Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Stigma of the Collegiate Dancer

WARNING: There may be a little bit of ranting going on

"Dude, what's up with these marks?"

To all of my friends who started ballroom dancing competitively in college (or immediately thereafter), we've all felt that anger. The frustration that a couple of judges marked us first, but one mark was so low that it cost us a place. That the judges in one level put us above a certain couple, but the judges for another level decided differently.

Believe me, I've been there. In my last competition, 3 judges had us taking first. However, despite 3 first-place marks in the Tango, we took 5th in the dance, and fifth overall.

I was frustrated for a week or two, but I got over it. And this blog post is dedicated to the realization that made me shrug it off.

The majority of the other competitors in the competition were collegiate-dancers-gone-amateur. By "collegiate," I mean they started their ballroom journeys sometime after the age of 18 (I'm sure "collegiate" is a bit of a misnomer, but deal with it). I realize we all share a trait that I call "The Stigma of the Collegiate Dancer."

One couple that out-placed us had better connection than myself and my partner, but we clearly had them on stride and topline. Another couple had great stretch in their lines and complex choreography, but at the expense of clean footwork and musicality.

So, what happens? Apparently, we had three "stride-and-topline" judges, and the rest were not. Or our clean topline was not as clean as the stretchiness of the other couple's stretch. At first, my reaction was to feel victimized by the draw, but now that I look back on it, I say, 


Let's play "Spot the Broken Line"
The stigma is this - you do some things great, and others, not so much. And that sticks out like a sore thumb. You probably got where you are due to a couple of great tricks, but now you're running up against competitors with equal-yet-different tricks. And yeah, your marks are now subject to the luck of the draw. Whose trick do the judges like?

So why do I say this is the collegiate dancer? Simply, because I don't feel this happens much in the youth crowd. At least not to the glaring extent of collegiate dancers. And why is that? Because, if at any point in time in the 10 years of your youth dancing, your coach looks at you and thinks, "nice stride and topline, but not stretchy enough," guess what you spend the next few months practicing? Having a longer journey from scratch with hands held along the way, you are less likely to develop prominently impressive characteristics or distractingly offensive habits.

Take myself and my personal favorite dancer, Mirko Gozzoli, for example. You put him and me on the same dance floor, there's no "Oh, look at his topline", "Oh, his stretch is a little better", "Nice musicality" - you see a holistically better performance from the former WDC world champion (currently top of WDSF), with no concessions to myself (save that my name is easier to pronounce). While perhaps not on the same order of magnitude, I feel this is what happens when judges see two youth couples. They've been coached away from bad habits and developed the good habits at a fairly distributed rate. One will likely paint an overall better picture, subject to very few matters of "taste".

So, how to defeat the symptoms of being a collegiate dancer? Not that I'm an authoritative source, but if you saw me dancing Bronze versus Champ, you'd see a number of habits that have disappeared. Though there are many forms this can take, I'm pretty sure it comes down to this: Get more information, then act on it. This of course applies to any skill. In our world, this takes the form of lessons and practice. I personally like taking regular private lessons from multiple coaches (I have one that's big on clean footwork and timing, and another that's keen on connection and internal adjustments), but some prefer a single coach. Others will take lessons few and far between from judges that see them dance regularly.

Whatever approach, you need to make sure you understand that there is always something you can do better. In order to progress in your skill (and by extension, your marks), you need to not blame the judges or other couples and instead invest the time, energy, and other resources ($) to improve yourself.

I hear tell that there comes a point where politics play a big - if not the biggest - factor in one's placement. Oh that I were only skilled enough to worry that others' reputations were dependent upon my results. But until I am SO good in my basics that I need worry about judges' preferences, I have little to complain about other than the lack of time I can invest in getting better. And even that's just a lame excuse. If it's worth complaining about, then it's worth prioritizing.

Ultimately, it comes down to this:

At any given moment, you are exactly as good as you are. If you don't like your results, then get better.

Am I way off in my understanding of the youth dancer experience, either from the dancer or judge opinion? Can anybody shed some light either way? I'd love to hear from you. Comments or

1 comment:

  1. I believe politics are overplayed in even the top levels. Often, a certain focus comes into style (more bent leg/Cuban action in Rhythm, huge shapes and topline in Standard, character vs. speed in Latin, less closed work in Smooth) and that starts winning. Those factors, and where a style is headed, are discussed AT LENGTH at WDC conferences (the American styles, less officially, are argued over judges' tables and cocktails). If you're not dancing what's "cool", your marks won't reflect your otherwise very good dancing. Like you said (mixed with some Obi-Wan), your tricks aren't the tricks they are looking for.
    Get information and act on it. BRILLIANT! I think many dancers forget about this. It might mean changing coaches, but it also might mean winning.