Our competitive nature

I had a blog all planned for earlier this month, but then two things happened: (1) I launched a new weekly dance in San Francisco (shameless plug for Mission City Swing); and (2) my last post went viral, reaching over 3,000 people in 50 countries around the world. Honestly, I was shocked. I’ve been writing blogs off and on for years, and this is the first one that took off. It got me thinking: Why did this one blog post resonate with so many people?

When I’ve talked with people about it, I heard a few different reactions: people related to it, it was personal, it was the way I wrote it, it went beyond dance. Those are all good reasons for the viral spread of the post. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that its popularity and the way it resonated with so many people is also a reflection of the importance of competition and competing in our global community.

Let’s be honest: we’re a very competition-oriented community. Competitions are the focus of our events, showcasing incredible talent through a variety and multitude of formats. Moreover, we have a very complex system for awarding points to competitors, and most competitors are keenly aware of how many points they have – and how many they need to move into the next division. And it’s not unusual to hear people ask about or refer to another’s level or division. Yes, there are many in our communities who don’t compete and don’t go to events and just enjoy social dancing. Still, it seems to me that the community in general is driven by the competitive world.

Competition can be a good thing. It drives us to improve, to push ourselves, to push our dancing, and to push the dance itself. In the time I’ve been dancing West Coast Swing I have seen a lot of evolution in the dance, and say what you will about that evolution, I would argue that the level of technical skill and musicality has greatly improved in our community. The top competitors are leading the way, continually working to outdo themselves, and it sets a great example for all of us to continually work at this dance, to continually improve, and to continually aim ever higher.

The danger, in my mind, of being competition-oriented is when competition becomes the basis for our social interactions.

As I’ve noted before, I took a few years off from competing, with the exception of 2011, when I competed in the Classic division with Yenni Setiawan. It was an awesome experience and I loved doing the routine with her, though our success was limited. At the end of 2012, for personal reasons, I had to step out of our partnership and I stopped going to events altogether for a year, until Boogie by the Bay of this past year.

I say all this because, with the exception of last year, I’ve been around, even if I haven’t always been competing. So when I went to Palm Springs for New Year’s and competed, I had to laugh when I met people and they said, “Where have you been?” as if I’d popped up out of nowhere. It was funnier still when I had known of some of these people for some time but just had never formally met them. I thought, I’ve been around for years – you just haven’t noticed me until now.

And after those encounters I was struck with a feeling – the same feeling I had had before when I got wrapped up in competition years ago: the feeling that you aren’t someone in this community until you’re someone in competition.

I don’t think this is happening everywhere to everyone, but I do sometimes get the feeling that we value people based on their status in competition. We sometimes prioritize dancing with those in our own division so we can prepare for competition. We sometimes seek out dancers in higher divisions in the hopes of better dances. We sometimes avoid people in higher divisions out of fear of disappointing – or avoid dancers in lower divisions out of fear of being disappointed. We ask about someone’s division, we compare points, and we want to study with top competitors – sometimes regardless of their teaching ability. In isolation, each of these choices may not be so bad, but collectively they can be problematic. Because it’s a problem for our sense of community when competition fosters a social hierarchy, a segmentation or stratification, where social groups form based on people’s status in competition.

What’s worse is that competition isn’t always an accurate measure of one’s dancing.

Sure, competition can capture some aspects of a dancer’s abilities, but in truth it emphasizes some skills over others. Competition can reveal aspects of one’s technique and movement, but it is better at assessing one’s aesthetic and one’s ability to perform and entertain an audience. (This is why – at all levels – there are dancers who look better than they feel.)

Aesthetics, musicality, and performance are all important skills, but what’s their relative importance when you’re actually dancing with someone? Do you care most about how someone looks? How they entertain a crowd? Or do you care more about how they feel? Or better yet, how they make you feel? If you care more about the latter, then one’s success in competition isn’t necessarily the best measure of someone’s value in our community.

To be honest, I’ve had some great dances with top-level dancers, and I’ve had some not-so-great dances with top-level dancers. Some of my best dances – the most fun, the most engaging, the most enjoyable – have been with people at lower levels. The point is that level or points or visibility don’t correlate with how much I enjoy dancing with someone. Really the only way to know if someone is worth dancing with is to actually dance with that person (or trust the advice of others, but even then, they may have a different experience than you).

So forget points, forget divisions, and forget what you saw in competition. If you see someone you haven’t danced with before, ask that person to dance. Roll the dice. Take a chance. You may just make that person’s day. And that person may just make yours. But even if they don’t, it’s good for our community. And anything that’s good for our community is something we should make viral.


  1. Over the last 25 years I’ve watched as competition became ever more the defining element of WCS, as local dances weakened because the “serious” competitors would rarely if ever come out to dance with people who weren’t interesting dance partners for them, and as the business model drifted ever closer to Ballroom.

    At this point I’ve essentially abandoned WCS because I do not have a very competitive personality and am not willing to dump tens of thousands of dollars into private lessons and the endless comp weekend-attending cycle, in a futile effort to be seen above people decades younger than myself who actually like contemporary music. What’s happened is certainly a valid choice, but the scene has very much optimized itself for a specific personality type.

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