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.  (more…)

A hierarchy of needs (part 1)

I often talk to students about setting priorities. It can be hard to know what to focus on, especially when there’s so much to work on, and so many things we want to accomplish.

The thing is that certain elements need to be in place to achieve other elements. For instance, if you really want to be musical with your partner, you need solid partnership skills. And in order to have solid partnership skills, you need to have an understanding and control of your own individual movement. So the more musical you want to be, the more you need to understand partnership and your own movement.  (more…)

Level of difficulty

I never thought I’d say this, but figure skating as peaked my interest. The recent win of Evan Lysacek, the 24-year-old figure skater from Illinois, over reigning champion Yevgeny Plushenko, 27-year-old Russian who came out of retirement for these Olympic Games, has stirred a lot of buzz – not only because it’s the first time an American has taken the gold since Brian Boitano in 1988, but because it raised questions about how skating is judged.

For those of you who missed it, Lysacek performed brilliantly – no earth-shattering figures but it was nearly flawless. Plushenko nailed the quadruple toe loop – the new challenging figure all the best skaters are daring to try – but he had some errors on the jumps that followed. Both men received the exact same scores for artistry; Lysacek pulled in two more points for technical performance.

Some of you know that much of this has to do with math and the new scoring system (jumps performed in the latter half of the long program received 10% more points) but the bigger argument has centered around remarks made by Plushenko after the competition. Plushenko and his coach have both commented that male skaters who did not attempt the quad are basically wimps. “If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump a quad, I don’t know,” Plushenko said. “Now it’s not men’s figure skating. It’s dancing. Maybe figure skating needs a new name.”

The insinuation is that figure skating is about technical difficulty – pushing the envelope with respect to skill, not choreography and artistry. So who gave the better performance: Plushenko with his less perfect but more challenging routine or Lysacek with his cleaner, less difficult routine?

We see this drama play out frequently in the dance world. Sometimes the couple pulling out the big moves and getting cheers wins, and other times the simpler, smoother couple gets top placement. Depends on the judges, depends on the dancers, and depends on how much “bad” technique will be tolerated in exchange for difficulty and showmanship.

Dancing – especially competitive dancing – can be as much about showmanship and level of difficulty as it is about mastery of fundamental technique and partnership. To what extent should the former be valued over the latter? How much are we willing to sacrifice fundamentals for the “wow” factor? What separates great showmanship from “flash and trash”? And how might the factors we reward in competitive dancing be shifting what we see on the social dance floor?

Looks aren’t everything… right?

Ever notice how good looking people tend to become better dancers faster? Or maybe it’s that better dancers are just better looking?

Could be just me, but it seems like young, attractive people move up the ranks pretty quickly – more quickly than others, sometimes more quickly than perhaps they should. Sure, there happen to be a lot of young, attractive dancers with a lot of talent, but it still raises some questions about how someone gets better and at what rate.

One could argue that attractive people get better faster because more people ask them to dance. Or maybe they have more confidence and thus are willing to take risks and try new things and become more expressive. Maybe they gain more confidence as they improve, and their confidence is what makes them seem more attractive. Or maybe as they get better they adopt the fashion trends and dress themselves better. Or maybe they just look better or our eyes are drawn to watching them simply because they are more attractive.

The flip side is that people who are better dancers may just be more attractive. A study was done demonstrating just that, and how dancing can be used as a demonstration of genetic fitness, helping us to choose a mate. So maybe the better you are, the more attractive you seem. The pros all seem to be pretty good looking, but maybe we just think that because of their dancing. Would the pros be as attractive if it weren’t for the way they can move?

In competition, looks can certainly play a factor: how you dress, how you present yourself, your attitude, your level of confidence – all of which can also make you more or less attractive. Studies have shown that the part of the brain that ultimately makes decisions is the primitive brain, the part that makes decisions based on primal needs related to survival. We know that while judging is based on certain criteria, there is also a high degree of intuition and emotion that goes into deciding what’s good dancing and what’s not. So despite our rational thoughts about technique and artistry, are judges letting their primal interests sway their judgment? Are judges ultimately making decisions based on their primal desire to procreate? The pretty ones get chosen because we would like to mate with them? What about judges who are the same sex as those they are judging? Are they also judging based on primal instincts, but making decisions not out of a desire to procreate but based on a fear of competition? The pretty ones are competition for mates, so they should be punished/eliminated? And if both forces are at work, shouldn’t they balance out so that attractive people do no better or worse than less attractive people?

Thinking about the last competition I went to, it’s probably just an illusion. If physical attractiveness were objectively measured, there’s probably just as many unattractive people in any division as attractive ones. Still, in a world as social as that of the social dances, attractiveness is likely to play as strong a role as it does in the rest of society. The “halo effect” is a cognitive bias whereby the perception of some positive quality (like attractiveness) gives rise to the perception of similar positive qualities. In this case, people who are attractive may be perceived to be “better” or more qualified than they actually are. Is this same principle being applied to dance? To what extent? What can or should be done about it, or is this just part of the world we live and dance in?

A whole other animal entirely…

I’ve been (and remain) a firm believer that good dancing is grounded in good technique and good partnership. When I’ve taught students, training them to be better dancers, I’ve always emphasized these two points. And when it came time to helping these students compete, I still emphasized good technique and good partnership skills, striving to create a clean, comfortable dance with any and every partner.

That works fine for the lower levels of competition – newcomer and novice – but it isn’t always cutting it at – or even required for – higher levels. These days, showmanship and musical interpretation (extreme forms of which are known as “flash and trash”) is getting rewarded more and more in competition. While I agree that these two elements are some of the marks of better competitors and, yes, better dancers overall, we are treading in dangerous waters when we start rewarding these elements in lieu of good technique and partnership, rather than in addition to good technique and partnership.

I now find myself asking students in private lessons if they wish to be better social dancers or better competitive dancers, as their answers will dictate not my suggestions, but the priority for those suggestions. For instance, students can get away with minor problems in posture or not fully anchoring in competition if they can demonstrate advanced musicality. Would I still recommend fixing one’s posture and anchor? You bet, but it’s not as much of a priority if the changes are minor and winning is the goal. (Of course, I make all of this transparent to the student so they understand what should be priority and why.) For me as a teacher, I will always put the emphasis on being a better social dancer, but to be a better teacher, I also need to consider the wishes of my student, right? (Another topic for another blog post!)

Admittedly, even as a judge, I will place a couple with great musicality but less than perfect technique over a couple with great technique but little or no musicality. This is, after all, dancing, which by definition is the physical representation of music. Dancing is not the same as moving, and not even the same as lead-follow. Musical interpretation counts for something. Yet I will happily place a really clean couple that is really connected with great partnership over the sloppy, musical couple. Maybe I’m the odd man out, but that’s what I value most.

Every now and then, I get to see truly great dancing rewarded: a clean, smooth dance that is musical and that is focused on the partnership – not the audience. At the Mahoneys’ New Year’s Dancin’ Eve this year, some of the first place couples were the crowd-pleasers, but often the second and third place couples were the cleanest dancers with the best partnerships. Nice to see that getting rewarded from time to time (especially as I am admittedly not a flashy dancer, even though I’d like to know how to be…)

Competition is a beast unto itself. As more people compete, and the skill level of each division gets higher, the importance of showmanship and musicality over technique and partnership not only increases but is seeping into the lower divisions. How do you all feel about this? Do you see good social dancing and good competitive dancing as one and the same? What makes them different and why? What are you doing to be good at one or the other (or both)? What do you want to be rewarded in competition and what do you think should be rewarded? And teachers, how do you navigate this world of social and competitive dancing?