Have you ever seen a couple dancing patterns that no one else seemed to know? Did you wonder if their moves were for real?  Or heard someone say they’re full silver and thought, “What the heck are they talking about?” Are there right steps and wrong steps? To answer these (and many other) questions, you need to understand what a ballroom dance syllabus is and how it pertains to you.

couples dancing in a competition following a ballroom dance syllabus

What Is a Ballroom Dance Syllabus?

A ballroom dance syllabus is a list of approved steps for a particular level of a dance. The levels are Bronze (beginner), Silver (intermediate), Gold (advanced) and Supreme Gold (the icing on the cake). Some studios and competitions break the categories down even more so students don’t feel overwhelmed. For instance, the first 5 steps in an American style rumba syllabus might be called Beginner Bronze Rumba, Pre-bronze Rumba, or Social Rumba, depending on where you learn them.

Who “Approves” the Steps?

Lots of people actually. There are at least five (5!) major dance organizations that produce syllabi. On top of that, some studios also develop their own. Confused? Don’t worry. Almost everyone recognizes The National Dance Council of America (NDCA) syllabi for American Smooth and Rhythm dances and The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) syllabi for International Standard and Latin dances. Consider them the OG’s of the dancing world. The others will generally include the same patterns (although sometimes with different names), and a few additional steps that can be fun to learn.

Do I Need to Follow a Ballroom Dance Syllabus?

It depends on what you’re trying to do, but generally, yes. The good news though is that a qualified instructor or coach will be familiar with the appropriate syllabi. They should be able to keep you on track. 

As a social dancer there are some commonly accepted practices (see Ballroom Etiquette), but otherwise you aren’t really bound by any formal rules. The most important thing for you is to learn to lead or follow effectively. A syllabus can still act as a useful guide though. If you want to be able to dance anywhere and with anyone, you need to know the generally accepted patterns for your skill level.

If you plan to compete, then you must abide by the rules of each competition. Since competitors and judges come from a variety of backgrounds, many competitions will allow several different syllabi. Be sure to check which ones are allowed. And again, almost everyone recognizes NDCA and ISTD syllabi.

For shows and exhibitions the rules kind of go out the window a bit. Choreographers will sometimes mix patterns from different levels (and even different dances) to add some zing to a performance or challenge a student a bit. This is fine (within reason), so if you’re a beginner and your teacher adds a sit-drop to your studio showcase routine, don’t panic.

judges at a ballroom competition - ballroom dance syllabus

Hmm, that penalty judge looks familiar.

A Little Hack for Competition

Instead of trying to memorize every approved pattern of every dance at your level, you may want to familiarize yourself with the restrictions for each category. For example, in all bronze smooth dances (waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz) the feet must close at the end of the pattern, so if you’ve learned some patterns in which the feet don’t close (continuity), then you’ll know not to use them when competing at a bronze level. Easy peasy.

couple in a dramatic dance pose