The $64,000 Question

Every few years a controversy erupts in the swing community, something at a competitive event that riles people up and gets everyone talking. That happened once again at this year’s Tampa Bay Classic.

I first heard about this through the grapevine, not long after it happened, and I subsequently read Liza May’s account of what happened. After a few rounds of phone tag, I was finally able to get in touch with someone who was in the room, so I could find out what actually occurred from someone who was there.

I’ll spare you the details, but essentially what happened was that the Showcase couples competed Friday night, and on Saturday, the head judge convened a second judging panel to review video of the routines for swing content. Saturday night the Showcase competitors were called into a special meeting, where they were informed that their routines would likely receive swing content violations at this week’s US Open. Competitors were shocked and concerned, others were appalled and confused, and everyone was upset and angry that the head judge killed the mood of the event.

As a result, a firestorm erupted on Facebook as Mario Robau commented, and then Earl Pingel and Parker Dearborn debated with him about what happened, what it means for the competitors involved, what it means for judging in general, and what it means for the dance and the dance community as a whole.

While pretty shocking, it wasn’t nearly as bad or as severe as reports might have you believe. The Showcase competitors weren’t disqualified at the event, and no one told them they had to change their choreography. From what I heard from Showcase competitors, they were mostly upset that no one provided a clear explanation of what “swing content” is – and therefore what they should do to make sure they have enough of it in their routines.

And that, in my mind, is what this is ultimately all about: swing content. What is it? What is enough of it to call a dance “swing” or not “swing”? And even if you could say how much of it you need for a dance to be “swing”, how would you measure it?

Whether we like it or not, our dance is competition-oriented, meaning that it is competition that both sets the standard and simultaneously pushes the limits of our dance. One could argue that our dance has evolved so rapidly because our community’s top competitors have been seeking new music and new moves that expand our dance. At the same time, others argue that what’s being done is no longer swing – and that brings us back to the definition of “swing.”

I don’t consider myself a swing purist, but I also think that there are some things out there today on our competitive dance floor that aren’t swing. I took one of Mario’s intensives once, and personally, I kinda like how he defines swing. I’m paraphrasing here, but in his intensive he lays out the elements of swing that together make the dance: partnership, a slot, starting with even rhythms and ending with odd rhythms, the connection of the anchor, and a foundation of 6- and 8-count patterns. He then uses the analogy of a table to describe how he sees the dance: swing is the tabletop, held up by several legs – these elements of swing – and while you can remove one or two of them, eventually, if you remove too many, the table collapses and you no longer have swing.

In my mind, there are certain things that are not swing: excessive walking, finger spins, rolling around on the floor. These are not unique to our dance, or even to any dance, and when I see too much of it in competition, I can’t help but roll my eyes and think, “For goodness’ sake: dance!” But there’s a grey space between swing basics and “flash and trash” – where two people are dancing together to the music with some but not all of those key elements of swing – that leaves some of us thrilled by the display of innovation and others disappointed at the degradation of our dance.

The bottom line is that there is no universal definition of swing, and the definition – like the dance itself – is very personal, with each person having their own view. We may get a consensus among an authoritative body of judges, but my guess is that the definition will either be so narrow as to limit creativity and innovation (and thus cause a riot among competitors) or else be so broad that it says nothing (but appeals to everyone). This dance evolves – it originally came about and became its own dance by evolving away from its parent dance, lindy hop – and it will continue to evolve. Maybe a new dance will be born, maybe this dance will cycle back to its origins the way the lindy community did a few years ago when it had its revival, and maybe we’ll just keep pushing the limits of this dance while keeping it rooted in the fundamentals.

I don’t know how this will all play out, but I’m looking forward to seeing it either way.

What about you? How do you define “swing”? How do you feel about the direction of the dance and its “swing content”? Would you like to see more swing in competitions? How much more? Post your comments below.

One more thing: Happy Thanksgiving! And best of luck to those competing at the US Open this weekend!

One comment

  1. Hello,Thank you for posting this up. It was very interesting for me reading the articles. I would like to share my thoughts about how I define "Swing" or I would like to call "dance the swing".First, I am a social dancer. This means that competition is great but it is not what I want to do. It is fun to compete and show others how well we can dance. However, it also comes with frustration, pressure, and headache just like being disqualified for something people can not define clearly. Second, dancing is supposedly fun and carefree. It is an art and we are artists. We all have our style and that makes us unique. Seeking for enjoyment of the dance with my partners is my goal, not trying to perfect it. Third, my dancing is not traditional 5 or 14 basic steps. I call it "Dynamic Dancing" or even "Fusion Dancing". I dance to the music and to my partners. All the triple steps, anchor, and anything with the basic counts (6,8) are important and people should know them, but they are not what I focus on. My best dance is with someone even beginner who has a good solid connection, understand the slot theory, and do her best to listen and follow my lead. So, "Swing" to me is: staying in the slot, knowing floor etiquette, avoiding collision, understanding connection, moving comfortably, listening to the music, knowing the basic footwork but not to stick with it all the time, being flexible in dancing, having an open mind, and the most important is "dance with the partner".I believe that rules are good but I do not follow them strictly, and I break them all the time. As long as my partner and I dance comfortably, then nothing else matter.

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