You’d be forgiven for thinking you have walked into a Halloween store instead of a ballroom dance competition. There are at least three inflatable dinosaur costumes, two Pikachus, multiple penguins, hippies carrying succulents, and a dizzying amount of sequins — and that’s only what’s visible after a first scan of the fourth-floor gym at the Mac.
After a long day of dancing, we’ve reached the final event: the storied Rookie-Vet dance, where newcomers pair off with experienced dancers to depict whimsical stories with creative choreography and extravagant costumes.
This is the Harvard Beginners Ballroom Dance, one of two major annual competitions hosted by the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team. This is the 21st iteration of the event, drawing participants from Harvard and several nearby colleges, including MIT, Boston University, and Northeastern. As its name suggests, the competition is structured to be friendly to beginner dancers, making it an event that both fosters inclusion for rookies and provides an entertaining opportunity for spectators.
“If you’ve never competed or been to a ballroom competition, you might find it odd,” says Alida B. Monaco ’21, president of the HBDT. “It’s like a nuclear bomb of glitter, music, dance, and sweat.”
It takes only a few minutes to confirm that Monaco’s summary of the event is accurate. In a moment, the dance floor is filled with couples twirling like off-kilter spinning tops, their long, vibrant skirts flouncing up to reveal suede-capped heels in the Viennese waltz. Minutes later, new couples take the floor, decked out in fringe and sparkle, their dresses short and skin-tight. They roll their hips, march purposefully yet delicately, and occasionally thrust a hand into the air, dancing the salsa.
These are just two of the nineteen dances performed over the course of the day. The dancers compete in four categories: Rhythm, Latin, Smooth, and Standard. Each dance has its own distinctive rhythmic pattern, its own prescribed step sequence, and its own particular artistic nuance.
That means that this year’s fifty-four ballroom team rookies have a lot to learn. While a few of this year’s beginners have previous dance experience, none have yet competed in the ballroom style.
According to one of the competition chairs, Veronika Y. Melnik ’21, introducing the rookies to ballroom is a gradual and occasionally difficult process. “First, we teach the differences between the dances: what is smooth versus what is standard. Then, we create a distinction in the techniques between each style.”
The support that the ballroom veterans provide the rookies doesn’t stop at coaching: At the competition, too, the atmosphere is incredibly encouraging. Older dancers from all teams form a ring around the dance floor, brandishing posters, shouting cheers, and offering high-fives.
Monaco summed up the emotion that follows seeing the rookies dance for the first time. “As a team member, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, my babies, they're dancing!’ And [the rookies] are kind of like, ‘are we really doing this right now?’ And then they see that it's really fun.”
Later in the day is the Open Showcase, where more experienced dancers demonstrate each of the 19 dances. It’s a marked contrast to the newcomer events; the couples look like they’re straight out of “Dancing with the Stars” as they quick-step effortlessly around the floor, all smiles. The rookies look on, wide-eyed.
Maranda Ngue ’22, a first time dancer, has been pleasantly surprised to find that the camaraderie on the floor is just a slice of the ballroom experience as a whole. “It’s so welcoming. I’m absolutely going to continue,” she says.
At the Rookie-Vet Dance, the class of newcomers is drawn into the ranks of older generations. The veterans lead their rookie partners onto the dance floor and perform one of four dances, using costumes and choreography to tell a story. The plots range from Ash chasing Pikachu across the dance floor to a kind friend supporting an inebriated party-goer — complete with a Red Solo cup in hand.
Telling stories is perhaps something that dancers can do best. As Melnick says, “Dance is a sort of universal language. It’s a bond that brings people together.”