Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Improvement Through Competition
There has been a bit of a buzz lately here in Los Angeles about competing - something that has been missing now for about five years. I personally am glad to see it. Competition is one of the most effective ways to improve the general dancing community as a whole.
In the late 1990's there was a very competitive atmosphere in Los Angeles. Competitions were held monthly, sometimes weekly, all throughout Los Angeles. During this time dancers would drive themselves to improve and one-up each other. Not to mention the constant jam circles where couples would challenge themselves to throw their best into the ring. This era started to disappear in 2000 and was for the most part gone shortly after.
Whether it is the cause or not, we have seen a correlation of no major movement from the amateur level to pro level for dancers in Los Angeles. So yes, I am definitely happy to see this competition buzz - I am looking forward to seeing a improvement as a whole in the level of dancing in Los Angeles.
In the below article I will outline three general reasons competitions can help a scene and then from there what you can do (and what we did) to get things rolling.
1. WHY COMPETITION: Learning From Mistakes
"Competitors take bad breaks and use them to drive themselves just that much harder."
-Nancy Lopez, Golf Legend
Any successful professional (business, sports, etc.) will tell you: the more risks you take, the more mistakes you will make. The more mistakes you make, the more opportunity you have to learn.
This is no different for dancing. And what better stage to take risks and make mistakes than in a competition? A mistake on the social dance floor - not many people will care - most will laugh (maybe even your partner who's arm is twisted behind her back).
A mistake in a competition - that's a bit of a risk. A mistake in a competition where you are in the spotlight - yeah wow that's flirting strongly with public embarrassment! Which will be caught on video! And uploaded on YouTube for the enjoyment of many people for years to come!
And it's that environment which really helps us improve - moreso than just taking lessons and going out dancing. And what's helpful is both the preparation to not make mistakes in a contest combined with learning from the mistakes you will eventually make in a contest despite your preparations to not make those mistakes in contests.
I'll pause so you can absorb all that.
In fact, if you ever come over to our home look for the two blue pom-poms on our trophy case. These are keepsakes from a competition where we were extremely disappointed in our performance - it's a good reminder for ourselves to keep learning and keep growing.
"I've been first, and I've been last - probably last more times than first - and you just take it and learn from it."
-Sylvia Sykes, Swing Dance Competitor, Teacher, Judge, and inspiration
2. WHY COMPETITION: Nature of the Beast.
"Competition ... is the incentive to progress."
-Herbert Hoover, President of the United States
It's no secret that pitting one person against the other gets the juices flowing, gets the stakes up, and gets both parties to improve past the other. Both parties know they must continually improve to keep up with each other. That is why competition works.
"Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people."
-David Sarnoff, Radio and Television Pioneer
The one thing to watch for: unhealthy versus healthy competition.
Yes competition can be bad depending on the stakes and the attitude - the higher the stakes, the more cutthroat it is. So even if it improves the product (in this case: our dancing), perhaps it will bring out the worst in people as well. Los Angeles at one time was known for great dancing but bad attitudes.
Fortunately, in the great scheme of things, our recreational swing dancing scene rarely reaches that level of competition and if it does, it does not stay there for an extended amount of time. Have you ever seen a showcase (choreography) competitions where a couple makes a mistake and still pushes through to the end to the cheers of the crowd? Perhaps you've seen two couples competing against each other one moment and the next moment in the hallway giving each other tips?
For most, swing dancing is a recreation, not a life or death decision. As a result, the community as a whole is very supportive of everyone so we not only have an atmosphere of competition but more importantly an atmosphere of sportsmanship which makes it good for our cooperative soul. That attitude is key: the goal here is not to just bring out the best in our product (our dancing) but also bring out the best in people as well.
3. WHY COMPETITION: Inspiration
A handful of years ago, if you would have asked me to run a marathon .. I would have said "yeah right!". I never would have even considered it possible. I was just a recreational runner. Marathon runners were those really skinny men and women you saw in the Olympics running miles and miles looking like they were still just warming up. My problem was limited exposure - just what I saw on television.
It wasn't until I saw a marathon for myself in person that it really struck me. What I saw: as the hours passed I saw a person of every body type pass before me. I could stand in any room in the world and every person I saw in that room I could match them up to a body type of someone I saw in the marathon. Some of them looked pained, some of them looked happy, etc ... but they were all doing it. They were running a marathon.
Which then begs: "If they can, what's stopping me?"
That to me is inspiration.
After that I really wanted to run a marathon. I did my studying, my preparation, and two years later I ran my first marathon (and if you know me, you know I'm the crier of the family - yup I cried here too at mile 25 when it hit me that I was about to accomplish something two years in the making).
Coming back to competitions - they are good just not for competitors but for spectators also. There have been times even after we did poorly and we knew we wouldn't even place that people would come up to tell us how much they enjoyed watching us dance and now they really are excited to learn. Any level of dancer (pro or amateur) can find inspiration watching any level of competition (pro or amateur). That is another key thing which is great about competitions and why I am excited for the new buzz in Los Angeles for competitions.
Okay, so how do I do it?
Here are your steps (not dance steps, list of instructions type steps).
Now keep in mind, dancing can be broken down into the three T's: Technique, Timing, and Teamwork. At a beginning level, this means lead-follow connection, staying on time with the music, and looking like a couple - dancing with each other as a couple. As you get more advanced these take on new meaning: Technique could mean difficulty level (aerials, difficult patterns). Timing could be interpretation of music. Teamwork could mean each partner taking the other to a new level and accomplishing more together than separately (one person not overpowering the other).
Competitions are no different. When it comes to judging, it comes down to the three T's. And to do better in competition generally means to to do better with your three T's. And judges are there to judge you on your three T's.
With that in mind, a five-step formula:
1. Watch competitions live
Watching them live is so much different than on the internet or on video. And take the time to be inspired.
2. Judge competitions
Even if you are not an official judge, you can mock judge. Take your own notes on who you would place first, second, and third. Make sure you can back it up. And if you can, compare notes with an actual judge to see how you fared. Or talk to an actual judge and ask them how they would have placed couples and why. A business mentor of mine once said that being able to critique others should give you the ability to critique yourself.
There's preparation and there's contest experience. There is no substitute for either. Preparation in itself will help you get better because you have a goal to shoot for. If you have access to a teacher or coach (or judge), get them to help you and give you advice. One very "young" local couple (dancing nine months) decided to do the most recent LindyGroove contest (January 2007) and in the weeks of preparation before the contest they improved leaps and bounds! (It helped they had access to three coaches in me, Sheri, and Tise).
For contest experience: there is no substitute for putting yourself out there. It's like a muscle that needs to be trained. Imagine working out once a year and expecting results versus working out weekly to get results. In the Los Angeles heyday that is why having monthly and weekly competitions brought out so much in people. For the last few years that has not been around - many local dancers only competed once a year (Camp Hollywood), perhaps two or three times a year (SwingPit and Paladino's). So how do you remedy that?
So here is a checklist for you:
* compete in your local competitions. If you do not have any regular local competitions, offer your services to your local venue to organize competitions on a regular basis.
* compete in your not-as-local competitions. Fortunately, there are a lot of dance scenes close by for us LA/OC: San Diego, Santa Barbara, Nevada, Northern California, etc.
* compete in your way-not-local competitions. There are tons... I'm saying tons! Seattle, Utah, Idaho, Texas, etc. etc. The East Coast has a few more then the West Coast too. Keep your eyes open!
Take a look at the top amateur dancers (many of them could hold their own in pro contests) and you'll probably see that they do all three of the above many times over during the course of the year. This not just keeps them in preparation mode year round but also keeps their "contest" muscle trained.
One very important and overlooked part of contest preparation is the competitor's meeting. Besides making sure you know the rules and format of the competition, the judges will tell you how the competition will be judged! The head judge usually sits in and tells you "Look, the judges are going to look for this, this, and this". And the competitor's meeting is a place for you to ask for clarification on judging criteria.
A second important and overlooked part of competing: choreography! Do a choreographed piece and perform or compete with it. Choreography is forcing yourself to do something to specific music. It really exercises that part of your brain and that part of your dancing that wants to execute to music. Choreography is a great way to increase musicality in your dancing.
4. Get feedback
The first few competitions we went to were Melinda Comeau's events "Jitterbug Jam" and "Swing By The Sea". Bless her for having "Judges Feedback" time actually set aside in the schedule. We asked what that was for and she said, "In case competitors want to talk to the judges." We thought this was awesome! Had we not had that exposure we probably never would have known we could do this. I'm betting many competitors today probably do not know they can do this. So we are blessed to have had that right there from the beginning and every competition after that (even up until now) we still get feedback from many judges.
Now what do you ask judges?
One common question: "What do I need to do to win?" - it's a good question and gives you insight more into how a competition is judged and gives you an idea of how to compete.
The better question to improve your dancing technique: "What do I need to do to get better?"
Because judges are judging you on your three T's, so they can now give you critique on your three T's. In our most recent advanced competition/performance workshop we did a surprise mock competition and gave "judges feedback" to each person. For many that was the most valuable material in the workshop. So don't be afraid to do this.
Now be prepared because there are many times when the judges may not remember you dancing (judging contests can be quite a blur) so don't take offense to that. Most every judge will still have valuable feedback. One time I listened to a judge's feedback to a competitor and it went like this:
"Well, I don't quite remember you. And I see I placed you in the bottom half. The way I judge is I look for X and Y. If you have it you are in the top half. If I don't remember you or did not place you it is most likely because you didn't have X and Y. So maybe you need to improve X and Y and here are my suggestions for that. "
That's still some awesome feedback to improve your dancing.
And don't neglect feedback on your choreography - judges may tell you that there were too many tricks, not enough of this, too much of that - and pay attention because there are great ways to apply this feedback to your social dancing.
And most importantly: RESPECT THE FEEDBACK. Do not argue with the judge. If you want criticism you have to take it. We've heard times when a judge was saying something like "I didn't see X and Y" and the competitor said "No no.. I did X and Y" and it the discussion would heat up, almost as if the competitor was trying to argue his way back into a placement of some sort. The contest is over and the judge is just telling you "Hey, this is what I saw .. maybe you danced differently the other minute and a half I wasn't watching you but this is what I saw." So be respectful to the judges feedback and you will get the best feedback.
5. Put it into Practice
Have you ever seen competitors or dancers that year after year still look the same? They could either not be getting feedback or getting feedback but taking it for granted. Either way their dance is not improving (or it is but at a slower rate than it could be)
Here's a neat story: We saw Sylvia Sykes at Bobby Mcgee's over the weekend. I was talking to her and she had said how happy she was to be there because many of the people that got her to where she is today were in that room. At that point I gave her a huge thanks because her feedback was instrumental in getting us to our current spot in dancing. During our "early years" we would bug her often for feedback, taking huge chunks of her time. And she was always very open to talking with us. So I told her this past weekend we'd always be grateful for that. And then she said something interesting:
"You know, I just showed you a door. I show lots of people lots of doors. A lot them don't go through the door. You guys went through the door."
-Sylvia Sykes, still our inspiration
First, of course that was a great compliment. Second, and more applicably to what I'm writing today, the takeaway is that if you're going to go to all this trouble to practice, compete, AND get feedback, for gosh sake put it into practice.
Do all of this and you will see a great evolution in your dance.
In closing ....
Competitions are great! Get involved and see yourself improve!
And for you locals, I will keep this URL updated with competitions local (and non-local) for you to keep your eye on:
Happy Dancing and HAPPY COMPETING!
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