Competitions in the (Swing) Dance World

Every time it seems I will go a whole month posting at least once a week, something consumes my whole life and makes sitting down at a computer and type up my latest thoughts and findings about life so much more than a chore. But that does not mean that I have been idle in collecting ideas! This one in particular that has been stewing in my brain since May.

A (Brief) Description of the Silver Lining

I have already talked a bit about my thoughts on today’s current swing scene, but I have wanted to talk about competitions in particular for a while. There is no doubt that competitions have an important role in Lindy Hop. Many people are drawn to the dance based solely on sharing videos of the best of the best throwing down. In their last newsletter, the International Lindy Hop Championships agree that “competition can inspire at its best”.

And who hasn’t been inspired by an amazing showcase or social dance? I, myself, have been known to binge watch videos, searching for inspirations, steps, or just to gush over the dance that I love so much. It inspires collaboration, it inspires personal betterment, it inspires travel. (People have traveled half way around the world just to compete in ILHC or its European sibling!) All of these things are what make dances like the Lindy Hop entertaining to watch and fun to participate in.

The Dark Side

However, to every “best” there is a “worst”, and competition can be hurtful to any scene (local or global). If left unchecked, competition can inspire ego, pettiness, bitterness, and all those other things you usually see in villains of 80s movies. It also suggests that there is a specific template to the dance and that if one dances just like the person(s) that won the last competition, then they will not only be a better dancer, but also a stronger competitor.

I think Sylvia Sykes says it best in her semi-recent interview on SwingNation, in that competitions are important but she has seen how this narrowing of what a dance “should be” has killed other dance forms. And even though she puts on several competitions and has been chief judge in several competitions, it still concerns her. The most pressing issue being that competitions are rarely just social dancing but a performance dance, which is not the spirit of Lindy Hop as a social dance. When she judges, Sykes often looks not for the most entertainment but the best dancing/lead-follow/social aspect overall and not just the execution of the steps.

Q: What Is “Good” Swing Dance?

Sylvia brings up another interesting aspect of competitions: whoever judges holds power (of varying degrees) of what audiences will consider “good dancing”. And with the internet, these versions of “good” dancing will spread on a global scale easier than butter on toast. Ryan Francios’s TED Talk specifically addresses this phenomenon and talks about the differences between then and now.

In his is essay Infinilindy, Nathan Bugh laments at the more uniform away we as a global scene approach the Lindy Hop. He talks about how he could watch the silhouettes of the old greats–Al Minns, Leon James, Norma Miller, Dawn Hampton, Dean Collins, Jewel MacGowan–and be able to identify each individual dancer based solely on their unique take on the dance. I wish I could quote his entire essay here, but when you get a chance it’s an amazing piece of thought on the individual dancer.

A: There Is No Answer

But when you’re dancing in a competition, you’re dancing to please other people, which means catering to what they (the judges or audience) want. And even that distinction: judges or audience is important. A judge will most likely be an expert in what they are watching. They will be looking for (among other things) execution, control, musicality, etc. Audiences however only want one thing: to be entertained. Sure, you might find an audience (such as that at ILHC) that might be more sensitive to what swing dance is. However, a more general audience just wants to get excited about something, so they like the flashier stuff rather than the more technically spectacular.

And opinions split even in the audience. So you can’t please everyone. (And that’s true for life.) If you do compete, do it for yourself and your growth and your love of performing a dance that makes you happy. As long as you are happy with your personal performance or can healthily reflect on your performance, then you did right by you and that is all you are in control of.

My Little Soap Box

“So if there is no answer to what is “good” swing dance, why do we have competitions?” you may ask. And I would say: to inspire; to perform; to show case a skill in which that person has been working on for a period of time in their lives; to share artistic creation. The list could go on if I sat here and just thought about it for a whole 24 hours. But I won’t. Instead I’m going to talk about my personal experience with competitions.

At the point of this blog entry, I have competed in a good handful of competitions, most of them Jack & Jills (where you’re paired randomly with another dancer and show off your skills to universally follow/lead). A Jack & Jill is one third skill, one third someone else’s skill, and one third luck. I personally think there is some merit to this form of competition, because it does focus on the lead-follow quality of the social dance that is the Lindy Hop. However, there are flaws to Jack & Jills, some of them outlined here.

Basically, the larger competitions favor more recognizable dancers and you start seeing the same dancers in the international circuit with a few surprise. Generally, however, you can guest-imate who’s going to make it.

There have been competitions that break the mold, so to speak, by introducing different formats for finals.

I think it’s important to keep the classic competitions, if only to preserve and pay homage to the history that is very important to swing dance. However, I think that non-traditional forms of competitions are also fun and continue the spirit of Lindy Hop, which has always been kind of the rebel on the dance floor.

My only worry is the weight people put on competitions and how much they make up and set the tone for entire events. Done right, there’s nothing to worry about, and it’s up to the event organizers to manage the balance. I think it’s important to remember the social aspect of the Lindy Hop and not to forget the community, which can be sacrificed at the expense of competition.


For more on the subject:

Mike the Girl’s post here.

One thought on “Competitions in the (Swing) Dance World

  1. I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that competitions are great, but not for me- I realised that they tended to make me feel both negative (rather than critical) and egocentric about my dancing, which I don’t find useful to my progress as a dancer. It’s been hard to accept because I know that the modern scene sometimes places values on competition as a metric for ‘good’ dancing and it means I can’t rely on the ego-boost of people saying, “You did really well” or “good job out there” in order to feel like I’m doing well or improving. On the flipside it’s meant that I’ve had to find a more intrinsic motivation for working on my dancing and for assessing my progress. I’m now more focused on developing greater awareness of how I connect with my partners and the music, which is really fulfilling, albeit occasionally frustrating.

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