DanceSport: The rise of the Cambridge DanceSport team

David Tan, Cambridge Dancers' Club Captain

The nerves, the anticipation, the lights, the audience; then the music, the rhythm; keeping composed, relaxed, gliding, not grimacing, stiffening or forcing. Dance is a mental and psychological game more than anything else. The flirtatiousness of the cha cha cha, the sexy samba, the passionate rumba, the swinging, cheeky jive or the fiery tango; each has a different story to tell and each is a different act.

Charlie Troman for CAM

The Cambridge Dancesport team has been active for the last couple of decades, but it is only recently that we have come into our own, fielding one of the most broadly competitive teams in the country and winning the Varsity Match for the last three years and the National University Championships for the last four. The club has hundreds of members and caters for all levels of ability but it is an elite core of 30 dancers who dedicate themselves fully to the competition circuit and who train endlessly for the honour of representing the University.

Their commitment is impressive, and it’s not only physical but financial too. A conservative estimate of the annual cost of competing in the University Dancesport team comes in at £900 per person, covering lessons, costumes, accessories, jewellery, make-up, travel and competition entry fees. Many University sports require this level of commitment but nevertheless it stretches student budgets. But people take part because they love dancing – and because it gives some respite from the intensity of academic life.

Of course Dancesport has its critics. The essentially artistic notion of 'dance' coupled with the athletic, competitive quality of 'sport' doesn't sit well with some people, who are reluctant to view the discipline on a par with other athletic pursuits. For core team members, who train 8–10 hours per week, with additional dance camps, workshops, classes and private practice, this attitude is frustrating. The time and aerobic activity involved is comparable with other more traditional sports, but the additional artistic (some would say subjective) element thrown in confuses those with preconceptions of what 'sport' is. Performances are weighed and measured by a panel of judges without the clarity of points, goals or tries to objectify the process. Perhaps this is the underlying reason Dancesport continues as a half blue sport in Cambridge, despite consistent lobbying of the Blues committee for full blue status.

Another cliché team members have to contend with is the garishness and glitz associated with the Strictly Come Dancing school of performance. For the girls, sexy dresses covered in rhinestones combined with big hair, loud make-up and buckets of fake tan result in an effect more chav than chic. The boys contend with many of the same issues, though initial reservations about the height of Latin heels are usually quickly overcome, and soon complaints give way to requests for brighter, bolder costumes. Members are trained to deal with the limitations of this dress: restrictive tail suits, heavy accessories, high heels and acres of uncontrollable feathers are coached into submission before major competitions.

So what is the secret of Cambridge's success? We have thousands of students to choose from, geographically we're in a good position with access to professional dance coaches, and consequently the last few years have seen consistent coaching from a dedicated group of staff. A solid work ethic has filtered through from year to year, and the club's ground-floor-up recruitment policy means novices can progress quickly. Despite this there are still set-backs. There is no access to a dedicated dance space. This is in stark contract to Oxford, who have free access to facilities in their University Sports Complex. Funds are wasted booking venues, with the Varsity Match alone costing £3000–£4000 to host, over half of which is spent on the venue.

The administrative heartache, exorbitant expense, intensive training schedule and aching limbs are, however, all worth it when you are dancing. The feeling of stepping out on the floor is incomparable and the emotional landscape intense. It's exhilarating and heartbreaking: the climax of an emotional, physical and psychological journey and the culmination of hours of tedious, repetitive practice. But it's also the ache of muscles, the burn of lactate, the effortless glide and the unplanned stumble. Your heart sinks if you make a mistake, but you have to pick up and move on. When it's going well it's the best feeling in the world; your body moving in synch with your partner's and with the music, commanding attention. Anyone who has done it will recognise these feelings, but there are a few of us so addicted to it that we spend all our funds and time pursuing it, a little like rowing, rugby, lacrosse, football, or any other 'real' sport.

For more information about Cambridge Dancesport, visit www.cambridgedancers.org

This article originally appeared in the 58th edition of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)