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
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
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
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