Mathematicians and scientists make smooth movers on the ballroom dance floor
By Jennifer Kaplan
They are our future astrophysicists, neurobiologists, computational linguists, medical researchers, and nuclear engineers, these undergraduate and graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among them, 120 to 150 set aside their computations, research projects, lab coats, and study sessions for up to 15 hours a week to devote themselves to perfecting the art of ballroom dancing.
MIT might be known for its esteemed science majors, but it also has an esteemed ballroom dance team—and an accompanying ballroom dance club, for those students not interested in competitive dancing.
These math, science, and technology students make good dancers, because there are lots of technical requirements to dance well—geometry, physics, math configurations of patterns, study of body movement in physics. —Angela Prince, USA Dance DanceSport
Angela Prince, PR director of USA Dance DanceSport, a national organizing body for ballroom dance groups and competitions, and a Charlotte, North Carolina–based ballroom dancer, isn’t surprised that the MIT team has been so successful.
“These math, science, and technology students make good dancers,” she said, “because there are lots of technical requirements to dance well—geometry, physics, math configurations of patterns, study of body movement in physics. Some of the best post-collegiate ballroom dancers are chemists, physicists, or mathematicians.”
The MIT team grew out of a ballroom dance club that interested students formed in the 1970s in order to socialize and learn dances. By the late 1970s, some members became interested in the competitive ballroom world, but ultimately that wing folded. The current MIT team was revived 22 years ago. It is not a member of USA Dance DanceSport, which fields about 120 teams on the collegiate circuit nationwide, but MIT participates in numerous ballroom competitions in the college-heavy New England region.
Nationally, ballroom dance competitions at the collegiate level attract a wide array of students and are open to those between ages 16 and 35 under the USA Dance DanceSport organization, which is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Entirely student run, MIT’s ballroom team collaborates with nearby Wellesley College, is open to all, and does not require prior experience. Every fall, prospective ballroom students attend open houses where they learn a few basic steps, practice them with a partner, and watch a program of dances that includes both beginners and the most experienced team members.
“It was a challenge, and I could learn new things,” says Mandi Davis, an alumnus of Wellesley’s class of 2008, now a scientist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about why she joined. “The first time I went to a competition—it was the MIT Ballroom Dance Open in 2006—I was impressed by how professional everyone was and how well they danced. I knew there was a lot to aspire to.”
Davis signed on and put in the hours, often two or three a day, three or four times a week. Now a leader on the team’s governing board, she helps with publicity, policies, competition organization, and other programming for the team.
MIT team members who have had no prior ballroom dance experience are initially taught by more experienced team members; if they remain committed and, of course, practice, they often move up the ladder in the collegiate competitive world. At that point professional instructors take over to prep them for higher levels on the competition circuit.
Like professional and pro-am dance competitions, college competitions are divided into bronze, silver, and gold levels, all of which restrict dance figures to those included in official syllabi; and novice (or pre-bronze), pre-championship, and championship levels with no syllabi requirements.
Amy Fan, a junior biology major at MIT, first checked out the program as a freshman, bringing along a friend so she wouldn’t worry about finding a partner. The partner decided not to join, but Fan did. She says the team does a good job of creating social and dance opportunities so that even novice members can find an appropriate partner.
“Everybody learns the steps together and then you rotate partners,” she says. “That gives you a chance to find someone who’s a good personality match, a good height match, a good skill match. There can be a lot of drama, but most of the time it works out relatively smoothly as people become good friends on the team. The community is so tight-knit, and you spend so much time together—and there is a common language—that you’re able to overcome [any hesitation] during that first year.”
Team members pay a fee; for $50 per semester, rookies get access to formal classes four days a week in the standard forms: standard, Latin, smooth, and rhythm. But they’re also encouraged to try additional classes, for example in the Latin rhythm forms. Fan says that, on average, rookies might spend 5 to 10 hours a week dancing during their first semester. “They may increase or decrease that depending on how many styles they want and how serious they want to get,” she says.
Alums and any non-MIT or non-Wellesley students pay higher fees, as do members of the team who continue beyond the first semester. The team fee varies depending on whether a member is an undergrad, grad, professor, or alum; there are fees for each cycle of classes the member signs on for.
The MIT team is structured so that it’s easy for new members to learn all four basic styles, within which they have 19 dances to learn. Classes can be quite large, with 15 to 20 couples. The team sponsors one major competition each spring, the MIT Open Ballroom Dance Competition, for which all team members are expected to help. The team attends six competitions each year; individual members are required to participate in at least one competition each semester, though many choose to attend more.
Additionally, throughout the year the team offers many opportunities for members to socialize, something many of the MIT students prize.
Ballroom dance lessons and competitions are not cheap, but MIT team members benefit from a great deal of support, including an expanded dress-lending bank, advice on makeup and hair, and volunteer coaching from the most experienced students and alums. “The team,” Fan says, “is primarily self-funded, although we do have some large alumni donors who help us put on the competitions, a yearly dance concert, and other big events.”
The group has no dedicated practice space, but the university allows students to use various rooms during non-teaching hours. For individual and group practices outside of classes, students often find an open lobby or elevator lobby, plug in an iPod and portable speakers, and practice.
For serious team members, there’s a cohort of professional teachers and coaches, including Mark Sheldon, an MIT alum with a PhD in computer science who started teaching ballroom more than 20 years ago. Aside from being a five-time undefeated U.S. Senior Ballroom Champion, a North American Senior Champion, a Northeast U.S. Amateur and Senior Champion, Belgian Open Senior Champion, and a three-time British Open (Blackpool) Senior finalist, among other honors, Sheldon is a visiting professor of computer science at nearby Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
Larinda McRaven taught classes for and coached the MIT team for seven years before recently relocating to her home state of Missouri. She, too, began dancing in college, as a theater major at Missouri State University. When ballroom dance eclipsed acting, within a few months she was teaching ballroom basics; she went east after graduation. She says she loves working at the collegiate level and hopes to do so again in Missouri.
“It’s a fascinating environment,” she says. “The type of people who come to class, and their backgrounds, are amazing. I find it hard to let them go after just a few years.”
She notes that in a pro-am studio setting she might work with a student for a decade or longer. But she loved collegiate teaching and coaching so much that she would often lower her standard studio rate ($95 for 45 minutes) for couples preparing for competition. “When I teach the group class, it’s slightly less” than what she charges at a private studio, she says. “I understand that in their system they do things differently.” She went on to describe the diversity of interests her students have—from engineering and math, to physics and astronomy, to humanities and social science majors from Wellesley—that enrich the atmosphere of the class. “These are very driven, very focused [dance] students,” she says.
Some practices are very different. For example, most private studio students would not compete in multiple forms or styles, especially not with different partners for each style.
“[The MIT students] could have four different partners in one competition!” McRaven says, laughing. “I’m floored by this. Then next semester two of these partners might change.” She told them they could go much farther if they stuck with the same partner, but then she realized “that’s not what it’s about for them. Many of them are very competitive and extremely good at what they’re doing, but they’re also there just to taste life.”
Fan, the biology undergrad, provides one example of the focus these MIT students demonstrate. When the university sent out a list of student organizations and clubs to incoming freshmen, Fan, a Seattle native, studied it carefully and decided to give ballroom a try. Here’s how her thought process worked: “In high school I played tennis and I was involved in the music scene, but I wasn’t going to be able to bring a cello or a piano [east], and finding a tennis partner can sometimes be hard. I wanted to do something that would meld the athletic side and the musical and artistic side, like the activities I had in high school.”
She found dancing fit her bill. “I wanted to do some type of dance that worked on technique so I could learn how to control my body, and I also wanted to have some kind of community,” Fan says. She considered various campus dance groups and saw that the ballroom team required no prior experience. She noted how prominent MIT’s team was in the Boston area, where numerous colleges field teams. Plus the training seemed solid, and she would find a built-in social community of like-minded students.
McRaven recalls one of her favorite photos, which is emblematic of the focus and commitment of MIT Ballroom Team members. “The picture, of one of my students, was taken right after she was done with a competition. She was working on a project and had to go straight to the lab after she finished dancing. The picture shows her with ballroom hair, makeup, and false eyelashes, wearing a lab coat.”
The juxtaposition may look incongruous to an outsider, but it’s not at all surprising to anyone on the MIT team.