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This week a parent asked me to explain what happens at Nationals. She is new to the program and to ballroom in general and wasn’t sure what to expect. What will the kids be doing? What is this crazy experience all about? Why do we put so much into this? I decided to do my best to explain via blog post.

The Nationals experience begins at Sea-Tac airport. You will drop your child off at the curb, or walk them inside, depending on how generally nervous you are about the whole affair. They will have a suitcase packed with all of the items that were on the packing list their coaches gave them, except for the ones that they forgot (which hopefully was just their toothbrush or something they can get at Walgreens, and not their dance shoes which you will have to FedEx overnight to the hotel). We will gather in a large PBD mob and try unsuccessfully to not block the pathways of other passengers, and when we inevitably do, they will give us side eye. Sometimes security comes to help us find a better gathering place. When everyone has arrived, either Heather L or MJ (depending on your flight group) will go over THE RULES that will govern their lives for the next few days. These rules will include descriptions of severe consequences for breaking said rules . . . all of which is designed to strike fear and trembling into their hearts. In most cases, this works brilliantly and we rarely have issues with rule breaking.

Then comes the challenge of checking a dozen suitcases full of expensive costumes and getting our massive herd of black and white outfits through security and onto the plane. Sometimes this goes smoothly, sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, we’re prepared and we’ve never been late or lost anyone. We fly to Utah full of energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes the kids dance in the aisles of the plane while in flight, which is a hit with the old ladies. Once we arrive, we pile the kids and all their stuff into white 15-passenger vans and head for Provo, grabbing some food along the way.

When we get there we will head to the Marriott Center for our “Floor Time” and Costume checks. Per the rules for formation ballroom, each team has a set amount of time to run each routine one time on the competition floor before their qualifying round. When we walk into the Marriott Center, students who are there for the first time will look around at the giant arena and be struck by sudden and intense fear. It’s okay! You’ll be fine.

Floor Time is a time for first impressions. Judges won’t be there, but other teams, coaches, and the BYU staff will be, so dancers will want to be as prepared and professional as possible. Anything CAN happen, and HAS happened during Floor Time. We’ve had people fall on their face, run on late, lose shoes, and yes, there was even the infamous time a skirt fell off of one of our girls and she finished her routine wearing nothing but fishnets from the waist down. While skirtless she hit her lines and rotations and the boys from the other teams (who started out covering their faces in shock) ended up giving her a standing ovation because they deeply respected her chutzpah.

We will also check costumes to make sure we’re following BYU standards and no one is too sexy. Tuesday night we will also draw for our order. This is where all of the coaches from all of teams go into a back room and stand in a circle where they make awkward jokes, posture, and scope out the competition while trying to pick the index card that will put their team in the most advantageous position as related to all of the other teams. At the end of this we will go back to the hotel and try to sleep.

Wednesday is madness. Hair and make up must be completed for Qualifying Rounds for all routines. The Qualifying Rounds determine what division the teams will be dancing. We are always gunning for Division I. Coaches and volunteers will spend literally all day gelling, spraying, combing, painting, pinning, and glittering to get our kids looking their absolute best. Parents who attend can relax in the stands and eat popcorn and Cougar Tails. All of us will binge watch formation routine s. So. Many. Routines. Some teams will be more prepared than others—some teams will be shockingly good. Some will be shockingly bad. We will clap for all of them. Division placements will be put on the giant monitor when they are ready. This will be a moment of excitement and relief, or of disappointment and sadness. Either way, we’ll coach the kids through it as a team.

Individual competitions will also begin this day. The events will be much larger than you are used to. Locally, we are used to very few kids entering one event—sometimes only 1 couple is entered, they get 1st place and a ribbon and we all cheer. If we are lucky, at local events there are enough entries to have a semi-final. At Nationals, some events will begin with over 200 couples. In this case the couples will be divided into groups called “heats.” When each heat has had a chance to dance, we will have completed a “round.” The judges will call back a certain number of couples from each heat in a given round. Then the number of heats will be reduced accordingly for the next round. This continues until we get to quarterfinals, then semifinals, and in the end, a final of 6 couples will dance. Then couples will be ranked 1st through 6th and given awards. The announcer will recognize each couple by name and also sometimes mentions their home state. At Nationals, it is a HUGE honor to be included in any final, no matter what the placement. If you are lucky enough to make it into one, be sure to show a lot of gratitude and grace.

In syllabus events, all dancers will wear black and white. In open events, dancers can add all kinds of glitz and glam—and they relish this. Nowhere is fashion excess celebrated more than at a ballroom dance competition. In Latin events, both the ladies and the gentlemen will be swimming in rhinestones. Many of the women will have paid someone a fortune transform their hair into sculpture art, and the gentlemen’s hair will make you think of the Italian mafia. As for the Ballroom events, if you thought the characters on Downton Abbey were fussy about their tails and gowns, you’ve haven’t seen anything yet. It’s a great spectacle. If you know nothing about ballroom dance you will spend the entire time evaluating the costumes and picking the dress that is your favorite color and marveling that the judges can see any difference in quality at all. After a few years as a spectator you’ll start to be able to see the range of the actual dancing—which is even more fun than judging costumes.

The competition will continue Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Every day is its own crazy adventure. Behind the scenes we will be making sure that every dancer is dressed, ready, and lined up in the appropriate place and the appropriate time. With 4 teams and 100 dancers this is a huge logistical undertaking. I spend literally two days once the schedule is published creating a PBD master schedule that maps out where every single dancer needs to be at every single minute so that practice, hair + makeup, food, snacks, rest, transportation, etc. are all planned and accounted for. I review this with the staff before we leave and each day at the event, and everyone has assignments to make sure it is all executed. We run a very tight ship.

The most exciting events are held on Friday and Saturday night. You will see some of the best couples in the world. The formation teams are a highlight. The Saturday night Theater Arts competition is a fan favorite, and usually features a few PBD alums.

Once it has all ended we will gather for an After Party at the hotel on Saturday night. It won’t start until after midnight. This is a time for food, fun, and friends. The kids will barely sleep. It will be daylight savings time. They will be exhausted when we check out of the hotel on Sunday. We will have a nice meal together, and then head to the airport. Dozens of them will sleep on the dirty airport floor because they can’t stay awake another minute. Then they will sleep on the plane on the way home and it will be so quiet. You will pick them up and ask them about the week and they will say it was, “Good.”

The week will likely have been a mix of elation and disappointment and everything in between. Every person will have been stretched in a way that they never had before. It will be the biggest stage most have ever been on, or will ever be on. They will have come closer to their physical, mental, and emotional limits than they ever have before, and along the way they will have learned things about themselves they never would have known otherwise. They will find their courage, their grit, their determination, and their sense of community. They will have learned to trust and to sacrifice. They will have created moments they will never forget. And even though they are exhausted and will leave the competition being sick of neon and never wanting to see another rhinestone . . . after a few days they will long for their friends, whom they will declare they haven’t seen “forever” . . . and they will be back at the Studio—ready to do it all over again.