Updated: Apr 30
There are two overarching styles of ballroom that are commonly danced around the World. For beginner dancers, knowing the differences between the American and International styles isn't always easy. This post will help explain the defining characteristics of each style and how they differ from one another. Let's get into it!
One important difference to consider is the origin of each style. Their unique histories can tell us a lot about how these styles evolved over time. The International Style, also sometimes called "English Style" originated in the royal courts of Europe around the 17th & 18th centuries. Many of the dances were based upon traditional folk dances of European nations and were performed at court by societal elites. Competitive ballroom dancing started in London in the 1920s, with the preferred aesthetic being quiet and understated. The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, an organization founded in 1904 with the mission of educating the public on all forms of dance, quickly developed standards for each dance style. The organization created an internationally-recognized syllabus that is still in use today.
The American Style of ballroom dance was, at its core, a social endeavor. Traditional styles such as Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, and Swing were made popular in the US throughout the 1920s and 1930s by famous performers like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly. But in the nightclubs and dance halls of America's cities, the public was putting their own unique spin on each style - a spin that could definitely not be categorized as quiet or understated. Official, organized ballroom competitions in the US didn't come about until the 1980s when the American Ballroom Company hosted the first United States Dancesport Championships. Today, although not officially recognized internationally, the American style is quickly gaining popularity worldwide for its openness and creative license.
The second major difference between these two styles is the dances they feature. This chart helps explain which individual dance styles fall under which category:
You've probably noticed that there is some overlap between styles - so what makes the American Waltz different than the International Waltz? It really comes down to style.
American Smooth vs. International Ballroom
These two styles share a lot of the same dances, but they aren't performed in the exact same way. While the core "personality" of each dance is similar in both styles, there are some major differences in how they are danced:
Frame: In the American Style, dancers are encouraged to break out of their traditional frame into open positions like Shadow and Side-By-Side. It creates an interesting dynamic that speaks directly to the social origins of the American Style. In the International Style, dancers are expected to maintain their closed frame throughout the duration of each dance, fluidly transitioning between positions like Promenade and Outside Partner. The understated elegance of the closed frame reflects the preferred aesthetic of International Style from its inception.
Styling: American Smooth has evolved in the past few decades from an open version of International Ballroom into a completely different animal. Now, Smooth dancers often look to Latin and Rhythm styles for inspiration. While somewhat controversial among judging panels, it isn't uncommon to see elements of Paso Doble in Tango or West Coast Swing in the Foxtrot. Meanwhile, International Ballroom remains steeped in tradition, emphasizing technical perfection over flashy or risky styling choices.
Costuming: American Smooth dancers tend to opt for fewer layers of fabric on their skirts, often with single or even double slits to allow for more range of motion in the legs. Typically, their skirts are longer and made of lighter materials like chiffon or lightweight satin. In recent years, shoemakers have even developed innovative styles with added flexibility to meet the needs of American Smooth Dancers. Men also have more options, some opting for only shirts and vests, others for jackets, and a range of colors from emerald to grey, black, and navy blue. On the International side, women dancers have fuller and shorter skirts to show off perfected footwork. They also wear floats (pieces of fabric that connect from each wrist to their back) in order to accentuate their frame. The men wear costumes reminiscent of tuxedos, complete with tails, and always in solid black.
Check out these videos of the United States Dance Championships for more reference on the differences between American Smooth and International Ballroom.
American Smooth - USDC
International Ballroom - USDC
American Rhythm vs International Latin
On the Rhythm/Latin side, there are fewer dances shared by the two styles, but the differences are equally as important to competing dancers to know.
Legwork: In American Rhythm, the emphasis is placed on the bent knee. This means that whenever a dancer takes a step, they will transfer weight onto the new foot while the leg is still bent. This technique gives American Smooth a lower, more grounded aesthetic. The one exception is in progressive patterns that travel more than one step forward or back (think open Cuban walks). In this instance, most Rhythm dancers will opt for the Latin style of weight transfer. In International Latin dances, the emphasis is placed on a straight leg. When taking a step, dancers will straighten the landing leg before shifting weight. This technique gives Latin a very sleek, elongated aesthetic.