Q&A: CCBDC director Denise Machin on ballroom dance company’s past, present and future

Two female college students in red dresses dance together.
Christina Dong PO ’22 and Alana Weiss PO ’22 compete in the Bronze Rumba event. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

TSL sat down with assistant director of Smith Campus Center and ballroom dance instructor Denise Machin on Wednesday to discuss her time at the 5Cs. Now in her sixth year at Pomona College, including four as director of the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company, Machin first found her love for ballroom as a first-year undergraduate at Columbia University. 

She found her way to Claremont after being assigned to do an ethnographic study of a community for her doctorate at University of California, Riverside. Machin chose to study CCBDC, and it’s been a ballroom dance ever since. Read on to see what she had to say about CCBDC’s past, present and future.

TSL: What is your favorite memory from the six years you’ve been here?

DM: That’s so hard. My favorite memory — I really loved the concert my first year as director [two years after first coming to Pomona College]. It was just the culmination of a year of hard work … The director right before me, and then the interim director, were both CCBDC alums, and I wasn’t. So I was kind of this outsider coming in, and I think that when that first concert happened and was really successful, and all the students felt really good, and we had made some big changes — but those changes were well received — I felt like I’d made it.

TSL: Since becoming the director of CCBDC, what are some of the changes that you’ve made?

DM: A lot of our changes have been around just trying to create more access … Ballroom dance has a lead and a follow. But because traditionally, leading was done by men and following was done by women, and the team had [a specific dress policy for leads and follows] … what ended up happening was any women that led would be required to wear pants and dress in typical men attire …

So I thought if we just let people wear what they want to wear, then what role do you want to do? All of a sudden, that opened up a lot of people to wanting to try both parts or being open to leading if it meant that they got to dance with their best friend. So I think that was a big change.

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We also made a financial commitment that anytime we purchased a new costume, we would buy in the full range of sizes that it was sold in, even if we didn’t require those sizes for the initial piece that was purchased for, because we wanted to make sure that no matter what size a dancer was, that they had multiple options for costuming when they came to our team. 

I think that the team before had auditions that cut people. Now we have placement auditions so that’s also a change. Our motto is that if you want to join our team, we have a place for you. Everybody that auditions makes the team which I think is a nice change … 

We [also] added a fourth level, so before the team was the beginners, campus and then tour. There just seemed to be a really big leap from campus to tour and tour did multiple pieces, got to work with outside artists and residents; [they] had all these benefits that it seemed like only a limited number of dancers were having access to. So we created campus+, between campus and tour, which doubled the number of students that had access to those resources and gave students a stepping stone between campus and tour.

A male college student in a white button down and black pants dances with a female college student in a red flowing skirt.
Lawrence Chen PO ’20 and Nicole Pang SC ’20 compete in the Samba event.

TSL: In the vein of … valuing inclusivity, I hear that this is the first year that CCBDC will be going to Nationals. Is that correct?

DM: The first year in a long time, yes. The last time they went was fall of 2014, or fall of 2013. It was before my time.

TSL: Tell me a little bit about that change and why that’s happening this year.

DM: That was one of the big push backs that I got when I was hired as a director from the alums …  they wanted us to send a team to Nationals. But at the time, Nationals required all formation teams to be made up of men leading women. We don’t want to make dancers perform roles that they’re not interested in. And also we have students that don’t identify as men or women. 

So we made a commitment that we would only attend competitions that all members of our team were welcome to participate at. And very excitingly, Nationals has changed their policy to allow same-gender couples. Since they are creating more access, this seemed like the year that we should go back. So I’m really excited.

TSL: How has [this year’s Intercollegiate Ballroom] Showdown changed from previous years?

DM: It’s gotten bigger, which is really exciting. We initially didn’t even expect to have as many competitors as we had. We had over 100 competitors, which is a huge growth from my first year … This year, we had multiple events that had semifinals, and so not only did we have more of our own dancers competing, but I think that we also have been [having] consistent competition. 

We try to do a good job; we [try to create] a really friendly atmosphere because we’re early in the school year, which means for a lot of dancers that are new to their teams, it’s their first comp. So we want to make sure they have a good first experience so they’ll come back. And I think that we have started getting that reputation. So a lot of teams brought new dancers and bigger teams, and … so I think that was the main thing. We’re growing.

TSL: So, what are your hopes for CCBDC for upcoming years?

DM: That’s such a good question … When I started, I had a real clear vision for some of the changes I wanted to be made. Such as opening gender rules and allowing students to compete and dress and dance how they wanted. And I had this moment at the end of last school year after [our] concert in the spring, where I was like, “we did it.” 

We’re not a perfect organization; I really believe that progress is a process. So every year you need to try to be better and more inclusive than the previous year. But I feel like we had a great framework for creating access. And since [my] first three years of being a director were all about trying to build that framework, I had this moment where I was like, “Well, now what?” 

And then when I saw the change in national rules, I was like, “Oh, this is the next step.” We need to go to Nationals, because other schools have much less inclusive policies, and a lot of that is because they [have] never seen it done any other way. And I feel like since we’re at such a good place now, we have a responsibility to show schools that they have a choice, and they can choose to make ballroom dance an accessible activity.

This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

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