Every year for the past six years, on a single night in the beginning of March, I consistently had a hard time falling asleep. Why? Because the next day I would embark on a journey that would require all the mind, body, and soul that I had: Dancesport Nationals with a Pacific Ballroom Dance Formation Team. This year, on the same night, I easily fell, and stayed, asleep, and even had a hard time getting out of bed when my alarm went off. Was this because I was not excited to attend Nationals without a team? Was it because I was nostalgic, sad, or jealous? I really had no clue, but I thought about it as I packed a few last things, left a note for my roommates, walked out of my dorm alone dragging two suitcases and a tote behind me, and jumped in an Uber that drove me through sunny L.A. to the airport.

There’s no doubt that when one experiences something nearly the exact same way for six years and suddenly experiences it from a different perspective, it can be difficult. Despite the welcoming attitude the company has towards alumni, I fully expected to cry, feel excluded, and miss being on a team more than ever: I prepped myself for this all the way from L.A.X. to S.LC. What I did not expect is how much I would grow as a dancer and as a person by experiencing Nationals from what I like to call “the outside.”

My state of cognitive dissonance truly began at the Salt Lake City airport’s baggage claim. I looked around and not only did I see years of memories of waiting for costume bags to come down from the plane and vans to pick up excited teams, but I saw UCSB’s men’s baseball team, which had been on my flight. There I was, standing surrounded by a team in matching warm-ups, joking around with each other and waiting for their versions of costume bags to come down. I grabbed my suitcases and walked out to where the vans used to pick me up, but instead was greeted by my mom and my sister in a small car. As we drove to Provo, I realized I had never really looked out the window during the drive when I had been with the teams.

I arrived at the Marriott Center an hour later to practice with my long-distance partner and boyfriend for our individual events; the two events I had been preparing for alone for three months. When he had to get ready for team qualifying rounds, I sat with another alumni friend to watch both Youth medleys qualify into Division I. It was strange to watch a medley I had been in for the past two years compete with slightly different choreography, but it was more strange to watch Youth medleys compete at all. The last time I was able to do that was when I was on Junior teams, and honestly back then I was too young and too tired to remember anything. Watching the kids I grew up with dance against other teams, most of which seemed to have worked just as hard as they had, I gained a new sense of objectivity. Watching all the medleys as someone trained for nearly a decade in formation Ballroom Dance, I could easily tell most Division placements, something I had never experienced.

As the week went on, I competed in my individual events with some friends still on the team. I cannot tell if this felt the same as it did every year before because it did not involve the team, my old team coaches all cheered for me, I had the same individual coach, or I was dancing with someone still on the team, but despite the lack of practice time my partner and I had, for a few hours everything felt the same. I am still not sure how I feel about that. When my events were over for the week, I started to notice small differences in my Nationals experience, besides the obvious: not being on a team. I hung out with my mom a lot more, I was more focused on my sister’s events and how amazing of a dancer she has become, I had more genuine conversations with other alumni, I got more sleep, I could go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted, and I really started to notice how awful the air quality is in Utah! I also noticed how dramatized everything can be in the Ballroom world, realized how much healthier I was eating, started to gain a better appreciation for American Smooth, was able to Shazam so many more songs, and because I was able to watch so many events, I began to realize just how much talent and hard work is in the B.Y.U. Marriott Center during the second week of March.

These little things that one generally does not notice when traveling with a team to Nationals are actually huge things when one becomes an alumnus. However, my largest change in perspective came during Saturday night when the Youth Latin Formation Division I teams competed, which included my former team. I sat with one of my best friends, also an alumnus, as well as my sister and mom, and the strangest thing happened: I got nervous, probably out of habit. In my opinion, the top three were very obvious from the qualifying, but I was still so excited to watch the teams dance. There is nothing I love more than Latin Formation dancing. The first few teams went, and then B.Y.U.’s new Michael Jackson medley was up. Since my team last year beat them, they changed their routine for this year and really improved. For the first time in awhile, I felt like their new medley was both solid and fun to watch. They finished and I was shocked. The choreography and dancing was incredible, and I am not ashamed that I gave them a standing ovation. Before you call this betrayal, let me just tell you I also stood up at the end of the Extreme Youth Latin Medley. Upset yet?

Of course I stood up and cheered loudest for Pacific Ballroom Dance’s Youth Latin Medley; these three teams were my top three predictions, and it was clear they all put in an amazing amount of work. It was during the awards for this event that I had one of the largest realizations of my life. I was looking down at the teams all holding hands, and it got down to my predicted top three. The placements were exactly as I predicted, and as they were announced, I started feeling guilty for not predicting the P.B.D. medley would get a higher placement. On the team I always had hope for first, and last year that hope became a reality. But from the stands, off the team and away from the studio, I saw something different. I watched the competition and I saw the hard work of other teams. I saw that other teams have always been working just as hard as we had been, I saw that everyone on each team wanted to do well just as much as I always had, I saw their bond as a team, their commitment to their sport, and I saw their sweat, blood, and tears. I saw their minds, bodies, and souls go into their dancing, I saw how each dancer sacrificed for their team just like I had for so many years, and I saw them not as competition, but as former peers. I saw them no longer as teams to beat, but teams to appreciate. I watched the artistry of their routines, I saw them run off and cry together like we had, and I saw humans who went through nearly the same things I had.

Yes, Pacific Ballroom Dance’s teams did amazing this year, but for the first time, I realized this did not mean other teams did not do amazing or deserve wonderful placements. I had been so focused on beating these teams for so many years that I never watched other medleys for what they were: art, products of talent and hard work, and pure expression. I watched this competition and I was inspired. I was inspired by how B.Y.U. stepped it up this year after we beat them last year, I was inspired by the emotion Extreme puts into their dancing, I was inspired by the unique new P.B.D. medley and how hard my friends worked this year, and finally, I was inspired by the talent standing on that floor when they called the awards. I was inspired by the fact that without true competition, these teams would not be constantly striving to be better.

I soon realized that this new perspective made me better appreciate the hard work of others and the nature of competition. It gave me a new take on Nationals and competition in dance as a whole, which pushes everyone to strive to be the best they can possibly be. I now realize this is the reason my first coach pushed me to compete and why it is now a requirement on many teams at P.B.D. Although competition can bring out the worst in certain people, I now understand how it enables all of us to do things we did not think possible: break a twelve year winning streak of another team, practice with a partner for less than ten hours and go out just to have fun and dance the best we have ever danced, and appreciate the hard work and talent of the teams we only ever thought of as competition.

I am so grateful for the perspectives I was able to gain through this experience, and although I encourage all teams to be extremely competitive and continue to strive to beat each other, I also encourage them to take time to appreciate each other and the hard work each team has done to get where they are today. I encourage this because everyone graduates the teams eventually and suddenly has no control over what happens on that floor, and we all have a lot to gain by appreciating those who are going through the exact same hardships, joy, laughter, and overall experiences as we did.