WELLFLEET — Daisy O’Neil has been dancing since she was very young. She began with ballet, but four years ago she took up what she says is a much more liberating form of movement — ballroom dancing. That’s been her focus ever since.
“Ballroom is a lot more expressive, creative, and you just have more freedom,” O’Neil says. Ballet is more rigid, she explains, and a dancer’s routine must fit a perfect form.
But ballroom dancing does have a competitive side.
Sixteen-year-old Daisy lives in Wellfleet and is a junior at Nauset Regional High School. She has competed in five or six ballroom competitions in the last four years. That number would be higher, she said, if not for the obvious challenges of the pandemic, with several competitions postponed or canceled.
O’Neil practices with dance instructors Adam Spencer and Angel Fox at Spencer’s studio, Adam from Chatham. Besides Spencer and Fox, there are seven other dance instructors at the studio. And the instructors are serious.
Spencer toured with the London Studio Center jazz company in the U.K. and worked on Disney’s High School Musical concert tour in Europe. After that, he continued to train in Latin and ballroom dancing and belonged to Encore, a Latin formation team, when he won the British National Dance Championship. The team went on to compete at the world championships in Germany.
Fox has competed nationally and internationally, earning several first-place titles. She’s been a Commonwealth Theatre Arts Champion, a repeat Fred Astaire regional Theatre Arts Champion, and a National Rising Star Theatre Arts Champion.
I watched as O’Neil danced with Fox last Saturday before the rest of her troupe members showed up to practice the routine they were planning to showcase in a competition in Boston scheduled for Jan. 15. The competition has since been canceled due to Covid-19 concerns.
“Part of being a really good competitive dancer is knowing where your weaknesses are so you can hide them,” Fox said, as she and O’Neil sashayed across the studio floor in Chatham.
In competitive ballroom dancing, there’s usually a theme that dancers build a routine around. As they practice, they riff off certain movements to add flavor. Dancers are encouraged to be expressive for the judges when they’re on the dance floor.
“We’re making the choreography feel risky,” Fox said during their session, “even though we know exactly what’s going to happen next.”
Posture and core balance are key in ballroom, Fox explained. She’s noticed that, in the age of iPhones and social media use, a slouching posture has become common among younger dancers.
During their morning session, Fox focused on getting O’Neil to keep her head up and body positioned forward, facing the imaginary judges at the end of her routine.
The two ended the session by practicing the Mambo — a dance that emerged in Cuba in the 1940s.
Saturday is a busy day for Fox. Classes start at 9 a.m. and take her halfway through the day. Then she drives off Cape to teach afternoon classes in Dedham. She lives in Plymouth, a middle point between the two. She says she doesn’t mind the driving — she loves dance that much.
Four more girls show up after O’Neil and Fox finish their one-on-one session. They’re all teenagers, including Nauset freshman Larkin Fox from Brewster, Ava Todd from Dennis, Lighthouse Charter School student Delia Castro from Orleans, and Maddie DeFrancisci from West Barnstable.
All of them began as ballet dancers, but now they’re part of a ballroom troupe that competes together. Their troupe did include a boy, but because he recently quit, the girls had to reconfigure their routine.
These experienced dancers learn their steps quickly. A full solo routine may take only one or two classes to get down. Group routines are different, though. With the troupe practicing together only once a week, it takes about eight classes over two months for them to master a set.
One thing all the dancers talked about: the freedom they feel on the dance floor builds confidence that helps them beyond the studio.
Most dance lessons happened over Zoom or via Facebook live streams during 2020. It was so difficult, O’Neil said, that she began to wonder whether she wanted to continue dance. But eventually dancers got back in the studio, starting just two at a time, and wearing masks. Pairs danced at a distance, responding to each other’s moves from opposite sides of a strip of red tape placed on the studio floor.
Group classes resumed last year as did some competitions. In November, O’Neil danced a Great Gatsby-themed routine in the Commonwealth Classic in Burlington.
“It was a wake-up call to be reminded what competition is like,” she says. “I forgot the feeling that I’m actually working in order to dance.” Seeing other kids dance was also motivating, she says.
Angel Fox says the pandemic reminded everyone that what they love to do is truly important and should not be taken for granted.
“It was re-energizing to see each other,” she says. “A healthy amount of competition is a good thing.”