MIT is world renowned for its engineers and physicists. It is less well-known that many of these engineers and physicists frequently don rhinestones and feathers to compete on the MIT Ballroom Dance Team, one of the largest and most successful collegiate ballroom teams in the country.
The team, which is made up of both MIT undergraduate and graduate students, is dedicated to helping its members improve their dancing technique while supporting their participation in ballroom dance competitions. With 120 members, the team is one of the largest in the Boston area, and has a history of success at both collegiate and national ballroom dance competitions around the country.
Ballroom dance at MIT began in 1974 with the formation of the Ballroom Dance Club, an organization focused on social dancing. Many of its members, however, wanted a chance to compete at national dance competitions, which led to the founding of the Ballroom Dance Team in 1990. Both the club and the team still are present on campus, but they serve two different purposes.
"The biggest difference between the club and the team is the emphasis on social dance versus competitive dance," says Emily Chang, a graduate student in engineering and captain of the Ballroom Dance Team. "You join the team if you want to dance competitively. We are completely separate, but we support each other." Team dancers occasionally teach classes for the club, and members from both groups often dance together at social events.
New members of the Ballroom Dance Team start with a range of experience, but many have never danced before. There are no tryouts to be on the team — anyone interested can sign up for classes, whether or not they have previous experience as a dancer. "The only thing required is to be really excited about dancing," says Mandi Davis, the MIT Open Competition Coordinator and executive board member. "We feel strongly that you can come in with two left feet and still turn out to be a great dancer. It's about people's motivation, not talent."
Competitive ballroom dance is divided into four categories: international standard, international Latin, American smooth and American rhythm. In their first year, dancers learn all four styles, but as they improve, they can choose to focus and compete in one or two areas. They then have the opportunity to take more advanced classes in their chosen style, either with a group or through private coaching. Members also have the chance to receive choreography and technique instruction from professional coaches.
Dancers choose how much time they want to put into rehearsing and competing each week, but most put in at least five hours a week, with more advanced dancers practicing up to 20 hours.
"For me, it's how I relax," says Madalyn Berns, an MIT graduate student and member of the team. "It's how I choose to spend my free time. I don't think of it as something I have to do, or even in the same way I think of work or school. I dance because it's fun, and I enjoy it."
MIT has one of the largest and most rigorous ballroom dance programs in the area, making the team a force to be reckoned with at competitions. In order to remain on the team, each dancer must participate in at least one competition per semester, but most choose to compete three to four times.
The team participates in a range of events, from collegiate level shows hosted by other universities, to national competitions sponsored by dance organizations. In the past several years, MIT dancers have won and placed in the finals of events at nationals.
"There's a lot of energy at competition, just like any sporting event," Chang says. "And it's extremely glitzy. Presentation matters a lot, so all the women are wearing feathers and rhinestones and people put a lot of effort into their hair and make-up. It's just like what you see on 'Dancing with the Stars.'"
For many dancers, the appeal is not only the athleticism and competition, but also the camaraderie that comes from dancing together. "By nature, it's very social because you're dancing with someone else," Berns says. "You get to know your partner and your teammates, and competing together really brings people together."
In addition to attending competitions at other universities, the Institute annually hosts the MIT Open Ballroom Dance Competition, the largest collegiate ballroom dance competition in the United States. In 2013, it will be held April 27-28 at Rockwell Cage, and is expected to feature around 1,000 competitors from all over the country. The event is free and open to the public.
In addition to these competitions, the Ballroom Dance Team can be seen every year in a fall showcase. It also performs at various fundraisers and events around the MIT community and Boston.
Though many people wouldn't expect to find such a thriving ballroom dance program at MIT, Chang says it makes perfect sense to her that students would excel in the sport.
"MIT students are very good at [ballroom dance] because we like to be precise," she says. "We like to understand the mechanics of how the movement works, and that helps with our technique. At first, you wouldn't think it's true, but ballroom is a pretty fitting hobby for many of us at MIT."