Sheri and I have been teaching competition and judging classes since 2004. We love these classes because of the huge value in learning about competitions of course! Because of the huge overlap of competition and social dancing when understood can improve a Lindy Hopper’s dancing regardless of his or her goals.
How does that work? Well, if you think about it, judges are usually good dancers, in fact usually great dancers – and also great teachers, instructors, and coaches. When they judge a couple higher than another couple, it is because the judges consider something they “value” (I refer to it as a “filter”) and rate couples against each other on that value.
As an example, the basic values are: Technique, Timing, and Teamwork
At an advanced level, these become more refined and personal for that judge: and can be something like: showmanship, aerials, clean footwork, clean timing, style of dance, wardrobe, presentation, and more.
What this means: Whether you are a competitor or not, learning to watch, critique, and judge a competition can really improve your own dancing, especially at an advanced level as the more advanced your level of dance is, the more overlap there is between social dancing and competition dancing.
Over the years we’ve added a handout based on our competition classes and workshops. And so the reason for this blog post: because I get email requests now and again for the handout and it always takes me awhile to find it. So instead, yoohooo! Here it is!
Okay, let’s get on with explaining a few of these things too while I’m writing this: Woohoo here we go!
Overlap Of Social Dancing and Competition Swing Dancing
As far as the overlap between competitive and social dancing goes, here’s one way I think about it: let’s say you like playing basketball, you can get a lot better from cross training in another discipline like yoga, weightlifting, cardio, running, mixed martial arts, bicycling, volleyball, ballroom dancing, ballet, etc.
Sidebar: Shaquille O’Neal studied mixed martial arts to improve his post-up and rebounding in the paint
Sidebar 2: After quite a few years off from playing basketball, I was surprised on my return to the court that my defense was BETTER! And realized I could easily attribute this to dancing which had improved my spring and more importantly my footwork and mobility
Competition dancing definitely is a different muscle than Social dancing, and you can think of it as a way to cross train in another dancing discipline. Even if you do not compete, learning to value competition dancing can definitely expand your mind about Lindy Hopping.
And as one of our mentors says… Once a mind expands, it cannot contract.
Not to mention, it just adds a bit more fun and direction to dancing. Sometimes it is easier to practice when you have a goal in mind. I’m definitely one of those types (and in fact when I want to learn some new coding or technology I usually find a website project to put up a website … that’s why I have so many! ha ha)
A small bit of history of our competition workshops.
Back in the mid to late 1990′s, the Los Angeles dance scene was a hotbed of swing competitions. A lot of great dancing came out of this era. Both competitors and non-competitors continued to up their level of dancing which correlated to the number of competitions taking place.
These kind of died down pretty steadily after 2003, at least in Los Angeles, while competitions grew in other parts of the United States. In fact our competition classes we started teaching in 2004 were NOT local but at other dance camps.
We didn’t teach a competition class in Los Angeles until 2007 (I believe because after some declining number of local placements at Camp Hollywood many teachers and venues worked at rebuilding the competition scene here in LA).
Since then we have made an effort to increase competition classes locally and from that we have refined the following handout which is the basis for both our normal 60 to 90 minute class as well as our 4 hour competition workshop.
Here it is again (hint hint)
The basis of this handout and our competition roots:
We started competing in 2000, and one of the main promoters in this area was Melinda Comeau. From there we got to know Sylvia Sykes (who is our biggest mentor in competitions and dancing) and Jack Carey. Together, the three of them have had the most influence on our dancing. In fact, I think Sylvia Sykes watched and judged every competition we were in for the first six years we competed (from 2000 to 2006) since she served as head judge at every event we were at.
So anyway, back to 2000 and our first competition. Being the detailed sticklers Sheri and I were (and are), we poured over the camp schedule and at Melinda’s events she had a part of the schedule called “Judges Questions”. We had no idea what that was and when we asked Melinda, she said “Well, that’s a time you can go and ask judge any questions you have about your competitions.”
“Wow..that’s pretty cool” we said.
We didn’t know that was not quite the norm. No other events actually do this. But we didn’t know! Growing up with Melinda’s events, we just thought that was the norm. So right from the beginning we always assumed this was okay and every competition we ever entered we always sought judges’ opinions on how we did. (THANK YOU MELINDA COMEAU!) (P.S. MELINDA WE MISS YOUR EVENTS!)
That combined with taking some judging workshops (we still have our handout from one of Kelly Buckwalter’s judging workshops), and now having had experience as promoters, judges, head judges, and scorers … and teachers, we have gotten a lot of knowledge and experience over all these years. And yes we still try to cram it all into one page as a handout.
I hope you enjoy it!
Here are some important points on competition dancing and competition judging:
I do want to give you a few important points to consider as you look at the handout. Before you do, here’s the disclaimer:
Our “judging chops” were formed during what many would call the “old school” era. So when I say this is what judges look for, I am speaking for myself and Sheri and from talking with other judges of events we go to. But much of our philosophies are chiefly born from talking to Sylvia Sykes, Jack Carey, and Melinda Comeau.
That is another reason it is always good to ask judges for their critiques and opinions, because some people may judge entirely different than what I have laid out here.
Okay, to the handout! So some points (some you may be able to glean from the handout right away, some the connection may be a bit deeper and not as obvious)
- Judging is always on the three T’s: Technique, Timing, and Teamwork
- In a competition where competitors are more beginning/intermediate, often times those that make the finals are the ones with the strongest fundamentals, because not everyone will have strong fundamentals. It is actually quite easy to see who has really good fundamentals and who doesn’t, and a good strong three T’s usually (and should) win over a non-strong three T’s
- In a competition where competitors are more advanced, where it is likely that all dancers have strong fundamentals, the three T’s take on a lot more interesting meaning, and this is where subjective filters come into play. As an example, one judge may value footwork as high technical value, another judge may value aerials, and yet another may value teamwork. Other filters: creativity, musicality, call and response, strong and tight footwork, good pulsing, presentation, showmanship, just to name a few
- Back to beginning/intermediate contests, filters do play in here. Because in some contests all competitors are still working on strong fundamentals so it is common to see no one competitor with all three T’s strong. So let’s say you put two competitors side by side. Competitor A has Timing and Technique. Competitor B has Technique and Teamwork. A judge who values the “Timing” T above the other two T’s will choose Competitor A. In the case that say Competitors A and B both have Timing and Technique but not Teamwork, then some of the other more “advanced” filters might come into play.
- In other words… with all things being equal, more advanced filters such as creativity, musicality, etc.. will come into play. Whether all things being equal means an advanced contests where everyone’s three T’s are strong, or it means a beginning contest where no one’s three T’s are strong.
- A good promoter will choose judges with different philosophies and different “advanced” filters. After all with such a “non-regulated” dance, judges have to compare apples to oranges and choose. That being said, the idea is that at the very end the couple or individual that is the best at all the filters combined will rise to the top
- Sidebar: the above point is also why you will often see dance partners NOT judge the same competition if there are enough judges to go around. At big events Sheri and I are not tasked to judge the same competitions. It is a common conception that dance couples will judge the same. Whether true or not, if more judges are available it is easier to just nip that conception in the bud.
- Sidebar’s Sidebar: For the record, Sheri and I, while we have similar philosophies on dancing, actually judge quite differently – we both have very different filters. However, I understand the political conception and we usually expect not to judge the same contests.
- Sidebar’s Sidebar’s Sidebar: For the record again: Sheri’s judging is usually the same as the actual placements or very close to it, my judging tends to be the one that is not as close. Interesting no?
- Prelims are generally judged with a Yes/No/Alternate vote, and judges generally vote “YES” for those they want to see in the finals (which is a subtle difference from ranking 1 through N). As an example, one of my advanced filters is risk taking. As an example: in the prelims, if you take a risk on a move that doesn’t pan out, I may put you in the finals because I will want to see what you can do in the finals.
- Finals are then judged as an absolute 1 through N. So in contrast to the prelim example, if you take a risk on a move in the finals and it doesn’t pan out, I am more likely to dock you. So in summary: Prelim Judging is who do you want to see advance. Finals judging is who you think is the best that day
- In a competition where the finals include some sort of spotlight, generally the spotlight is given the most weight. And the “all-skate” after the spotlight is to give judges an opportunity to judge any tie-breakers. I’m not sure all judges do this anymore, but judges I have talked to that are influenced by Sylvia and Jack judge this way. As an example, in a recent contest a judge I was talking to had first place locked up, but couldn’t decide between second and third place after the spotlights and used the all-skate to break the second/third place tie.
- THIS IS AN IMPORTANT ONE: YOU NEED TO BE SEEN TO BE JUDGED!!!! No matter how good you dance, if no one can see you, you won’t be judged. There is a lot in that statement so give it some good thought
- Every judge I have ever talked to does welcome questions. So you should feel free to ask a judge for a critique or for their opinion on your performance. If you do ask, please note the following:
- Judges watch a lot of competitions, and sometimes only get a few seconds per competitor. So they may not remember your performance, especially if you did not make it out of prelims.
- Be polite and respectful of their time. Especially if you are asking at the night dance and it looks like they may want to dance. However, I have found most of the time, even at a night dance, judges enjoy spending time giving you feedback.
- Be polite and respectful of their time … on both ends! Meaning, some judges not only enjoy spending time giving you feedback, they may talk your ear off and you will get a lot more than you expected. So if you ask a judge for feedback and that judge wants to read you an essay, listen to it! I have done that a few times myself and it comes from a place of passion for this dance and gratefulness that dancers are putting effort out to improve themselves.
- Don’t be belligerent or argue with the judge on their philosophies and judgement
- Good sounding questions: “What do you think I could have done better?” “What types of things would you have needed to see to place me higher?” “What sort of tips do you have for me as far as things I need to work on?”
- Bad sounding questions: “Why didn’t you place me higher?” “How come you placed me so low?” “Why did you place him higher than me?”
- A good one, especially if the judge does not remember you: “Can you tell me generally what you look for when you judge and what you value in a competitor?”
- Remember, judges only see competitors for a few seconds. So even his scores might change if he saw a different 15 seconds of a competitor’s dancing. This happened at a recent competition both Sheri and I judged. I had major problems with the prelims calling anybody back. I asked Sheri and she said it was pretty straightforward and proceeded to explain to me what she saw – and her reasoning made sense. For me, though, I saw a completely different competition as each time I looked at a couple it seemed to be the point where they had a botch in connection – to the point where I couldn’t write anything down after the first two songs because each couple messed up in some way and so each song I just said to myself “Okay, clean slate. Let’s see what happens next song.” So it really does depend on when the judge sees you.
- Finally … you never know the whole story until you read the scoring sheets. That can tell you a completely different story than what you assume. So for example, maybe you thought first place should not have won at all. Or you can’t understand why the couple you thought got first place ended up last. The scoring sheets will paint you a much better picture
Which leads to ….
The bottom part of the handout is an example relative placement. I based this on quite a few competitions we’ve been in and that we’ve seen or judged and I will use it to illustrate my above point that You don’t know the whole story until you see the scoring sheets
First, what is relative placement?
Relative placement is a “majority rules” type scoring system that does not give any one particular judge too much power as opposed to “point” systems common in Ballroom competitions. It is fairly easy to understand if you understand the basic rule that whenever a couple gets a majority of votes, they win.
Generally, the larger events will have seven or more judges. The smaller events will have five. We have even been to some that had three.
Here’s the part of the spreadsheet that has the relative placement. Click on the image below to get the full res version. In fact, open it in another window so you can read along with me! (Right click, open in new window)
So there are six couples in the competitions, Couple 1 through Couple 6. And there are five judges, Judges A through E.
The first five columns show what each judges’ scores are for each couple.
The next set of columns that start “1s”, “1s-2s” is the relative placement tallying.
The final column is the placement.
If you look in the tally section for the large underlined number, that is the point where a couple won a placement.
So here’s how you can read it
Round 1 Of Voting:
The first round of voting is number of “1s” (or first place votes) each couple got.
- Couple 003 got 2 first place votes
- Couple 004 got 1 first place votes
- Couple 005 got 2 first place votes
A majority of votes for 5 judges is 3 votes. Since no one got 3 votes, we do not have a first place winner after the first round of voting.
What It Tells Us:
If a couple wins on the first round of voting, that is considered a clear cut winner. Even if they only win on a majority of 3 votes (as opposed to 4 votes or 5 votes), it is still a clear winner. Similarly, if one couple wins 1st place on the Round 1 vote, then the next couple wins 2nd place on the Round 2 vote, then the next couple wins 3rd place on the Round 3 vote, that is definitely an example of very clear placements for the top three. The fact that no one couple won on the first round means that it was a close competition for first place, and the judges could NOT agree
Round 2 Of Voting:
Now we count the total number of “1s” and “2s” each couple got (number of first place and second place votes). If you tally them up, you will see that one couple has gotten a majority.
- Couple 006 has 3 “first and second” place votes
In reality, all their votes happened to be second place votes (they got no first place votes). No other couple has 3 “first and second” place votes.
What It Tells Us:
This is one of the fun ones because you might be like “Wait..wait wait… no one voted them first place! How did they get first place?!!”. This is based on our first national competition where we did not get any first place votes, but at the same time no couple got any majority of first place votes. When it came to first AND second place votes, we got the highest majority and so we won the competition. What it means: the judges could not agree on any one person in first place, however, they all agreed to place us second place. But because there was no agreement ahead of us, that made us the top choice.
In other words, when I said above that the idea is that whichever couple is the best at all filters combined will rise to the top, in this case we were that couple. Combining all filters, we were the best. So maybe one couple was the best at aerials, one couple was the best at showmanship, one couple was the best at timing, but as a whole we were the best at all three combined.
So if there is ever a competition where a couple wins first place, and you might think “No way..I put them in second place.” and you talk to your other friends and they agree “Oh yeah, I put them in second place too”. If you dig a bit deeper you might find that you all disagree on first place, but you all put the same couple in second place. And that is exactly what happened in the judging too.
Round 3 of Voting
Here we now see that Couple 002 and Couple 004 both have majority votes. So now we go to a tiebreaker. In this case it is pretty easy:
- Couple 002 has 3 total votes of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd placements
- Couple 004 has 4 total votes of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd placements
In this case, Couple 004 has a higher majority (4 total votes) than Couple 002. So Couple 004 is awarded 2nd place,and Couple 002 is awarded 3rd place
What It Tells Us
Any time you go to a tie breaker, it is extremely close. And that is just what the score sheet tells you. This is where it also helps to talk to a judge to find out how close.
A great example of not just reading the scoresheets to get the “true” story but also talking to judges: one of our early team competitions we won 2nd place. There were seven judges and it went like this:
What this told us: First, this is not a tiebreaker. 1st place won on the first round of voting. There was a clear winner since it only went to one round of vote to get the winner. What this also tells us: the two top teams got all the first and second place votes and were well ahead of all the other teams in the contest (I believe there were 9).
Now that’s all the scoresheets would tell you.
So as an example of getting more insight by talking to judges:
In this contest example, I talked to all seven judges and six of them had clear placements in mind. The seventh judge, however, had much difficulty in deciding and even said in a perfect world he would want both teams to dance again so he could use it for a tiebreaker. What this tells us is that it may be a bit closer of a competition than the scoresheet says. And that perhaps another set of seven judges may have made it a bit closer (or even a bit farther). Seven judges definitely represents a wide variety of filters.
In the end, this judge said he based his decision on style of dance. That was his filter. The edge-ier, more “raw” style of the first place team won over our more clean, “finesse” type style.
What this meant for us? Well, we didn’t change the entire style of our dance, but there were parts of our routine where we changed the swingouts a bit and feeling a bit to add a bit more “raw” style into it for future competitions (we ended up getting 2nd place and then 1st place at the two remaining competitions we performed this routine at)
And by the way, even if it weren’t that close, this is a great example of why to talk to judges. You can get input from judges that did not place you higher and find out why and then find out from there ways you can possibly tweak your dancing.
Round 4 Of Voting
NOTE: I am currently getting some clarification on tiebreakers and will need to update this section. I believe that the below is incorrect now and I am working to get the correct version. For now I will leave it as is, but please note that it is likely incorrect – Ben 11/2013
This tiebreaker is VERY interesting.
- Couple 003 got three 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place votes
- Couple 005 got three 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place votes
So we have two couples both getting a majority. So now it comes to the first tiebreaker. Who has more votes? Well, they both have three votes. So now we go to the second tiebreaker.
This is interesting because there was a recent change ( I believe in the last five years) to make things more “fair”.
With the old way, Couple 003 would have won.
With the new way, Couple 005 wins.
Very interesting. And it makes sense now that you think about it. The old way was based on the “point” system, which does give more power to individual judges. The new way is based on majority vote which gives less power to individuals (which itself is the strength of the relative placement system)
The trick is to make it a “two couple” contest and see how each judge voted.
Point addition. Tally up the placements.
- Couple 003 = 5th + 4th + 5th + 1st + 1st = 16
- Couple 005 = 1st + 1st + 4th + 6th + 5th = 17
Since the judges in total placed Couple 003 higher, they would win
Voting. Which judge placed which couple higher?
- Judge A: Couple 003 = 5th, Couple 005 = 1st = Placed Couple 005 higher
- Judge B: Couple 003 = 4th, Couple 005 = 1st = Placed Couple 005 higher
- Judge C: Couple 003 = 5th, Couple 005 = 4th = Placed Couple 005 higher
- Judge D: Couple 003 = 1st, Couple 005 = 6th = Placed Couple 003 higher
- Judge E: Couple 003 = 1st, Couple 005 = 5th = Placed Couple 003 higher
So 3 out of 5 judges placed Couple 005 higher, so Couple 005 wins the tiebreaker
What It Tells Us
Well, first it is just fun and interesting to know how the tiebreakers work. Second, having to go to two tiebreakers means that it is a fairly close contest. Third, if you look at it the votes are quite a disparity. They couples got either 1st place votes or 4th/5th/6th place votes. So this means that they are probably very good at one thing but not good at the rest which is why they scored high with some judges filters and low with others.
It could also mean they are inconsistent with their dancing so it depends on when the judges see them.
For me, I like seeing at least a few first place votes with a couple because it means they definitely are doing something right, and have a good mentality for taking risks. It just happens that perhaps risks they took did not pay off, but having the aptitude for taking that risk is not an easy thing to teach and eventually the ability will catch up with the aptitude for risk which will pay dividends.
Round 5 of voting
Well, someone had to get last place for my examples to work. Sorry Couple 001.
What It Tells Us
That there was a very clear cut last place. Why they got last place? This would be a great opportunity to talk to the judges and find out why they were placed so low and what they could do to improve.
The Impact of Judging
One interesting point brought up by Sylvia at a judging workshop she held a few years ago: with the explosion of blogs, facebook, youtube, and video sharing, people have a lot more access to clips. And the clips that will get watched the most are the first place clips.
So when judges decide on a first place placement, they are really telling the community at large what they value and as an interesting consequence they are deciding which way the dance scene will go.
Using the above example with our team competition, and the judge finally giving the first place placement to the other team, he did so because in the end he found the “raw” style more attractive. Which means being partially responsible for driving the scene in that direction, telling dancers: “Raw style swingouts are better than finesse style swingouts”
Which is also a really good reason that good promoters will include judges with a high variety of different filters.
If the promoter does pick a number of like-minded judges, though, that is that promoter’s prerogative, and in effect that is the promoter choosing how their event should be run and them making a statement on a direction they would like to see the dance go in. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
As a possible competitor or spectator that just means it is good for you to know these kinds of things when looking at score sheets.
One really good example is Camp Hollywood, the only contest I know that instead of going all 3 T’s (Technique, Timing, Teamwork) we judges are given instruction to go 50% on the 3 T’s, and 50% showmanship. It makes for a different competition and different vibe for the event which the promoter would like to have. And still, even with this suggestion from the promoter, the Camp Hollywood judges chosen for each contest still have a wide variety of filters so everyone is still on the same playing field and the best of all filters will still rise to the top.
Sidebar: As far as identical judging filters: One way you can tell: if two judges have identical scorings but for all other judges it is “all over the place”, then that is a good sign two judges have very similar or possibly identical filters. If all judges scorings are almost identical, then it just means the contest was very clear cut.
Anyway, back to the first point: that it’s always good to see the judges scores to understand exactly how the judges saw the contests, and even better it is good to talk to judges to see their rationale for scoring how they did.
And in that way, you’ll also see possibly the direction of Lindy Hop as you find out what the top-most members of our dance scene are finding value in.
A Final Interesting Tip
By the way, that last place couple in my relative placement example above? Yeah, kind of based on us. In fact based on our second competition. And I wasn’t kidding .. that was a great opportunity for judges feedback even if at the time after that competition we “swore off” dancing for good.
We got second to last place and basically swore off of dancing but we did talk to the judges first and got a lot of good feedback on timing, taking risks, and letting it all out on the floor.
What it came down to: We had looked (and felt) hesitant.
Which leads to another great tip ..
So here’s what happened:
We decided to go “vintage”. We wore some brown/khaki outfits. Unfortunately we did not do a “test run” in these outfits and it turned out there were some issues
- I just was not “feeling” it in the outfit. You know how you might dance differently in different outfits? In this case this outfit made me feel constricted and I definitely did not feel it
- Because I felt tense, Sheri felt tense
- We got a song “Good Morning Judge” in our spotlight which has a few surprise hits in it if you are not familiar with the song. Sheri was not familiar with the song so she didn’t know about the extra few hits. I was familiar with it so I knew about them. Which threw us off
- Last but not least…I had some butt-crack sweat issues in the khakis
Seriously..if you watch our prelims (nice baggy pants and comfy shirt) and our finals (brown/khaki vintage conducive to butt crack sweat), you will see two totally different dance looks and styles, the latter not being true to how we feel and move leading to pensiveness and hesitation.
Final Interesting Tip: So test-drive your clothes before you compete in them!!
Okay, And Then Another Final Interesting Tip
What happened next after that second-to-last placement?
Well, we did swear off of competitions and dancing.. “for good”. Which lasted a few months. Then we decided to get back into it. We decided to definitely wear something very comfortable this time around, not wanting to make the same mistake. And wear something that would let us “feel *it*”. At the same time, something nicer than baggy pants and a t-shirt. And we found that balance to be Hawaiian shirts. We ended up wearing Hawaiian shirts for quite a bit after that. We became known in some circles as the “Hawaiian Shirt Couple”. And we definitely “felt it” in these shirts and won our next competition even (which was the national competition I mentioned above which we won on near unanimous second place votes).
Not only that, but Sylvia gave us a very valuable feedback that day:
“Just so you know, Hawaiian shirts: Great idea. I could see you guys easily because sometimes it’s really hard when everyone wears the same thing. You guys were easy to spot and easy to comment on, and since you guys danced so well it was easy to put you guys up there.”
Which translated into our mantra I mentioned above
Seriously Important Final Tip: You must be seen to be judged!
Okay, NO SERIOUSLY, A Life-Saving Final Interesting Tip
With all this talk, just remember it is good to get all the advice but be true to your dancing. You cannot work on pleasing every judge because there are just so many subjective filters out there.
For me personally: when it comes to team competitions and choreography and style of dance, I know a few judges that will always, with all things being equal, place us lower and I know why and I’ve accepted it. The filters they use are just not priorities of mine when I choreograph and that’s just how it is. I respect their filters, and at the same time when I choreograph I find it is near impossible to work their filters in to choreography that I personally would like.
This took me awhile to understand – and then when you take into account if you take a style of dance and/or choreography to multiple competitions in multiple regions and will be seen by multiple judges with all sorts of dance histories and filters…
Well, that’s why it’s fantastic to learn about what judges think and what’s out there, and take it into account, and at the same time find a balance where you can be true to your own sense of dancing and style and do what makes you happy!
(Because, you know ..being happy is good!)
(Maybe that’s part of what Frankie meant when he preached “Take something else and make it your own!”)
And that is relative placement in a nutshell (a very big nutshell) plus a lot of other thoughts.
Hope this little primer has been helpful!
Or go watch competitions!
Or just go dance!