I’ve judged some small, local west coast swing dance competitions in the past, but at Montreal WCS Fest earlier this month, I judged for the first time at a WSDC points event. It is a difficult job but I enjoyed the experience and thought I’d use this “behind the scenes” perspective to answer The Big Question that I’m often asked about WCS dance competitions: What are the judges looking for?
I’ve also included some “harsh realities” and tips on how to improve your dance.
What are Judges Looking For?
Because dancing is an art, not a science (although physics, kinetics and chemistry certainly play roles!), the judging is necessarily subjective. Each judge will value various qualities in a dancer differently from every other judge. Each judge will also see different things at different times. This is not to say that it’s random chaos – there is a particular look, feel and basic technique for every dance that most people chosen to judge will recognize and be looking for.
Still, this element of subjectivity can be frustrating for competitors. Despite it, there are certainly things that every dancer can work on to improve their chance of catching a judge’s eye for the right reasons. Most event competition rule sheets and/or head judges will say that what judges are looking for is the best combination of “Teamwork, Timing and Technique”.
Maybe I can be a bit more concrete about what this could mean in real-life terms…
During preliminary competition rounds, the judges’ job is to eliminate competitors. In Jack & Jills, each judge is assigned to watch either Leaders or Followers – therefore, teamwork is not necessarily a factor in the judging for elimination rounds. At the Montreal event, for example, I judged Newcomer and Novice Followers (as well as Open Strictly partnerships). In the Jack & Jills, there were 24 and 26 Followers in each division respectively, and I was able to choose only 10 Followers to move on to finals in each division.
I went into the job with a plan – i.e. a personal framework for how I would make decisions. For the Prelims, I had a list of things that I would eliminate followers based upon in the J&J. My primary elimination criteria were: coming forward on the anchor and messy footwork (e.g. no third foot position, not rolling through the feet, imprecise foot placement). For the Strictly Prelims, my elimination criteria included poor partnering, lack of musicality and poor technique (in that order). These are things that most judges would consider problems, but not necessarily in the same order or priority that I do. Other judges may also have additional criteria that I may not share.
Before I began looking at individual Followers to eliminate I did a general scan of the competition floor. Some competitors stood out for the wrong reasons. A few followers looked uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the essence of the dance. These were my first eliminations. Although this is quite a subjective evaluation, the telltale signs that a follower is not comfortable in the dance include a poor anchor, poor posture and tentative body flight.
Still, I had difficulty eliminating enough Followers based on my criteria because the level of competition was high. I had to raise the bar for my elimination criteria, so I started to look at personal nits such as turned-in (sickle) feet as well as bigger-picture qualities such as quality of movement, turning technique, balance and timing. After making some initial eliminations, I compared the remaining Followers to each other to complete the task. In each division I judged, at least five followers whom I did not end up putting through deserved to go through to Finals … but I was only able to choose 10.
(As a side note, my partner David was judging the Leaders and he had a slightly different challenge. While I felt that the majority of Followers were strong dancers, he had fewer Leaders to choose from, and would have preferred more choice in order to put a stronger group of Leaders through to Finals.)
I also judged Newcomer & Novice Jack & Jill Finals. During Finals, all judges judge the partnerships – so as you can imagine, Teamwork/Partnering becomes a more important criteria in this round than it may be during eliminations. Again, I began with a scan of the competition floor and a few partnerships stood out for all the wrong reasons – namely, they looked like a “fight” rather than a partnership. That’s life – not every pairing produces the right chemistry. It’s the luck of the draw.
After this initial “scan”, I began evaluating the partnerships based on my personal pre-determined criteria for Finals, which were: clean dances; partnering/connecting well/ paying attention to each other and smiling; musicality within the partnership; teamwork and technique (in that order). The top three partnerships were relatively easy to determine, as were the bottom three. To determine placements in the middle, I again made comparisons between the remaining couples to assess which best met my criteria.
Some Ugly Truths
In my opinion only, these are some rather harsh realities to keep in mind about these competitions:
- “What do the judges see?” is just as critical a consideration as “What are they looking for?” In each division, every competitor danced for a total of about 5 minutes, but each judge watched perhaps 20-30 seconds of each. Judging is hard work and one way to make it simpler is to narrow down the field of people we have to look at. By choosing the top 3 and bottom 3 competitors first, I was able to focus on the more time-consuming middle pocket. That means that I went back to look at the bottom three only near the end of the competition with the time I had left over. Whatever I saw in the 20-30 seconds I was looking at an individual or a partnership is what I judged based on … and it might not have been that competitors’ best 30.
- It’s easier for the Leaders. There are fewer of them and, among Followers, the competition is tougher – not just because of the greater numbers of Followers competing, but also because the level of dance (movement, musicality, control) among the women is higher than it is among the men. Whereas David felt that more Leaders went through to finals than deserved, I felt that fewer Followers went through than deserved … and there were about 10 extra followers compared to Leaders on top of that. The math is just plain crappy for Followers – and it never gets better because Leaders can progress faster than Followers even if they are not as strong.
- In Finals, the best leader(s) usually place. Again, this is due to the disparity of skill between Leaders and Followers. Unless one of the best Leaders has a very unsuccessful Final partnership (i.e. the chemistry is off, the two of them can’t connect well, they make a big mistake), his partnership will do well.
- Aesthetics matter. It’s not enough to “master” techniques like foot position, posture, leg/knee/ankle articulation, balance etc. Quality of movement, kinetic control, rhythm, musicality and other aesthetics all combine to create the whole package that judges see. You can have the absolute best technique in the division, but if another dancer is better at putting it together into a total package, you’ll be outdone in a competition.
- Getting feedback is great – but think about how you do it. Ever notice how the judges disappear once results are posted? That’s because, once competitors see who placed them where or who let them through to Finals or not, many of them approach (mob?) judges to find out “why”. It’s great to get feedback on your dancing but not particularly useful to do it in that way or in that context. Instead, I recommend these approaches:
- Have a friend videotape your competition dances and/or buy the event DVD. Watch the videos – watch yourself and watch the others in your division. Look for differences. Observe your strengths and weaknesses. Have a coach/instructor review the videos with you to point out areas where you can improve. Sometimes we don’t look the way we feel. Sometimes adrenaline gets the best of us and we don’t even realize it at the time. Sometimes we simply have a bad day and revert to old habits.
- Find a coach whom you respect and go to them for regular feedback. For some people that means private lessons every week; for others it means once a month or every few months to “touch base” on progress. A lot can be gained from having a regular coach who can provide you with consistency in feedback, who can watch your progress unfold and provide course corrections as needed.
- Practice. The brain needs KINETIC FEEDBACK to change movement habits. In other words, for the brain to form the synaptic connections that result in different or better movement habits, the body must repeat those movements a great deal. This is also where a regular coach and/or videotaping is valuable – because if you repeat the WRONG things in practice you are giving the brain the wrong kinetic feedback and you’ll do the wrong things on the dance floor.There are two kinds of practice: private and social.
- Private practice happens off the social floor, ideally with a regular partner. Private practice is a great way to focus on kinetic repetition and the minutia of technique. There is also a lot you can practice and repeat all by yourself – no partner required! Having a mirror to watch yourself in helps.
- Social practice happens at local dances etc., or anywhere you can go frequently (i.e. at least weekly) to dance. Social practice is where we get to put our new habits (formed through private repetition) to the test with a variety of partners. Dance with partners who are more novice than you in the dance, as well as those who are better than you. People tend to focus on trying to dance with dancers who are better than them, thinking that “If something goes wrong then I know it’s my fault and I will know what to fix.” But it’s a much greater challenge to dance well and hold your own with partners who are less comfortable in the dance than you are – that’s the true test!
- Take private lessonswith Pros and/or judges … but do it for the right reasons. In my opinion, taking a lesson with someone because they placed you poorly in a competition is not the right reason (unless they are someone whose dancing you admire).IMHO, the “right” reasons include: you admire their dancing or some specific aspect of it and would like to learn how to acquire the same skill; you have found them to be an excellent teacher/communicator in workshops and feel that the way they deliver information works well for your learning style; you recognize the individual is at the forefront of the dance and you are interested in understanding their viewpoints and preferences as a means of better understanding the dance yourself.You can also consider taking a lesson with someone who consistently places you well when other judges do not – perhaps they see a diamond in the rough and can help you to polish up!
How to Improve
It’s a mistake to look for a “silver bullet” that will be the key to success in competitions. There is no special formula to follow. You will rarely please everyone with your technique, style or skill. Ultimately, you have to be happy with your own progression in the dance and accept that hard work and great technique aren’t always (sometimes never will be) enough to do well in competition.
Continue to train. Continue to practice. Find an instructor, instructors, pro or pros whom you respect and get their input regularly. Apply it in regular practice. Videotape yourself – in practice settings, in competition and “in the wild” (i.e. have a friend shoot video of you social dancing when don’t realize it). Watch the video and make adjustments. To know what judges are seeing, you must help your brain connect how what you are doing feels with how it actually looks. Watch video with your coach or a more experienced friend and have them point out things that you may not see yourself.
Focus on the heart of this dance: the social experience. Do you get compliments on your dancing? Do partners thank you warmly for dances and ask you again? Do you feel that you personally are continuing to learn and grow? When you watch video of yourself dancing, can you see a progression in your own style and skill? These goals are the ones truly worth shooting for. And if you’re lucky, one day these goals and your progression will align with what the judges see and value and you’ll be able to enjoy public recognition for doing something that you love.