Competitive Ballroom Dancing
A Guide for Newcomers


Ballroom dancing is a competitive sport with specific rules, structures, and judging criteria. A typical ballroom competition consists of events in various dance styles, age groups, and skill levels.

Dance Styles

The following dance styles are featured at most USA Dance DanceSport Competitions:

American Rhythm
  • Cha Cha
  • Rumba
  • Swing
  • Bolero
  • Mambo
American Smooth
  • Waltz
  • Tango
  • Foxtrot
  • Viennese Waltz
International Latin
  • Cha Cha
  • Samba
  • Rumba
  • Paso Doble
  • Jive
International Standard
  • Waltz
  • Tango
  • Viennese Waltz
  • Foxtrot
  • Quickstep

International Standard and American Smooth share many technical principles, and many couples compete in both styles. In Standard, the couple remains in closed dance position throughout each dance. In Smooth, they dance in open positions (side by side, shadow, etc.) as well as in closed position.

Although International Latin and American Rhythm both include Cha Cha and Rumba, each dance style uses different technique and musical tempos.

Skill Levels

In ballroom parlance, the term proficiency level is used to describe the expertise with which a given couple performs—a combination of their training, competition experience, and natural talent. Depending on the skill level, dancers will compete in single-dance events (one dance at a time) or multi-dance events (several dances in a row). As the skill level increases, so does the number of dances available to the dancers.


Dance Fest includes a newcomer level, consisting of single-dance events, which provides dancers new to competing with a level in which they can primarily dance with other newcomers.

Syllabus Levels

  • Newcomer
  • Bronze
  • Advanced Bronze
  • Silver
  • Gold

In each dance style, couples generally begin at the bronze syllabus level and work their way up through silver and gold. Each syllabus level has a list of clearly defined dance steps, or figures. Couples competing in a given syllabus are not allowed to perform figures of a higher proficiency level, although couples competing in silver or gold usually include certain bronze figures in their routines. There are also certain costume restrictions on syllabus dancers. For example, syllabus costumes may not feature shiny fabric, crystals, or decorations.

Open Levels

  • Novice
  • Pre-Championship
  • Championship

Dancers typically graduate from the syllabus levels on to the open levels. At the open levels, both costume and figure restrictions are lifted, though dancers do still use syllabus figures along with original, non-syllabus choreography. Championship is the most competitive level in ballroom dance.

Mixed Proficiency

Mixed-proficiency events give dancers a unique opportunity to compete with someone at a different level of dancing. Brand-new dancers can dance with people who have been dancing awhile; people who have been dancing for over twenty years can dance with individuals in their first year of dancing; etc. In these partnerships, only the less proficient partner is judged.

Team Matches

At Dance Fest, collegiate teams compete in international and American styles, vying for first-place honors and generous scholarship money to help encourage their continued exploration of ballroom dance. Each team consists of three couples, and each couple is assigned a specific dance in their chosen style. The team matches are very loud and exuberant, so find some earplugs and get ready to cheer for your favorite team!

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill events are designed to be fun for everyone! In these dances, couples are paired up randomly and are often judged on enthusiasm as well as technique. Dancers and spectators alike are encouraged to get involved in the Jack and Jill dances. You never know who might take home first place!

Strictly Dances

The Strictly category contains dances not included in the core four styles of American rhythm and smooth and international Latin and standard. These dances include Argentine tango, lindy hop, salsa, west coast swing, etc. These are judged based on the character and technique of each dance, which can be very different from the techniques customary in the core four dance styles.


Judges are certified by various licensing agencies. They are also experienced competitors and instructors.

Judging is both an objective and a subjective process. Couples are judged on their technical skill, their interpretation of each dance, and their showmanship. In addition, each adjudicator has his or her own personal standards. For this reason, several adjudicators will judge each event to ensure fairness.

Depending on the number of entries, competitors may be required to compete in a series of elimination rounds until six couples are recalled for the final round by the judges. These six couples will be ranked first through sixth.

Competitor Participation

Dancers compete in heats, which are a specific group of competitors competing in a particular event at a specified time (or times, if there will be callbacks). Typically, dancers will receive a program or heat list to let them know approximately what times they’ll be expected to compete. Dancers should be prepared to compete at least half an hour before their scheduled heats in case the competition is running ahead of schedule.

When it is time for dancers to compete, they will form a line with their fellow competitors in the designated on-deck area. When their heat is called, they'll find a spot on the floor and dance until the music stops. They’ll take a bow and exit the floor. If a heat has a large number of competitors, there will likely be a callback process in which the judges select couples to return to the floor and dance again. This process will continue until there are eight or fewer couples (the ideal number is six) remaining on the floor, which will be the final round.

Audience Participation

Many people attending their first ballroom event expect to find the audience sitting in serene dignity, delicately applauding at the completion of each dance. Instead, the spectators are yelling, jumping up and down, and generally carrying on the way they would at any other spectator sport.

Ballroom dancers thrive on audience appreciation. Even if you don’t know the first thing about ballroom, you still have an important role to play at an event. Audience participation is not only allowed but is encouraged and welcomed.

Cheer, applaud, and call out the numbers of your favorite couples. Being an active spectator ensures that you’ll have a great time!


Dance Fest's Mission

is to introduce competitors and spectators to DanceSport, focusing on those new to ballroom dance and to competitions.

Dance Fest is

a low-cost, beginner-friendly DanceSport competition where:

  • Dancers and spectators alike can enjoy an atmosphere of friendliness, camaraderie, and fun, unlike any competition in the Midwest.
  • New competitors can see all that DanceSport has to offer in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere without breaking the bank.
  • Experienced competitors can compete against some of thenation's best dancers in all styles and levels.
  • All competitors and spectators can sharpen their skills with free seminars held throughout the event.