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Grace and style provides a sporting target for ballroom dancer Emily Brown



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University student and Ballroom dancer Emily Brown training at the University Sports Centre with her partner Scott Wilson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (55368893)
University student and Ballroom dancer Emily Brown training at the University Sports Centre with her partner Scott Wilson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (55368893)

Most people would not place dancesport alongside the likes of badminton, cycling, fencing, judo and water polo in the realm of what categorises a sport.

But is that just a snobbish approach that just fuels our own prejudices?

In the eyes of the Blues committee at Cambridge University, all the activities listed above earn the same categorisation, that of discretionary full blue.

It means that certain criteria must be achieved in order to meet the prestigious accolade, but people are still liable to ‘cock a snook’ at the thought of ballroom dancing being considered a sport.

However, given the athletic demands, this seems mightily unfair without weighing up the evidence that would suggest otherwise – and that is the weight training, the strength and conditioning, nutrition, cardiovascular fitness, all things that we take as de rigueur for other sporting disciplines.

“It’s a very tricky one,” says Emily Brown, a natural sciences student at Lucy Cavendish College.

“To me, I don’t think it can be categorised really as a sport or an art, solely. I think it is definitely a mixture of the two.”

The 20-year-old speaks from a position of authority.

Together with partner Scott Wilson, they ranked second in the UK and No 5 in the world in ballroom dancing at under-21 level.

“In terms of sport, I think people really understand it is physically challenging but I think they underestimate how physically demanding it is,” explains Brown.

“On a competition day, we will have lots of rounds going from the morning right until the evening and in each round you have to dance five dances.

“It gets progressively harder because in the first round you will start in a heat.

University student and Ballroom dancer Emily Brown training at the University Sports Centre with her partner Scott Wilson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (54640490)
University student and Ballroom dancer Emily Brown training at the University Sports Centre with her partner Scott Wilson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (54640490)

“So you will dance your waltz, and then all of the other heats will dance the waltz and then all of you will dance the tango, so you almost get a break between each dance.

“As you get to the final, there are only six couples on the floor so it’s one heat and you will dance waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz and quickstep back to back, two minutes a dance and you don’t get a break in between.

“It is really physically challenging, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, we will do stamina training all the time, so sport and physical training is such a big part of dancing.

“But, at the same time, I don’t think you can classify it as a sport solely because it is so subjective.

“You have judges who will stand and watch your dancing, and you could ask any one judge and they wouldn’t have the same thing to say about each dancer because they like different things, have different tastes, they see different things.

“It’s very subjective. You could have a different panel of adjudicators give a completely different result to the same group of dancers.”

It is a great insight from Brown about so many aspects of ballroom dancing.

From one who is mastering the art, it provides a reasoned explanation why ballroom dancing straddles such a big divide.

But, perhaps more importantly, it gives minute detail of the physical demands associated with the discipline.

Each year, BBC1’s Strictly Comes Dancing shows the stresses faced by the celebrities preparing each week for a different dance, and those dances last for around a minute.

You can therefore get an idea of what is expected of more accomplished dancers.

Brown is in her first year at Cambridge, and is part of the University of Cambridge Athlete Performance Programme.

“With UCAPP, when I first started I had a body MOT with the physios and they did a lot of different tests on my body to see where my weaknesses were and things like that,” says Brown.

“The physio spoke to the S&C coach so that they could target my weak areas, and the S&C coach did a lot of research on my type of dancing and what sort of training was going to be most beneficial for me.

“I’ve now got a tailored plan towards what’s going to give me the biggest advantage in my dance competitions and I have weekly S&C sessions.”

University student and Ballroom dancer Emily Brown training at the University Sports Centre with her partner Scott Wilson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (54640509)
University student and Ballroom dancer Emily Brown training at the University Sports Centre with her partner Scott Wilson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (54640509)

It does not feel as if they need much more of an advantage in competition.

Brown and Wilson won seven British Championship titles in classical sequence – a more traditional style of dancing – by the age of 16, among a list of other honours.

Their partnership goes back to 2008, and Brown has been dancing since the age of three.

As her older brother and sister danced, she would go along to lessons and then started competing in solo competitions aged five.

“It sounds a bit strange to anyone who isn’t involved in dancing but you will dance by yourself, as if you had a partner,” she explains.

“I got my first partner when I was seven, and I’ve been dancing with him ever since.”

Brown believes that there are two elements to the appeal of dancing.

One is the competitive side and the will to win. “You want to get a good result as it feels amazing,” she says.

Then there is simply the love of what you are doing, such as dancing at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.

“Walking onto the floor and the amazing ballroom, the live orchestra, thousands of people clapping for you, you can’t beat that feeling,” explains Brown.

“If I ever stopped, I don’t think I’d ever be able to replicate that same feeling in any other endeavour.”

It is not just ingrained in an emotional sense, dancing is also about muscle memory.

Fine-tuning a performance makes it become instinctive and as well as the technical side of ballroom dancing, there is the overlap with it being an art as performers have to be able to express themselves to the music.

“It’s better if I don’t have to think about my movement, I just listen to the music and almost focus on putting on a show,” says Brown.

University student and Ballroom dancer Emily Brown training at the University Sports Centre with her partner Scott Wilson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (54640473)
University student and Ballroom dancer Emily Brown training at the University Sports Centre with her partner Scott Wilson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (54640473)

“The ideal situation would be to have practised so much that I can perform to the best of my ability without having to think about it so I can really dance and express my emotions on the day.”

It will be particularly pertinent this May when Brown and Wilson compete in the British Open for the final time in the under-21 category.

In their most recent performance in the competition, which is a worldwide event, they finished in fifth place.

“We’ve come fifth, and fifth to first is a big jump, but it’s important to have goals that are big enough so that when we’re doing the training and it’s hard, you have that goal in mind and you think about the feelings and emotions you would experience if that comes true,” says Brown.

“That’s what really pushes me.”

Those hours of training every day are spent at the University of Cambridge Sports Centre, usually making use of the wooden floor on a badminton court in the main hall, and with a Bluetooth speaker.

It is why the assistance of being on the UCAPP scheme is so valuable.

There is also the aspect of balancing the dancing demands with the academic. Brown is studying biological natural sciences and, as a first year, that requires two lectures every day apart from Sundays and four hour-long supervisions every week.

Longer term, there is not one overarching ambition though.

For many dancers the pinnacle is to win the British Open Championships, but Brown’s ambitions are much more modest.

“I’m not really focusing on that one goal because at the end of the day, that is one day in my life where I would win the championship,” she says. “It would be an amazing feeling, but it won’t last forever, the memories of it will last forever but it is just one day so really I just want to achieve the highest that I can at every stage of my career.

“I think really it is just enjoying every step of the process and setting goals and achieving them, that’s what really motivates me.”

Maybe it is not quite sport as we know it – or even a sport at all – but the approach, the discipline, the work-rate and effort is exactly the same as we would so often associate with one.

And the aspirations of Brown are no different to any other sportsperson.



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