I feel qualified to give out all this advice because at onepoint or another I believe I have done almost everything wrong! I hope these tips save you from some of the embarrassments I’ve experienced while learning things “the hard way”.
The most important thing to remember is…keep it fun!
A. Before the Contest
1. Determine why you want to compete.
What do you personally want to gain from the competition? Experience? Money? A trophy? Status? Smart competitors dance differently in any given competition depending on why they are competing in that competition. Dancing to win often requires strategies geared toward a particular set of rules or judging panel. Dancing simply for fun requires an entirely different attitude. Although money, a trophy, and status can be satisfying by-productions of competition, they are nothing compared to how you really feel about yourself. If you are competing only to win, you will most often be disappointed. Instead of basing your self-esteem on others’ opinions, try judging your dance using your own values. If you do that, then you will always come out a winner, even if it means just learning what not to do in the next competition.
2. Accept that by competing you have given everyone in the room permission to critique your dancing, and realize they will probably discuss your personal life too!
A competitor once told me that she felt that signing the registration form gave every judge the right to place her dead last! If you can’t stand the heat…
3. Determine the nature of the contest you are entering.
Keep in mind that just because a contest is a swing contest, doesn’t mean it is a West Coast Swing contest. West Coast Swing, Shag, Lindy, Hand Dancing, Push – these are all types of swing dancing! In some “open” Jack & Jills you might draw a Shag or Lindy dancer. Or, as with Swing Break competitions, you might even draw someone of the same gender. Even within a particular type of dance there are different types of competitions: lack & Jill, Luck of the Draw, Strictly Swing, Classic, Showcase, Masters, Juniors, the list goes on and on. Not only do these competitions all have different rules and regulations, different events often have different rules for the same type of competition! If you read the rules you’ll know what to expect.
4. Determine your appropriate division and category.
Each event has it’s own requirements. Check with the Registration Desk for details. The level of competition dancing, not years of social dance experience, often determines a competitor’s category. If you are unsure of your level, ask a qualified source (e.g. the Chief Judge). If you enter the lowest category you qualify for, and you are really much better, then you will eventually earn the points to move up. It is usually better to have so many wins that one is forced into the next higher level of competition rather than to enter above one’s real position and be a “bad draw” for one’s partner who worked hard to earn their position in that category.
5. Obtain a written copy of the rules, and then . . . read the rules!
This is the most important thing for any competitor to do, and the one thing most competitors don’t do! Almost all contestant problems stem from not reading the rules.
6. Always treat convention staff with respect.
If you are demanding, rude, or arrogant with a staff member, your behavior will be discussed with the Chief Judge and you might be disqualified from the competition.
7. Don’t enter any contest unless YOU really want to.
Well-meaning friends and registration staff may encourage you, but if you feel that you are not really ready to compete. . . then wait. There will always be other opportunities.
8. Sign up ASAP; refer to latest schedule for registration deadlines.
Many people like to wait and see how they feel on a particular day to decide if they want to compete. Although there is a place for spontaneously deciding to compete, the adrenaline rush received from just barely making a sign-up deadline is a waste of energy. Most people don’t realize that late sign-ups are a major reason that competitions fall behind schedule. Remember, all the contestants’ names and bib numbers have to be entered into a computer and printed out to appear on the emcee’s, spotter’s, and judges’ sheets before any contest can begin.
9. Verify that the bib number you receive is the one assigned to your name.
Mistakes do happen, so make it your responsibility to double-check all your information. It is also a good idea to write your name on the back of your bib number, especially if you are sharing a room with another competitor.
10. Obtain Contestant Meeting details.
Usually the schedule is posted, but you can also get this information at the contest registration booth.
11. Attend Contestant Meeting(s) on time.
Sometimes rules and contest times change. This is just some of the information you will receive at a Contestant Meeting. Make sure you read the rules before attending the meetings so that you do not delay the competitions by being unprepared.
12. Ask questions if you are unclear on anything.
“When in doubt, leave it out!” — Annie Hirsch.
13. Prepare appropriate clothing and accessories and test drive your chosen outfit with your bib number attached to make sure you will have no costume disasters.
Black and white are good colors if you want to match your partner for finals, but they sure don’t make it easy for the judges to identify you in a heat during the preliminaries! Bib number should be secured on leader’s back, and just below follower’s waist on the back. Do not fold the bib number so that the white border is unseen; black numbers on dark clothing make it very hard for judges to properly record bib numbers. If you don’t want expensive clothing to be “ruined” by safety pins, wear something more durable. Keep your bib number on until you are absolutely sure the entire contest is finished.
14. Gather whatever supplies you might need: water, towel, shoe brush, etc.
Halls mentholated cough drops help keep you breathing when your mouth goes dry.
15. Be in the room readyto dance at least 10 minutes before the start of your contest.
Even if you have been told you are dancing in the last heat, be prepared to dance in the first. Sometimes you might even have to dance twice. In such circumstances contestants are almost never told which dance is being scored. If this happens to you, assume that you will be judged on your worst dance, and be grateful you’ll have the chance to redeem yourself with your other performance.
16. Refrain from alcohol and any other mood altering substances.
Having a drink to relax when you are nervous may sound like a good idea, but it usually results in a competitor only thinking they danced great. A sober look at the video may prove very embarrassing. It is absolutely rude and inconsiderate to your partner, the judges, the promoter, and the audience to dance under the influence.
17. Warm up with a friend or potential partner, but don’t practice routines with, or offer advice to, potential partners.
No one can change their dancing in ten minutes, especially under the stress of competition. Should you actually draw your new “student”, the free advice you gave might make the connection rather unpleasant.
18. Don’t assume that you will be spoon-fed all the information you need to compete.
It is your responsibility to know the rules, contest and meetings schedules, etc.
19. Assume you will draw your worst nightmare and then you will be pleasantly surprised!
Remember, any contest where contestants draw for partners is based primarily on LUCK!
20. Quick recoveries and light-hearted attitudes practiced during social dancing develop skills that will help during the stress of competition.
Many a quick thinking competitor has made a potential disaster look like a minor glitch by reacting in a carefree and positive manner. If you or your partner disconnect, miss a step, get off time, or even fall down, pretend it is not a big deal and just keep dancing.
B. During the Contest
1. Listen for your name, and when announced, quickly take your designated position.
If you know you are about to compete, position yourself near the floor so as not to delay the competition. If your name is drawn first in finals, walk over to meet your partner and walk to the center of the floor together.
2. Politely follow all directions from emcee, spotters, and other designated staff members.
Sometimes contestants think it is “cute” to cut ahead to their designated partner instead of staying in line. This type of behavior slows down the competition and causes confusion for the judges and spotters.
3. Meet and greet your partner with a smile and a pleasant word.
“I’m so glad I drew you!” is a great way to get off to a good start.
4. Acknowledge judges (finals only).
Although it is traditional to give a brief glance to the judges/audience as a sign of respect before starting your dance, judges don’t usually take off points if a couple is so busy connecting with one another that they forget this tradition. Excessive mugging, on the other hand, is definitely not appreciated.
5. Choose a good location for your slot.
If you or your partner have a group of friends that will cheer you on without distracting you, dance near them. If you think you and your partner are one of the weaker couples on the floor, then don’t position yourself near the “top dogs”. Judging is usually done using relative placement, so your physical placement relative to the other competitors does make a difference.
6. Arrange your slot in the proper orientation as directed.
You will receive this information either in a Contestant Meeting or during the competition by the emcee or spotters. If you get no direction on this matter, consider that during finals you and your partner will present your dance better if the judges are looking at your slot sideways instead of looking at your backsides. During preliminaries and semi-finals the judges move constantly, so gearing your slot toward the camera or audience is your best bet. Always dance parallel to the walls in the room. Dance in the center of the floor whenever you and your partner are spotlighted.
Although it is often a good move strategically to change slot direction or to move to another section of the floor, if your partner is not familiar with these types of transitions such attempts could be detrimental-especially during heats where the floor is crowded with other competitors. Although judges might give points for using the entire floor during a spotlight, if a couple uses migratory moves to invade another couple’s space during a semi-final, they might get marked down so much in conduct that they may never even make it to the finals!
7. Listen to song introductions until you can clearly hear the beat, and then stay on it!
Many songs have odd introductions that can confuse a nervous dancer into starting on the upbeat.
8.Remember to relax, breathe, and smile, and refrain from counting out loud or lip syncing.
Breathing deeply helps dancers emotionally as well as physically. Some judges take off for counting out loud or lip syncing.
9. Accommodate, compensate, and focus on your partner.
Teamwork and good sporting conduct are paramount in all partner contests.
10. Consider your partner’s abilities, preferences, and limitations in choosing choreography.
If you are unfamiliar with your partner, start out slow. Let your partner get his or her agenda out and they will be more likely to help you execute yours! After the first 20 seconds or so you should have a pretty good idea of what kind of dance you are having. If you realize that you haven’t a chance of winning, or even placing, just relax. Just try to get through with as much ease as possible and don’t push beyond either of your limits.
Leaders: Lead off with traditional basic moves to get an idea of your partner’s strengths and limitations. If you’ve just perfected a complicated neckwrap-hammerlock-whip pattern that you’ve been working on for months, but you drew a short, stocky partner, who doesn’t turn easily, and wasn’t in your class, then forget the pattern! If your partner gets off time, bring her into closed position. A few hip bumps will put her on the correct beat. If your follower is a little out of control, try using two handed patterns, or patterns ending in closed position to help her stay grounded. Since these are very confining and controlling strategies that the judges easily recognize, make sure that you are not using them to control your partner without good reason.
Followers: Ease off the fancy syncopations until you can incorporate them without throwing your partner off time or balance. Save your fanciest syncopations until after you and your partner have established a good connection and you’ve successfully navigated your way through several wrap patterns. If your partner is off time, do your best to stay on time and get him in sync with the music (If you don’t know the techniques for this, ask your teacher!). If non-verbal clues don’t work, as a last resort tell him (while in closed position so that no one can see) that “We are off time” so the leader can correct the problem.
11. Refrain from distasteful or offensive moves, excessive mugging or show-boating.
Sometimes audiences will encourage inappropriate behavior. Don’t get suckered into doing anything that you or your partner will feel embarrassed about seeing on the video (over and over again!). Judges do mark down for inappropriate behavior.
12. Briefly acknowledge the audience with a smile or wave at the end of your performance (finals only).
If you are asked to take a second bow, do so quickly. It is always a good idea to leave the audience wanting more.
13. Smile and thank your partner at the end of the dance, even if you are unhappy.
No matter how horrible the dance, be gracious.
14. Leaders should walk their partners back to their chairs (finals only).
15. Act appropriately since you will appear on video while both dancing and observing.
Often finalists are seated in chairs across the stage facing the audience and camera. In these circumstances finalists serve as the background for the spotlighted couple. Since most contests are videotaped, finalists’ actions will be forever immortalized on the video so conduct yourself accordingly.
16. At the conclusion of each dance, line up so that your bib number is clearly visible to the judges.
Show your number, position follower to leader’s side as directed, and hold your partner’s hand. In prelims and semi-finals usually half the panel judge leaders, and the other half judge followers, so don’t worry if not all the judges check your number.
C. After the Contest
1. Refrain from negative comments about your partner, the music, the floor, the judges, etc.
This is not the time to pick apart your partner. Save any nasty comments or criticisms for private conversations with your closest friends. It is generally acknowledged that dancers who speak poorly of their partners are simply projecting their own inadequacies.
2. Don’t argue with compliments. Learn to say “Thank you!” graciously.
If complimented, try not to argue with people by telling them all the things you or your partner did wrong. If you say, ‘Thanks, I had a lot of fun!” or “I was really lucky to get such a good draw!” everyone will think better of you.
3. You win! (Yeah!)
If you win or place, accept prizes and take photos quickly. Follow photographer’s instuctions in positioning follower to leader’s side with bodies at a slight angle to the camera. Hold trophies and prizes straight in front at waist level. If you don’t feel you deserved the placement, don’t apologize! It is a guarantee that if you compete long enough you will eventually place when you don’t really deserve to and not place when you do!
4. You don’t win! (Boo-hoo…)
If you don’t win or place, smile during awards and congratulate the winners even if you do not agree with the results. If people tell you that “you should have won”, smile and say “Thank you!” but resist the temptation to fall into conversations that accuse the contest of being “rigged” or “politically judged”. FYI: Part of the Chief Judge’s duties is to review all of the judges’ scores for any possible bias. If a judge’s scores are biased, that judge is not invited to judge again.
5. Study posted scores, but first make sure you know exactly what you are looking at.
If you do not have any experience reading scores, ask someone who really “knows the score” to help you. Raw scores can be extremely deceiving if you do not know a. the scoring system used, b. the judge’s range, c. the judges, and d. the rules!
6. Attend the Scoring Review Session and ask the following question of the judges: “What can I do to improve my dancing?”
When a judge answers you, don’t argue with them, just say, ‘Thank you!” and move on to the next judge. These sessions are for finalists to receive, not to give, feedback.
7. Reflect on how to improve your performances, but don’t agonize over them so much that you ruin the event for yourself and your friends.
8. Questions and/or Grievances?
Ask the appropriate representative (Contestant Representative/Chief Judge) at the appropriate time (Contestant Meeting/Scoring Review Session), in an appropriate (non-confrontational) manner.
9. Keep your perspective!
A contest is only a dance! If you didn’t make finals and someone did who you think isn’t as good a dancer as you are, ask yourself this question: “Were the worst 15 seconds of my dance better than the best 15 seconds of their dance?”. Remember the judges can only base their decisions on what they actually saw of you during your heat!
10. Don’t expect feedback from the judges after the Scoring Review Session has concluded.
It is your responsibility to ask questions at the right time, and the judges deserve to have a little fun too! Once a competition has ended don’t expect the judges to remember your dance a week or two later. Chances are they have judged several other competitions since they last saw you and won’t even remember your specific dance.
© 1994-2004 Kelly Casanova (Buckwalter) Revised 2000