Ballroom dancing is steeped in tradition. It originates from a time when society’s expectations carried great weight and there were some things you just didn’t do.
Like get your entire back tattooed.
I am not much of a traditionalist. I tend to take traditions and conventions and adapt them to what feels right for me. I won’t conform just to conform.
When I first started ballroom dancing, I only had one small tattoo on my wrist.
A few months in, I got a second one on my other wrist.
I didn’t have plans to compete, so it never came up as an issue.
Then I started working with my current teacher and developing competition goals. At the same time, I was finalizing the idea for my tree tattoo and making plans with a tattoo artist. The timing worked out so that my tree tattoo would be started about a month and a half before my first competition. And the dress I had picked to dance in was backless.
It was actually one of Teacher’s other students that brought it up to Teacher first. She was concerned for me and convinced Teacher to sit me down to have a talk. The two of them explained that tradition was still alive and well in the ballroom world, and I might rub people the wrong way by displaying my art. It could affect my results. Teacher took a neutral position, for which I highly respected him, and told me that it is my body and my choice, so if I wanted to show off my tattoos, he would support me. But he also didn’t want me to be hurt if I didn’t place at competition when I felt like I should have.
To be honest, when I’m told I should or shouldn’t do something just because that is what is expected, the rebel in me roars to life. I have no problem following conventions, rules, standards, etc., but I need to understand the reasoning behind them. If you’re telling me to not show my tattoo or delay getting it until after a competition, I need to know why and be able to accept the why. If the only reasons are “it’s just not done” or some judges might not like it and place me lower, that’s not good enough. I cannot accept being judged by my appearance instead of my dancing.
This attitude makes my relationship with ballroom a little complicated! I was raised to never judge people by how they looked and I fully embrace that moral. But part of ballroom is the visual presentation – the man in his suit and the lady in her beautiful gown. You try to outshine the competition with your dancing, but also with your costume, your hair, and your makeup. “Pretty girls” can get away with poorer dancing skills because their appearance is more pleasing to the eye.
I ended up covering my tattoo with makeup for that first competition because it wasn’t complete and I didn’t want to show it off half-finished. I did tell Teacher during that first talk though, that I fully intended to continue wearing backless dresses for competition and once my tattoo was finished, I wanted to show it off in all its glory. Teacher said “ok!” and we got back to the dancing.
The 2014 Holiday Dance Classic in Las Vegas was the first competition where I showed off the complete tree. If I was going to be a ballroom dancer, I was going to do it my way. That meant not hiding one part of me (my body art) for the sake of another part (my dancing). I was going out on that dance floor with my full self or nothing. I mentally prepared myself to dance my absolute best with no tangible reward.
I ended up winning nearly every heat I entered, including the scholarship round.
After the competition, when I brought up the tattoo issue to Teacher, he proudly said my dancing was so strong that the judges couldn’t mark me lower.
In subsequent competitions I entered after that, wearing the same pink dress, I continued to place high.
So maybe it’s not as big a deal as I was warned?
The jury is still out. Tattoos seem to be a very gray issue in the competitive ballroom world. If you search for “tattoos and ballroom dancing” on the internet, you’ll find blog posts and forum threads with the general message: “I don’t think it’s a big deal but other people including judges do, so I wouldn’t risk it.”
There is also a general feeling that tattoos are more acceptable on people dancing rhythm or latin styles, where the character is sexy and edgy. The older traditions of ballroom are more attached to the standard and smooth styles.
So if I listen to the general consensus, I am pushing the boundaries by dancing smooth and showing off my full-back tattoo at the same time. I’m such a rebel!
Or am I? I haven’t figured out if I’m trailblazing the way for other tattooed people who love dancing waltz or if I’ve just been lucky so far. Or maybe tattoos are not a big deal anymore, but no one is going to be the first to declare that.
One common point that I am inclined to agree with in regard to this debate is the distraction factor. Does the tattoo distract from the dancing? If the answer is yes, even I might say cover it. But more likely, I would say get a costume that compliments it!
When I looked at possible dresses to rent for Holiday, the one thing that I insisted on was a dress that was as backless as possible. I didn’t want half of the back showing and I didn’t want a back with a sheer material. I wanted full-out backless. Because I love my tattoo and wanted it to be displayed completely. I knew it would look strange, and therefore distracting, if people could only see part of it.
But then again, if my tango video is any consideration, showing the full tattoo also seems to distract the judges!
So I guess it’s still a gray area for me too. All I can say with certainty is I believe every tattooed dancer should decide for themselves and not immediately give into perceived expectations. For me, the rebel in me definitely played a role in my decision, but as I don’t conform just to conform, I don’t rebel just to rebel. I wasn’t willing to hide part of who I was just to conform to a world I wanted to belong in. At the same time, I respect that world and the chance it has given me to discover a hidden part of myself. So I guess I’m asking for mutual respect and a little compromise from ballroom. Even if at first glance, I don’t look like a typical ballroom dancer, I promise to still work hard to be the best representation of ballroom that I can be by dancing like a ballroom dancer.
When the music starts, it’s the dancing that matters.