Like an anglicised Hannah Montana, Jessica Quirke, 20, lives the dual existence of Oxford student and nation-wide professional Latin Ballroom dancer. Having won ‘Best Couple’ with her partner in the Varsity Dance Sport competition last year, Jess has gone on to become the current Scottish Champion for Latin dance, winner of the pre-amateur European Competition, and eighth in the UK Closed Championships for Latin. Simultaneously, Jess studies Biochemistry at Exeter College, Oxford.
We arrange to meet up in the Missing Bean so she can tell me more about her experience as a dual sportsman and academic.
Being the least dance-inclined person I know, I can’t even begin to imagine where I would start getting involved in Latin Ballroom. Jess explains her passion originated through a viewing of Strictly Come Dancing, a decade ago.
“I was about 9 years old and watching Strictly with my family. I said something like, ‘Ooh, that’s really cool!’. I wasn’t aware that my stepdad used to dance, but it turns out he used to compete when he was a juvenile; he started dancing maybe from the age of 4 until he turned 20, when he got married. He was in the top 3 youth dancers in the UK. When I showed an interest, he quickly honed in on that and started teaching me.”
Jess explains that her family have been extremely supportive and involved in her dancing career.
“My family life basically revolves around it. My parents have been taking me to lessons and competitions every weekend since I can remember – both of them used to come to watch everything – all my performances.”
“My parents have been taking me to lessons and competitions every weekend since I can remember”
For someone like me who isn’t very knowledgeable about the intricacies of Dance sport, I ask Jess what sort of level she is competing at.
“Well, I’m hoping to make the British final in November. Previously, I’ve made the top 25 in Europe. I think we were about 8th in the country with my last partner… but we’re hoping to do a few better than that this year. There’s a lot of hard work to do.”
Of all the different genres of dance available, I’m intrigued not only as to why Jess picked this strain, but also what exactly defines it.
“So there are separate competitions. It’s kind of like… I guess it’s under the umbrella of dance sport. They’re held in the same events and same competitions, but they’re separate genres. A competition would be Ballroom in the morning and Latin in the afternoon. Each has five dances: Ballroom consists of the Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, Quickstep and Viennese Waltz, and Latin consists of Cha-Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble and Jive. Each is quite characterised – it has different timings, et cetera.”
This already shows my ineptitude when it comes to dancing – I had no idea that Latin Ballroom was two different genres, instead of one amalgamated dance.
Jess laughs, and expands: “Well, we mostly do Latin now… If you do both, it’s double the time, double the lessons.”
So, Jess prefers Latin then?
“Yes, well I’ve done a lot more… I still enjoy doing ballroom but I’ve got a lot more technical knowledge about Latin. I’ve been doing it with more focus for longer.”
With such an impressive array of titles and competitions, I can’t help but wonder how Jess manages to balance such a fast-paced lifestyle with more day-to-day academic work – especially doing an Oxford Biochemistry degree, notorious for its heavy workload.
“I mean this year hasn’t been too hectic, but that may be due to decreased work load. Me and my dance partner have a spread sheet of our calendars – a Google Doc – that we both fill out when we’re busy. Our lessons are booked until July, so we know when I’m in London, I know when we’re practising. So there is enough time for me to do my work around it.
Essential to the relationship between one dance partner and another, then, seems to be compromise.
“I think that building up to a big competition like Europeans and Nationals, there will be [compromise]. I should look after my fitness, and not go too big on a night out… But at the moment I’m really enjoying both: I get my work done mostly.”
Jess explains that this week, however, has been an exception: her partner is on tour with Brendan Cole and has subsequently been very busy.
“We’ll probably practice three times a week, but it’s easy because he travels to Oxford.”
Such constant travel both for dance practice and competition is a familiar concept to Jess: her last dance partner moved from Hungary to England for convenience of practicing, such is her dedication to her sport.
“I’ve got good at working on trains.”
I wonder about Jess’s conception of dance as an art form: it’s not a genre we come across as much as digital media or fine art. Jess struggles to articulate the divide between dance as an art and dance as a sport.
“It’s definitely expressive; especially at the top level. This kind of dancing I’d say is more a sport. Obviously there is musical interpretation, and it is like a performance – a spectator sport… couples do try to tell a story through their movement.
“But it is confined in terms of what a dancer is meant to show – the dance’s characteristics and where it came from. For example, the Samba originated in Brazil, and it’s meant to have that particular character. That’s also what makes it a ‘good Samba’ – it would have the characteristics of a carnival. It does get very technical.”
Jess emphasises that Latin Ballroom is more regulated than other art forms. Herein lies the distinction for her; where media like literature or fine art rely more on limitless expression, dance requires a prescriptive set of motions to be followed, making it more restricted.
“I mean, ballet is beautiful, but it’s simultaneously very technical. I guess you tell a story, but not necessarily always your own. I guess they play a part in a ballet, which isn’t necessarily their own expression.
“There’s definitely feeling involved, but I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest outlet to necessarily tell a personal story. It’s not like writing a play.”
I ask Jess if for her, performance is more an act of meeting standards, performing a set of moves, than an expression of creativity.
“Well, you do lose yourself in them. Yet I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m showing you my personal character. It is a performance, it’s not… I don’t know, it’s a difficult question!”
“I guess you tell a story, but not necessarily always your own.”
Jess refuses to pigeonhole her creative passion. Despite this ambiguity over dance as an art form, however, she does acknowledge that it’s a hobby which has seen her not only flourish in terms of competition, but also in terms of personal happiness.
“It’s always been an outlet for me to forget everything else; you get so focused and concentrate on it that you forget everything else. It’s a good way to clear my head and forget about doing work. It’s good in the physical sense; keeps you moving.