Ah, the eternal competitor question… “What are the judges looking for?” Consider that judges are not necessarily “looking for” positive elements of your dance as much as they are “looking to eliminate” negative elements. We call these “red flags”: bad habits or errors that prevent judges from giving you a callback to the next round. Judges are looking for the performances with the least number of errors.
But it’s not always about bad habits or errors in your dance that prevents you from advancing. There are also factors beyond your control that you can’t blame yourself for. It’s important to keep a healthy perspective about what competition results mean.
Elimination process from Prelims to Semis to Finals
What it means when you get called back
When we are judging, the chief judge gives us a number of competitors to call back. For example, if I’m judging followers in the Novice prelims and there are 80 followers, the Chief Judge will ask us to call back 40 to the semi-finals. When you make it to semis, it’s a good indication that you are doing things right, so take that as encouragement. But in semis, the CJ only lets the judges call back about 10 (ish). So if you make it to finals, that means you were one of the top 10 the most outstanding of all the followers who were “doing things right”. If you did not get called back for finals, It does not mean the judges changed their mind about your dancing. You were still doing things right, it’s just that there were other followers who were adding something extra.
What it means when you make finals but don’t place
Of all the outstanding dancers who made it to finals, you are still only half of a team. In finals, you are no longer being judged on your independent skills – you are being judged on the conversation you are creating with your partner. Just because you don’t place doesn’t mean you didn’t deserve to be there or that you didn’t have a good conversation with your partner. It just means others had a better conversation than yours.
Factors you can’t control
Skill differences between genders
It is a global phenomenon that there are more women in our sport than men. Women also pick up dancing faster, and are more likely to have had some dance training in their youth. All of these factors make WCS competitions more competitive for the women. You can’t control that there are twice as many followers as leaders, or that your male practice partner has an easier time making finals than you do.
Regional judging preferences
As you travel for dance, you will notice the drastic differences in the regional styles of WCS. The judges hired for events in each region are likely to vary accordingly. If the judges are not used to seeing you or your style of WCS, they may judge it more critically.
In our example fleet of 80 followers, there might be between 2 and 4 heats, depending on how big the floor is. It might seem like a good idea to have more heats with fewer dancers on the floor so you get more seconds of judges’ attention, but actually, the reverse is true. The judges are less likely to remember you accurately if you danced in heat 1 of 4. It’s more accurate to compare you to a larger fleet in only 2 heats.
This depends on the regional strengths. If you are in a region where the dancers are younger, athletic and trained in solo dances, the competition will be stiffer than in a region where the average age of starting is higher or average dance resume is weaker.
“The wrong 12 seconds”
Someone once calculated that any given judge is likely to only be able to allocate and average of about 12 seconds of attention to each competitor during prelims. It is possible that something happened during those 12 seconds that a judge was watching you. Maybe they caught a hand slip or and awkward moment. S**t happens, and you should learn how to recover gracefully, but the moment has passed and there’s nothing you can do about it.
It’s all relative
Remember, whether or not you make the cut all depends on how many dancers there are that have an equal or greater chance than you. You can’t control how well others dance around you. Respect your peers, knowing that on any given day there might be more dancers worthy of finals than you. This doesn’t make you less worthy. This should make you motivated.
Because you can’t control these factors, you can’t consider them failures. But what about…
Factors you can control
Here are some competition red flags that you can take responsibility for: things that make the judges either pass you over or give you a “no” for callbacks.
“Timing, technique & teamwork” This always makes me roll my eyes because people proclaim these to be the 3 things judges are looking for, yet these are mere topic headings. Judges are (or should be) judging a variety of skills, many of which can be categorized into the 3 T’s, but it’s not enough just to use the headings as the sole criteria. So let’s identify a few specific elements under each heading. And I’m going to add one more.
Which type of timing?
Timing is the most obvious, empirical flaw, and can be considered the make-or-break element. But there are several types of timing, and many make the mistake of assuming that stepping on time is the one and only mission. You might be stepping on time, but are not able to lead your partner to step on time. These are completely different skills.
Rhythm & speed switching
Judges love it when DJs have variety in their competition sets. We want to see who can stay on time to a swung-rhythm Blues song, who can stay balanced and controlled during a super slow song, and who can keep up to a super fast contemporary song. These extremes hightlight weaknesses, making it easier to “separate the men from the boys” (and the women from the girls).
Ignoring phrase changes
I have heard more than a handful of judges say if you ignore a phrase change, they will pass you over. To them, phrasing is a critical music skill that they expect as a minimum standard to make finals. BUT, this advice often is mentioned without clarifying that it should not apply to Novice, and becomes increasingly critical in higher divisions. A Novice dancer should not be prioritizing counting phrases and hitting breaks over partnership timing and stepping on beat.
Your dance “blink” is flawed
Just like one drop of your blood can tell a doctor everything they need to know about your DNA, a judge can get a pretty good sense of your total dance technique by watching only a few patterns. My training and experience in coaching and refereeing has enabled me to analyze an athlete’s movement habits in about 2-4 seconds. Author Malcolm Gladwell refers to this intuitive judgement as a “blink”. If your technical errors or bad habits are significant enough or frequent enough that they are visible within that blink, this gives a judge reason not to give you an immediate “yes”. They might be able to come back to you later and watch longer, but that’s only if they have time. Even if a judge is not trained in analyzing fundamental movement errors, they may not be able to put their finger on it, but they can tell “something’s not right”.
Maybe your skills are nice and consistent, until you lead that new trick/pattern you learned that isn’t polished yet. This weakness makes you vulnerable to judges’ scrutiny. Make sure your new material is well-practiced before trying it in competition.
Comparing you to your neighbours
Sometimes judges will compare your movement to the dancers right next to you. If they look more comfortable and competent than you, they will draw more attention, and you will appear weaker in contrast.
You’re not doing Swing yet
There is a difference between a good mover and a good WCS dancer. Even less trained judges are able to identify the “look” of Swing when they see it. For example, a beautiful and skilled Zouk dancer that has not yet mastered the character of WCS will get passed over by the judges in favour of a less trained dancer who is demonstrating authentic WCS movement. You might feel that your personal movement skills are superior to others who make finals, and this might be true, but if you are not playing the game of WCS, the judges can’t reward you above dancers who are playing the game of WCS. In this case, it’s not a dance contest, it’s a Swing contest.
You didn’t try to get into your partner’s world
You have your dance style. Each one of your partners has their own dance style. Your mission is to find common ground. If your partner is not flexible enough to get into your world and find your common ground, you need to bite the bullet and yield to your partner’s dance. For example, I find a particular song super sexy, and want to move slinky, but my partner is more conservative and doesn’t respond to my gooey movements. If I don’t adapt, the judges see poor teamwork for both of us. If I do adapt, we have a better shot.
Ignoring and blocking
In improv comedy, the golden rule is called “Yes and…”. This means that no matter what your teammates suggest on the stage, always accept and agree with their suggestion and work with it. Never block it by refusing or denying their idea, because that will sabotage your common goal. The same applies to our dance. If your partner has a good idea, regardless of whether you are a leader or follower, your responsibility is to accept it and work with it if is safe and convenient. Judges view conflict as a teamwork red flag.
You couldn’t control yourself with a bad partner
Sure, everyone gets “those” draws – that partner who is pumped up on adrenaline and pulls you off time or makes it difficult to “dance your dance”. But part of the game of the social dance conversation is being able to converse with partners of varying skills and accents: to survive the best you can under any circumstances. So if you can’t adapt, the judges view it as a teamwork issue, even if it was your partner’s errors that were causing your errors.
More than one partner was struggling to dance with you
Getting one “challenging draw” to adapt to is understandable, but if the judges see that every one of your partners seems to be fine until they rotate to you, there’s something you are doing that is throwing them off.
For my first ever Novice competition, I very carefully and intentionally chose to wear black slacks and a black collared shirt. My reasoning was that I did not want to seem flashy – I wanted a conservative, professional look. The end result backfired. I looked more like the hotel banquet staff than one of the competitors, and faded into the background where the judges never saw me. Check out this article to find great tips on how to dress for competition.
Empty, robotic moving
When I scan the floor as a judge, I’m looking for dancers who look competent in Swing and comfortable in their own skin. Executing sterilized robotic patterns for the purposes of “showing clean basics” just backfires in my book. We have had many frustrated students come to us for competition coaching because they can’t figure out why their “good clean basics” never get them into finals. After we unlock their fundamental movement skills and release them from their robot restraints, they enjoy almost instant competitive results.
Weakness in one genre
WCS has such a diverse range of music genres. If you are dancing the same way to all three songs, you will fade into the background next to a dancer who changes their style to suit the genre. When the song is slow and romantic, the judges are looking for who’s able to code switch and turn on their fluid, lyrical flavour. When the song is vintage and playful, the slow, dramatic movements are not going to fit, which will dissuade them from advancing you.
Flash ‘n Trash
Tricks and musicality entertain the audience, but the judges are paid to scrutinize your flash. If your flash is missing the other 3 T’s to back it up, it’s just trash. Example: if you’re going to do high kicks, they’d better be 1. on time, 2. appropriate for the music, 3. synchronized with your partner, 4. executed with above-average technique, and 5. balanced with a decent ratio of Swing content.
Stay tuned for Part 2 coming next week: Competition GREEN flags: What will get you noticed in a good way!
Get some perspective
Be sure to check out this article…
…and this video! (credit: Amy Shibasaki)
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