The Cost of Dancing Abroad
My years of West Coast Swing holidays.
I used to hate the question “do you have any hobbies?” I would joke, “does the internet count?” and move the conversation along. But not any more — because for the past four years, I’ve been a person with A Hobby.
My hobby is dancing.
I primarily dance West Coast Swing — a lead-follow dance done to chart music, R&B, and blues. It’s fun, it gets me out of the house, and forces me out of my over-thinking mind. It also gets me out of my neighborhood. I would say that more than 70 percent of annual leave taken in the last four years has been to go on dance trips.
If I had the time and the money, I could spend the whole year hopping from one dance weekend to another in a hedonistic, sleep-all-day-dance-all-night fashion. The days begin with workshops taught by professional dance teachers, then there are the soaring highs and crashing lows of the competitions, and lastly the intoxicating social dancing that can run anywhere from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. (and it’s understood that the social dancing really only gets good after 2 a.m. — when you lose your nerves, sink into the connection with your dance partner, and find your most creative stuff).
But I can’t spend every weekend at dance events. So, at the beginning of every year, there is usually a flurry of discussion around the dance community about exactly which events everyone is planning on going to. Like Nicole, I make grids and spreadsheets; when I’m considering which events to go to, a matrix of financial variables starts whirring into life behind my eyelids.
Typical spend: $400–1,200 NZD ($290–870 USD)
I’m based in New Zealand, where we have a fledgling (although rapidly-growing) dance scene. Although local dancers host small events, when we talk about Dance Events, we’re usually talking about traveling to Australia or further afield. To get their dancing fix, many dancers book two or more dance events in Australia each year ($400 in flight costs). More adventurous contingents plan trips to Singapore ($1,200), and maybe three or four of us will take the pilgrimage to the U.S. or Europe ($$$$).
The nearest hub for us is the Gold Coast in Australia, where a cluster of events are held in the winter season when all the hotels are slightly cheaper. As the years roll on it’s a bit… same-same, with not even the guarantee of sun on our face and toes in the sand. So, when considering many of these dance events, I ask myself this question: do I want to be spending money going to the same place, the same hotel venue, the boardwalk, the same ribs place, when I could be spending my travel dollars seeing new things?
Typical spend: $100–200 USD (four nights, split between two or four people)
The shape of a weekender overseas is usually to fly in on Thursday, either kick back for a quiet day and or head into an eight-hour long intensive, then dance all the way through to Sunday night, before you stagger onto your plane on Monday and fly home, totally exhausted (“swungover”). Many dancers add a day or two on either side, especially if they’re traveling further afield, to account for side trips around neighboring cities/countries to make it into a fuller trip. If you’ve flown 8+ hours to go to a new country, it seems a shame to have spent most of the time holed up in a hotel or shuttling between a hotel and a dance studio — a bit like saying you’ve been to a country when you’ve never left the airport.
If there’s the option, many attendees choose to stay at the location to reduce commute time in the slivers of space you carve out for yourself to take a nap and grab a shower between sessions. At the first overseas event I went to, we packed in four to a room — two girls in each bed. I wouldn’t say I knew them that well, but that’s our dance community in a way, or maybe our kiwi “she’ll be right” attitude — just get to the dancing! do whatever it takes! share a bed with a stranger if you need to! Take a camping mattress and a pillow and we’ll all pile on someone’s floor if we need to!
Typical spend: $200–250 USD
Event ticket prices can differ radically, usually based on
- the professional dance couple(s) headlining the event
- whether you’re an overseas visitor
- whether the competition is registered with the World Swing Dance Council
If you place at enough competitions, you can earn points and move up dance divisions, and although even as I’m writing this I’m realizing that the points mean nothing, the reality is that many people filter their dance event shortlist based on whether they’ll earn those coveted points. The thought flicks across my own mind, too. Should I choose the event with the large competition component, if I’m likely to nurse a rejection half the weekend from not making it into finals? Should I go to a smaller event where I have a better chance of doing well?
The headlining pros are also a huge component of whether the ticket price (and trip) is “worth it:” West Coast Swing, even though it’s danced with another person, gives you plenty of opportunities to bring your own flavor to the partnership, and most people develop dance crushes on different professional dancers and attribute different weightings to the different personalities. So I find myself thinking things like, yes I’m willing to pay $350 NZD for the equivalent of watching the Kim and Kanye of the dance world — but would I be willing to pay $290 for a lesser-known couple at another event? What if that event is closer to home, so I save on airfare?
Typical spend: $120–190 USD
During dance weekends, professionals often offer private lessons when they’re not teaching workshops. For the headline couples—the ones that people know by first name only—these private lessons can sell out months in advance. There are a typically a handful of reasons why people choose to get a private lesson:
- to learn from the top dancers in the genre
- as a “souvenir” of the trip, to say you’ve danced with someone you’ve watched for hours on YouTube
- to have the pro recognize your face when they’re judging the competition section and spend a little longer watching you
Is it worth it? Sometimes. I’ve walked out of privates on the verge of tears, frustrated after an hour of having my dancing broken down and unable to understand how to piece it back together (not all dancers are good dance teachers). On the other hand… on my latest dance trip, I decided to splash out on getting a private from a dreamboat of a dance pro from France, and I cannot even tell you the thrill of being in the same room as someone whom you’ve watched for hours online, the bizarreness of feeling what you’ve only ever seen, the outrageous out-of-body experience of his hands on my hips as he explained that “your hips are tight” while a saxophone crooned in the background (why were we even listening to a saxaphone?).
Typical spend: $25 (souvenir T-shirt) to $65 (souvenir DVD)
Want a t-shirt with “SWINGTIMATE” emblazoned on the front? Some do. There’s also the DVD that you can grab to watch later, when you inevitably forget the workshop content because you were running on four hours sleep.
Typical spend: varies
Food serves various purposes during a trip — to bring people together, to keep you refueled after hours of workshops, to soak up the liquor that you consumed before your competition. A highlight reel of various meals eaten at events:
- A dinner of onigiri from the 7–11 eaten pre-competition because my nerves couldn’t handle anything substantial: $2.50
- 4 a.m. McDonald’s cheeseburger because I had been dancing all night and need to refuel and also I like cheeseburgers: $1.90
- Ribs as part of the traditional “all kiwis who made it to this event, let’s go eat ribs together!” dinner: $40
Typical spend: $200 USD
I’ll always put a buffer in. Things come up. Costs have included:
$90 for new shoes when my dance shoes broke on the first day of a dance event in Singapore (I was lucky in that the event managers also sold dance shoes; I was unlucky in the fact that the options they had to replace my subtle black shoes were bright purple, silver, and gold. Hello, cultural variance in fashion!)
$25 for when I forgot the dress code was black pants and I only bought jeans and needed to run down to H&M to buy new pants the morning of my competition. I was frantically whipping pairs on and off in the changing room and messaging friends wondering if leggings broke the spirit of the “black pants” rule. They were black, right?
This year I’ve broken the trend and not planned a single dance trip overseas (yet). People will forget and ask which events I’m going to, and when I respond they look at me and ask — “what? really?” I’ll go to the occasional smaller domestic event to support the growing community, but I’m realizing that I don’t want to put all my holiday leave in the dancing basket: I’m exhausted in the week after, it’s easy to get too swept up on the competition and rest your self-worth in the placings, and I miss the other aspects of vacation (mostly finding new places and eating new things).
That said, dance holidays are likely to remain a fixture in in some way or another for years to come — there’s something about being able to go into a room in a new country, hold out your hand to a smiling stranger, and spend the night dancing in their arms like the music was made for you.
Liz Fox is based in Auckland, New Zealand. She dances West Coast on Tuesdays, tango on Wednesdays, and is currently eyeing up zouk on Thursdays.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.
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