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Competitions in Social Dancing

First off, I'd like to point out that I am a highly competitive person, as anyone close to me can attest. But looking at competitions in dancing has made me realize something, at least about my life:
  • Competitions in objective arenas is good
  • Competitions in subjective arenas is bad
The distinction is very important. In an objective arena, such as playing a game of Monopoly, it is clear who the winner is, according to a system of rules. If you enjoy competing, you can compete in Monopoly (if you like the game) and there is little argument over who the winner is.

Oftentimes I see competition weekends (such as Blues Shout, ULHS, ALHC) that are essentially modelled after older, larger dance competitions such as we see in Ballroom style dancing.

And I think that in many ways it makes sense to have competitions in Ballroom dances. They are a (somewhat) objective form, there is a "correct" way to do them and one can, in some sense, actually measure that.

Blues and Lindy, however, are an entirely different animal. The dances are not formalized and are loaded with improvisation and creative expression. I discuss this further regarding Blues in my article on how Blues is a Street Dance

Because Blues/Lindy is so subjective, the judging is based on personal taste instead of some perfect form that can't be argued with.

Interestingly enough, though, it is my understanding that even in the world of Ballroom dancing, the competitions are filled with politics and nepotism. I know someone who assisted an internationally known ballroom judge who would fill out their scores for the competitors BEFORE the competition began. And this wasn't considered abnormal. If they aren't able to remove these problems from a competition with an objective goal, then what hope do we have?

Competitions bring up huge emotions. Whenever you have a winner, you have one or more losers. And if the losers have lost because of a subjective judgement, they generally will have pained feelings about this.

Maybe they did a better job and the judge wasn't fair, maybe not. Either way, chances are they will feel ripped off. And to some extent, it doesn't even make sense to say "better job" because we are talking about a subjective dance. Some people will think they did a better job, others won't. You're almost guaranteed to have dissatisfaction, though, especially if the stakes of the competition are high, whether in monetary gain, bragging rights or a teaching career.

What all of this forgets is that we are a family. Would you want to compete and win against your brothers and sisters if there was a good chance they would be angry and feel like you didn't deserve it afterwards? We are a huge group of interconnected dancers, and together we create something enormous. This creates power, and this creates politics, and I have watched dance scenes eat themselves due to politics. If we want our scene to be happy, then we should go to great lengths to avoid political separation. If you can have honest talks with competitors after most competitions then you'll see that we are not fostering this family togetherness.

Another oddity that comes out of competitions is the selection of teachers. It is generally recognized that those who win competitions have good marketing power for their teaching career. If someone can show me the connection between being able to perform in a competition and being able to transform students into better dancers, I'd love to hear it, but I haven't seen it yet.

Before I sound completely hypocritical (as I have been involved in competitions as a judge and even as a participant years ago), let me make a few points about how I think competitions can be done in a positive manner (or at least in a less damaging way).

  • Make them light-hearted. Don't make people feel like the "best dancer" or "new teacher" award goes to the winner.
  • Judge based on what people care about in the dance. I personally avoid the non-social based competitions such as showcase and the like and stick to Jack and Jill and Strictly competitions.
  • Try to figure out how to avoid as much of the subjective nature of judging as possible, as well as any appearance of the subjective nature of judging. For example, if you have a local dance competition, find judges from outside. Consider audience judging if you can do it without it becoming a popularity contest.
  • Be clear about what you are judging on, have standards and then adhere to them regardless of what you may feel or who you know/like/don't like.
  • If you are entering a competition, embrace the Tao and let go of any desire you have over the outcome (as best as you can. :)

And most of all, be sure to go social dancing afterwards. :)


David Ljung Madison, June 2009



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Post/prescript: Back in 1999, Paul Overton sent out an email about competitions in Swing Dancing that became fairly well know in the scene.


Back in 1996, Nick Cave (though probably not a social dancer) beautifully expressed similar views in his letter to the MTV Music Awards


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