While attending one of my very first events I experienced something that I will never forget, a moment that significantly impacted my desire to become a competitive dancer and to continue improving in my dance.

Quote Pull1I was at a country-western event in Buena Park, California. I happened to be standing outside of the hotel, looking through the windows into the ballroom lobby. I saw two couples, one was obviously helping the other with a rather complicated sequence. About 15 minutes later I was inside the ballroom watching the competition when I noticed the same two couples competing against each other, and in the same dance they had just been working on in the lobby! I was blown away! I quickly realized that this idea of competing with each other instead of against each other was an idea I could really get behind. The camaraderie of competition at that time was very strong. Though this was a country-western competition, I soon discovered the same camaraderie in West Coast Swing.

With the recent worldwide popularity of West Coast Swing, the competition scene has experienced significant growth. We have gone from having 12 events a year to as many as four or five competition events on the same weekend worldwide, and this doesn’t even include regional events that are more socially focused.

In my many years of attending these events I have seen and heard of numerous very negative experiences surrounding competition in our community:

Events where workshop attendees wear colored bands to indicate the level of workshops in which they are allowed to participate. Then in the evening during social dancing, seeing all the wristbands turned over to hide the color because the upper-level workshop attendees wouldn’t dance with those that were wearing the lower-level workshop color.
Or competitions where, while in the lineup, a competitor turns to another and says something like “are you really wearing that?”

Or during a competition when someone asks their partner during rotation, “How long have you been in this division?” And their partner says, “This is my first time,” to which the original person responds, “Oh great…”

There are competitors who seem to validate their very existence based upon WSDC points and their entire weekend is ruined when they don’t make finals. Many focus a great deal of time, energy and financial resources on moving up in competition levels. They push themselves so hard to earn points that once they reach their personal plateau (which we will all do eventually), they get frustrated with competitions and quit the dance altogether. If we want our dance and community to continue growing to its full potential, this is a pattern that must be noted and addressed. When people lose the joy of dancing socially, do they lose the fun?

I am lucky enough to be able to travel the world sharing my love of West Coast Swing. I have seen that there are some areas where these negative competition experiences are minimal. Sometimes it is in particular divisions such as Rising Star. Other times it is geographically-based, such as in some European Westie communities where each country seems to have their own cheering squad. Yet another example is when an event intentionally sets up this environment, such as Jack & Jill O’rama where spirit and support have become a significant part of the event dynamic.

The reality of West Coast Swing competition results are, as Kelly Casanova says, “Were your worst 10 seconds better than their best 10 seconds?” Sometimes the heats are so large that it is difficult for the judges to see all the great stuff that is on the dance floor. That is how a competitor can make finals and place one week and the next week not even make semifinals.

When Jack and Jills began to gain popularity the social dancing demonstrated was exemplary. Competitive dancers like Mario Robau and Mary Ann Nunez were the epitome of social West Coast Swing. You clearly saw the significant influence of social swing on competition, even in routines. In fact, social dancing drove the competitive scene.


Mario Robau and Sylvia Sykes:
The History of Lead and Follow Jack & Jills


I currently see these influences reversed, with competition having way too much influence on social dance. I have heard stories and even personally experienced partners who had no idea how to dance on a crowded social floor. When asked to dance tight or in a more compact slot the answer was “I don’t know how to, this is how I dance in competition.” Or they spend way too much time leading or attempting to lead/backlead flashy and sometimes dangerous moves on a crowded dance floor when it is far from safe, controlled, or appropriate.

I, for one, love to occasionally do an entire dance on two squares. Tommy Gibbs has even proposed a competition based on this idea. The Phoenix Fourth of July Convention used to tape a grid on the dance floor that you were supposed to stay in with your partner. Give it a try.

One of the biggest problems with taking comp results so seriously is that a Jack and Jill competition is a crapshoot: did the judges see you at the right time? Were they watching you when you lost balance coming out of that one footed spin? Did they see you lose connection on that complicated pattern? Did they see you mess up syncopation? Or maybe they just saw that frustrated reaction after the fact.

What does the future hold? How can we bolster the social dancing aspect of West Coast Swing without losing the advantages and the incredible growth that competition has fostered? Do we even want to?

Do I really think competition is ruining West Coast Swing? No, I do not. Competition, YouTube, and many hard-working professional instructors have contributed greatly to the explosion of West Coast Swing worldwide.

Quote Pull2What we can do is focus more on how the partnering skills that develop through social dancing by dancing with everyone at every level. Remember we all started somewhere, think of what this sort of attitude could do for our dancing, our community, and the future of our dance.

Save the tricks and flashy stuff for the competition floor or when it can be accomplished in a manner that is safe to you, your partner, and those around you.

Encourage and support your fellow competitors. Follow the example of the Rising Star dancers and their exuberant support of those they compete with, for they do not compete against each other.

Try dancing at least a few dances each night in a tight and controlled area. Focus on staying connected to your partner both physically and visually. Try dancing a more traditional style of a stationary anchor. Grab an old-school dancer and ask them to dance “old school” with you. Just make sure the song isn’t too lyrical.

Keep this incredible dance we all know and love growing and morphing as it always has, but make a point of learning it’s history and more traditional style.

Dance for the experience of connecting with another creative being…

Dance for the love of it….

Dance for the joy of it….

See you on the dance floor!

Gary Jobst – The Pondering Westie

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Please feel free to comment with your personal experiences as well as other subjects that you would like to see discussed in this format. Keep in mind that I will do my best to give each subject personal, in-depth thought. If you suggest a subject and I feel passionate about it then I will make it one of my future posts…

12 Replies to “Let’s Get Real: Is Competition Ruining West Coast Swing?”

  1. I have been dancing for 4years never before with a partner. It is, joyful, fun and I love when new people just starting to use the basics how they express their nervousness: the enjoyment at the moment you add a simple move that alters the basics; the slowing it down so they can experience the timing, the music. The ability to dance together. This dance is ,in my mind, is a primer for life.

    1. I along with so many others who have commented previously on this article absolutely agree with this articles position. I would also like to add an additional element that was not included in the article; the emergence of non-swing content being incorporated into competition dancing. When you read the rules for a West Coast Swing event it specifically outlines the type of content permissible in competition. Yet, I have consistently seen Competitors infuse moves that only a Gymnast, Classical Ballerina, or Contemporary dancer would be able to pull off. Although I agree that visually watching the level of “ones” athletic abilities is enjoyable….I don’t fell that it should be allowed in a Jack and Jill competition. (FYI I am someone who takes classical dancing lessons, but I don’t think that I should incorporate flashy complex ballet style movements into a Jack and Jill competition).

      I feel that a new generation of competitors are really pushing the emergence of these athletic elements into Jack and Jill competitions. It’s nothing wrong with evolution in this dance, but so much of the traditional style and technique should not be substituted by a Gymnastic move. I see this trend as something that is eliminating really great dancers from moving up to higher levels in competition because they haven’t spent 12 years or more in gymnastics or ballet as the other competitors who are incorporating these movements as the new style of swing.

  2. Amen. I often rag on competition, by it actually has multiple benefits to offer individuals and the community. The negatives happen, but are advised when the primacy of social dancing is upheld.

  3. Thank you for this. As a mid-range social dancer, and “not even on the map yet” competitor, it frustrates me when new social dancers are afraid to dance with me because they don’t think they’re “up to” my level, while some of the best dancers will chat with me, give me a hug, but almost never dance with me.

    I think both groups have it wrong. The dance grows best, and we grow best, when we dance with partners across the full range of competence. We need the courage and the generosity to dance with everyone, regardless of level.

  4. Excellent article, Gary. I agree with you that too many west coast dancers are using too much floor space during social dances at dance events, and should practice dancing in small areas, I think competition is great as long as competitors that place frequently don’t forget that they were one beginners and experienced dancers danced with them when they weren’t very good, so they should pay it forward and dance with everyone, not just dancers they think are at their skill level.

  5. Hello Gary, thank you for your thoughts!
    It may help to recognise that mankind is where it is today not due to competition. We would still be living on trees. It is co-operation that helped us develop technology and culture, and the comprehension that everybody you ever met is a champ in a specific discipline, you just didn’t figure out in which one.

  6. Thank You for a terrific article. I agree 100%. I started competition dancing for the sole purpose of giving me a goal to work toward to make me a better Social dancer. I think it has worked well for me I just need the time & motivation to continue improving. Not to be the best competition dancer but to be the best Social dancer I can be, so I can have a great social dance with everyone & everyone I dance with will have had an enjoyable dance to remember!

  7. Great article 🙂 I have a question or comment that as a respected judge and professional I hope you will address. If we can agree that social dancing is about the partnership and connecting and communicating with a partner and the music to have a great and enjoyable dance together why is it that during prelims and semis we are judged as individuals and the partnership only comes in to play in the finals? To me this is the one major fault I see with competition. Should judging not put more weight on the partnership and judging how well people adjust to dance together? This to me would be the best way to bring social dancing into competition. Why do you feel competitions are judge or have to be judge with so little emphasis on the partnership during early rounds of competition?

    1. Ken,

      The reasons for judging individuals in qualifying J&J rounds are largely historical. Briefly, competitors didn’t want to be kept out of finals by partners whom they felt were not at their (ability) level.

      Here are a few links to articles and commentary on this subject:

      http://www.corbettweb.com/jjhistory.htm (a brief history of J&J evolution)

      https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.arts.dance/DUYK4bkCXYQ/discussion (some musings from late 1994 on the evolving shift to judging individuals in qualifying J&J rounds)

      https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.arts.dance/2mcd0kZVQFs/discussion (discussion from 2003 of a method designed to judge and score couples during qualifying J&J rounds that never received widespread adoption at WSDC registry events)

  8. Thanks Gary, for bringing up the issue of floorspace and safety. In my region it has become a thing to “float” your slot, whether you have room to or not. Definitely unsafe, not to mention just plain rude.

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