BYU student finds joy, purpose through competitive ballroom dance

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Young Shelby Simpson poses with a friend after a dance class. Simpson began dancing at the age of 2. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Simpson)

On the second floor of the BYU Richards Building, a room bustles with liveliness. Heels click across the vinyl floors as pairs of feet move together in time. Tall, full-length mirrors carry reflections of dancers practicing for their next performance. 

This room is a second home for Shelby Simpson, a 21-year-old competitive ballroom dancer from Laguna Niguel, California. She is a part of the BYU Latin dance team within the Showcase Company. She practices many different Latin dance styles, such as cha-cha, samba, paso doble and jive. 

“I go to the dance studio to destress and get my thoughts together,” Simpson said. 

Dance has always been a part of Simpson’s life. She began her dancing career at the age of 2 when her mother enrolled her in ballet class. After 10 years of ballet, she decided to take a different route and began looking for a new activity to fill her time.

“I came home with a flyer one day for an after school ballroom program,” she said, “I ended up really enjoying it.”

Simpson eventually auditioned for the BYU youth ballroom team, and loved it so much she started training to do the sport in college. Now a part of the BYU showcase company, she describes the environment as uplifting and positive. Her teammates share the same desire to improve and are very encouraging.

“I feel like I’m always progressing as a person and learning new things, not just in dance, but also things I can apply to other aspects of my life,” she said.

Simpson emphasized the importance of motivation when it comes to dancing. It is helpful to have someone who motivates you to do better, whether that be a dance partner, a family member, or a coach. But, according to Simpson, finding that motivation within yourself is even more important. 

Simpson, second from left, celebrates with teammates after a competition. She usually competes about once a month. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Simpson)

“When you have self motivation, I feel like it’s a lot easier to find joy with your dancing and find purpose in the steps you are doing,” she said.

Simpson’s weekdays are spent in the dance studio. She practices with her team three to five days a week. Additionally, she rehearses with her current dance partner, Logan McNatt, up to six days a week.

These solo practices usually involve a warm-up in which Simpson and McNatt practice steps to get into the mindset of the particular dance on which they are working. From there, they run through the dance slowly, looking for ways they can improve. 

McNatt said he enjoys dancing with Simpson. He explained that she holds her ground on what she believes is important while still being flexible and open to new ideas. 

“I think she’s very humble,” Mcnatt said. “She’s always working hard and wants to continue to improve and be better tomorrow than she is today.”

Simpson is constantly balancing technique and performance in her dancing. She compared ballroom to other types of dance with which she is familiar.

“Ballet is very technical … and with contemporary it’s all performance,” she said. “In ballroom there’s a good amount of both. For me, sometimes it’s hard balancing the two.”

In 2020, Simpson left BYU to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While she was serving in the Utah Ogden mission, she found it difficult to keep her mind off dance.

Simpson pictured while serving in the Utah Ogden mission. She served for 18 months and came home last November. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Simpson)

“To be completely focused on the people I was teaching and improving myself I had to give that part away,” she said. 

And she did. For a year and a half, Simpson focused on her mission. She believes this sacrifice allowed her to improve greatly when she returned to dance. 

“I had my dance partner reach out to me while I was on my mission asking if I wanted to dance with him,” Simpson said, “That was a huge blessing that came from giving that part of my life up for a year and a half.”

When she returned to school, Simpson picked up dancing again. Apart from the  competitive culture of the sport, she said the hardest adjustment was the heels. But within a few months, she found herself right where she left off in 2020. 

Simpson’s positive attitude and optimistic outlook is a key part of her success, according to her roommate and close friend Charlotte Stephenson. 

“No matter what the situation is, she has a good perspective on things,” Stephenson said. 

Stephenson also commented on her roommate’s hardworking nature. She explained that consistency and drive are reasons Simpson succeeds at anything she puts her mind to, especially in dance. 

“Even if she’s tired, she’s going to go to practice,” Stephenson said. 

Simpson says practice and a good work ethic are necessary for her, especially regarding the competitive nature of dance. While competition days can be stressful, she enjoys preparing for them. Competitions take place about once a month. 

“I’m really grateful for dance, it gives me the opportunity to express myself,” she said, “It helps me be a better person.”

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