November 19, 2011

The Judging ©

How to Judge in Today's WCS Climate
The Judging is part of the collection of groundbreaking articles found in Telling the Truth: The Foundational Articles for Today's WCS. It is available in both Kindle and Print on

I am a judge.

And I have sinned.

I was fooled by Abstract Improvisation. A couple of years ago, I left incredibly talented and highly trained and skilled Champion women out of finals.  "They aren't keeping up," I thought. “What’s wrong?”

They were being hit on the head, yanked, dragged, discombobulated and seemed to move slower than their leaders. I looked over at other newer, younger girls, who never batted an eye at their leaders. They just dipped, twirled and whirled with a big smile on their face. They flew around like the end of a lasso with seeming ease.

So I put the new girls in.

I am so sorry. I knew not what I did. I know so much more now.

My eyes were used to judging on those who "gelled" with their partners... those who had "seamless" dances. I didn't realize things had changed so much that is was time to watch for much more than that... no matter what the level.

The reality of what I saw: the clash of two dances. The Champion WCS women were trying to stay on time, trying to follow, trying to stay in a slot.  This spelled disaster with their Abstract men, who needed them to do anything but those three things.

And as a result, the Abstract women, who in reality were up high on their tippy toes, knees bent, tushies out, shoulders riding up to their ears, running around split weight, off time, pigeon toed and so uncontrolled that their man’s poor leads never showed in their bodies... looked unruffled. And thus looked… successful.

How wrong I was. I eliminated the most highly trained and skilled dancers on the floor that day... because they tried to do West Coast Swing.

I judge very differently nowadays.
Times have changed,
and therefore our judging needs to change.

The days of judging on the Three T's are gone. They work great when people are doing Pure WCS, or any other pattern and footwork based dance for that matter. But nowadays when I’m judging a “swing” contest, less than 10% are dancing “swing.” 

At Boogie by the Bay I watched two heats of Novice, with 40 couples in each heat, I saw ONE man lead West Coast Swing consistently. That’s 1 in 80 novice men. I saw a number of followers trying to do swing, but their partners did not take kindly to them, unfortunately. I hope I missed some real WCS men. I really really do. I know Abstract is not so dominant in other areas of the country, but still, I haven’t seen a floor where it isn't present to one degree or another.

So how do I judge now? I watch everyone’s feet. In every division. It reveals everything. And I mean everything. Try it sometime. You’ll be amazed. And then, as I watch the feet, I look for the following things in the following order.


1) Look for anyone dancing real West Coast Swing.

If a leader is leading West Coast Swing, I put him in. If the follower is trying her best to do West Coast Swing, no matter what kind of lead she gets, I put her in.  The couples in finals that actually do West Coast Swing... they are automatically in my top five. Everyone doing West Coast Swing has first priority.  No matter what level.

How do I judge the WCS dancers against each other? It rarely happens anymore on the competitive circuit. I’ve seen in a few times in local clubs though. And when I see 2 or more couples clearly doing WCS, then I used the typical method: The Three T’s: Timing, Technique and Teamwork...

Anyone who judged during our Renaissance Era and earlier will find this easy, almost instinctive. Judging dancers doing the same dance is always easier. One day in the future, if a miracle occurs and there are two or more Pure WCS dances that have those Three T’s, THEN I go into Difficulty, Showmanship, etc.

We judges with training tend to assume dancers have the Three T's, especially in the upper levels, and then judge on difficulty (part of the reason rushed dips and tricks win), but we've forgotten that doing the Three T's right in Pure WCS is MUCH harder than any sloppy trick. Just ask my partner Josh. He has had to put in A LOT of hard work, even today... to dance WCS well when most of his peers are doing Abstract Improvisation.

As such, event directors and dance professionals outside of WCS have begun commenting on how amazing Josh is now dancing. But his “all-star” followers are furious. They can’t dance with him. They don’t know how. And the “all-star” leaders keep asking me what he’s doing differently, because his pictures suddenly look so amazing when theirs don’t. It’s a crazy world out there. It’s time to award real swing above all else, and the Abstract dancers will learn it’s time to catch up.

After placing and ranking all my WCS dancers, I move on to who is actually ON TIME. Not ahead of it, not before it, but ON the beat of the music. I look at the dancer’s feet, and if the leader is actually being purposeful with his feet and the beat of the music, then I put him higher than the men shuffling their feet randomly. Same with the women. If they are keeping their feet in accordance with the music rather than completely ignoring it, then I put them in under the WCS dancers, even if the WCS dancers aren’t as tight with their timing.

Now here's the key. When I say "on-time," I’m referring to the beat of the music, not the lyrics or the melodies. So many teachers are telling students that being “on time” is dancing to the lyrics, the melodies or something other than the BEAT. That’s ridiculous in any lead and follow dance, not just WCS. So I’m looking for a dancers’ relation to the beat, whether it’s an obvious rhythm or not. 

A quick tip is to start counting the music, "& a 1, & a 2, & a 3" BEFORE looking at a dancers’ feet, then keep counting, and THEN look at their feet. Too many judges try to do both at the same time and starting counting to the feet rather than the music. Don’t fall into that trap.

Now, if you see their feet actually wait for the ‘1’ to do a weight change, etc, etc, then I can start to rank them. Abstract dancers look effortless from the waist up because they are hitting breaks in the music ‘upstairs’ while completely ignoring the music's beat with their feet downstairs. Look down, not up, to see the real story, and your judging will become much easier.

Another popular trick is to start the dance on time with their partner… say, for the first 16 beats, and then they go nuts afterwards. This is so confusing for the real WCS dancers. They think they understand what’s going on, and then all of a sudden the dancing goes into random lyrical or club wanderings. I only place those who stay on beat throughout the whole dance, not part of it.

This goes for routines too. Because dancers are getting choreography from more than one source, I watch their routine switch between on beat patterns and then suddenly dance as if there is no beat, and then switch back. It hurts my brain. And leaves the audience stilted and confused. I’m looking for an entire dance to be on beat, not just part.

More and more I’m hearing stories that the trained female dancers left on our competition floors are being told to "dirty up" their dancing and to stop being so "controlled." They are literally being “shamed” into messy dancing.

The other term I’m hearing a lot these days is “great energy.”  “I’m looking for the dancers who have great energy out there,” I’ll hear a judge say. I’ll ask them to point out who they think exhibits great energy, and they will point to the sloppiest, craziest and most flamboyant dancer on the floor. The one that clearly doesn’t know what they are doing, who could care less what their partner is doing and who is clearly unaware of that little thing called training.

“I’m just here to have fun,” these dancers say. Fun? Have fun on the social floor. Not on the competition floor. Not unless your idea of fun is dancing well and with your partner. The very definition of “dance competition” is the idea of who can dance better than anyone else on the floor. It’s not about who can goof off more than anyone on the floor… it’s a DANCE competition, not a fool and flagrant competition. No wonder injuries are knocking out dancers for six months to a year.

Anyone off the street can be fun, wiggle and get wild… but fun can’t be practiced, it can’t be taught in a class and it should never be rewarded in an actual dance competition.

Training and control is essential. You can't be a good leader if you aren't controlled. You can't be a good follower if you aren't controlled. You can't create, can't grow, can't expand without growth of skill... and that all amounts to how much control we have over our bodies. I look for dancers who are purposeful with their movements. If they stand tall with their shoulders down and back, their butt tucked underneath their bodies, dancing over one foot vs. split weight, then I promise you, they'll stand out on the floor.

Forget the dancers they say have “energy,” when in fact it means a little crazed and frantic. This is a dance competition. And a good dancer is nothing without control… so much control that one flick of a finger is more powerful and eye-catching than any booty shake.

Is the man actually looking at his partner and leading her? Is the girl really trying to follow the man?  I hate judging Abstract Improvisation, but there are some who actually lead it and some who actually follow it.  It is so important to start emphasizing lead and follow once more. I watch for body leads instead of arm leads. I'm looking for attentive leaders and attentive followers. And by attentive, I don't mean they are looking each other in the eye... I mean they are looking where they are going, paying attention to each other's centers, trying to be in-sync with their partners.

When I have to scrape the barrel and put people in I really don't want to, I look for those who are at least "trying" to dance with their partner, instead of the ones who are simply performing for themselves out there. I never place those who compete for themselves. Nissies don't make great partners on the floor... a humble spirit is always a plus on the dance floor.

A violation literally holds NO weight in our judging system. It doesn’t change one’s placement, ranking or points. But it does put a target on the judges’ back, or makes the couples and competitors confused. I can’t think of a single reason to violate anyone when it doesn’t do anything at all. I say everything in my scores. 

In 2009 seven out of the ten finalists in the US Open Classic Division were violated for swing content. Seven out of ten! But all the dancers who weren’t violated were placed at the bottom of the scoreboard. How ridiculous is this? It’s a SWING competition! Swing is right their in the event’s name: The US Open SWING Dance Championships. You’d expect the swing routines to be at the top of the scores, not the bottom. But violations give judges an excuse to skip that little piece of logic. So when it comes to violations, don’t worry about them. This judging system makes them irrelevant.

When I see a lot of dipping, dropping and sliding, I've noticed that it's always by Abstract dancers that don’t have any of the skills I just listed. It's time to start seeing these flashy moves as a red flag rather than a sign of success. These slides, slips and tricks have hurt so many women, even the professionals, because they are no longer done with control or technique.

These tricks are never really led, never mind being led on beat.  It's only the girls who are uncontrolled enough to be thrown around that succeed in these moves.  And when pictures are taken, the chaos is revealed. Shoulders high, feet splayed, pigeon toes, crunched necks… not long, lovely or powerful lines. Audiences will cheer when a follower slips and slides randomly on her knees, but our scores are supposed to reflect success, not mess.

Sadly, all of the champion women I judged a few years ago have all left the competition floor. I can’t say that I blame them, but I will never forget that I played a part in that loss. I strongly urge you to start judging as if the Three T’s are automatically in existence. They aren’t. Be aware of the two dances, be aware of the difference between a charming, funny dancer and a good one, and don’t let the scores of other judges affect your own.

Be a good judge, not a good politician.

We have lost almost all of our talent in the upper levels. Let’s not lose the new talent coming into the dance… and let’s let our competitors know that we’re looked for GOOD DANCING again, not BIG DANCING.

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