International and American Ballroom: An Overview

International and American Ballroom: An Overview

Ariel Hsieh

Aug 16 2021

The world of ballroom dance contains many different dance styles. For the sake of this article and ballroom dance competitions, we consider:

Waltz Rumba

Tango Cha Cha

Foxtrot. AND Samba

Viennese Waltz Paso Doble

Quickstep Jive

East Coat Swing



to be Ballroom dances. While there seems to be only 13 dances listed here, there are actually… 19!

Ballroom dances can be split into two categories: International (danced internationally) and American (because America likes being special). These two categories can be further divided into two sub-categories: Standard and Latin for International Ballroom; Smooth and Rhythm for American Ballroom.

Dances in the International Standard and American Smooth category generally originated in Europe or America, with Tango originating from Argentina being the exception. These dances generally have a smooth, gliding across the floor quality to them, with the dancing always traveling counterclockwise around the dance floor. When you think of princesses dancing in royal balls, you are most likely thinking of variations of Standard and Smooth dances.

Four of the International Standard and American Smooth dance styles have the same name: Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, and Viennese Waltz. However, the figures within the dance can be different. While International Standard maintains a closed position throughout the dance, American Smooth can move out of closed position and include tricks such as underarm turns, dips, solo choreography, and spins, providing more freedom of movement and creativity than International Standard.

International Standard

American Smooth

Dances in the International Latin and American Rhythm category originate from Spanish/Latin American countries (Spain, Cuba, Brazil) with the exception of Jive and East Coast Swing which originated in America. While there are once again dances with the same name in both categories (Cha cha and Rumba), the dance technique as well as the figures used in the dance are quite different as well. Latin tends to be more performative and highly technical, with an emphasis on creating beautiful lines with straight legs, whereas Rhythm focuses on the rolling actions achieved through stepping on the bent knee and straightening through the action.

Unlike the Standard and Smooth styles, Latin and Rhythm have dances that are specific to their own category. Samba, Paso Doble and Jive are specific to Latin, while Bolero, East Coast Swing, and Mambo are specific to Rhythm.

International Latin

American Rhythm

The International dances are danced and competed in throughout the world. It is a universal language. Every ballroom dancer would be able to dance with each other regardless of country of origin because these styles have been codified for the sake of competitions. Enjoy dancing those 10 dances with anyone anywhere in the world.

HOWEVER, if you are in America (or Canada), you’re gonna have to make sure you’re speaking the same language as your dance partner first. If you are dancing any of these six dances: Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, Cha Cha, and Rumba; make sure to ask, “International or American?” because these 12 dances are like dialects: you can sort of understand each other, but there’s going to be misunderstandings. Unless you’re dancing Rumba… in which case, you are speaking two completely different languages/dances. Don’t make my mistake of walking into an American ballroom dance social as a International ballroom dancer. If you’re not speaking the same dance language, it can get quite awkward...

A conversation between a American and International dancer (Me) during a Rumba:

American Ballroom Dancer: “Hold on the 1, 2!”

Me: “No, you hold on the 4, 1! Not 1, 2.”

ABD: “We’re doing the Basic box step”

Me: “There’s no box step in Rumba...”

ABD: “You’re dancing this wrong.”

Me: “....”

So know your dances! Even if they’re the same name, they might not be the same dance. All these dance styles are beautiful, and require years of effort and dedication to perform! So try them all out and find the dance styles that you love! And remember, there’s a whole lot more partner dances out there than the 19 ballroom dances. Take the time to explore your dance community and find the best dances for you!