First, what is Ballroom Dance? Ballroom dance usually refers to traditional partnered dance forms that are done by a couple, often in the embrace of closed dance position ("ballroom dance position"). These include waltz, swing, tango and salsa. "Ballroom dance" is the overall umbrella term, covering all three forms. Social/ballroom dance forms are important. The earliest dance forms ever described in detail (15th century) were social, partnered dances. Many of today's performative dance forms, including ballet, jazz and hip hop, evolved from social dance forms that came first.
The three worlds of ballroom dance share the same historical roots, similar step vocabulary and music, so the three forms are considered siblings, related by birth. Yes, siblings are known to fight, but they can also be mutually supportive.
What is the essential difference between the three? The main distinction is that they have different audiences.
Who are you dancing for, beyond your own enjoyment?
Social Ballroom -Your partner
Competitive Ballroom (DanceSport) -The Judges,
Exhibition Ballroom - An Audience
What are your audience's expectations?
Social -Your partners want to interact with you spontaneously, for fun, doing steps that also work well for them.
Competitive - Judges want to see that the steps and styles are done precisely and correctly, with great flair.
Exhibition - Audiences want to be entertained, often with a preference for beautiful and/or impressive moves.
Social Ballroom - Sociable, i.e., friendly and kind. Flexibly adaptive. You value and accommodate to styles that are different from your own.
Competitive - Rigorously correct, expansive. Styles outside of the official syllabus are usually considered "incorrect.
Exhibition - It varies widely, depending on the dance form.
Your own reward?
Social - The spontaneous enjoyment of dancing with a partner. The satisfaction of becoming proficient in a dance form. Self confidence.
Competing. - Impressing others. Winning. The satisfaction of becoming proficient in a dance form. Self confidence.
Exhibition - Entertaining or impressing others, enthusiastic applause. The satisfaction of becoming proficient in a dance form. Self confidence.
Standardization of Steps and Technique?
Social - Standardization doesn't function because each partner is different. You must modify your steps and style to adapt to each partner.
Competitive - Rigorously standardized, because competitors need to know exactly what technical details the judges want to see.
Exhibition - In today's sampling culture ("been there, seen that") audiences prefer something they've never seen before.
Standardization of Style?
Social - You develop your own personal style, different from others. Some social forms like swing, tango and salsa especially discourage copying other's styles.
Competitive - You are trained to copy the style of champions before you, working hard to imitate every nuance of that standardized style.
Exhibition - Styles may be unique to the choreographer, thus not standardized, but the performing group usually works on copying and mastering that one style.
Social - No. You make it up as you go along, often based on what the Follow is doing at the moment, and what occurs to the Lead spontaneously. Both Lead and Follow engage in a highly active attention to possibilities.
Competitive - Yes. Competitors usually perform choreographed routines that they have rehearsed. An exception is Jack and Jill competitions, usually in WCS and Lindy hop, with a partner that one has not danced with before.
Exhibition - Yes. Exhibitions are usually choreographed and rehearsed. Furthermore group routines often have everyone dancing in unison. But improvised exhibitions and competitions do exist, especially in swing, tango and blues.
Social - Yes, continually, in both Lead and Follow roles. Increasing your opportunities for split-second decision-making increases your neuronal complexity.
Competitive - Usually not. Most decisions have been made by others, first in providing a restricted syllabus of acceptable steps, then often in choreographing the routine for you. You work mostly on style.
Exhibition - Not often. Most decisions have usually been made by the choreographers. But that's what competitors and performers usually prefer, so this isn't a problem at all. .
Of the three forms, which one is best? It depends on you. Dancers usually have a preference for the one that especially suits their personality, while others do both social and competitive dancing, or all three forms, and many of them are wonderfully adept at knowing which attitudes are appropriate for each. At a social dance, they're friendly, spontaneously adaptive, and warmly supportive of their partner's differing style. Then they are rigorously correct and expansive when competing. It's important to be clear on the differences.
Each form has some benefits and advantages that the other two don't have, but that doesn't mean that one is "better" overall than the others. They're all good. Find the one which speaks to you. Overall, social, competition and exhibition ballroom dance are all driven by a love of partnered dance. And that's the most important thing.