.
That journey has taken a few unexpected turns, the biggest one of course being my move to Maine. I miss competing. I miss my weekly lesson with Teacher. But my new home has brought me such peace and contentment, rather than feeling bittersweet about what I left in the past, I look forward to meeting these things again in the future. I don’t know when exactly, but I know the dance journey isn’t over and there are more performances/competitions down the road. That’s enough for me to feel happy with where I am now.
For everyone competing at USDC this week, I wish you the very best! Be safe, have fun, and happy dancing!
Just for fun: