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When you think about ballroom dancing you envision the beautiful dances of the Waltz and Foxtrot and dream of sultry ones like the Rumba and Cha-Cha, but which version of the dance are you picturing?  DID YOU KNOW that there are two styles of all of these dances? To the untrained eye they may look the same, however, these two different styles of ballroom dance are vastly different.  Here’s the gist…

Modern ballroom dancing comes in two major styles,  American and International.  American Style was developed by the major U.S. studio chains like Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire, designed to mimic the stage and screen dancing that was popular in the early part of the 20th Century.  International Style was developed on the other side of the pond by the British, particularly through the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) and the International Dance Teachers’ Association (IDTA), with a much stricter syllabus and a competitive edge.  While most of the Old World uses International Style exclusively, both styles are popular in the United States.

The best way to describe the difference in the two styles is thinking of them like different dialects. Though dance names can overlap between the two schools, the way they are executed is very different.  From the technique to the timing, the speed of the music, the attire and even the attitude, each style has its own flair.  It can be compared to the difference between American and British English…one sounding slow and relaxed, the other fast and more formal.   The American School takes its cues from widely popular social dancing, whereas the International School is more designed for competition and exhibition, much like ballet and other classical forms of dance.

The American Style dances are grouped into the categories of Smooth (Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango & Viennese Waltz) & Rhythm (Cha-Cha, Rumba, Swing, Bolero, & Mambo).  The International Style categorizes them into Standard (Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, & Quickstep) & Latin (Cha-Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble & Jive).
American Rhythm vs. International Latin:


American Rhythm: The biggest difference between Rhythm & Latin is how we create our hip action.  In Rhythm, dancers step onto a bent knee.  The technique is designed to visually show the rhythm of the music. Basically, if you weren’t able to hear anything but watched someone dance the Mambo, you should be able to SEE the rhythm of the song through the leg and body action the couple is displaying. American Style Rhythm is also danced in a more open connection, bringing out the individual style and attitude of each dancer, which makes it fun to dance socially as well as in competition!

International Latin:  In this style, hip action is created by stepping onto a straight leg. The technique is designed to show the stretch and length of the body while maintaining more control and connection between the partners. The International School is very strict on which figures dancers can perform, so there is not an open connection or “freestyling” like there is in Rhythm. The style of International is to showcase the dancers more as one couple on the floor and for them to flow in continuous motion together.


Believe it or not, there is actually different attire worn for the different styles of dancing…from tip to toe.  These differences help to emphasize the varying techniques of each school.  However, the differences aren’t quite distinct and sometimes they’re hard to see.  In most cases, you’ll probably be OK wearing a Latin dress for Rhythm, or vice versa, but there are a few subtle differences to keep in mind.

American Rhythm: Rhythm dresses are sometimes a bit more revealing than Latin dresses. The main reason being is we want to see those legs! Since American Rhythm dancing is shown through the body & knee action, the biggest thing we want to see is the body moving! So we shorten the skirts and add fringe to further showcase its movement. Ladies also tend to wear more of a flared heel vs. a stiletto style heel for shoes. This is to keep them more stable and to be able to push the foot into the ground, as the typical American Rhythm dance requires. For the men, the same attire is worn for either Rhythm or Latin dancing; typically, an easy breathing top (rhinestones or not), and a Cuban heel which is a little higher than a smooth or standard shoe. Both men and women’s heels are designed, regardless of Rhythm or Latin, to put you more onto the ball of your foot and your weight in the proper position.

International Latin: When it comes to attire, the women have more of a distinct change than men. For women, the dress is usually longer to showcase the length of the body. Since hip action occurs from movement onto a straight leg, you don’t need to worry about showing off your knees, or fabric or fringe getting in the way of your movement like you would in Rhythm. It may have an asymmetrical hem with one long side and one short side.  As far as shoes are concerned, the unstable tapered heel style can have a significant impact on the posture of a dancer by tilting the pelvis and making the buttocks more prominent, forcing the abdomen in and pushing the chest out, putting them more forward to feel the connection from their partner.

Some people like to argue about which style is “better”, but it’s really about what YOU FEEL and how you want to express yourself.   At International Ballroom Dance Studios we teach American & International Styles, so you don’t have to choose!  Try them both and find out which “language” speaks to you!

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series on the differences between American Smooth and International Standard!