Bring on the bling

2013-08-30 11:04

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As rivalry heats up on SABC3’s Strictly Come Dancing, we sashay behind the glitter and glam to find out what makes competitive ballroom dancing strictly for the brave.

Does size really matter? Can 1.5cm really make that much of a difference? Yes, if you’re talking about precision performance.

Yes, if you’re talking about going after not just bronze, silver or gold, but the holy grail of competitive dancing: ballroom bling – the right to compete in a ballroom gown or a tailcoat, symbols that you’ve reached champ level.

It’s a Saturday at a casino beyond the far East Rand and 180 couples have arrived for the annual Future Stars Freedom to Dance festival.

The casino theatre has been turned into a weekend ballroom of high-gloss wooden floors, the hollow of the huge space warmed with hi-tech lighting trained on the dance floor. But mirror balls and the soft blur of rainbow lights have nothing on the gowns and the shoes – the five or six centimetres that could make all the difference between coming first and not placing at all.

Antonia Mahomed is 10 and has some way to go before she can collect enough points on the dance floor to allow her to wear bling when she competes. She also hasn’t graduated further than a block heel; a chunk of added height that’s not the coveted slender, flute heels on which her more established contemporaries and fellow amateur dancers express their strange addiction to the alchemy of movement, music and the human body.

‘Come on, Antonia, come on, keep your arms up,’ shouts her dad, Anthony Mahomed, from the edge of the square of flat wooden decking. Anthony claps and shouts encouragement and instructions. He used to dance himself, and now he’s a dance instructor and his most precious student is his little girl.

‘She’s been dancing for a year now. I didn’t push her into this, she wanted to compete,’ he says. Suddenly the music ends abruptly.

This is a competition, after all. Judges, who are dotted around the dance floor edges, don’t have the patience to indulge full soundtracks, gratuitous twirling or imperfect footwork. There is no room for do-overs, and competition day will stretch 12 hours to include Latin and belly dancing categories.

Two judges have flown in from an international dance studio to participate and Strictly Come Dancing judge Thobogo Kgobokoe is also on the panel. Thobogo has a clipboard in hand, a keen eye on the competitors and a gently tapping foot following the beat of music, which ranges from Edith Piaf and Enya to Ryan Paris’s ‘Dolce Vita’.

Antonia is led off the floor with her bow-tied partner, 12-year-old Joshua Stevens. ‘I like to dance because it lets you go places,’ says the young dancer, wearing a simple Lycra blend dance dress. She travelled here from Rosettenville in the south of Joburg.

‘I like the waltz and slow foxtrot,’ she says. And yes, she can’t wait until she can put on her own ballgown – a fantasy dress, a flourish of sequins and sheer fabrics with beaded glitz and underwire genius.

‘You feel like a princess the minute you put on the dress. The gowns are all custom-made and they can cost anything between R4 000 and R16 000. That’s why we try to get dancers to donate dresses and we use the competition to help raise funds for those who will compete internationally,’ says Sandy Smuts-Steyn, who organises the competitions that act as a forerunner for the SA National Championships later in the year. And, of course, there are the shoes.

Sandy says most dancers opt for 5cm heels, but poise and grace do get a boost with an extra 2.5cm. And then there’s the temptation of going all the way with a 7.5cm heel, but that’s a balancing act of the bravest kind.

Sandy danced competitively for 20 years and now teaches dance with her husband, Paul, at their studio in Randburg.

On this competition day, Paul is compère. It is up to him to shepherd couples onto the dance floor. Their performance is the culmination of months of hard work. ‘Let’s hear it for your dancers!’ Paul booms through the mic.

In the stands, grannies and friends, girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives clap and let out whoops. But as the music starts up, the family members settle back into their seats.

They know it’s a long day and their dance couple is required to showcase their talent in a series of dances that make up a ballroom dancing repertoire. They are here with lunch boxes and flasks and stand guard over suitcases filled with extra pairs of shoes, needle and thread, safety pins and fasteners ready for emergency fixes.

There’s also extra glitter eye shadow and glue to tame false eyelashes and to keep manicured nails from splitting.

They understand the devotion, the hard work and sacrifice their loved ones have made. Almiria Wilhelm and Desmond Hopkins have been dance partners for two years. She’s danced ballroom for six years; Desmond for 12.

‘We practise together for about four hours a week,’ Almiria says. ‘We’re working towards getting into the gold category and then, of course, to champs, where we can wear the bling.’

Today she has impressed the audience, who has voted her their favourite senior dancer, awarding her with a certificate and golden sash.

It’s not a case of just dancing well, says Desmond. ‘There are a lot of factors that go into getting the right dance partner. You have to click, your heights have to match and you need to have similar goals.’

It’s such a tight bond that another dancer, Shaun Wesley Gordon, says it requires a good dose of understanding from his wife. After all, it’s his dance partner, Shirli-Anne van Vledder, who he dips and twirls into sexy embraces in his tattooed arms.

In reality, though, it has less to do with romance and everything to do with timing, repetition and practice. Which is why Shaun and Shirli-Anne are going through their moves in a theatre passageway.

They’re counting in their heads, keeping their muscles warm, calming their nerves and making sure that when they’re called on to the floor, practice, performance and perseverance will matter more than any pair of shoes.

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