If you peeked into Club 601 most Sunday afternoons or Tuesday evenings, you would likely see students in suede-soled heels all attempting the same set of dance steps in pairs to loud counting. This, if you hadn’t guessed, is when the Ballroom and Latin Society (BALLADS) has its weekly lessons. On the last weekend in February however, the BALLADS competition team traded Club 601 for the Blackpool Tower Ballroom (if you’ve ever watched Strictly Come Dancing, it’s kind of a big deal).
If someone had told me two years ago, I’d be dressing up, putting on a full face of makeup (fake eyelashes and everything), and turning my hair plastic with hairspray to participate in a ballroom dance competition I would have sworn he or she had the wrong person. I was about as dance oriented as a sheep. And yet, here I am having just returned from competing in one of the biggest annual UK student ballroom dance competitions.
Within the society, this sort of acceptance for beginners seems to be the standard. According to team captains, Pim Ungphakorn and Tom Schnabel, this year saw ‘the biggest St. Andrews team yet at Nationals [the Blackpool competition], with eight new beginner couples.’ Aside from the team dancers, the Tuesday beginner classes in both ballroom and Latin almost always have at least 20 people learning the new steps and sometimes almost 30 or 40. Pim and Tom (whom the group sometimes refers to as ‘Pom’) teach the hour of ballroom (doing several weeks each of waltz, quickstep, tango, Viennese waltz, and foxtrot), while Frazer Chan teaches the hour of Latin (cha-cha, jive, rumba, samba, and Paso doble). A classic compliment from Tom after trying the new steps in pairs for the first time is, ‘that didn’t look too bad.’ After a few more tries we can sometimes get up to ‘that looked decent.’
The Sunday lessons are slightly different because the society brings in a professional couple to give more instruction on exact technique. The society labels the first two hours of these professionally led classes as improvers classes while the next two hours are designated competition training. The instructors, Nuno Galante and Frederico Ribiero, are two Portuguese dancers based in Edinburgh who have both represented Portugal in international dance competitions. The pair plays around with the group, teasing us about being so quiet or flirting with each other while teaching (especially in the Latin dances), but they also will not sugar coat criticisms on dancing technique. A week before Blackpool, I distinctly remember practising the basic cha-cha step over and over until we all kept straight legs and outward pointed toes (‘ballet feet everyone!’).
As for the Blackpool competition itself, aside from how long the day actually was (waking up at 5 a.m. for makeup, starting dance at 8:30 a.m., and staying at the dance hall until almost 10:30 that night) it was such a great experience especially watching the advanced dancers compete. They had such confidence on the floor and their costumes, hair, and makeup were so over the top it was hard to believe they were almost all still university students (so many sparkles!). Even among the St. Andrews group, everyone looked like completely different people. While the actual dancing was a big part of the experience, the ‘strong team spirit,’ as team member Kostas Ntolkeras describes it, really made the weekend unforgettable. Pim also points out, ‘the fact that we had past members who had graduated come back to dance for St. Andrews or to support the team […] shows how close knit we stay as a group even when people leave St. Andrews.’
Similar to many other societies and sports teams, BALLADS also branches out from dance, becoming one big friend group. After spending long hours in dance practice together, there’s something to be said about everyone making time to see each other even more on top of that.