Dancing is rarely thought of in Oxford as a sport or as a pastime which encourages competition. This is a misconception. Oxford has its own Dancesport Club (the OUDC), and its Cuppers competition is taking place this Trinity term. Dancers compete for the coveted Acheson Shield and Rob Stevens Memorial Cup.
In this inter-college competition, teams of four couples compete in one of four ballroom dances (the waltz, quickstep, cha and jive) and, to encourage fairness and participation, at least one member of each partnership must be a beginner. This additional rule ensures that previously inexperienced college members involve themselves in the sphere of competitive dancing and this is one of the ways in which the OUDC recognises latent talent.
Beginners, often accompanied by an experienced dancer from their college who acts as a supplementary coach, attend a number of two hour training sessions, held in various locations around Oxford, where they learn the four dances. Then, having decided which routine they prefer, a couple will work to refine their chosen dance for a few weeks before the competition begins. Progress is rapid and impressive. The final routines are polished and highly accomplished.
The Oxford University Dancesport Club has a long and illustrious history. It was founded in 1968 in response to founder Janice Jones’ ‘disappointment when [she] discovered that there was no Ballroom Dance Club at Oxford’. From these relatively humble beginnings the society has gone from strength to strength, participating in numerous prestigious competitions. In recognition of its success the Club was given Full Blue status in 1997 for women while, in 2003, men received discretionary Full Blues status.
The OUDC received affiliation with the University in 1969 and began its own Varsity competitions soon after. It has regularly triumphed over Cambridge in these. While its main team is one of the country’s most successful dancesport teams the Club is keen to encourage and train beginners.
A Beginners Team is a central component of the Club. While dancers of semi-professional standard are encouraged and supported, the same reinforcement is offered to the inexperienced. Cuppers is a central component of this strategy. The Acheson Shield is awarded to the highest scoring team while the college with the most points wins the Rob Stevens Memorial Cup. Many of the OUDC’s main team members first began dancing due to their participation in this competition.
Participants receive training from the OUDC’s legendary head coach Bruce Richardson. It is primarily through Bruce’s inspired coaching that the University of Oxford has experienced such outstanding success in the National University Championships. He has led teams to victory in this competition on an unprecedented eleven occasions. A further testament to the quality of his teaching came in 2009 when he reached the shortlist for the Carl Alan awards (dubbed the ‘Oscars of dance’). It is primarily through this expertise, patience and friendly approach that beginners are able to make such rapid progress.
One beginner participant of the Cuppers training commented, “I had never even considered dancing as a sport before this competition, let alone one which I would get involved with. A friend of mine signed us up and I turned up thinking it was a joke. It wasn’t and I’ve been having a fantastic time this past week. I am really excited to get the shiny trousers as well. Bruce is great and six hours of practise has flown past and, once Cuppers is over, I’m definitely going to remain involved. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be in the OUDC’s main team.” A first year mathematician, who expressed that he was a former sceptic, professed himself delighted with this competition commenting that “dance widens participation in sport and compared to male dominated sport there isn’t a sexist divide in it. Is sign up for this year still open and do you know any girls I could do it with?”
A participant, and beginner, Anna Turner-Major explained that “There is nothing more relaxing and enjoyable than dancing. I signed myself up with an unsuspecting friend and we are making really good progress and are looking forward to tearing up the boards at Cuppers. I did not realise how close I would have to dance with him though! I am hoping to do well. That might be a bit optimistic but as Matt Biondi says ‘Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement’’’. While many have expressed amusement that dancing could be so popular a pastime,
Thomas Calver, a second year English student at Jesus, was unsurprised, commenting that “Dancing is a sport like any other. It involves competition and requires immense commitment, talent and flair. I would like to see Wayne Rooney get up every morning at 5 to train for the dance Olympics or whatever. I don’t think it is a thing but it should be!”