Today in West Coast Swing, there is conversation around 7 “elements” of the dance that judges take into consideration. These 7 elements are useful for any dancer who seeks to improve even outside of competition (with the exception of the 7th).
I recently attended a Q&A session in which Hugo Miguez beautifully articulated how these elements play a role in judging decisions. In a nutshell, he said that a judge looks for the most well-rounded dancers in the division.
This helps explain the frustration that many dancers feel when they know/are told that they have “excellent basics/technique”, yet they feel that they are overlooked in competition in favour of less-skills dancers who have better “musicality” or “showmanship”.
I haven’t yet seen a good written description/definition of the 7 elements of the dance that generally serve as West Coast Swing Judging criteria. Nor have I seen a good written explanation of how the elements play out at each level (Newcomer, Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, All-Star). So, what follows is my attempt to create one.
I also wanted to share a matrix format that I use as a “report card” for students who see me privately and in intensive-training sessions, to give them some benchmarks for improvement. I find it a very useful tool to visualize how “well rounded” one is. Remember that the first three “Ts” are most important in Newcomer/Novice, while the other 7 elements tend to correlate more with the Intermediate, Advanced, and All-Star levels.
There’s No Single Ideal
Always remember that one of the most amazing, wonderful, exciting things about West Coast Swing is that it has no international (or even national) syllabus. Unlike in Ballroom dances, we are not trying to achieve a single ideal. Mastery of the first three elements (the three Ts) builds the foundation on which we can masterfully begin to manipulate and play with the dance while still being inside of The Dance Called West Coast Swing.
The biggest mistake(s) that I and other instructors and judges see is when new dancers focus too much on the “showy” and “creative” elements of the dance before they have mastery of the their basics.
Shout-out to Gary Jobst, innovator behind the GPDIA’s Judging Training and an experienced Head Judge. I recommend his GPDIA course to anyone who judges, or anyone who feels like they want to “learn the game” as a competitor.
The 7 Elements
- Timing – demonstrates ability to step/change weight ON the beat; is not early or late to the detriment of the music or partnership; has strong grasp of double and triple rhythms. At higher levels, has a strong grasp of how to move through the beats smoothly and has a strong grasp of alternate rhythms while keeping time.
- Technique – correctly uses feet and legs to move through the dance (rolling action, grounded movement, smooth); correctly uses large muscles (back, core) to drive movement and connection versus small muscles (arms, legs); holds frame/space well. At higher levels, demonstrates exceptional flow and connected movement through entire body.
- Teamwork – attentive to partner, makes comfortable eye contact, smiles, knows when to “listen” and when to “speak”. At higher levels, is strong at complementing partner’s weaknesses, highlighting partner’s strengths, projecting intention to partner, and working together with partner to “create”.
An aside from me: in my somewhat limited experience, I have observed that one of the above three elements is often a “bug-bear” for each judge. I think this explains why there’s so much focus on the “Three T’s” when judges are asked for feedback in a general sense. For me, it’s Timing – that is, if a dancer isn’t on time I will score them low, not advance them to finals, and probably won’t give them a second look in preliminaries. I have spoken with other judges who prioritize some aspect of technique or teamwork.
- Variety – shows a variety of different body shapes/positions, footwork variations, pattern variations (leaders), timing variations, slot variations, connection variations, etc. At higher levels, is able to communicate this variety to partner and involve partner in creating it.
- Contrast – uses significant, obvious changes to highlight specific parts of the dance or music – e.g. level changes, speed changes, distance changes, etc. At higher levels, is able to communicate these contrasts to partner and involve partner in creating them.
- Musicality – understands music structure and is able to “show” an audience that structure through choices of patterns, variety, and contrast. Is able to use own movement, interpretation, and variation to project a mood, theme, or to highlight specific aspects of the music. Applies timing, variety, and contrast to integrate own dance with the music. At highest levels, is able to connect with partner musically and together create a musical dance.
- Showmanship – is aware of where the “audience” is, plays well to the audience without sacrificing partnership; projects intention to the audience; may involve audience in the performance; may incorporate elements of improvisation and “acting”.
The 7 Levels
So, what’s expected of dancers at each level?
- Newcomer/Novice – demonstrates ability to execute the basics correctly and consistently.
An aside about Newcomer divisions. It is each event director’s discretion to have a Newcomer division. Newcomer divisions help manage division sizes at large events. They also help to increase the level of competition overall. From a “criteria” perspective, Newcomer & Novice are roughly the same to a judge; we would expect to see greater mastery of the “Three T’s” in Novice compared to Newcomer.
- Intermediate – demonstrates strength/comfort in the element and an ability to manipulate the elements (“bend the rules”) effectively to achieve things like variety, contrast, and musicality.
- Advanced – demonstrates mastery of basics, comfort in manipulating them, and the ability to effectively “break the rules” for good reasons (i.e. for musicality and showmanship).
- All-Star – all of the above plus demonstrates strength/comfort with advanced musicality and showmanship.
A final note here, about “Invitational” and “Champion” levels. Sometimes I’m asked, “so how many points do you need until you’re a Champion”? But, Invitational and Champion divisions are not based on the accumulation of World Swing Dance Council points.
“Champion” divisions are generally reserved for professionals who devote most or all of their lives and careers to the dance – or to dancers who are considered to be next-in-line current Champions and who have perhaps been invited by an event director or recommended by an established Champion.
“Invitational” divisions tend to be a bit more flexible – it literally means “by invitation of the event director”. I most often see this division used at smaller events where there is a mix of regional, semi-pro and professional staff. It may also be used at non-pointed events where just two or a handful of pros are on staff but a larger division is desired to create an entertaining “show”.
All that to say, in the words of esteemed Head Judge and Champion, Angel Figueroa, there’s really nowhere else to go after All-Star!