The evolution of competitors

I’ve had the privilege over the years to teach a lot of dancers and watch them grow in skills and abilities. In recent years, as I’ve worked with more new dancers, I’ve noticed there are some commonalities to the journeys of these students as they progress, particularly as competitors.

Each dancer is different, and there are always differences in how students grow based on their own experience, backgrounds, personalities, innate talents, and efforts. However, for the group that really gets hooked on the dance and gets involved in competitions, I’ve noticed a particular trend – a trend that some of my fellow dancers seem to notice too. 

Now, I need to qualify my observation, lest it be taken the wrong way. My observation has to do with how men and women change as they progress in competitions, and so it is important to note that my observations are based on men who lead and women who follow. I have not had the chance to work with too many men who primarily follow and women who primarily lead (and when I have, they weren’t competing in those roles) so I can’t speak to any trends among that population. I can only speak to what I’ve experienced, and that is watching men advance as leaders and women advance as followers.

What I’ve noticed is that as men advance as competitors, they tend to get more confident, while women who advance tend to get less confident. I’m not saying this happens to everyone, and even when it does happen, it doesn’t always happen to the same extent. (And, as I noted in an earlier blog, many people just don’t have an accurate sense of their own abilities, regardless of role or gender.) I’m just saying I’ve noticed this pattern, and it seems to be confirmed by others.

My hypothesis is that it has much to do with the nature of leading and following, as well as some gender differences. In my experience, leaders tend to evaluate their competency by what they can execute in terms of patterns and moves, and thus as they learn more moves of increasing difficulty, they think, “Hey, look what I can do!” and grow in confidence. Followers, on the other hand, are not the principal choreographers of the dance, instead relying primarily on how well they style and move through what the leader gives them. As a result, followers are often more focused on their quality of movement. While they certainly improve their movement over time, they also tend to watch – and admire – other followers. Followers will often look at other followers and say, “Gosh, she’s so amazing!” and compare themselves to such greatness, saying how they’re nowhere near as good. So while leaders grow in confidence as they advance in competitions, followers compare themselves to increasingly competent and talented followers as they advance in competitions, and they seem to get more self-critical and insecure about their own abilities.

I do think that some of this has to do with the nature of men and women – women are generally speaking more social and likely to compare themselves – but that’s not to say men don’t do the same on occasion. I just find that the men are more likely to compare themselves to other men and say, “I’m better than him” while the women are more likely compare themselves to other women and say, “She’s so much better than me.” (These men are often the same leaders who like to talk about their opinions of the dance and other dancers without prompting and with great certainty, something I’ve been guilty of myself….)

Again, I’m not saying this happens to everyone, and certainly there are confident followers and insecure leaders at the higher levels. And again, this is based on my own experience watching male leaders and female followers develop as competitors over the last few years, especially with an increasingly competition-focused community. But I’ve made the observation enough to feel it’s worth discussing, and when I talk about this observed pattern and my hypotheses to explain it, I find that it resonates with other fellow dancers.

But what about you? Has anyone else noticed a similar trend? Is it a regional thing or is this happening in other parts of the world? If you’ve observed the same trend, what are your thoughts on why it happens? If you haven’t seen the same trend, have you noticed any other trends as leaders and followers advance in competitions? And what, if anything, can or should we do about it?


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