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?

A winning attitude

I don’t know about you, but no matter how many times I compete, I still get nervous. I may be fine right up until I start dancing, but that first dance – or worse, my only dance if it’s a spotlight – and I’m tense. The adrenaline rushes through my body and it’s like I’m not there. I’m not present or focused and I’m certainly not relaxed.

At this year’s Capital Swing, as I sat there waiting for my spotlight in the All Star Jack & Jill finals, I could feel a wave of panic rising up just under the surface. At times I felt like I just wasn’t in the room; at other times, I could feel my heart racing; and sometimes I would run through dance moves in my head, as if preparing somehow. I watched my peers get up and have amazing dances, some of them out of the park awesome, and I was awed and intimidated. I mean, how am I supposed to compete against dancing like that?

As more and more names got called, I started to get it together. Mentally. I sat there and had a chat with myself. I realized that I was trying too much – trying to plan, trying to prepare, trying to have an amazing dance. And that was what was freaking me out: all the pressure to have an amazing dance. My expectations for myself were huge and it stressed me out.

So I made a decision: just have a simple dance.

As Brandi Tobias said recently, “This is West Coast Swing. They’ve seen it all. You won’t surprise them, you won’t shock them, you won’t impress them. All you can do is make them feel something.” (She’s right, of course.) So I decided to adopt that mentality. My strategy shifted from trying to amaze to trying to just have a simple dance. Suddenly, I was relieved. A simple dance – I can do that.

And when my turn finally came around (I was last, so I had time to talk myself down), I went with my new strategy. And yes, I lucked out and drew an amazing partner, but all of those followers sitting up there were amazing. And yes, got a really fun song, but Beth Bellamy was DJing some great music for everyone in our division. At the end of the day, it was my mindset and attitude that allowed me to relax and stay present and have the most fun I’ve ever had in a competition. In case you missed it, here was our dance:

And the reward? Not my placement, honestly, though that was nice. No, the reward was the confidence I gained from having a great dance in front of a crowded room. The reward was the support from my peers, all of whom I have great respect for. The reward was finding a mental strategy that I intend to use over and over again. Most amazing dance ever? No. We didn’t even win the division. But for me, it was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget. And isn’t that why we dance?

What’s your strategy and mindset for competing? Do you psych yourself out trying to win or trying to have an amazing dance? How do you fight the pressure and stress of competing? Teachers, how do you coach your students to compete? How do you help them adopt the right mindset for competition?

The paradigm of leading and following

Lately I’ve been working with my students on dancing in closed position to work on improving their lead/follow, body movement, and musicality. Despite the fact that I had the partners dancing nearly body-to-body, center-to-center, nevertheless, without fail, many if not most of the leaders would try to use their arms to move the follower, and many of the followers would try to guess where the leader was going.

In my view, this behavior is symptomatic of the general paradigm by which we often dance: the leader moves the follower, and the follower goes where the leader wants her to go.

Think about that for a moment.

The leader moves the follower. He is responsible for moving her from one place to another. Not the follower herself, but the leader does the moving. And the follower goes where the leader wants her to go. Where he wants her to go. The priority is on what the leader wants. And so the leader spends his time focused on moving the follower, and the follower spends her time focused on what the leader wants. And this was playing out in class, where the students were dancing in closed position.

The challenge is to shift our thinking about the role of the partners and the dynamic between them. Leaders should be focused on moving not their partners but their own bodies, and letting the follower respond (aka “body lead”). And followers shouldn’t be trying to read his mind but rather focus on moving themselves in response to what they feel from the leader (aka “following”).

This is a subtle distinction, but watch how many people have a hard time doing it. Because after months or even years of living with the current paradigm, we so easily slip into what we already know and do. The new paradigm isn’t impossible or even too difficult. It just takes commitment, the right training, and lots of mindful effort. But man, think of how great partner dancing could be if we did change the paradigm…

Pay attention to the dynamic you set up in your own dancing, and watch others when you get the chance. Which paradigm are you dancing and seeing? What happens when you try dancing the new one? Teachers, how is your teaching – both the content and the manner – shaping your students’ understanding of the role of the partners and the dynamic between them?

Where’s your head at?

As many of you know, I switched my teaching awhile ago from patterns to concepts around techniques, partnership, and musical interpretation. But as I work on these other things with students, I realized that outside of class and on the social dance floor, students are used to grounding their dance in patterns, and their mindset is very different under these circumstances. 

The way we teach the dance orients students to think of executing the minutiae of patterns, and in doing so, they lose the forest for the trees. We forget about the fundamentals of lead and follow, the mechanics of the dance, musical interpretation, and even body mechanics and partnership. The challenge then is to be able to execute movements while maintaining (if not elevating) your quality of movement, and that means not letting yourself get lost in the details. 
This month I taught whip variations of increasing complexity, with three goals in mind: (1) improve technique related to whips; (2) improve understanding of lead/follow and the mechanics of WCS; and (3) train students to maintain the first two while executing patterns through proper mindset. 
The challenge wasn’t easy, and I confess that not all of my experimentation worked, especially as we moved away from the basic whip to new variations. I noticed that how I taught – where I put emphasis and what words I used – affected the students, but also many of them have been trained as pattern dancers and are learning to form new mindsets and behaviors. Where they were most successful was when I was able to pull them up out of the details to the bigger and more universal concepts of the mechanics of the slot and lead/follow. But then, the trick is to keep them at that level over time…
How often do you get lost in the details of patterns? How do you see your dance as movements and not moves? Where does your mind gravitate while dancing and how does it affect your quality movement? Teachers, how do you instruct your students so they stay focused on concepts and techniques without succumbing to the details and repetition of patterns?