BLASTing off

Don’t tell Jennifer Chin that Northwestern lacrosse is more popular than – brace yourself – ballroom dancing. Chin, a Medill senior, is one of more than 50 members of BLAST – short for Ballroom, Latin and Swing Thing. Along with giving dance lessons and hosting the annual spring show put on by the BLAST performance team, the BLAST competition team will host its first-ever ballroom dance competition, the NU Classic, April 1 at Patten Gymnasium. Six other schools will compete in the all-day event.

Chin, the competition team co-captain and chair of the NU Classic, sat down with PLAY to discuss why ballroom dancing is a bigger deal than you might think.

PLAY: How long has BLAST been competing?

Jennifer Chin: BLAST has been competing at other schools for five or six years. We started out small with another student as our competition coach. Now we hire professionals.

PLAY: How serious is the ballroom competition team? Do you always get the joke, Ballroom dancing is an Olympic sport?

JC: They’re definitely real competitions. We pay our coach $80 an hour and we meet every week: two hours of Latin, two hours of standard. Competition team is usually (made up of) people who have gone through classes and found it isn’t enough. Competition allows you to reach a level of dancing you can’t get from other outlets BLAST offers.

PLAY: On the collegiate level, how big is ballroom dancing?

JC: I would say it’s as big as lacrosse or tennis. Some schools have teams of hundreds of people. We’re obviously smaller, which I think is due to the fact that NU is a smaller school.

PLAY: What other parts of BLAST are there besides the competition team?

JC: There’s the spring show and there’s the classes we teach.

PLAY: So the students teach the classes?

JC: Yeah, they’re student-taught and the show is student-choreographed. The only instructors we have are for the competition team, because the level isn’t something we can get from other students.

PLAY: How exactly do you judge dancing?

JC: The first thing the judge looks for is posture, that you’re standing up straight, but there’s this whole idea of technique that has developed. There are associations that regulate those kinds of things. There are certain moves that are worth different points in the syllabus. They judge whether or not (dancers are) doing the moves correctly – if you’re dancing on time with the music, how together with your partner you are, if your footwork is correct.

PLAY: So when you say syllabus, that’s like the ballroom dancing bible?

JC: Competition dancing involves a specific number of dances – the Foxtrot, slide, quick step – and certain organizations put out this book and rank the moves by level. Within a competition you have bronze, silver and gold levels. At the bronze level you’re only allowed to do certain moves from the syllabus. Once you move up, you can do higher-level moves.

PLAY: I read that some of the competition’s proceeds are going to charity?

JC: We have two parts of the competition. The competition itself is really expensive because we have to hire judges and all that. But we also have a donation program set up that other collegiate programs don’t have. Chicago Public Schools had this program, “Having a Ball,” and I wanted to incorporate that. They’re teaching fifth-graders in low-income neighborhoods how to ballroom dance. Two teams from their program are going to come here to perform the dances they’ve been learning. It’s a chance for these kids to see the benefits that can arise by being in a university. We really want to encourage them to pursue the arts at a higher level.

– Steve Aquino