judging

Perspectives on degendering competitions: Jonathyn Jackson

Over the past year there has been a strong effort to make West Coast Swing competitions gender neutral, meaning men can compete as followers and women can compete as leaders. This degendering of competitions has raised a lot of questions, caused many concerns, and stimulated plenty of debate about the purpose of competitions, the logistics of how we implement competitions, and even the definition of roles in the dance. To shed some more light on this subject, I’ve asked a few different leaders of the degendering movement to share their perspectives and insights here on this blog. Each week this month I will post a different guest blog, and at the end of the series I will share my own thoughts on the issue. (Be sure to read Kelly Casanova’s post and last week’s post by Kim Sifter.)

This week’s guest is Jonathyn Jackson (also known by the name of Phoenix Grey on social media). Jonathyn is a Portland-based dancer whose interest in gender-inclusive dancing began at the same time that he began dancing in 2010. When he took his first dance class, he immediately discovered that he preferred to follow, and was lucky to be in a group of peers that supported his preference. From the start, he learned both roles: following because he preferred it, and leading due to general social pressure to conform. Having grown a quick proficiency in both roles, it wasn’t long until opportunities arose that encouraged him to begin teaching by the end of 2011. Since then, Jonathyn’s been an active competitor on the West Coast Swing circuit, competing both as a leader and as a follower (wherever allowed). He recently reached All-Star as a leader and competes in Intermediate as a follower. He’s been an advocate for gender inclusivity on the competition circuit ever since he started competing, and in the past year he created the Facebook group Degendering West Coast Swing where dancers from around the world have gathered to share opinions, support awareness projects, educate each other on gender and roles as it relates to dance, and foster a community of forward-thinking dancers.


In the past few weeks, the World Swing Dance Council (WSDC) has distributed written versions of their new policy regarding validation of the points earned by competitors who dance nontraditional roles (e.g. male followers, female leaders). The new policy still has significant space to improve in my eyes, but it’s a rather positive shift from the explicit exclusion of male followers/female leaders that previous revisions of the guidelines exhibited. In the past, those who wanted to compete in a nontraditional role for their presented gender, if they were at one of the rare few events with an inclusive policy, would compete knowing that the WSDC would not even validate their efforts. Today, the WSDC will validate those efforts, but only under specific conditions:

  • Dancers will only be awarded points for one skill division of Jack & Jill (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, etc.) per event weekend. This makes it somewhat unclear what will happen in the case of events that allow a second entry, provided you are dancing the other role qualifying in a different division (e.g. leader in Advanced, follower in Intermediate). Most likely only the highest division will be counted, as per the following.
  • Dancers will only be awarded points for accomplishments in their highest achieved division, regardless of role performed (i.e. a dancer who has achieved Advanced status in leading will not receive points for following in any division lower than Advanced).

Essentially, the WSDC does not see a difference between leading and following as skill sets, at least reflected on paper. As a result, anyone who starts in the system today, or has not yet progressed beyond Novice, is golden; they can dance a nontraditional role without penalty. The real issue, and source of the current hot-button topic, is the transition phase: now that the rules are no longer discriminating on gender lines, how do we deal with everyone who has an established record in WCS and wants to dance the other role competitively? Do they flip sides and compete in the same division, or do they start back in Novice? This is where the opinions diverge, and interestingly enough, I tend to see the split of opinion happen along the line of upper division competitors vs. lower division competitors.

The common perspective of the upper division competitors is that everyone should start fresh (in Novice) and move up on their own merit. If it truly is the case that someone with a previous record is overqualified for Novice, the system (if it were applied properly) would push them up to their proper level in no time, just as it does for any other dancer of notable talent who happens to be just starting out in Novice. That way, the dancer’s position in an upper division is earned and irrefutable through their skill in that role, not just given to them because they have a previous record in the other role. Leading and following in West Coast Swing are completely different skill sets and reflexes. An untested follower should not have a free pass nor be forced to dance in an upper division just because of his or her accomplishments in a completely different role. Most any upper level competitor pursuing the other role would actually want to start in Novice, not to “sandbag” Novice, but because they have the humility to make sure they are capable of performing the role before advancing.

Overqualified dancers placed in a low division is an issue that will fix itself naturally through the existing system (e.g. placing out or using petitions if one has the confidence to start higher). Making under-qualified dancers compete in a higher division creates a much more permanent problem. Those in question are faced with the choice to go in unprepared and incapable, thus holding back their division, or be robbed of competing in that role because their success in the previous role prevents them from competing in a more appropriate division.

The lower division competitors’ perspective is that the upper level dancers transitioning to the other role are a threat. It is perceived that everyone transitioning from an upper division, despite crossing skill sets, is innately better than any given Novice dancer. It is expected that the transition period will take a long time due to the mass of dancers who were once explicitly disallowed to compete in the other role but now have an opportunity to start fresh. Now that the floodgates have been opened, the “true Novices” will not make any placements until all the “good dancers” filter through.

This may be where I begin to catch some flak: When have “overqualified dancers” ever not been prevalent in Novice? Extraordinary dancers filter through Novice all the time. We have Ballet, Contemporary, and Hip Hop extraordinaires who start in Novice. Salsa, Ballroom, and Zouk champions start in Novice. Why? Because having an expansive vocabulary in English does not make you eloquent nor fluent in Spanish without practice. Intimate knowledge of the general grammar and linguistics that are common to most languages may give you a leg up to a degree, but by no means would you be assumed to be capable of debate in a new language straight out the gate. Similarly, just because the crossover Solo, Ballroom, etc. dancer may have great movement skills in their home turf, it doesn’t mean they have the muscle memory and reactions to effectively dance West Coast Swing competitively, and therefore they are presumed Novice until proven otherwise. Sometimes the previous experience with body awareness does aid in the learning of West Coast Swing, so they pick it up quickly and move up after proving their competency in our dance. Regardless, they still had that Novice experience and worked up the ladder.

Other “overqualified” groups include international dancers (those from non-US countries), who have dancers with adequate skill but significantly less opportunity to be rewarded for it (due to a lack of frequent nearby events, like is often available in the US), and accomplished social-only dancers, who suddenly feel the urge to compete. Both of these groups also are allowed in Novice, and also have the potential to raise the Novice bar. Where is the equivalent outrage?

My point here is twofold:

  • Non-Novice dancers follow the rules and start in Novice all the time, then they move out if they’ve got the stuff.
  • Just because someone has a previous background in a different dance (or another role) doesn’t mean they have the skill set and reactions required to successfully compete, unless they’ve put in the floor time in the appropriate dance style or role (or just happen to be some sort of talented freak of nature, but that could be anyone from any background). Sure, they may have timing, or quality of movement, but that’s not the entire package. If you haven’t put in the practice time to properly perform your role as a lead or a follow, all the syncopations and stylings in the world wont help you. This dance is a partnership, not a solo act.

Dancers transitioning to the other role from an upper level are similar to all these groups in a way. They may have quality of movement from their previous skills (like solo or crossover champs) or lacked opportunity to present their skills (like international or social dancers) but it doesn’t guarantee that they are proficient for the upper divisions in the appropriate skills. Some are and some aren’t; it can’t be assumed. The main difference here is visibility: Ballroom and Zouk champs, international dancers – they blend in, you hardly even know they’re there unless they end up on the podium. But a man among a long line of women kinda sticks out. Familiar faces from the upper divisions stick out. And so it becomes easy to point the finger.

To use some stats to bring perspective on the “bulk” during the transition phase, here are some numbers I crunched from Boogie by the Bay this past year, as it was a major flagship in gender-inclusive J&J competitions:

  • 30 nontraditional dancers competed in Novice.
  • Of those 30, 13 of them ranked Advanced or higher in their previously established role.
  • Of those 13, only 5 made it to finals. That means 8 Advanced or All-Star or Champion dancers – nearly two-thirds of them – were knocked out in Novice prelims and semis.
  • Of those 5, only 2 achieved top 5 placements. Traditional Novice dancers beat out all the rest.

So basically, out of the 13 who may be perceived as “overqualified” for Novice, only 2 proved to be a threat to placements that “belong” to “true Novice competitors.” One of those two technically got enough points to place out, right then and there, never to be in Novice again, no matter how you look at the rules. There are only so many Samanthas and Shanes and [insert well-known female leaders/male followers] in the backlog right now, and if you haven’t noticed, many of them have moved up already.

My suggestion in this transition is to re-aim the perspective: it’s not “Advanced dancers in Novice”. An Advanced-level leader is no longer Advanced as soon as they relinquish the mantle of leading. They are now most likely an “unranked follower” or a “Novice follower”, perhaps even an “Intermediate-but-doesn’t-have-enough-points-yet follower”, like so many in Novice.

Just because you see a familiar All-Star in your division’s lineup doesn’t mean they automatically have what it takes to beat you. Why admit defeat so early? Take it as a challenge. Up your game, and maybe you’ll be the one to end up on top.

Perspectives on degendering competitions: Kim Sifter

Over the past year there has been a strong effort to make West Coast Swing competitions gender neutral, meaning men can compete as followers and women can compete as leaders. This degendering of competitions has raised a lot of questions, caused many concerns, and stimulated plenty of debate about the purpose of competitions, the logistics of how we implement competitions, and even the definition of roles in the dance. To shed some more light on this subject, I’ve asked a few different leaders of the degendering movement to share their perspectives and insights here on this blog. Each week this month I will post a different guest blog, and at the end of the series I will share my own thoughts on the issue. (Be sure to read last week’s post by Kelly Casanova.)

shapeimage_2This week’s guest is San Francisco’s own Kim Sifter. Specializing in West Coast Swing, Kim has been teaching dance for over 25 years. In addition to American Smooth and Rhythm, Kim’s diverse dance background includes Ballet, Modern, Jazz, Belly-dance, Tap, Country Two-Step and Argentine Tango. As Somatic Movement Therapist and Educator and graduate of the Ballroom Dance Teacher’s College, Kim sees dancing as integral to everyday life. Her philosophy of dance as art, sport and conversation between two people gives her a unique perspective on teaching dance. For more about Kim, her background, and her classes, please visit her website.


Ever had a conversation with a complete stranger? Of course, we all do. We strike up conversations in line at the grocery store or waiting for the bus, maybe with the waiter. They’re generally short, innocuous, usually of a positive nature, and, on occasion, flirtatious.

If a WCS dance is a conversation between two people, and I believe it is, than why do we limit ourselves to one type of conversation? And only with the opposite sex? Furthermore, why should one gender always own the topic of the conversation? Which is kinda what leading is when you think about it.

I want to have all the conversations I can. I want to learn about you, and sometimes I have something to say. (Ack! Don’t ask my husband about that one. He will tell you that I have a Kimpinion about EVERYTHING.)

If one of the measures of how well we do this thing called West Coast Swing is how well we do it under pressure, with a partner we don’t know, dancing to music we may not have heard, in front of people we don’t know who judging us, then why have further restrictions about how that dance is supposed to be other than we’re still doing the standards of the dance? We might as well say you can only do the following steps, execute the following patterns, wear these clothes, be this age, look this way.

By opening up Jack & Jill contests to any arrangement of gender in any roll, you expand the conversations you are privileged to have. Yes, I know there are a number of people, maybe even a large number that only want to have one conversation, and that’s okay. That’s what Strictly Swings and Routine divisions are for. You call the shots.

West Coast Swing is so many things to so many people these days, from the music to the timing to look and feel, why are we restricting the growth from a prescribed role point of view? Just because? There’s nothing wrong with figuring out what defines a dance or a contest, but I believe in making those decisions based on the essence of the dance and not preconceived societal notions of gender roles.

Have the conversations! Talk, relate, dance…. Connect.

Perspectives on degendering competitions: Kelly Casanova

Over the past year there has been a strong effort to make West Coast Swing competitions gender neutral, meaning men can compete as followers and women can compete as leaders. This degendering of competitions has raised a lot of questions, caused many concerns, and stimulated plenty of debate about the purpose of competitions, the logistics of how we implement competitions, and even the definition of roles in the dance. To shed some more light on this subject, I’ve asked a few different leaders of the degendering movement to share their perspectives and insights here on this blog. Each week this month I will post a different guest blog, and at the end of the series I will share my own thoughts on the issue.

KellyCasanovaThis week’s guest is none other than Kelly Casanova, a two-time U.S. Open Swing Dance champion, chief judge of such prestigious events as Seattle Easter Swing and Boogie by the Bay, and an outstanding instructor, promoter, and community leader here in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2004 she was inducted into the National Swing Dance Hall of Fame and in 2006 she was inducted into the California Swing Dance Hall of Fame. She has also been a member of the World Swing Dance Council and has served on the Executive Advisory Committee of the U.S. Open. She has been a strong advocate and long-time leader for eliminating gender discrimination in West Coast Swing competitions, and below she shares her experiences over the years with this issue. For more about Kelly, her background, and her classes, please visit her website.


In 1981 I started teaching West Coast Swing at The Avenue Ballroom in San Francisco. The owner, Joel “Oz” Koosed, had set a precedent of referring to students as “leaders and followers” and I have continued that practice for over 30 years. I immediately saw the value in learning both parts and have encouraged my students to learn, at the very least, the basics as both lead and follow. Although I have always encouraged students to learn the “opposite part,” the numbers have exponentially increased in the last 10 years. In my classes there are generally more women than men who opt to learn the non-traditional role; I think this is because there are normally more women at dances than men, and this way the women know they will always be able to dance socially. Unfortunately, I know of several areas in the country where students are not allowed to take class in the non-traditional role, and during the early years of my teaching in other areas of the country my use of “leaders and followers” was not always well-received by either the promoter or the students. My experience in teaching has taught me that beginners form their attitudes towards non-traditional role dancers according to how their instructor reacts to men requesting to follow and women requesting to lead. If the teacher treats the situation as normal and valid, the students follow suit; if the teacher is uncomfortable, then so are the students. One of my favorite teaching moments occurred at the SwingOut dance in Oakland. I asked the leaders to form a line against one wall, and the followers a line against the opposite wall. It was impossible to identify the lines based on gender as both lines held an equal number of men and women. It was a wonderful moment!

When I started attending conventions there were no division levels – just one “Jack & Jill” where everyone entered regardless of age or skill and I don’t recall anyone asking to compete in a non-traditional role; it wasn’t even on the dance community’s radar. Sometime in the early ‘80s the Invitational level was established and that was the only separation of contestants. Since there were not very many conventions each year (and no points!), conventions were more about social dancing, sharing knowledge, and spending quality time with friends than concentrating on competitions.

Once the dance community created leveled divisions I suggested to several members of the World Swing Dance Council (WSDC) that we allow contestants to lead and follow in whatever division they were qualified to compete in regardless of gender. As you might suspect, my suggestion wasn’t well-received. I continued to lobby to eliminate gender discrimination, believing that working within the system would provide me more access to the people and organizations who could make the changes I wanted to see in the community.

In 1998, a promoter suggested that if I considered it such an important issue, I should “put my money where my mouth was” and run my own convention. So I did. In 1999 I ran Swing Break. Although I had over 800 attendees, I got a huge amount of flack for opening my “Luck of the Draw” contests to male followers and female leaders. Those competing in a non-traditional role took their competitions very seriously, and several non-traditional competitors placed in or won their divisions. Despite the positive competitive results, the ensuing social backlash was so intense I was only able to run the event one additional year. At the time, I was a single mom and if the event failed it could have resulted in me losing my house. As a result, I decided that rather than compromise and offer traditional Jack & Jill contests, I would rather not put all the effort required to operate an event if I couldn’t do it in a way that I thought was ethical.

Although I was discouraged that the community did not embrace my wish to end gender discrimination in competitions (the term “degendering” had not yet been coined), the good news was that after Swing Break more events allowed non-traditional couples in their Strictly Swing divisions. This was because one of the major arguments against ending gender discrimination was that competitors shouldn’t be “forced” to dance with someone of the same gender. The argument at the time was that degendered Jack & Jills would “force” people to dance with someone of the same gender, while Strictly Swings would allow competitors to choose their partners. We all need to remember that all of this was occurring at a time when some companies and the military would remove members if they were “out” and some people thought that it was unfair to put people – especially our soldiers – in jeopardy of losing their jobs over a dance contest. Apparently many people at the time could not understand why someone who was heterosexual would want to dance in a non-traditional role, and therefore the practice was inaccurately labeled solely a LGBT issue.

I spent the next 14 years lobbying “behind the scenes.” The only tangible result I can identify from those efforts was a loss of work for being labeled a “troublemaker.” (During this time I was also lobbying for stricter swing content clarification in rules, which was equally controversial.) In the spring of 2014, I wrote a letter to the National Association of Swing Dance Events (NASDE) formally requesting that they remove gender restrictions from all contests. I received a response that no action would be taken “at this time.” Tired of trying to work within the system, I decided to start a petition and take the issue more public. My daughter, Samantha Buckwalter, encouraged me to substitute an online petition for a paper one (which I had planned to personally take to conventions). Since my computer skills are below the newcomer level I turned to Jonathan Jackson for help. I had recently discovered his Degendering West Coast Swing Facebook page and knew he also cared deeply about the issue so it was a good fit. He took my petition and put it online. In less than 24 hours we had over 1000 signatures. I don’t think I reached that many people working one on one in the previous 25 years! The petition helped continue the conversation and helped advertise the issue. As a result of the efforts of many people and organizations and some very courageous promoters and clubs throughout the US, there are now about 16 events that I know of that have committed to opening up their competitions to male followers and female leaders.

My experience as a first time novice lead at Swingtacular in San Jose was very positive. Kudos to Ben McHenry for having the courage to step up! All my partners were very gracious and accepting. Since I had never competed in a Novice division before (I went directly from the one contest Jack & Jill format to the Invitational level), it was a very special experience for me. The only negative feedback I received was when I went to look at the postings to see if I made finals. A woman, who didn’t know who I was or that I had competed in Novice as a leader, complained to me that it “wasn’t fair” that so many women made Novice finals as leaders because her boyfriend had “worked a really long time to make finals and would have made it if the women hadn’t taken ‘his’ place.” I asked her how long he had worked to make finals and she said, “Almost a whole year!” I smiled sympathetically and said, “Tell your boyfriend patience pays off. I have been working 30 years for the opportunity to make Novice finals.” 🙂

I have had no difficulty judging or Chief Judging competitions where non-traditional competitors compete. The only issues I have had are logistical such as re-writing rules that are out-dated to make sure the contest are fair. For example, many events have allowed Strictly Swing couples to switch roles during their competition. The problem is that some competitors have tried to game the system by registering in their weaker role and then switching to compete in their stronger role. An example of this is when an advanced male leader who also competes as a Novice follower registers in an Intermediate Strictly Swing contest with a woman who leads at the Intermediate level and follows at the advanced level and then they compete in their traditional roles for the entire dance. They registered as an Intermediate lead (her) and a Novice follow (him), but competed as an Advanced lead (him) and an Advanced follow (her) in an Intermediate division. Not exactly fair to the other competitors. Since it is the competitors’ job to test the boundaries of the rules, new rules need to be written and their intent clarified. Due to the complex nature of the issue, it can get confusing, but it is not impossible to address. Another issue that has been raised is the possibility of non-traditional competitors “mocking” their role. Although I saw inappropriate behavior of this type happen 20 years ago in a few contests, all the non-traditional role competitors that I have seen in the last year have taken their competitions very seriously and I have not seen this to be an issue.

I’m optimistic that the decisions reached by NASDE and the WSDC during their meetings at the US Open over the Thanksgiving weekend will result in a shift in policy on this issue. I believe, as I have for several decades, that it is only a matter of time before non-traditional competitors are a non-issue in our community. I do find it interesting that the Lindy community, which supposedly represents our roots and the “older” form of swing, has had non-traditional competitors in their community for many years without any controversy, and that it is the WCS community, the more “progressive” style of the dance, that seems to have a difficult time with the concept. What I have chosen to take away from all my experiences with this issue as a social dancer, competitor, teacher, judge, chief judge, and promoter is that if you really feel strongly about an issue it is worth working towards change even if progress doesn’t come as quickly as you would like. I may not have been able to have had the opportunity to lead competitively at the peak of my career, but my daughter has that opportunity – and that fact alone makes all my efforts worthwhile.

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?

So you didn’t make finals, eh?

On several occasions recently I’ve heard conversations from disappointed competitors about not making finals, or, in some cases, of not placing or even winning. Not surprisingly, these conversations involve a heavy dose of negativity – towards other competitors, towards the judges, and even towards the event and the event directors.

The truth is, if everyone’s only in it to win it, then everyone but two people will be unhappy at the end of the competition.

Look, what we do – this whole dancing thing – is inherently subjective. It’s technical, yes, but it’s also an art form, and along with artistry goes personal opinions, values, and biases. On top of that is the fact that each event has different judges with different values and opinions. And on top of that is the fact that judges will only see a fraction of your dance – and you don’t know which fraction. Plus, each competition has a different mix of competitors. And honestly, someone may have just had a better day than you. It happens. But the bottom line is you just don’t know. You don’t know how other people are performing (especially if you’re on the dance floor with them). You don’t know what the judges saw. You don’t always know what the judges want to see. And the way we do judging is relative, meaning you may have had a great day but there were enough people who had a better day. There are a lot of variables at play, and if you choose to compete, you choose to accept the variability, the unpredictability, and the risk.

If you’re thinking, “Sure, Eric, easy for you to say,” then you don’t know what you’re talking about. I started West Coast Swing <gulp> twelve years ago. And while I had some early success and some recent success, I’ve had a lot of my own struggles – and the frustration that goes with them. There were years when I didn’t make finals, to the point that I stopped competing for a few years. “What’s the point?” I would ask myself. I resigned myself to thinking that I was a great social dancer and a great teacher, but I just didn’t have what it takes to be a good competitor. I had more fun at events once I stopped doing Jack & Jills, but the truth is that I had adopted a negative internal story. On the outside I pretended I didn’t care, but on the inside I was down on myself.

My complaining was symptomatic of an underlying combination of insecurity and self-doubt (something I can’t help but hear in some of the complaining I now hear from others). The idea that I deserved to make finals over other people, that at every and any moment I was superior to others, that my own perceptions and judgments were objectively and definitively correct and accurate – it wasn’t just foolish but also arrogant. And of course the fact that I cared so much about the outcomes of competitions and that my happiness was dependent on them was symptomatic of insecurity – a lack of something that left me without an internal sense of my own value. It was as if my own self-worth – as a dancer and as a person – was based on my success in competitions.

By now I’ve been around long enough to see the ups and downs of competing – in myself and in many, many others. I’ve seen the same story play out time and time again, variations on a theme, but a common archetype nonetheless. And, well, maybe I’m getting wiser in my old age. Maybe I’m just getting mellower. Maybe with experience comes more maturity. Or maybe I’ve just learned from my experience. But I’ve adopted a better attitude for myself and I like to think it’s paying off – in competition but more importantly for my enjoyment of this dance.

So listen, if you compete, or if you’re considering competing, here’s my advice, for what it’s worth:

  1. Accept the reality of competing (see above). Honestly, a lot of the time it’s a crap shoot, and you should truly be okay with that.
  2. Think about why you compete. I started competing to earn accolades so I could teach and contribute to the community. But somewhere along the way I began competing for the ego boost, for the recognition and praise, for the sense of self-worth it gave me. If the latter is what you’re after, you’re going to be disappointed. A lot. And if you’re not honest with yourself about this, the disappointment will continue. (Signs to watch out for when you don’t make finals: you blame others, you feel badly about yourself, you don’t want to see people, you don’t want to dance.) Find your reason for competing and make sure it’s something positive and healthy – an internal drive to grow instead of a need for an external reward.
  3. Don’t point fingers. No matter the outcome, whether you win or don’t make finals or not. The blame game does no one any good. It’s not nice, it’s not fair, and, most importantly, it’s not productive. Blaming others is absolving yourself of any control over the situation, as if there’s nothing you can do, and that kind of attitude isn’t going to help you move forward (nor will talking poorly of other people in a very social community). Which leads to…
  4. Take responsibility for your own dancing. Stop blaming your partner or the judges or anyone else and start working on your dancing. Appreciate your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Develop your dance so you can be great consistently, no matter the judge, no matter the partner, no matter the day.
  5. And for goodness sake, have fun! This is dance. It’s not world peace or solving hunger or curing cancer. The stakes are low and the rewards should be high. It’s something we should do because we love it and because it brings out the best in us. It shouldn’t make us unhappy, frustrated, stressed, or negative. Who wants to be that person?

My goal is to keep pushing myself as a dancer, and I use competitions as one measure of that progress. But honestly, I’m up against some great talent – guys I really admire and look up to – and I know I won’t always find success. Plus, at the upper levels there’s more differentiation among competitors, so that each dancer’s best is different from the next, and that makes the judging even more challenging to decipher. So if you can’t handle the disappointment at the lower levels, you’re in for a ride as you move up the ranks. Instead, do your best now to find your inner strength, work on your dancing, and enjoy the journey.

And leave the negativity to someone else. You’ll be better off without it.

Have you had challenging experiences competing? How do you handle frustration or disappointment? How do you console others who might be upset by the outcomes of a competition? Teachers, how do you help your students prepare for competitions, mentally and emotionally?