Beginners' guide to ballroom dance competitions in Scotland and the UK

Updated: Sep 14, 2018


Have you ever thought about putting your new-found ballroom skills to the test in the weird and wonderful world of competition dancing? If not, why not?!


It might seem like a daunting prospect at first – pinning a number to your back and taking to the floor to be judged by a room full of strangers – but it’s actually not as terrifying as you might think! Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a challenge, and it does take nerve, but it’s also a whole lot of fun. You’ll get to make new friends with people who share some of the same interests as you, and dancing with/against those people is one of the best ways to build your confidence on the floor and really take your dancing to another level.


Unfortunately, however, the competitive ‘scene’ can often seem opaque to people who haven’t taken part in (or at least watched) a competition before, and there isn’t much information out there to help beginners prepare for their first outing. So, if you fancy giving it a go, here’s a brief introduction to getting started...


What is a ballroom dance competition?


Ballroom dance competitions come in different shapes and sizes but, essentially, they enable people to come together to show off their dancing skills and have their performances judged (ranked) by professional adjudicators. There are fun comps, medallist comps, inter-varsity comps, open and closed comps, amateur and professional comps (to name a few), and competitors may dance solo, in mixed- or same-sex couples, and/or in team formations, depending on the range of competitions being held. Some competitions take place over the course of a single day, whereas others are part of larger, multi-day events.


In Scotland, all competitions are run by Dancesport Scotland, the country’s recognised governing body for Ballroom and Latin American dancing. Dancesport Scotland is an amateur dancers’ association, and all of its competitions are, therefore, amateur competitions (i.e. Scotland does not currently host any professional competitions). There are similar associations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the scene in England is by far the most developed, with a wide range of amateur and professional events taking place throughout the year, including the world famous Blackpool Dance Festival.


In order to maintain consistency across the wide range of events taking place each year, and across nations, all dance competitions in the UK (amateur and professional) are administered under a single set of rules formalised by the British Dance Council (BDC rules). So, wherever you're competing in the UK, the format of competition might vary, but the basic rules will be the same.

What happens at a dance competition?


First off, there are opportunities to compete at all levels. Most events have a full programme of competitions from beginner to advanced. Event programmes are usually published in advance, and your teacher will help you choose which competition(s) from the programme to enter based on your age and prior competition experience, so you will know in advance which dances you will have to perform at approximately what time(s).


When you arrive at the venue you will have to register and show your competitor’s licence if you’re competing at Novice level or above (more on this later), pay the entrance fee, collect your competitor's number and get yourself ready to dance. The programme will state what time doors open and what time the first round is due to commence. There will be plenty of time between doors opening and kick off for you to socialise, get yourself ready and, importantly, practice on the floor you will actually be competing on. It is common for the running order to change on the day depending on how many entrants there are to the different competitions, so think of the programme as a guide and not as gospel in terms of timings!


When the compere announces a competition, entrants take to the floor all at once and dance together to music for about 90 seconds per dance. Some competitors only have to perform one dance in their competition, whereas others have to perform two, three, four or five, depending on the level (grade) they’re dancing at and the stage of the competition (e.g. heat, semi-final or final). The audience cheers as the competitors dance, and adjudicators rank the performances relative to each other. When the music stops, the competitors receive their applause and leave the floor. The Ballroom division usually runs first, followed by the Latin, and at the end of each division the finalists receive their awards and have their pictures taken in a line-up. Awards (in addition to the honour and glory of winning or reaching the final!) are usually medals or trophies, but they can, in larger competitions, include cash prizes and invitations to dance at prestigious championship events.

Age groups and proficiency levels


In most competitions you will dance against people of a similar age and ability to yourself, so you don't need to worry about possibly competing against people who are vastly more experienced than you. There are some exceptions to this, where an age group and/or grade is not specified, but these competitions tend to be populated mostly by intermediate and advanced level dancers. For example, an ‘Under 35 Intermediate Waltz and Quickstep’ competition is for under 35s dancing at an ‘intermediate’ level. An ‘Adult Open Foxtrot’, however, is a competition for adults of any age (i.e. 16+) and grade. You will choose from the programme which competition(s) to enter based on your age and previous competition experience, and the different age groups and grades are specified in the BDC rules.


It works like this...


Juveniles

Juvenile (under 12s) is the youngest age group (though some events run separate competitions for under 10s, 5-8s and/or 3-5s). Juvenile competitions are either 1, 2 or 3 dance events, and Juveniles can only compete in Juvenile competitions, parent-with-their-own-child competitions, and teacher-with-their-own-pupil competitions. At 10 years of age a Juvenile can request an upgrade to the next age group (Junior) in order to dance with a partner who is in that age group. Once they have danced in a Junior competition, however, they can’t go back to competing as a Juvenile, even if they get a new (Juvenile-aged) partner.


There are three Juvenile grades: Beginner, Novice and Advanced. A Juvenile Beginner has to win two Beginner grade competitions in which there are at least six couples competing in order to be promoted to Novice. A Juvenile Novice has to win four Novice grade competitions in order to be promoted to Advanced. If a Beginner or Novice competes at a grade higher than their current grade and they win just once, they will be promoted to the higher grade. If a Novice or an Advanced Juvenile wants to dance at a grade lower than their current grade then they have to apply to the BDC for regrading.


Juniors and Adults

The next age group up from Juvenile is Junior (12-15). Juniors can only dance in Junior competitions and ‘adult and child’ competitions (where the Junior dances with an adult). At 14 years of age a Junior can request an upgrade to Adult status in order to dance with a partner who is 16 or over. Once they have danced in an Adult competition, however, they can’t go back to competing as a Junior, even if they get a new (Junior-aged) partner.


‘Adult’ means anyone aged 16 or over, and the Adult section is sub-divided into different age groups. There may be some variation, but the breakdown is usually:

  • Amateur (16-20);

  • Amateur (16-34);

  • Senior I (35 years and over);

  • Senior II (45 years and over); and

  • Senior III (55 years and over).

In the Junior and Adult age groups there are several different grades:

  • Social;

  • Beginner;

  • Novice;

  • Intermediate;

  • Pre-Championship; and

  • Open Amateur.

Most competitions state both an age group and a grade, but many don’t specify one or either. If no grade is specified then the competition is open to dancers of any grade. If no age group is specified in an 'Adult' competition then the competition is open to adults of all ages. So, for example, the programme might say:

  • 'Junior Cha-cha-cha & Jive' (a competition for Juniors of any grade);

  • 'Adult Open Foxtrot' (a competition for adults of any age and grade);

  • 'Under 35 Intermediate Waltz, Tango & Foxtrot'

  • 'Over 35 Pre-Champ Cha-cha-cha, Samba, Rumba, Jive'

  • 'Open Amateur Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Quickstep and Viennese Waltz'

Beginners must win two Beginner grade competitions in which there are at least six couples competing in order to be promoted to Novice. Novice and Intermediate competitors must win four competitions at their grade in order to be promoted to the next grade. As with Juveniles, if a Junior or Adult competitor enters and wins just one competition at a grade higher than their current grade then they will be promoted to that higher grade, and they won’t be able to dance at a lower grade unless they successfully apply to the BDC for regrading.


Your grade in one dance division has no effect on your grade in another, so you can compete as a Beginner in the Ballroom division (for example) and as a Pre-Champ in the Latin, depending on where your strengths lie.


Open and closed competitions

At some point you'll probably hear people talking about ‘open’ and 'closed' competitions. An open competition is one in which competitors from outside the area named in its title are allowed to compete. ‘Closed’ competitions are only open to people who have lived in the area named in its title for a set period of time, usually six or twelve months prior to the competition. All Dancesport Scotland competitions are open competitions except the Scottish Closed Championship, which takes place in December each year in Glasgow.

Syllabus restrictions


In all Juvenile competitions (at any grade), and all Junior and Adult competitions at Beginner and Novice grades only, competitors are only allowed to dance certain moves (figures) in their routines. These figures are listed in the BDC rules and detailed in the Ballroom and Latin technique books. In Junior and Adult competitions at Intermediate grade and above, routines are not restricted and open choreography is allowed, as long as it doesn’t include any lifts or 'dangerous movements'.

BDC registration and competitor licences


If you’re competing in a Social or Beginner grade competition then you don’t have to register with the BDC to obtain a competitor’s licence. You do need a competitor's licence if you're competing at Novice grade or above, however, and this applies to everyone competing in any competition or championship in the UK being held under BDC rules (which is basically any competition in the UK).


Registration covers one calendar year and must be renewed on 1 January regardless of when it was taken out the previous year. The cost of BDC registration for amateurs is currently £18, and the registration form is available from the BDC website.


When you arrive at a competition you will be asked to show your competitor's licence when you register, if you’re competing at Novice grade or above. If you forget your licence or otherwise can’t produce it for inspection then you won’t be allowed to compete.

Dress rules – what (not) to wear


The BDC has rules about what you can and can’t wear for competitions. These rules change from time-to-time, but they basically exist to ensure fairness for competitors, and also for health and safety reasons.


There are special rules for Juveniles, and also for Social and Beginner grade competitors.


Juveniles

The list of dress rules for Juveniles is quite impressive. You can find them here. New dress rules for Juveniles will come into force on 1 January 2019, and to help people interpret these the BDC has produced a set of illustrations to show the range of styles permitted.


Social and Beginner grade competitors (Juniors and Adults)

The dress code for Social and Beginner grade competitors is ‘loungewear’. For women this means 'a simple dress' or 'a leotard with wrap-over skirt'. For men it means dress trousers and a plain white shirt with a black tie or bow tie and possibly a waistcoat, (or a black shirt for Latin). Social and Beginner grade competitors are not allowed to wear dinner jackets, cat suits or tail suits, and outfits must not be decorated with any sequins, diamantes or similar.


Novice and above (Juniors and Adults)

Juniors and Adults at Novice grade and above are expected to wear proper Ballroom and Latin costumes, and there is a huge range of options to choose from. There are some suggestions below as to where you might look for outfit inspiration. For men competing in Ballroom, the BDC rules suggest:

  • Black trousers, plain white shirt, black tie;

  • Black trousers, plain white shirt, black tie and pullover or waistcoat;

  • Lounge suit;

  • Dinner suit; or

  • Tail suit.

Where to buy costumes

You can buy costumes from lots of places, and they vary enormously in quality and price depending on whether they’re first- or second-hand, ready-to-wear or bespoke. What you choose will depend (amongst other things) on how committed you are to competing, where you’re at on your competitive journey, and how much money you have/want to spend.


One of the less expensive options is eBay, which has a decent range of first- and second-hand outfits to choose from. Amazon, too, has a good range, and they also sell products from some of the more specialist ready-to-wear retailers. Another option is Facebook, as there are groups on there that advertise and sell second-hand outfits. It’s also common for people to sell second-hand outfits in person at competitions, so do keep an eye out when you’re there. In fact, at larger competitions some of the specialist retailers will be there to represent themselves, so you can have a browse, try stuff on, buy from the stall, place orders and so on.


If you want to look at some good quality ready-to-wear - to buy or hire, or just for inspiration - check out DSI London and Chrisanne Clover, which are two of the more popular specialist retailers. The other option is to have something custom made, or to make/adapt something yourself. Bespoke outfits are often more expensive than ready-to-wear, but they’re one-of-a-kind, and the fit will (or should) be superlative.


Costume changes during competition

You can change costumes between rounds (if there is more than one round in your competition), but you can’t alter or change a costume between dances in the same round, unless you’re having a genuine wardrobe emergency.

Walkthrough


Competition formats vary, but here is a general walkthrough from a competitor’s point-of-view on the day of a competition, to give you an idea of what to expect:

  1. Wake up and give yourself plenty of time to eat breakfast and get ready. (Hair and make-up can take a long time, so competitors often do this – or the majority of it – in advance, before they set off for the venue).

  2. Arrive at the venue in good time, preferably for doors opening or at least an hour before your competition is due to start, as competitions can and often do run ahead of schedule. When you get there, register, pay the entrance fee (if applicable), collect your number and find somewhere to sit.

  3. Get a copy of the programme and check which competition(s) you are dancing in/their approximate start times. If you arrive after the first round has started, check where things are at – are they on time or running early/late?

  4. Get changed, warm up and, if possible, practice on the competition floor.

  5. Try not to go to the loo (or otherwise leave the ballroom) when it’s nearly time for your competition. Sod’s law dictates that as soon as you exit the venue they WILL call your competition, and your unexplained absence will just cause delays.

  6. When your competition is called, walk on to the floor with your partner and stand together. The compere will tell you when the music is about to start. If your partner is nowhere to be seen when they call your competition then you should walk on to the floor by yourself and put your hand up so the compere knows you’re waiting. This is standard practice. Don’t be shy – get your hand right up there because if no-one sees you they'll just start the competition.

  7. Start dancing when the music begins.

  8. Stop dancing when the music stops and not before. When you’ve done all of your dances, take the rapturous applause you deserve and leave the floor with your partner.

  9. Unless your competition was a straight final, you will have to wait to hear if you have been recalled to the next round. If your number gets called – woohoo, you’re through! Get yourself back out there and strut your stuff one more time.

  10. At the end of the division (Ballroom or Latin), finalists are placed. When the compere calls your number, walk to the front where someone will greet you with your award. You’ll have to wait for all the finalists’ numbers to be called so you can have your picture taken in a line-up. Once all that’s done, you can leave the floor and relax (or get ready for your next competition)!

Pre-competition checklist


Here is a pre-comp checklist of things to take with you to your next competition. It isn't an exhaustive list (and you might not need everything on it), but it's a decent starting point to help with shopping and packing! There's also a downloadable version that you can print off here.


DANCE OUTFITS / ACCESSORIES

  • Ballroom outfit

  • Latin outfit

  • Jewellery (think about each outfit)

  • Lint brush/roller

  • Dance shoes

  • Shoe brush

  • Heel protectors

  • Spare underwear

  • Spare tights

  • Cover-up robe/sweater/tracksuit

  • Mini sewing kit

  • Double-sided body tape

  • Scissors

  • Safety pins (small/medium/large)

  • Vaseline (shines teeth and shoes!)

HAIR

  • Decorations

  • Clips/bands/bobby pins

  • Extensions, wigs, hairpieces…

  • Products (gel, spray…)

  • Hair net

  • Comb/brush

  • Dryer/straighteners/curlers…

FIRST AID

  • Plasters

  • Painkillers

  • Bandages

  • Heat/cool packs

  • Prescription medications (incl. inhalers)

  • Deep heat/deep cold

MAKE-UP

  • Primers

  • Foundations

  • Loose powders

  • Bronzer

  • Eye shadows

  • Eye liners

  • Waterproof mascara

  • Eyelash curlers

  • False eyelashes/glue

  • Brow pencils/brushes

  • Contour powder/brushes

  • Blush

  • Highlighters

  • Glittery/shimmering face powders

  • Lipstick/liner/gloss

  • False nails/glue

  • Nail polish/polish remover

  • Tweezers

  • Cotton buds

  • Fake tan top-up

  • Make-up remover

  • Wet wipes

  • Tissues

MISC.

  • Towel

  • Hand fan

  • Water

  • Snacks

  • Juice

  • Nail clippers/file/emery board…

  • Pen/paper

  • Pillow/small blanket

  • Slippers

  • Books/magazines/homework…

  • Spare batteries

  • Stuff to keep kids occupied

AND FINALLY…

  • PHONE AND CHARGER

So, there it is… a quick whizz through some of the main rules and procedures in competition dancing to whet your appetite! Do get in touch with any questions, or with any suggestions for how we might improve the guide.


Happy dancing!