A few weeks ago I traded my trail runners for heels and entered the Seattle Star Ball, a 3-day event that brings together professional and amateur dancers alike for a weekend of competition.
It’s been nearly a decade, but it wasn’t my first time donning a gown. In fact, Seattle Star Ball was my inaugural ballroom competition when I was a college student at Fairhaven College in Bellingham, Washington—not so coincidentally the same town where I now live.
When I moved back to the Pacific Northwest last year, I ran into my former teacher. Immediately, my curiosity piqued: did he still teach and would he be willing to teach me again?
I started lessons the following week.
Over the past year, I’ve re-learned what it means to dance with a partner and to carry my weight, even as a follow. Additionally, I’ve learned that ballroom dance shoes are lightyears away from the technology (and comfort) offered in trail runners. Surprisingly, the biggest takeaway are the similarities between ballroom dance and trail running. So, with three ballroom competitions (totaling forty-five or so dances) and forty trail races under my belt, I’m going to compare the two.
Because, of course, what you really wanted to know is this: can ballroom dancing improve your ultra running game?
Scan through Ultrasignup and you’ll probably find a dozen races you want to run one day. Once you’ve found The One, (or The Ten) it’s simply a matter of registering for the race and giving Ultrasignup all of your money.
Registering for ballroom competitions (or at least the Seattle Star Ball) is a matter of printing out several confusing forms, filling them out, adding together the cost of each individual dance, guesstimating the amount, sending a check, and mailing the package to a tiny town in Florida where you hope it’s received. You won’t find out the times of your dance heats until a few days before the event.
2. Competition Attire
I ran my first ultra in a pair of running shoes that I had pulled from a bin of previously tested items when I was interning at Trail Runner Magazine in 2014. They were a pair of neon orange men’s Inov-8 X-talons, just about as minimalist and aggressive as you can get—especially for a relatively flat 50K on dry, smooth California trails. Needless to say, ultramarathoners have never been judged by their apparel choices.
I’ve raced 50-milers where I ran by myself the majority of the race and others where I’ve ran every mile (and finished) with another runner. No matter how an event shakes out, though, I always know where my competition is. Plus, figuring out who won is easy: the person to cross the finish line first.
Not so in ballroom. We’re judged on a variety of aspects, including posture, line, presentation, musicality, togetherness, floorcraft, power, and shape. Rather than having one “race director,” each heat includes several judges who have the chance to glance at us for 3-5 seconds depending on the number of competitors. If we don’t look up to par in that time…well, our placement is likely to reflect that. I may have lost several of my dance heats because I accidentally wore an open-toed heel for my smooth dances (Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, and Viennese), which I wasn’t aware could be used against me going into the competition.
Additionally, each one to two minute heat gives me time to focus solely on how I need to move with my dance partner. I didn’t have the opportunity to see my competitors until the award ceremony, and even then it happened so fast I barely had time to collect my placement card.
I ran my first 50K off of months of incredibly low mileage followed by a random 42-mile run of the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim, then the race a week later. Needless to say, I now understand the value of consistent running to both build aerobic fitness and reduce the risk of injury. Since June, I’ve averaged 70-mile weeks to prepare for a fall of races and a later goal of HURT 100 in January.
Coming from an ultrarunning background, building dance fitness wasn’t hard. That said, there were several lessons leading up to my competition that had me gasping. While I don’t sweat the same way I do during a training run or race, I found myself tired after dancing 8 dances back-to-back during my competition (Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, and repeat!). My teacher, on the other hand, had several students at the competition and had to dance at least six times as much as me, and often back-to-back-to-back. Dancing requires endurance, too!
5. Shoes & Foot Positioning
Your feet are everything in ultrarunning, and problems up the chain can create issues further down. I’ve always been a fan of more minimalist shoes with a wide toe box and have worn Altra Superiors for all of my races in the last few years.
Ballroom, on the other hand, offers narrow shoes—often pointed—with a heel lift. While I’ve been able to find shoes with a smaller heel, dance shoes with a rounded toe box are both aesthetically displeasing for dance and have the potential to create issues between you and your dance partner, like tripping.
In terms of foot positioning, I’ve worked on my stride over the years to develop better forefoot landing (without running exclusively “on my toes.”) The idea of landing under center of mass and avoiding heel striking is clear in running, so learning to often lead with my heel at specific times during Waltz or Tango, for example, was confusing.
The best, and sometimes worst, part of ultrarunning is the food. Eating 200-300 calories an hour requires knowing what foods digest well at various paces and temperatures. Remote aid stations generally offer the most magical foods at the most ludicrous hours: pumpkin pie in the morning? Scrambled eggs at night? Freshly grilled quesadillas and hot tomato soup on the side of a mountain? Yes, please.
Ballroom dance competitions are usually buffet style and thus have the typical assortment of continental breakfast-type foods. It doesn’t matter: try eating a meal, or even a snack, between dance heats where you have just enough time to run (in your heels) to the bathroom and confirm that no, you don’t have a piece of spinach wedged between your teeth from the salad you ate earlier. Adequate fueling probably won’t happen.
I’m a better runner than I am a dancer, and the number of hours I spend on each activity reflects that. But professional dancers will quickly blow away even the most dedicated runner: there are only so many miles you can run before the body breaks down. In dance, there’s room for more practice because dance movements are *typically* less stressful.
In regards to when these events begin, they’re surprisingly similar. My first dance heat started at 9:05 a.m. on a Saturday morning, which required me to wake at 5 a.m., warm-up, get my hair done, eat breakfast, figure out how to apply make-up, put on my dress, and hurry to the ballroom. A race wouldn’t require much different—except, of course, instead of doing my hair and applying make-up, I might spend that time in the porta-potty. We don’t need to go further with that sentence.
All we need are some pictures to explain this one:
Final Results: 6 different, 2 same
So, they’re pretty different.
Ballroom dancing isn’t the most ideal form of cross training for running, nor is running preferable to spending time on the dance floor. That said, there are enough similarities that learning to dance can benefit your running (like quick feet and good posture) and offer a new challenge.
And even without any similarities, it’s fun to try something new.
Endless thanks to my dance teacher Nathan Simler and my running coach Megan Roche for making both pursuits fun and rewarding!