Want to move up to get better partners?

I like talking to other competitors about their experiences competing, in part out of a sense of camaraderie and in part out of sheer morbid curiosity. When I ask how someone did in competition, I often hear such responses as, “My partners weren’t very good” or “I didn’t get good draws.” And this is often followed by an expression of the desire to move up into the next division in order to get better draws. As the thinking goes, if you can get better partners, you’ll have better dances, and therefore you’ll do better in competition.

Okay. I get it. As someone who has often been (and often still is) dependent on his partner for energy and creativity and the ability to just “make it work,” I totally understand the desire for a good partner. We all want a great partner who makes us feel good, who makes us look good, and who brings more to the table – better technique, better musicality, better partner skills. (Especially better partner skills.)

But let’s get one thing straight: your dancing is your responsibility. Your partner is not responsible for your technique, or your body movement, or your interpretation of the music. While a partner can make it more challenging or less comfortable for you to be your best, hopefully you’re at a level of proficiency that you can shine with any partner, right? After all, in a Jack & Jill contest, you’re getting judged as an individual in the preliminary rounds, so they’re looking at your own quality of movement, technique, style, musicality, and partner skills. I mean, really, what does it say about your skill level if you only dance well with really good dancers?

And let’s be honest about another thing: everyone wants to move up to get better partners, but no one thinks they’re the reason someone else wants to move up to get better partners. Everyone is so eager to move up quickly, but if you move up too quickly and you get out based on points and not proficiency, you’re going to be at the bottom of the next division. So yeah, now you’re getting better partners, but they’re getting someone who isn’t ready to be there yet. Now someone else will be saying, “I want to move up to get better partners”… because of you.

I’ve been that guy. I moved up quickly through Novice and Intermediate, and entered Advanced (at a time when All Star had yet to be created on the East Coast) as the guy who didn’t belong. Yes, I had gotten enough points, but there was a wide chasm in skill level between me who just joined the club and those who had been dancing in Advanced for years – honing their skills, demonstrating their abilities, and getting rewarded for it. So I’d get into the rotation and rightfully received the “oh crap” or “who are you?” or “what are you doing here?” face from some poor follower who got stuck with me.

And deserved or not, that kind of greeting just sucks, from both sides: it’s crappy to feel like you don’t belong, and it’s crappy to not be a more gracious and welcoming partner. Yes, we all rise to the level of our incompetence, and when you do move up you’ll likely be one of the weaker dancers in your level, but wouldn’t it feel good to move up because you deserve to be there based on your abilities, not on your points? Do you want to be the “oh crap” person? And, conversely, do you want to be the one who blames the other people in the division for his or her inability to perform well in competition? Is that the kind of partner you want to be? Is it the kind of person you want to be?

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth: The next time you compete, go ahead and do your best. Dance your best. And be your best – as a dancer but also as a person. A kind, decent human being. And if someone asks you how it went, maybe think about what you did well or what you could have done better.

After all, we’re fortunate to be dancers – to do this thing we love so much. And we’re fortunate to be partner dancers – we get to share in the experience of dancing with someone else. What an awesome thing! Don’t forget it the next time you compete.

How do your partners in a competition affect your performance? When you reflect upon your performance, how much do you let your partners influence your impression? Teachers, how do you respond to students who blame their partners? How do you get students to focus on themselves and their own competencies?

2 comments

  1. I agree with this to a certain extent. However, I would suggest that it’s harder for a follower to overcome a bad lead than vs. versa. It’s not proper technique to back lead, so there are times when you simply are stuck. I was in a hustle competition once, and my lead was doing west coast swing. No matter how hard I tried, I could not overcome that.

  2. Outstanding list. Looking forward to the other 5. When all are done, please email me all 10. I’ll be forwarding it
    to 100 WCS dancers I know.

    Jay Shapiro
    Remember you well from
    Dance Manhattan
    Now live in Charlotte, NC. WCS growing at a good pace in the Carolinas. Gary Jobst teaching in
    Charlotte. Robin Smith in Raleigh. Brian/Pam Bennett in Greensboro as well as Tony DeRosa. Mario something in Columbia, SC. Matt Krabbe in
    Greenville, SC. Jason Barnes in
    Ashville. Melissa Taylor in Charlotte. And others. Now getting up there in
    age, dancing WCS is helping to keep me youthful, creative, outgoing, engaged with people and life, physically and mentally healthy. And YOU were one of my inspirations!

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