A whole other animal entirely…

I’ve been (and remain) a firm believer that good dancing is grounded in good technique and good partnership. When I’ve taught students, training them to be better dancers, I’ve always emphasized these two points. And when it came time to helping these students compete, I still emphasized good technique and good partnership skills, striving to create a clean, comfortable dance with any and every partner.

That works fine for the lower levels of competition – newcomer and novice – but it isn’t always cutting it at – or even required for – higher levels. These days, showmanship and musical interpretation (extreme forms of which are known as “flash and trash”) is getting rewarded more and more in competition. While I agree that these two elements are some of the marks of better competitors and, yes, better dancers overall, we are treading in dangerous waters when we start rewarding these elements in lieu of good technique and partnership, rather than in addition to good technique and partnership.

I now find myself asking students in private lessons if they wish to be better social dancers or better competitive dancers, as their answers will dictate not my suggestions, but the priority for those suggestions. For instance, students can get away with minor problems in posture or not fully anchoring in competition if they can demonstrate advanced musicality. Would I still recommend fixing one’s posture and anchor? You bet, but it’s not as much of a priority if the changes are minor and winning is the goal. (Of course, I make all of this transparent to the student so they understand what should be priority and why.) For me as a teacher, I will always put the emphasis on being a better social dancer, but to be a better teacher, I also need to consider the wishes of my student, right? (Another topic for another blog post!)

Admittedly, even as a judge, I will place a couple with great musicality but less than perfect technique over a couple with great technique but little or no musicality. This is, after all, dancing, which by definition is the physical representation of music. Dancing is not the same as moving, and not even the same as lead-follow. Musical interpretation counts for something. Yet I will happily place a really clean couple that is really connected with great partnership over the sloppy, musical couple. Maybe I’m the odd man out, but that’s what I value most.

Every now and then, I get to see truly great dancing rewarded: a clean, smooth dance that is musical and that is focused on the partnership – not the audience. At the Mahoneys’ New Year’s Dancin’ Eve this year, some of the first place couples were the crowd-pleasers, but often the second and third place couples were the cleanest dancers with the best partnerships. Nice to see that getting rewarded from time to time (especially as I am admittedly not a flashy dancer, even though I’d like to know how to be…)

Competition is a beast unto itself. As more people compete, and the skill level of each division gets higher, the importance of showmanship and musicality over technique and partnership not only increases but is seeping into the lower divisions. How do you all feel about this? Do you see good social dancing and good competitive dancing as one and the same? What makes them different and why? What are you doing to be good at one or the other (or both)? What do you want to be rewarded in competition and what do you think should be rewarded? And teachers, how do you navigate this world of social and competitive dancing?

One comment

  1. I agree that sometimes the flash and trash is rewarded too often. I agree that showmanship (crowd-pleasing) has a place to play but it's only ONE category out of how many characteristics that make up "the dance." If the technique isn't ALSO clean, then it's like arrogant hot-dogging and missing the point. And oftimes, it doesn't showcase the partner — it's just ONE of the participants doing their thing at the expense of the other. I thought it was about THE PARTNERSHIP ??? Your ability to play off one another without reducing their ability to contribute. I know I sound a little bitter and sometimes I am. I also know that I have won against some other follows that I know are technically better, prettier dancers (having done dance since they were wee babes) because of my ability to invite my partner to my sense of musical interpretation. So, it's not ALWAYS a bitter pill to swallow.I know I focus more towards helping students to learn how to "read" each other better and to help your partner to shine (over self). Funny enough — if your PARTNER is looking good because of your contribution … wouldn't that mean YOU are also looking good?

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