Interview with Show's Creator
America's Ballroom Challenge presents a unique production challenge: to capture the world's largest ballroom dancing competition—and do it without a safety net. It draws on all the skills producer Aida Moreno has acquired in 25 years of television.
Why is America's Ballroom Challenge taped in Columbus, Ohio?
I met Sam Sodano over 20 years ago, when this event was still in its infancy. He was driven to make the Ohio Star Ball the most prestigious competition in America, and knew the best way to do that was to combine his efforts with television. Over the years, we've cultivated a strong, successful partnership, and, as a result, the competition has grown into one of the biggest and best in the world. Every year in Columbus, there are hundreds of competitions in dozens of amateur and professional divisions—from kids to coeds to seniors. And we cover only a small part of it—the professional championships in the four major styles of ballroom dancing: American Smooth, American Rhythm, International Standard, and International Latin.
What does it take to cover this event?
Everything about this show is big—and that includes the effort it takes to bring it to the screen. There are about 60 of us on the staff and crew. A core group comes in from Boston, including the show's director, and the lighting and audio directors. Other people fly in from about a dozen different states around the country, and we pick up about a third of the crew in Columbus. The TV truck drives in from New York and the dance floor arrives from Florida.
How long does it take to shoot?
Since we're covering a live event, we have to be ready to roll with the competition. Amazingly, we shoot the entire five-hour series over two evenings.
What must you do in advance to prepare?
Logistics, logistics, logistics. A huge amount of the work that goes into the show is done before we get to Ohio. Everything is plotted and planned down to the smallest detail. My staff and I arrange for all the equipment and personnel to get to Columbus. We make travel arrangements for the crew and our hosts, book their hotel rooms, and make sure everyone knows where they need to be and when they need to be there. We gather as much information as possible on the couples who are dancing so that our hosts can introduce them and comment knowledgeably on their performances. We also map out all the behind-the-scenes sequences that we plan to include in the program.
What about the unexpected? In covering a live competition, aren't you vulnerable to unforeseen events disrupting your plans?
Absolutely. Almost every year, a monkey wrench gets thrown into the works. Once, the truck carrying the dance floor was in an accident that left parquet all over the highway. The replacement floor arrived and was installed on the day before the shoot. Another time, the TV truck was delayed by a blizzard and barely got to Columbus on time for us to start taping. Boy, we sure had to hustle to get everything ready! Many things can and do go wrong, but you just have to cope and be flexible with things like that. Basically, we control what we can, and have contingencies ready for what we can't. The main thing we can't control is the actual event. In order not to interfere with the integrity of the competition, we can't re-shoot. That means we've got to get it right the first time, on every dance.
That doesn't leave a lot of room for error.
It leaves no room for error. But we've been able to make it work, year in and year out, because I've got a top-notch crew. These are the best audio and video people in the business, and some of us have been working together for over 20 years. I trust them to get the job done right and they never let me down. We also get lots of help from Sam Sodano's people at the Ohio Star Ball and from the Greater Columbus Convention Center staff. There's a great camaraderie among everybody, and we all pull together to make the show the best it can be.
How has this event, and your coverage of it, changed over the years?
When we did our first show in 1979, this competition lasted two or three days and took place in one hall. Since then it has grown to the point where it occupies several ballrooms and runs for six days. The big Saturday night event used to take place in a smaller ballroom. Now we're in an arena that seats about 5,000 people. And with the growth of America's Ballroom Challenge to a five-hour series, we now have to shoot over two nights—Friday as well as Saturday. In terms of television production, we began shooting on two-inch tape, then progressed to one-inch tape. These tapes came on big reels and had to be threaded into the recording decks. Today we record on High Definition cassettes that are much easier to handle. And the picture quality, of course, is unbelievable.
What's the hardest part about doing this job?
Managing the logistics is a challenge, and setting up for the shoot, recording the show, and striking the set are physically draining. My Boston crew and I come home absolutely exhausted every year. But these are things we can prepare for and deal with. For me, the biggest challenge has always been finding the money to produce the show. There have been many years when, even as late as September, I didn't know whether we'd have the funds to shoot in November. Fortunately, a few angels have stepped up to help and PBS has been a generous supporter, for which I'm very grateful. Asking for money is never easy and I've been rejected more times than I can count. But most years I've been able to pull together enough to make the show—knock on wood.
What keeps you going?
Everyone involved in America's Ballroom Challenge brings such passion to the project. We have a loyal audience, a dedicated crew, some generous contributors, and the best dancers in the world giving it their all. They give me their best and I give them mine. It's a lot of hard work, but we have a great time producing the show. And in the end, seeing those beautiful dancers on the screen makes it all worth while.
There are some new faces on the show this year.
That's right. We're thrilled to have Jasmine Guy as our new host. She brings an exciting energy to the role, plus her many years of experience as a dancer and actress give her a unique perspective on what for her is this new world of competitive ballroom dancing. Joining her as co-host is former U.S. Latin champion Ron Montez, returning to the seat he occupied for many years on Championship Ballroom Dancing, and, of course, bringing a wealth of knowledge about all things ballroom. And there are new faces on the dance floor, too. With three of last year's couples retiring, the competition is wide open. I think our viewers are going to find the results very exciting.
Once you shoot the show, what happens next?
We finish recording the competition sometime after midnight on Saturday. Immediately afterwards we strike the set. That means we take down all the lights, disassemble the sets, and pack the cameras and audio gear. We then gather up everything else, pack it in boxes, and load it all onto trucks. Once the trucks get on the road, it's about 6am Sunday morning. That leaves us just enough time to pack our own bags, head out to the airport, and catch our planes home. By 3pm that afternoon, we're back in Boston, handing off the tapes to the editors, who immediately start shaping the show. With our airdate only two months away, there's no time to lose—and no rest for the weary. Even before the program airs, I start looking for funding for the next season and the cycle begins all over again. Hopefully it will continue for a long, long time.
Read more to learn about Season 2 of America's Ballroom Challenge.
America's Ballroom Challenge is a production of Moreno/Lyons Productions, LLC, and is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston
Updated January 16, 2008.