“Ok Susie, let me see your Smooth.” She sauntered onto the floor and executed a series of moves. “Susie, that’s Standard. I think we need to take some lessons.” Thus began our journey competing through the syllabus levels, six years ago, from Bronze to Gold in Senior II, III, and IV. For our partnership, the allure is competing within our own abilities, not with the aid of a professional partner. Initially, we competed in both Smooth and Standard, in two age groups, under the theory: “We are here..Why not?” and we continue to this day with the attitude “Let’s do too much, It’s so fun!” We pay the price of happy exhaustion.
Invigilation: Your journey through the syllabus at some point may include a trip to the Invigilator. In USA Dance, the syllabus levels consist of recognized steps for each dance (think dance rules). The judge responsible for enforcing those rules is known as “The Invigilator” (a referee throwing a dance flag on the play). No syllabus couple wants to be summoned to Invigilator Court. You just completed a heat, feeling like you burned the floor with your brilliance, then the loudspeaker barks (with added volume), “Will couple (add number) please see the Invigilator.” Silence sweeps across the ballroom, as people cast furtive glances in the direction of the guilty couple. Then the “Walk of Shame” begins as the offenders with heads hung slowly make their way to the Invigilator. At Invigilator Court you are read your offenses against the Ballroom World and told never to do it again. In our case, as we were approaching the Invigilator, Susie quietly slips behind me as if to say “Not my problem. He was leading.” We are issued a yellow piece of paper (the flag) describing an offense we never imagined our old bodies could do. Our yellow dance flag is prominently displayed in Susie’s trophy case. We refer to it as our trophy of incompetence.
Timing: Many amateur dancers migrate from Pro/Am events (an amateur dancing with a Professional dance partner) to Amateur Couple events (both dancers in the couple are amateurs) as they gain competition experience. However, we started competing as a couple as dance neophytes, the lowest form of competition dancer on the dance evolutionary chart. We are on our own, in a strange world where we are responsible for everything including mastering the single greatest dance skill: TIMING. Having grown up in the rock era of the 1970’s, I find my choice of music does little good preparing me for ballroom. Sadly, Zeppelin is not played. Timing can create a great stress on the beginning syllabus couple. Susie and I walk onto the floor, heads high, shoulders down, chests puffed up, like strutting peacocks. We stake our claim to space on the floor: “Mine…Y’all go away”. The Master of Ceremonies says, “Waltz music, please.” The music begins and panic slowly builds as my rock-music-scarred brain tries to process the beat. Nothing is coming to mind besides “Why am I here?” or “Why aren’t they playing Zeppelin?” Susie is starting to glare at me, her eyes conveying the message, “Hey partner, are we going to dance? You are embarrassing me.” Being impatient, she invites herself into frame and we just go with it. That is timing.
Guest Coach: As we progress into more complicated syllabus routines, it is inevitable that we would require lessons with a “Guest Coach.” Guest coaches provide a fresh perspective that can enhance your dancing. They can be brutally honest in their assessment. From my experience, a guest lesson means a beatdown on the male lead. Seems every dance error on this planet (timing, lady’s top line, lady’s position, world hunger) originates from the lead. In one of our livelier guest coach lessons, after we perform our routine and I am waiting for the hammer to drop, the coach comments in a sincere accented voice, “I just want to put you out of your misery.” She adds, “You are not smiling. Makes me feel sad. So, I score you at the bottom to put you out of your misery.” I turn to Susie, “We got to smile too?”
Bronze Level: So proud to have learned a whopping two routines in two styles with boundless energy. As we progress through Bronze, we quickly discover that two lessons a week plus practice is not going to cut it. Everything is good except forgetting the routines in competition and witnessing the panic in Susie’s eyes. At one competition, as brain freeze sets in, I am scrambling to buy time. So, I insert a Standard routine into our Smooth event. No big deal, no harm done; it is just the first thing to pop into my head. Susie, from a follower’s perspective has a different opinion. Woe to the leader that changes a follower’s routine. She will probably pay for my headstone to include that little innocent mistake, or rent a plane sign and fly it over my funeral.
Silver Level: Coaching is becoming more critical. Now we must learn six routines (three for Smooth, three for Standard). It is difficult to learn six new routines. Both your studio and guest coaches increase the pressure evidenced by their priceless comments: “I did not see anything that aggravated me this time,” and “Almost pretty good,” or my favorite — “You are making my eyes bleed.” In practice, if we hear our coach bark a single shout, for instance, “Susie” (or “Chris”), it is a mild offense. If we hear a double, “Susie, Susie” then the lesson is not going well. But if the dreaded triple occurs, “Susie, Susie, Susie!” prepare for a coach’s Hall of Shame moment. But remember there is no crying in baseball or ballroom. Without our coaches, we are nothing. Love on your coaches even when you hear the stories about how hard they had it at dance school. At the Silver level we also discover the words “quarterfinals and semifinals.” Stamina becomes critical. You now silently curse the people behind a 90-second Quickstep. But we forge ahead aided by our new six days a week dance schedule.
Then the Dark Period. A cascade of medical problems, then COVID. First Susie, then me, then Susie. We stop competing for about 16 months. Injuries are the bane of older seniors and should be anticipated. Never take your ability to dance for granted. Both of us are determined not to be a dance casualty, we are not ready to quit. So we go to rehab, heal our bodies and use the time during COVID to learn the Gold routines including the Senior Stamina Killer, the 90-second Viennese Waltz (more cursing).
Gold Level: Emerging from the Dark Period we have somehow aged to Senior IV. Now we have eight routines to forget in competitions. Susie is really sweating bullets. I get many lectures on sticking to the routine. Eventually the competitions reappear. Our first post-COVID competition did not have many Senior competitors but that did not stop us. Off we went. During Smooth Foxtrot, I have my best Fred Astaire going just cruising along doing a grapevine when the edge of my shoe slides on the floor. As I fall, Susie lets go and I see her wave Buh-Bye (she denies it). I hit the floor and bounce back up in time (a dance miracle). We finish the routine. I had never fallen before, and we are out for another three weeks. I buy new shoes. At the Gold level the competitors are better. Seems everybody else was practicing during COVID.
End of Syllabus: At Nationals in Chicago, Illinois, we dance Silver and Gold, forget some routines (again), but win several national titles (Senior IV Smooth Silver and Gold, and Senior IV Standard Silver). If you win a National Event you must move up in proficiency level. It is part of what makes USA Dance great; a mechanism to keep a level playing field for upcoming competitors. So now, in Smooth it is time to say goodbye to Syllabus and enter the Wild Wild West of Ballroom, the Open routines. The Syllabus Invigilator will be happy.
I can safely report to those Syllabus dancers thinking of moving into Open that having no syllabus does not make it easier, but things are going as expected.
In the beginning of our beautiful Waltz, when Susie cradles both arms around me in a loving gesture, our coach not being able to take it any longer screams, “Susie you look like the Dying Swan in Swan Lake.” Then Susie complains, “Chris is dancing like a dog let off a leash…yelling I am free, I am free (or something to that effect).” Yes, things are going as expected.
And we are having fun.