What's the Point?
Every competition needs a reason for existing. For some comps, that's celebrating a particular skill set (like the Jill competition at Blues Muse). For others, it's to rally a region (like the comps at Southeast Summer Brawl). Some are to challenge people in their athleticism and flash (I'm looking at you, lindy hop strictlies); some are to encourage up-and-coming dancers (pro-ams, that's you!). Whatever the reason, a competition takes away from social dancing, and disappoints people- but if the pros outweigh the cons (as often they do), let the games go on.
Just as competitions need a reason for existing, competitors should have a reason for competing- and it's rarely best to compete for the sake of winning. Your final placement depends on factors entirely out of your control (like how well everyone else danced), so in that sense, it's a bit like trying to catch the most rain in a seven day period- the clouds have as much to say about it as you do. There are some very valid reasons to compete- some with their dark sides. Some of these include:
--meeting new people (this works much better in a jack and jill than a strictly)
--giving yourself a goal for which to train (life gamification)
--practicing dealing with stage fright
--measuring your progress with videos (there are other ways to do this, but this is a way)
--publicity (the dark side here is that in some scenes, people search for teachers to take from by looking at their competition videos, which selects for good competition dancing above other factors- a pretty dark path)
For every competition, the format must support the goals. So if you want to showcase good improvised partner skills, follower contribution, and interesting rhythms in a lindy comp, then super-fast charlestony music is not a good fit. If you want to showcase the best social dancers, are spotlights with fixed partners the best way to end a jack and jill? If you want to promote the relationship between the partners and the music, is a spotlight with traveling entrances (particularly in blues) really the best way to facilitate that mindset for your competitors? Your format has to not only make sense to enable the competitors to accomplish the goal, but you need to consider the message you're sending your audience. If we never have any solo blues competitions that are just solo blues (not cutting or riffing), what does that say about our scene's value of solo blues?
Judges and Judging
Every judge should be hired for their perspective, their insight, and their critical eye. Once this criteria has been met, having specific criteria with percentages may help achieve the goal of your comp... but it may also hinder it. For Enter the Blues, the advice I eventually wound up giving my judges was "I hired you because I trust you. Judge based on what you think is good blues dancing." It is also acceptable practice to give the values of the event, such as "We are especially valuing musicality in this comp, so give it extra weight." One thing I do ask of my judges, and I strive for myself, is impartiality. The non-favoritism part of this is obvious, but I also attempt to leave out any knowledge I may have of a competitor's progress, stagnation, or untapped potential- what I see in the competition is all I judge them on, and I advocate for other judges doing the same.
I'm putting the wrap-up here, because the next part is my potentially controversial set of personal views- feel free to skip it, and continue on your day with these rainbows and puppies. But before you go, simply consider this: for every competition, there should be a purpose, and every aspect of the competition should be to further that purpose. From soup to nuts, make the competition worthwhile.
**Please note that this section is fraught with things I might normally only say after a glass of wine- I won't stand behind the global rightness of all of these, but people have asked how I feel- now you'll know. Also sentence fragments.
-Never audience judged. Just never. [See? Sentence fragments.] You're measuring loudness, not votes. If you must have audience judged, do online voting. If I yell more loudly than Julie Brown or Nina Gilkenson, should I get more sway? (The answer is no, in case you weren't clear)
-Likewise, tap-out prelims are not the most fair way to do a prelim, they're not the fastest way, and they don't put the emphasis on the best dancing; they put it on the least-bad dancing. Use numbers, and let each judge have an equal number of votes (with equal weight) for the dancers they think are best.
-Blues dancers are bad at cutting. We are, however, good at solo blues. Let's have the occasional solo blues competition, shall we?
-Unless the point is to rile up the audience (sometimes it is!), blues dancers probably should not have do traveling entrances, especially on gritty, jukin tunes or slow, sorrowful tunes. It sets up the competitors to focus on the audience/judges rather than each other or the music, wastes some of their phrase on cheesy traveling stuff, and isn't true to the rest of the dance.
-I challenge you, lindy competition organizers/contestants, to have lindy competitions with more lindy than charleston. Charleston is fine, but it's dominating the competition field. Exception: if your goal is pure athleticism and showmanship, and not lindy hop, then charleston away.
-My personal preference for spotlighty comps is that if competitors aren't getting unique song snippets, that they get an all-skate (judged), two spotlights, and an all-skate at the end. You can cut down to one spotlight, but that all-skate at the end is a great time for competitors to do more great dancing (the nerves are a little less raw in all-skates) and for judges to break any ties that arose during spotlights. Don't skip it. Skipping it is like tossing the judges and competitors and audience members some cab money... at least cuddle first.
-For the love of all things musical, have communication between your tapper-outer and your DJ/band. Keep the spotlights on the phrase. If someone gets off, hold up! Wait! Get on the phrase! You cannot ask competitors to phrase with the music (you know, basic musicality) and not be phrasing with the music at the same time. Also, this is super distracting to judges, and makes your competition look bad. Manage that shit. Do not make me throw my clipboard in anger- only joy.
-DJs- know your goals, know the values of the event, and know your dancers. If the novices can't swing out well at 180, don't make them dance at 180 if the goal is to make them feel like rockstars. If your goal is to provide videos to inspire the world with your advanced dancers, don't pick music that's over-the-top hard just to challenge them. If the goal is to showcase subtle musicality and phrasing, "Mannish Boy" is not your tune. Be wise before clever.
-Competitors' meetings often feel like a waste of time, but they're a good time to handle logistics like numbers and format explanations. Consider, if your competition has explicit goals, sharing these goals with the competitors during this time. You encourage them to do justice to your event, and you increase the chances of putting out videos that represent what you want to see.
So there you have it. If you want to know more details on how I feel, you'll just have to buy me a manhatten or a Mamie Taylor. Keep in mind that if you think I'm terrifically wrong about some of this, that's ok! We're talking about ranking the goodness of subjective art forms- objectively speaking, there's something silly about it. But because we love our art forms, and our communities, we present competitions- this post is simply a reminder that they should be purposeful, and purposefully executed.