A hierarchy of needs (part 2)

In last week’s post, I outlined a hierarchy of needs for West Coast Swing. The idea of the hierarchy is that competency at higher tiers is dependent on first developing competencies in the lower tiers.

The hierarchy provides a framework for understanding the sequence of skills required to achieve a musical partnered dance. It also provides us with a useful way to look at expectations and evaluations of competitive dancing. 

As some of you have noted, the hierarchy I’ve outlined aligns pretty well with the rubrics given to judges in competitions. Scoring sheets will sometimes list a set of criteria for judges to use in evaluating competitors:

  • Timing
  • Technique
  • Teamwork
  • Variety/contrast (sometimes called choreography)
  • Musical interpretation
  • Presentation (sometimes called showmanship)

The three Ts – timing, technique, and teamwork – reflect the bottom tiers of individual mechanics and partnership – while choreography, musical interpretation, and presentation align with the upper tiers of the hierarchy.

In addition to helping us define judging criteria, the hierarchy of needs can help both competitors and judges to understand what is expected at each competitive level:

  • Novice. In this level, the emphasis is on the bottom two tiers of the hierarchy. Competitors should have basic proficiency in posture, timing, rhythms, weight transfers, frame, body lead/follow, the slot, and anchoring or stretch. Competitors who also have some basic proficiency in musical expression will have an advantage.
  • Intermediate. In this level, we can expect higher proficiency levels for the bottom two tiers, plus proficiency in musical expression. Competitors should have better quality of movement (with more articulation and greater control), better frame and clearer lead/follow, well-defined anchors and more stretch, and better partnership (more aligned with partners with fewer missed communications and better recovery skills). At this level, we should also see a basic level of individual and partnered musicality (signals that the couple is dancing to the specific song playing) that adds to the dance and does not detract from the partnership.
  • Advanced. At this level, there should be higher levels at the first three tiers, plus some basic showmanship skills. Competitors should have a higher quality of movement (precision, control, articulation, consistency, etc.), strong partnership skills (clear connection throughout the dance, teamwork and two-way communication between the partners, smooth transitions between movements, etc.), and higher degrees of musical expression (individual movements that work within the partnership, collaborative choreography, more articulate interpretation of the music, etc.). In addition, competitors should be acknowledging and performing for an audience while still prioritizing the partnership.
  • All Star. At this level, we should see high levels of proficiency at all levels of the hierarchy. Competitors should have: excellent quality of movement; a high level of partnership and a high degree of two-way communication with their partners; collaborative musical interpretation and individual musicality that is communicated to the partner; and they should be creating moments with their partners that highlight their expression of the music, engage and entertain, and showcase the dance for an audience.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with competition. If you watch the different divisions, you’ll see these qualities reflected as you move up the divisions. In Novice, we see fundamentals of the dance in place, with more basic movement and musicality. In Intermediate, the dance smooths out as quality of movement improves, and there’s more musical expression as leaders learn to select patterns to fit the music and followers learn how to embellish and play. In Advanced, we see both partners dancing more to the music with greater control in their own bodies. And in All Star, we see the partners with a high degree of control in their own movements that allows them to create more entertaining musical moments with their partners.

But all that said, there are times when the dancers or dances who win or place do not reflect these expectations or the hierarchy of needs. We can all think of a time when the more entertaining or audience-appealing dance beat out other dances with stronger teamwork or higher quality of movement. And there are times when dancers with poor individual mechanics, timing and rhythm, and partnership make it into finals at all levels of competition.

So what’s happening here? Well, there’s a few different things that might be going on:

  1. Judges are making quick but sometimes incomplete or inaccurate assessments. Due to the number of competitors, the brief time for evaluation, or a judge’s individual approach to judging, the judges often only see a glimpse of a competitor’s dancing. In the few moments they watch someone, they may see something they really like in a dancer with poor proficiency in fundamental skills, or they may happen to see something that went wrong in a dancer with higher proficiency. Conversely, they may miss something that would illustrate poor proficiency in some fundamental skills. In the end, some competitors without proficiency at the lower tiers of the hierarchy may make it into finals while other dancers with generally higher proficiency may get left out.
  2. Judges are selecting the relative best of the bunch. Keep in mind that judging is relative. What this means for prelims is that sometimes people without proficiency at the lower tiers of the hierarchy may be selected for finals because they were relatively better than the rest of the pack, or because the judges were asked to bring back a certain number that exceeded the number of proficient dancers in that particular competition.
  3. Judges are using different metrics of proficiency. While the hierarchy of needs provides a framework for judging, it does not specify how judges should measure proficiency nor what “sufficient” proficiency should look like. And the operative phrase here is “look like” because the assessment is visual, not tactile. Judges must use visual cues to evaluate proficiency and then decide what the threshold is for “acceptable” or “good enough” or, on the other hand, what is “unacceptable” in their eyes.
  4. Judging is subjective. Our dance is an art form and is inherently subjective, so some judges may value different elements (and their relative importance) differently. Some judges may not like showmanship at the expense of the partnership while other judges may forgive the lack of partnership if it created a moment that moved them emotionally. Some judges may view competition more as a performance and actually assess it differently than social dancing, placing more emphasis on the presentation aspect or entertainment value than they might otherwise. (As a wise Bigelow tea bag quote once said, “The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.” In short, different strokes for different folks…)

In the end, there are times when elements of the upper tiers of the hierarchy (musical expression and showmanship) seem to be valued more than the elements of the lower tiers (individual mechanics and partnership). I originally drew the hierarchy of needs as a pyramid, where there needs to be greater proficiency at the bottom two tiers to support proficiency at the upper tiers. Greater emphasis on the upper tiers may shift this shape into a column, where equal weight is given to all the tiers, or even an inverted pyramid, where more importance is given to the highest tiers (which, of course, would be physically unstable). This is something for judges to consider, and for event directors and chief judges to consider when hiring their judging staff.

For us competitors, we need to think about what’s important to us and our own strategies to success. I’ve written before about the many ways that competition is out of our hands and not always an accurate assessment of our dancing abilities, which means we need to think about what we really want to aim for in competitions.

The hierarchy of needs states that you need proficiency in the lower tiers to achieve higher proficiency at the higher tiers and ultimately create a successful dance. I believe that that’s still true (I mean, I wrote about it) and a clear, consistent way to successful competitive dancing. While I certainly work with my students who compete on their musicality and presentation skills, I still emphasize the foundation of quality of movement and partnership so they can successfully dance with anyone they draw in competition. Personally, I wouldn’t have them work on showmanship without some fundamental level of partnership, because the latter is required to make the former work in the context of a partner dance. To me, competition is about finding a balance of fundamentals skills and performance skills, but the hierarchy will generally hold true.

Judging may reward proficiency at the higher tiers without a comparable level of proficiency at the lower tiers, but as Brandi Tobias once said (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Some people succeed in competition despite their shortcomings, not because of them.” The fact is that despite the examples of higher tiers being emphasized or valued over the lower tiers in competition, I would argue that the hierarchy of needs still generally holds true and still provides a useful framework for developing as a competitor. We cannot control what judges see, value, and evaluate as “good” dancing but we can strive to put our own best dancing out there.

What do you think? Is competition evidence that the hierarchy of needs is inaccurate? Should there be a separate hierarchy of needs for competitive dancing, and if so, do you think that such a hierarchy is right or fair? Do you approach competitive dancing differently from social dancing, and if so, what’s different? Do teachers coach their competitor students differently than other students? Write your comments below.


  1. In all fairness, in any division, there may be more people (per gender role) who demonstrate at least all of the expected proficiency for that division than the number of people who are advanced to the next preliminary round. The same is true in finals. Sometimes, more couples are put into finals who (jointly) demonstrate at least the expected proficiency than are given points for their placements. So it is possible for some people to be “left behind”, remaining in a division until enough of the “luck factors” go their way and they earn enough points to dance in a division where their proficiency is the same as the expected proficiency.

  2. This is a really good, even handed view of comps and judging. Should be required reading for those who are entering competitions.

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