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For most of us, ballroom dancing brings to mind the familiar black and white images ofFred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, gliding across the screen with an effortless elegance. But competitive ballroom dancing is a wholly different animal – at once sensual, artistic, and thoroughly athletic.

To the uninitiated, the regulations and standards of competitive ballroom (also referred to as DanceSport) events can seem confusing. Dancers must contend with the physical demands of the sport while quickly adapting their style and technical abilities to the music, which is kept confidential until their turn on the show floor. Depending on which organization is hosting the competition, there are also small – but key – differences in music tempo and length. The couples must not only be able to dance together flawlessly, but to adjust to these variable conditions while adhering to the strict style guidelines set forth by the International DanceSport Federation (IDSF).

During each competition, dancers are divided into age groups, and then in some cases, into their amateur or professional rankings. As in figure skating, judging is based on artistic merit as well as technical criteria – among them body alignment, posture, speed, timing, and grooming. While the types of dances may differ depending on the host country or organization, here is a short list of the dances you can usually expect to see, and the umbrella category they fall under.

International Standard

  • Waltz
  • Tango
  • Viennese Waltz
  • Slow Foxtrot
  • Quickstep

International Latin

  • Cha Cha
  • Samba
  • Rumba
  • Paso Doble
  • Jive

American Smooth

  • Waltz
  • Tango
  • Foxtrot
  • Viennese Waltz

American Rhythm

  • Cha Cha
  • Rumba
  • East Coast Swing
  • Bolero
  • Mambo

Though there are a few dances that are repeated under different categories, they are not in fact the same. For International Standard and Latin, dancers can only use closed dance positions, while the American styles allow for closed, open and separated poses as well as small differentiations in footwork.

DanceSport events are held internationally throughout the year, culminating in May with the sport’s most prestigious event, the Blackpool Dance Festival in Blackpool, England and featuring the top dancers from more than 60 countries. Performers may also have the opportunity to dance in World Championship and Grand Slam events, but as yet have not been added to the roster for the Olympics. While the Olympic Games’ governing body (IOC) has recognized DanceSport as a legitimate athletic pursuit, given the recent paring down of medal sports, it is unlikely fans will see its inclusion in the medal tournaments any time soon.

Blackpool Dance Festival – samba competition

DanceSport enjoys widespread popularity in Europe, Asia and the former Soviet republics, where elite dancers are household names and in some cases, receive government funding. In America, despite the growing television audiences for hit network TV shows, competitive ballroom has yet to establish a comparable fan base. Supporters of the sport are hoping to see this change soon, as more Americans are lacing up their dancing shoes. While we may not all be championship caliber, it is always inspiring to see some of the best dance teams in the world take to the floor.