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Unless he’s reaching for the remote, sweat editor Jef Catapang typically doesn’t exert himself. Armed with a matador’s costume and inspired by the success of reality television’s Dancing with the Stars, he hit the studio and got more than he bargained for.

By Jef Catapang

Mary Adams turns down the music and faces her students. “You got that? Yes, no, maybe?”

Her question is answered by silent, unconvincing nods. This isn’t a typical athletic training centre. There is a poster by the door of a Jennifer Lopez movie. Nobody is wearing gym clothes, but rather casual slacks and shiny black shoes. This is the world of competitive sport dance.

Let me explain how I got here. After seeing the success of reality programs such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, I decided to venture out of my basement and explore the claims of dance as a real sport.

Internationally, the term DanceSport refers to five standard (or ballroom) dances combined with five Latin dances. In American style DanceSport, that list is expanded to include nine more styles broken up into categories of “smooth” and “rhythm.” In 1997, DanceSport was granted “Full Recognition” as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, and proponents are applying for its status as a medal sport.

Aside from DanceSport, reality shows have highlighted many competition styles including salsa, hip-hop and breakdancing.

In order to find out how dance stands up to traditional sports, I called up Adams, a professional dancer and choreographer. She has a long list of accomplishments in international ballroom and Latin dance styles and is the head instructor at You Can Dance Studios in Toronto. I asked her if she would provide me with a three hour crash course in salsa dancing and see if I could nail down a routine without
any prior training.

She laughed. “Let’s say one hour and see how you feel after that.”

photo credit
Getting serious with dancer Jensy Menendez Reyes.

A week before my scheduled lesson I contacted Hok Konishi for some advice. Konishi is a California-based breakdancer who was a contestant on last summer’s season of So You Think You Can Dance and is known for dancing on his hands, feet, head and back.

He would never have danced ballroom styles of his own volition. “That’s for people who are old , who can’t do much,” he says of his initial thoughts. “But I was completely wrong.” Samba turned out to be one of his most difficult routines, but also one of his most rewarding. “It made me widen my horizons so much,” he says.

As I’m dancing, I can’t help but think my clumsy side-steps are the only things widening. Adams leaves my side, turns on the music and instructs me to find the cowbell noise and use it as my guide.

I’m sweating now, partly because of the physical exertion, but mostly because I’m concentrating too hard. I’m trying to keep track of not only my feet, but also my knees, my hips, my posture and the angles of my elbows and wrists. Somewhere in between all that I forget to dance. My movements are mechanical and ugly.

“It’s like walking,” says Adams nonchalantly. “One foot always replaces the other.” Thoughts of toddlers falling on their butt run through my mind. I stop and rub my right knee, which is now sore, the result of improper footwork combined with improper footwear. Adams smiles. My lesson only lasts an hour and I am grateful.

After my crash course, I call up Glenn Uy, a chiropractor in Toronto who frequently treats injured athletes. He has been training in various dance styles for eight years and counts dance as just one of the many sports he’s involved in, which include football and basketball.

“Dance is a sport because a sport requires dedication, coordination, style, strength and agility. Everything that you find in the everyday sport, you can find in dance,” he says.

Velislava Bachvarova, 19, a competitive ballroom dancer who moved to Canada two years ago from her native Bulgaria, enthusiastically agrees. “People think of it as a hobby, but we train like it is a sport.” Bachvarova trains three times a week for three-hour sessions. “The week before the competition you train every day,” she adds.

Think synchronized swimming or gymnastics rather than basketball. Aside from practicing technique and learning steps, a training session can also entail learning personal presentation, Bachvarova says. “Sometimes we practice how to smile or how to stand.”

I think back to the students I watched during my first visit to You Can Dance studios. Are dancers really the serious athletes that Bachvarova describes? I may not have been able to find