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Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Deseret Morning News writer Elizabeth Stuart dances with her partner, Parker Heiner, at the 2008 DanceSport Championships.

One year of ballroom dancing — 250 hours of dance class, more than 500 hours of practice, 60 hours of private lessons — all boils down to one minute and 45 seconds.

The music plays, you duck and dodge your way through a veritable minefield of other dancers, the judges scribble their scores and your chance to prove yourself at the United States National Amateur DanceSport Championships is over.

No pressure.

As for this dancer, my stomach began wigging out in anticipation weeks before the three-day competition, which wrapped up Saturday at Brigham Young University.

I started practicing my turns in the grocery store, checking out my arm lines in car windows and stretching while I conducted phone interviews for The Deseret Morning News. DanceSport even invaded my dreams: I was forgetting the steps. I was accepting a trophy. I was — gasp — accidentally ramming into one of the judges.

It was no wonder I only got four hours of sleep before the first day of events.

Competition day started at 5 a.m. I painstakingly shellacked my hair into a bun, twisting and pinning until I was satisfied nothing short of a natural disaster could rumple it. By the time I was finished bronzing my skin and painting on eye shadow, the woman staring back at me in the mirror was unrecognizable. I packed a bag: super glue to keep my earrings on, castor oil to add traction to my shoes, safety pins, glitter. Armed with three rhinestone-encrusted costumes and optimistic confidence in my year-and-a-half of ballroom training, I was feeling pretty put together.

I was effectively disillusioned as soon as I stepped onto the dance floor.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Samba," came the cue to move, and 17 other couples started pulsing to the beat of the Latin music.

My dance partner spun and grabbed my hand. We were moving. Was this a promenade run or a pivot? I had no idea.

Another couple elbowed me in the back of the head. I tripped on my partner's foot and nearly face planted. I turned, shook my hips and realized I had my hand on the wrong man's chest. Oops. With more than 30 people kicking, spinning and leaping in a space roughly the size of a basketball court, it's rare for dancers to get through an entire routine without a little improvisation. The best men can lead their ladies into a series of moves they haven't practiced in order to avoid a foot to the face.

I kept smiling.

We added a few dips and turns here and there and the judges were fooled. They called me back for another round.

The competition raced on through more than 60 events including mambo, fox trot, tango, polka and cha-cha. National amateur titles were awarded in Latin, standard, smooth, rhythm, cabaret and formation in multiple age categories. During one event, judges had to sort through more than 200 dancers before naming the six finalists.

Day two of competition my head was throbbing from all the bobby pins I'd stabbed into it. Day three I was so tired from physical exertion and lack of sleep that I could barely see to find the dressing room. But it didn't matter, it was the United States National Amateur DanceSport Championships, and it only happens once a year.

When I wasn't dancing, I was watching, soaking up others' innovative choreography, movement quality and technique. By the time the amateur events — those that result in a national title — rolled around, most of us hobbyists were dancing on faith, crossing our fingers that we would be able to dance one more round before getting cut. The big wigs of ballroom dance had rolled into town. They came from New York, New Jersey and California. Perfectly coifed, boasting European accents, they walked in as if they owned the dance floor.

After they danced, I was pretty sure they did.

I'm not sure what inspired me more: Waiting to accept my trophy as a finalist in the novice standard event or watching dancers much more accomplished than I.

Either way, it's about time I got started preparing for the 2009 United States National Amateur DanceSport Championships. Everyone else already is.

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