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Athletes and Aesthetes

Campus dance teams train and compete to sharpen their tools of creative expression

Campus dance teams train and compete to sharpen their tools of creative expression
Campus dance teams train and compete to sharpen their tools of creative expression
By Ali R. Leskowitz, Crimson Staff Writer

There is no “competitive dance” tab on the Harvard University Athletics website home page. Click around a little, though, and you’ll eventually find the Crimson Dance Team (CDT) and the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team (HBDT) listed among the club sports—along with figure skating, capoeira, and Harvard’s own Quidditch team.

Technically a fictional sport—sprung from the pages of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series—Quidditch earns the same designation as the two competitive dance teams, both of which straddle a curious line of their own. Instead of facing Quidditch’s problem of self-identification with the real or the magical, however, tension for the dance teams exists in their classification as either sport or art.

The teams have the best of both worlds: they receive funding from the Department of Athletics, yet practice at venues supported by the Office for the Arts at Harvard. Their craft involves rules, competition, intense training, self-control, and teamwork—like many other sports—while also allowing for self-expression on a more sophisticated level than pure competitive drive. The Crimson Dance Team and Harvard Ballroom Dance Team fuse athletic competition with artistic interpretation, in a unique hybrid of art and sport.


While dance groups abound at Harvard, only HBDT and CDT focus on competition. Harvard Ballroom began in 1990 to fill a gap in the dance community. “Our mission is to spread the art of ballroom dancing in a social and competitive way,” says Marco F. Perez-Moreno ’11, president of HBDT.

Throughout the year, HBDT team members learn the 19 dances that comprise the four World Dance Council categories of style: International Latin, International Standard, American Rhythm, and American Standard. Dancers work to become proficient in these groupings through training and the two to three annual competitions HBDT attends as a team.

The slightly-newer CDT was founded in 1995 to offer the opportunity for jazz and hip-hop dancers to demonstrate their skills not only in performances but also against other schools. According to CDT co-captain Ashley R. Prince ’11, competition pushes dancers and encourages progress the way performance might not. “In competitive dance, you have the opportunity to really assess your own skill set and techniques, whereas when you put on a show, it’s just fun to perform,” she says. “On CDT, you get to grow and see concrete improvement.”

CDT competes at the Universal Dance Association College Dance Team National Championships in Orlando, Florida, in addition to performing at men’s and women’s basketball games and exhibition shows. Their choreography mostly focuses on jazz and hip-hop, but they performed pom—a style of dancing similar to cheerleading—when they competed at the National Dance Alliance Championships in years past. Despite their practice of pom, CDT members insist that their craft differs from cheerleading in method.

“In cheerleading the technique is tight with the motions, which is where we overlap the most,” says Mary Caroline Szpak ’11, Prince’s CDT co-captain. “We both generate spirit, but it’s on different terms. Cheerleading is more classified as a sport, but with dance it’s more like a sport and an art.”

The two groups share a desire for competition and also a basic language: ballet. “You can’t walk until you crawl, and you can’t dance until you learn ballet. It’s the foundation of everything,” Szpak says. “The connection between ballet and dance team is like with the alphabet: once you have the letters down, you can make any word.” This dance alphabet leads to the diverse styles CDT performs, and just as with a spoken language, it’s easier to make the sounds if you’ve been exposed early. As a result, the team encourages its dancers to take ballet classes if possible.

Ballroom, too, depends on ballet for its foundation—but the former diverges from the latter in one critical way: the relationship to the floor. Ballet dancers stay lifted up off the floor, making minimal contact with it and absorbing any impact into the muscles so the moves remain graceful and quiet. Ballroom dancers strive for the exact opposite: they push their weight down into their muscles and make contact with the floor. Still, both depend on graceful elevated arms for the entirety of the dance, which means strong shoulder muscles are essential.


Once the foundation is laid, the teams undergo a process akin to a visual artist picking and priming his tools as they prepare for competition. CDT first chooses a choreographer based on an intense selection process. “It involves watching more YouTube than you can imagine,” Prince says. The captains then suggest music and a theme to the choreographer, who comes back to the team with a set two-minute routine. Even so, the members sometimes tweak the piece to fit their vision and showcase their dancers’ strengths. A winning routine is often a trade-off between performing advanced moves and fitting the team’s skill level.

Rehearsals of the piece span around two months, after which the dancers focus on cleaning and editing the routine so that everyone has the exact same timing and precise movements. Intense daily practices lead up to Nationals, which—according to the captains—are similar in atmosphere to the competitions portrayed in the 2000 film “Bring It On.”

HBDT’s training comes in mastering the “syllabus,” which supplies a framework for dancers to move up the ranks as they satisfy bronze, silver, and gold level “figures,” or skill levels. Three professional coaches teach dancers at the syllabus stages until they become proficient enough to dance at a more independent “open level.” These coaches typically create the syllabus-level routines, but some partners choose to choreograph themselves with moves that fit their stages.

Since ballroom competitions can have up to 20 couples on the floor at one time, the syllabus ensures a safe environment. “If you have people who are lifting their partners, it could get dangerous very fast,” says Madison J. Shelton ’11, the HBDT competitions chair. The first HBDT rehearsals of any given year involve around 200 members on a small floor, so tricky moves like lifts are not only prohibited, but impossible.

HBDT’s rehearsals culminate in the Harvard Invitational, an annual competition between as many as 50 schools at which the team showcases their talents. The competition lasts two full days, during which the four styles at all three levels are performed. Professional judges wander the dance floor looking at each couple for a short amount of time; each round, they cut half of the couples until finally selecting the highest scorers.

Hard work pays off for the teams. CDT has placed around fifth or sixth in their division in recent years. They also stand alone as an Ivy League school at their contests. “People always think we’re joking when we say we’re from Harvard,” Prince says. “We get a lot of attention.”

HBDT also consistently performs at the top of their competitions, especially against their rivals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Members claim the rivalry is friendly—the two teams often share dancers because of various gender and number discrepancies between the schools—but they proudly report that they either beat or tied MIT in most of the finals at the 19th Annual Harvard Invitational at the end of March.


These competitions require intense athletic training and teamwork. Like other fusion sports such as fencing and figure skating, competitive dancing requires intense physical fitness. The Department of Athletics recognizes the physical aspects of competitive dance, providing both teams with funding as club sports. “We review the groups’ specific goals and objectives and then work with them to accomplish these over the course of the year,” says Gary Brown, the Department’s Manager of Recreational Services.

Competitive dancers are certainly athletes, whether or not their competition of choice is seen as a sport. The stamina, flexibility, and energy dance demands necessitate frequent cardiovascular training and exercise. CDT usually practices four days a week for around two hours. Perez-Moreno runs regularly and Shelton does total body conditioning in addition to dance training. The brevity of routines—as opposed to football or basketball games, which can last hours—might seem to entail less need for endurance, but the dancers would strongly disagree. “When you get off a stage after a two-minute routine and you’re just panting—that’s the moment you know it’s a sport,” Szpak says.

Teamwork—an element generally absent in most art forms—also becomes essential. CDT members must perform in sync—“like the Rockettes,” Szpak says—while HBDT dancers work with partners. These pairings are chosen based on physical compatibility (a taller male partner facilitates certain moves) and motivation. Dancers who push themselves differently or set imbalanced goals eventually clash and split up. “In ballroom you rely a ton on your partner, especially as a woman, since you follow: he decides what you do next,” Shelton says. “You have to be very aware of another person.”

In the same way, Szpak compares CDT to a track team: “Everybody is dancing on their own, but it only succeeds if they all move together—so in that way, it’s more cohesive than a sport. If someone in front of you moves, you have to move even if they’re wrong. It really is like we’re on a playing field together, working as a team,” she says.


Such rigorous athletic training makes creative expression possible. “We’re classically training our muscles but we’re also expressing ourselves through dance,” Prince says. However, a routine won’t rise to its greatest form unless dancers have the stamina, flexibility, and poise that training provides. “You need to do a nice line with your arm, and to be competent at expressing that, you need to be physically able,” Perez-Moreno contends.

Dance teams are judged on various, partly subjective, criteria: technique, difficulty, passion, creativity, style, ability to communicate emotion, clarity, control, synchronization, and musicality—all of which highlight the hybrid aspects of the art. In ballroom, there are four principal aspects: musicality, beauty and technique, partnering, and speed and power. Musicality—or a dancer’s capacity to interpret the music through motions that fit the mood and rhythm—shifts these competitive dances from a sport to an art form. A competitive dancer should not just be robotically performing moves; there needs to be emotion behind every figure.

This is especially true for the lyrical style that CDT practices. A combination of ballet, jazz, and modern dance, lyrical style movements speak directly to the words and tone of a song using gestures and facial expressions. “If in the song the lyrics say that something is far away, then you extend your arm out to indicate that,” Szpak explains.

Nevertheless, both teams admit that show dancing—rather than competition—is where their work truly becomes an art. Almost theatrical in nature, non-competitive performances require the dancers to tell stories using their bodies as media. Performers can communicate a storyline even before the dancing begins through costuming.

Dance teams are even judged on how well costumes convey the theme and mood of the piece. CDT wore glittered black and purple outfits reminiscent of the night sky for their “Midnight” piece two years ago. This year’s vibrant red costumes were cut dramatically to suggest the fury of a woman incensed by her ex-lover, as the song dictated.

A woman’s costume in ballroom must catch the judge’s eye to bring attention to the couple, so attire is typically shiny and vibrantly colored—and, particularly in Latin dances, revealing. Dancers also need to be extremely tan, both to draw attention and look appealing under bright lights. “You need to put forward confidence; there’s a certain beauty in it,” Shelton explains. Every ballroom style has its own character that requires performers to act to the music, so costumes help dancers fit the parts. “You play a role of elegance and high class for Standard and a role of sex appeal for Latin,” Perez-Moreno says. These extravagant costumes require dancers to spend exorbitant sums of money to stay on top of their appearances—which often deters less-serious performers.


While these competitions might seem obscure to outsiders, the dancers insist on the mass appeal of their sport—as evidenced by popular entertainment such as “Dancing with the Stars” and the 2005 documentary film “Mad Hot Ballroom.” A fusion of physical skill and artistic beauty, competitive dance attracts those who want athletic challenge, creative expression, or a little of each. “As athletes, we’re constantly training and pushing our bodies to be better,” Szpak says. “As artists, we’re always looking for inspiration from outside sources and different ways to express ourselves.”

While show dancing seemingly provides more of an opportunity for self-expression, competing helps dancers build the skills necessary for collaborative creative communication. “When you dance by yourself, if your hip’s in a different direction than it should be, it doesn’t necessarily matter,” Szpak says. “It’s hard to get used to, but competitive dance forces you to realize, ‘If my triple isn’t perfect, the team will suffer.’ You’re not dancing for yourself anymore—it’s like a team sport, but one that makes a beautiful and expressive product.”

—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at

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