What Makes Elite Ballroom Dancers Better?

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Differences in dance quality among elite competitive ballroom dancers can be difficult to identify. At the championship level, what do adjudicators notice that separates top-ranked dancers from lower-ranked dancers?

To answer this question, Prosen et al. (2013) examined movement quality of ballroom dancers competing at a world-class competition, the 2011 International Slovenia Open. Comparisons were made between top-ranked (placed in the top 12) and lower-ranked (placed in the bottom 12) couples.

To control for the fact that choreography also predicts rankings, the researchers observed only one of the five competitive dances: Viennese Waltz. This dance was selected because it traditionally includes fewer patterns (mostly turns) than the other dances. If all couples dance similar routines, the pure relation of movement quality to rankings becomes easier to identify. You can see that all couples dance similar routines in the Viennese Waltz video below.

In this study, the researchers examined speed of movement and trajectory (the extent of curvature) during turning figures. Data were collected through video recordings and movement tracking software.

How Do Top-Ranked and Lower-Ranked Dancers Differ?

Preliminary analyses revealed no differences between top-ranked and lower-ranked couples in age, height, or dance experience.

There were no differences between the groups in natural turns (to the right); however, there were differences in reverse turns (to the left). For top-ranked dancers, reverse turns were more likely to follow a straight trajectory (84% straight turns and 16% curved turns); lower-ranked dancers were less consistent (67% straight turns and 33% curved turns).

For all turns, top-ranked dancers were faster. The differences in speed were greatest for reverse turns.

Within-couple analyses revealed that turning speed for top-ranked dancers was consistent for all turns; for lower-ranked dancers, reverse turns on a curved trajectory were slower than natural turns on a curved trajectory.


  • Even after accounting for age, height, and experience, differences in movement quality between top-ranked and lower-ranked dance couples were identified.
  • For reverse turns (to the left), top-ranked dancers are more likely to turn on a straight trajectory (84% vs. 67%) than a curved trajectory (16% vs. 33%).
  • Turning speed is faster for top-ranked dancers, particularly during reverse turns
  • Top-ranked dancers are more consistent in their turns. Lower-ranked dancers are more variable in turning speed across natural, reverse, straight, and curved turns.

What do you think? Are you surprised by the results? What do you think separates the top dancers from other dancers? Share your thoughts below.

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Source: Prosen, J., James, N., Dimitriou, L., Pers, J., & Vuckovic, G. (2013). A time-motion analysis of turns performed by highly ranked Viennese waltz dancers. Journal of Human Kinetics, 37, 55-62.

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