Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Trials of Team 364

A Penn duo goes to the ballroom nationals

By Taylor Wemmer

Saurabh Jain and Gabriela Cosma were trying to catch their breath: they had just danced 3 minutes of the two most exhausting dances in the Latin repertoire: samba and jive. Cosma was leaning on Jain’s arm as they both looked up at the giant screen projected on the wall in the front of the ballroom.
“Did we make it?” asked Cosma, scanning the rows of numbers on the screen for number 346.
“I don’t see our number,” replied Jain.
“346 is our number, right?” Cosma looked at the piece of paper safety-pinned to the back of Jain’s shirt. It was.
The two looked at one another, disappointed.
“Oh well, at least we made the semi-finals for cha-cha and rumba,” said Cosma, “I’m going to go sit down.”
Jain looked up at the board one more time, just in case their number had been added in the past few seconds. The screen did not magically produce a 346 so he followed his partner’s lead and went to rest up.
Cosma, 19, and Jain, 26, members of the University of Pennsylvania’s Latin and Ballroom Dance Team, have danced together in collegiate competitions along the East Coast for the past two years. This weekend, however, was one of the most important competitions they would attend: The USA Dance National Collegiate Dancesport Championships in Columbus, Ohio.
“How did you guys do?” asked Kathy Tang, a fellow team member.
“We messed up so many times!” replied Cosma, “We didn’t make the next round.”
She pulled out her water bottle and sat down. Jain joined her, but he pulled out a bag of ice instead. He took off his right shoe and held the make-shift cold compress on his ankle.
“I’m happy about not getting a callback,” admitted Jain, “I am in a lot of pain. I was limping off the floor after the jive.”
Jain had injured his ankle two weeks before, but not while he was dancing.
“I don’t even know how it happened! I was at work and it just started hurting,” said Jain.
This injury could not have come at a worse time. The pair had competed at a competition in Washington, DC two weekends before. Their results were good, but they were ready to do better. They were hoping to solidify their routines, put in extra hours of practice, and give their best performance at Nationals.
Their plan was not exactly working out.
“We haven’t practiced for two weeks. I had four mid-terms since the last competition and Saurabh has been injured,” said Cosma, a sophomore at Penn majoring in Biochemistry.
Jain, who was a Penn grad student and now works in Philadelphia, nodded his head in agreement as he took some pain killers.

* * *

Earlier that morning, the girls’ bathroom was a mess. Everyone was scrambling for mirror space to apply their layers of make-up, attach their fake eye-lashes, or squeeze into their Latin outfits. To feel properly attired, a dancer must wear ten times the amount of make-up she normally wears, twist her hair up in a bun coated in hairspray and gel, and be submerged in fake tanner. It may look good out on the floor, but try not to get too close. You may feel as though you are surrounded by dozens of sun-baked circus clowns in heels.
The day had started with the Ballroom dances, which includes the Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, and Viennese Waltz. These elegant dances required that girls where long skirts or dresses and two and a half inch heels. To compete Ballroom correctly, the couple has to be connected along their right sides in order for the man to lead his partner in the various steps.
As soon as the morning was over, however, the refined dances of Ballroom gave way to the much sexier dances of Latin. The long, stylish ball gowns were put away; suddenly, the skirts got shorter and the heelers got taller.
Latin dancing encompasses a very different style than its counter-part Ballroom. This category includes the dances of Cha-Cha, Rumba, Samba, and Jive. The dance position is very different: partners are connected to one another through a handhold instead of along the body. The outfits are tighter for both men and women. Men wear long-sleeved shirts with deep V-necks, while the ladies wear short skirts that accentuate their hip movements.
Cosma was wearing a short, tight, black dress and satin three-inch heels. She and Jain were one of the many couples in the lobby rehearsing their routines before it was their moment to walk on the dance floor.
“Our frame collapses right here, we need to practice this step again,” said Cosma.
Jain readjusts his position, and counts “rock step, triple step, triple step” so that they start the move together on time.
At six foot one, Jain stands four inches taller than Cosma, even with her Latin heels on. His dark hair is slicked back and held in place by copious amounts of gel.
“This baby ain’t going to mooove!” said Jain, patting his head. Not a hair fell out of place.
The way you look is very important, said Cosma. Your dancing itself cannot change much the day of the competition, but you can control what you wear, how you do your hair, and your make-up.
“Looking perfect can really enhance your overall presentation and gives you confidence,” she added.
Nothing went right on that Saturday, though. Cosma was uncomfortable with her dress because the one she had planned to wear had too many sequins. Costumes with shimmery stones were allowed only for the highest level competitors, so she had to wear an outfit she did not like. Her hair refused to stay pulled back because she had forgotten bobby pins, and Jain’s ankle was simply not cooperating.
After seeing they had not made the semi-final for samba and jive, Cosma and Jain sat down to wait. A few minutes later, the master of ceremonies announced over the loud speakers, “Semi-finalists for cha-cha and rumba, please line up!”
The couple, after a few stretches, joined the other twelve couples in line without high hopes. They walked out onto the floor and danced their routines with smiles despite the mistakes they made and the pain that Jain visibly felt.
With one glance up at the board after the round, they were not surprised to see that they had not made the final. Though disappointed, they were not discouraged. Today was only the
first day of the competition. Tomorrow they had another chance, and they were determined to come back on Sunday with much better results.


The USA Dance National Collegiate Dancesport Championships is one of the largest collegiate competitions held all year. For every couple, Nationals is an excellent opportunity to measure one’s skill level against the best in the field.
“You can really tell how good you are because its Nationals,” said Cosma, “People come from everywhere and it’s generally the good dancers that are willing to take the time to travel.”
“Nationals is a different feeling. You are competing with everyone. If you do well, then it feels good!” said Jain.
This year, the competition was held on November 17-18 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Ohio. Competitors flew in from the West coast, while other teams opted for the ‘team- bonding’ experience: an eight to ten hour van ride from New York, Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia.
Although it is one of the most popular competitions all year, Penn’s ballroom team must sponsor their competitors in order for them to attend because it is one of the most expensive competitions. Not only is the registration fee high ($70 compared to usually $35), but the cost of travel and hotel accommodations is impossible for a student’s budget.
“For a lot of people, this is their favorite comp,” said Leonore Miller, Team Captain of Penn’s ballroom team.
This competition is unique in that it is much larger than just the collegiate category. During this weekend, professional Latin and Ballroom dancers also compete against each other. Hundreds of people attend the evening events to watch these world-famous dancers, the best of the best, compete for first place in the four different dance styles. Over $135,000 in prize money is awarded in the professional events of Latin, Rhythm, Standard, and Smooth.
“Seeing the professional dancers compete is amazing and the show dances on Friday and Saturday nights are great,” said Miller.
“I was really excited about seeing the pros,” said Cosma, “This was the first time I have ever been to Nationals in the three years I have been competing.”
As two of the upper level dancers, Cosma and Jain are one of Penn’s best couples because they consistently place in the top six at competitions. On Saturday, Penn’s team had enjoyed many successes at the competition. Miller was proud of her team.
“We got second in the team match, so we can say we’re second in the nation!” said Miller, “Gabby and Saurabh looked good. They were definitely one of the better couples out there.”


Two vans of sleepy Penn students returned to the convention center at 7:30 am Sunday morning ready to compete. A few had gone out to party and social dance the night before with friends from other teams; they were clearly struggling to wake up that morning.
Cosma had switched into a blue rhine-stoned costumed and had borrowed some bobby pins from a fellow team member. Her hair was twisted back and anchored in place so it would not get in the way as she danced.
Jain popped a few Advil in his mouth and washed them down with water. He was slowly warming his body up before he ran over the routines with Cosma.
“I did not go to the party last night because I wanted to rest myself and my ankle,” said Jain,“I’m really hoping to do well!”
Today, they were dancing in the Rhythm event which encompassed the same dances as Latin but required slightly different technique.
“Rhythm is basically a sloppy Latin!” said Cosma.
After a short rehearsal, they were ready.
“Rhythm dancers, please line up in the on-deck area!” announced the MC.
Jain reached for Cosma’s hand and walked her over to their place in line. The twenty-two couples walked onto the floor for their cha-cha, the music came on, and the dance began.
This was it. Cosma and Jain had just walked off the floor from the semi-final round. Again, Cosma leaned on her partner for support as they looked up at the giant screen, waiting for the numbers of the couples that had made it to the final to be posted.
“Did we make it?” asked Cosma, scanning once again for 346.
Jain’s eyes lit up when he saw exactly what they were looking for, “Yes! Good job! We made the final!”
They danced the final set of cha-cha, rumba, and swing with confidence and pride as their team members cheered them on and snapped photo after photo. The judges circled the floor, watching each couple and marking down the placement that they felt each couple deserved.
Once the last song had finished, the master of ceremonies lined the finalists up for their rewards. Because they announce last place first, Cosma and Jain were hoping not to hear their number until the very end.
Sixth place went to the couple on their left, fifth to the couple they had danced next to on the floor.
“Fourth place to…, Third Place to…,” the MC announced over the microphone, “Second Place to number 346, Saurabh Jain and Gabriela Cosma of the University of Pennsylvania.”
Cheers erupted from Penn’s team. Cosma and Jain went up to accept their red ribbons with beaming smiles.
Despite all the pain, “it was worth it,” said Jain. “We competed against 22 couples and came second, and that is a really good feeling.”

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