May 06, 2014

#68: History of Points and Champions

How the Phoenix Swing Dance Club
Killed the Course of West Coast Swing
It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit. -Noel Coward

I received a number of texts over the last few weekends. Readers were at events and dealing with all sorts of issues and they wanted my feedback.

One of their questions suddenly snapped my brain into a realization:

WE have never had to earn points to move upwards.
None of us.
None of us has a single Novice point.
That's because we came before Points.

Who is "we"? Well, basically the gang of young dancers that learned, excelled and conquered WCS in Southern California in the 90's. Seriously. There are a few others - some young guns from other big cities around the US, but for the most part, it was us. The gang that practiced at Phil Adam's Swingtime in Bellflower, the ones who played around at Moose McGillycuddy's in Long Beach or at Tom Mattox events. A lot of us, about half of us, are still dancing. We are - were - and still are - the Champions. And none of us has a single Novice point. We all became Champions on the social dance floor - Tatiana - Jessica - Jordan - Eric - on and on - so and so - the Schwimmer crowd too - there weren't a lot of us - but we learned the dance and learned it well and never, ever, ever! had to go through what you all have to go through now.

I remember seeing a clip of a dance recently where two of these (us, the ten, the kids, whoever, whatever, fine! Tatiana and Benji) were doing a Strictly Swing and got their foot caught before they could really start dancing. They waited for the music to start over, but it didn't.

It took forever. They looked lost. I was lost. They sat down. I didn't get it. They didn't get it. But I finally got it when, a few weeks later, I shared the incident with my dance partner. And right then my lovely, young and fabulous Josh Clark clued me in - "They did WHAT!??!??" he said. I just looked at him sideways. Then he proceeded to fill me on  "THE RULES." 

"You never stop dancing if it's your fault. The music keeps going. There is NO such thing as a re-start unless the event or the DJ makes a mistake. Otherwise, you are on. your. OWN."

Now, you know Josh. I know you know Josh. He's tall, he's handsome, he's got the thickest head of hair I've ever seen and he is very... even. Calm. I mean, he's awesome. He works for it. He creamed that footwork you're all trying to do in Walk Like an Egyptian, but look - I'm the extrovert. Not him.

But he became one when I mentioned this incident. He knew the rules. He came on the scene way after all of us and by God, he knew those rules!!! Well. I'm still kind of amazed, actually. He became so empassioned about it. He suddenly sat up, his arms started flying everywhere and his head was shaking left to right, right to left in a vigorous "uh, no no no no no!"

I swear he turned into me for a second. He was throwing out example after example, history after history and I finally got it: WCS competitions are harsh. Rigid. Tied up in knots and red tape. No here, yes here, remember this and don't even think of doing that and man... don't you forget!

It made me queasy. I didn't like it. I never liked competing in the first place and only did it because people were signing me up. But at least we had freedom. Simplicity. Joy. I don't think I would've stuck with it had I entered with so much pomp and circumstance over a swing dance competition. Sheesh.

So as I listened to Josh I realized that maybe Tat & Benji knew all these "rules" by that dance. Maybe.   But I don't think so. They've never had to learn them. Neither have I, to be honest. Had I been up there, I would've done the same exact thing. We all came from that certain special time and place - and that's what we know.

It's not just that we began when competitions were more fun and less 'life or death.' But it's that we never had to re-learn the rules as time went on. The Champions of that time and place are protected by the hierarchy who lived in that time and place. They still are. Proof? For these two, the US Open re-started the music. And they took 5th Place. The rules weren't applied to them.

Again. Because we all came before the rules. We don't know 'em and we don't live by 'em. We came by a totally different way and... huh... I don't see many champion dancers this new system has created. Lotta All Stars. But champions? No. 

Surprised? Let me let you in a few secrets. I'm getting the feeling you've never been told this, and that's really not fair.

So here you go:


The West Coast Swing community, for the first 50 years or so, was not a competitive community. Oh yes, clubs formed in the 60's and 70's, but they were clubs - communities - social in nature.

In the very late 70's, a couple of conventions formed. In the 80's, they sprouted. They had competitions. Limited competitions - like 3 or 4 categories tops. They, again, were social - community based gatherings. The competitions grew flashier as time went on, and a little larger, but not by very much.

In the early 90's we experienced crossovers - from Shag to Latin to Hustle to Ballroom - and the competitions grew more fierce... at the US Open. Oh, there were a few other conventions across the nation, and the clubs started offering Jack & Jills at big gatherings - like the Tri-City gathering here in Southern California, where the LA, San Diego and Desert Swing clubs gather together.

But that's it.

Then came the World Swing Dance Council. A small group of dancers left over from the United States Swing Dance Council. The president who formed it quit, and the remaining group decided to push on and form their own organization... they changed the words "United States" to "World."

And this, my dears, is where Points came from.

As with most of their decisions, I have a feeling this creature called Points was the brainchild of others, namely competitors, who wanted to expand their pockets. (I have since learned and written about Jack Carey, Vegas and the Points system at longer length in My Problem with Points. I broke down how Points were created to protect that handful of dancers I just mentioned.)

Well, it worked. Those competitors are still doing well today.

But the community? The whole entire West Coast Swing community? They wanted no part of it. They are separate. You won't meet any of them at a WSDC event. They hate points. They are not proud.

We, the world of WCS, became divided... into competitors and social dancers. And eventually, the competitors created another dance - easier to teach, easier to dance when tired from traveling, easier to change when they had to.

Now. There was a transition period for this separation. This is the history you will find relevant. Buckle up.

For the first three years, very few conventions had Points. 
Some conventions used them. Some conventions didn't.

Conventions that didn't use them let dancers sign up based on what's called "the honor system." You signed up for the category you felt you were in. If you thought you were better than you were (which didn't happen nearly as much as it does now), you were quickly moved down or left out of the contest.

Honestly, I don't know how it all worked, but when people said I should be in Advanced, I danced in Advanced and then won. So I stayed there. Big deal. Is it recorded? Hell no. But back then, who cared? We didn't know what the heck was recorded back then or why... and it really didn't matter.

There were a ton of competitions J&J's, club comps, conventions that never cared, didn't know or didn't bother with the WSDC. Teachers who came up the ranks more than 10 years ago are screwed, because everyone thinks Points have always been a currency of WCS and their names are barely listed, never mind their actual track record. Points were NOT a popular thing and they were NOT the currency people respected and they were NOT the choice of the community.



Now. Phoenix. Phoenix was the first to actually enforce Points."Enforce Points?" we thought. "Are you kidding? None of us even have points! Ew!"

But Phoenix could do it because it was, by far, the #1 competitive event in the world - having the most massive Jack and Jills of anyone. They sold out of tickets nearly six months in advance - they were hard to even come by! It was a hot event, both literally and figuratively. So the WSDC worked it's butt off to get them to agree to this newfangled idea.

I don't know how they convinced them to do it, but they did. What an incredibly big turning point in our WCS history!!!

And people were NOT happy at the registration tables in those early years, let me tell you!

The point is, the WSDC had to really fight to get Points going. A, J and S fought so hard that only their people won at the US Open.

It was the end. The majority of the competitors left. They are no longer on our floors. When some do visit, I am sickened at how they are treated by the WSDC club. They were amazing. They danced on Broadway. Why, oh why, did we have to become a cult?

As I'm sure you guessed, the dancers left standing, who continued on and are still with us... are The Ten and the other favorites of the WSDC.

New conventions cropped up, based on Points. The money poured in. As did a whole new crop and kind of dancer: the newcomers who love competition and had a ton of money to burn earning points.

It was a very different crowd. A very ruthless crowd. It was a "community" of a very different sort, leaving the grassroots community of the first 50's to continue on their own, without representation or recognition.

Ouch. It hurts to even remember it. But the bottom line is...

NONE of us, none of us, none of us, had to climb the ladder like you did. When the "Points" were finally enforced, we were all way above, on the top rungs of the ladder.

And we earned our stripes in the real community - the community that came before. When they loved our dancing, we were in. They have sharp eyes and quick skills.

If you were good... you were deemed so. Not by any points.

I remember attending a dance with a ton of Hall of Famers I hadn't met yet about a year ago. They are a proud group, so I knew the drill. I watched for a while, then asked one of them to dance. His face filled with wonder and delight, and walked off the floor, patting my hand and saying, "all right! I got to dance with a Champion!"

Do you have any idea how that felt??? I felt like I was transported back in time, to an era without Points, where you earned your creds on the floor, not by some pen. The word spread and I didn't have to ask anyone for the rest of the night.

That's right. This was a real swing community, and they wanted a good swing dance, darn it! And they'd do anything to get one. You knew you were in trouble and needed to take some privates when you weren't being asked.

That's just the rule of partner dancing. The only true measuring stick. You're only asked when you can make me smile. Not slap my butt.


Champions were most often declared Champions by ballot.

In the competitive scene at least. Phoenix created that. For twenty years they sent out ballots to a whole range of Champions. The women voted for men and the men voted for women. If you received a certain number of votes, you got a ballot yourself. The names with the most ballots were invited to dance in the Champion of Champions. If someone couldn't come, they went down the list to the next name with the most ballots.

If you ever danced in the division, no matter what year, you always received a ballot. If you ever received a ballot, whether you danced or not, you continued to receive that ballot for a certain number of years.

This 20 year tradition lead to a large variety of Champions in that Phoenix division. It was exciting, every year, to see who was in. There were surprises every year. The ballots were always confidential and always based upon how much you enjoyed dancing with the person.

By the mid 90's, all ages, races and styles were up in that division, and it made for great dancing, let me tell you!

I still have my last ballot - I never finished it or turned it in because I was too busy opening my new studio. I'm so glad I never sent it in.

It would have been lost.

That chain of Champion history was broken.

You know how I'm always saying that The Ten was developed a little over ten years ago?

Well, a little over ten years ago, some seriously ugly club in-fighting lead to the destruction of the ballots. The old board refused to hand over this precious box of ballot holders' names and info.

The new board, not wanting this information to get out, sent out ballots to the TEN couples who made finals at the Open the year before. If someone couldn't attend, they moved down the list of competitors that didn't make finals.


I. cannot. tell. you.

Cannot tell you!!!!

I just cannot BEGIN to describe the horror I felt.

I had to listen for the next two years as ballot holders of other generations asked me, "where did my ballot go?"

Oh, my heavenly Lord, how hard they worked to hush that up. And though I was so thankful to have earned my way into the Champion division by ballots I respected, no one - no one - no one! after would ever have that pleasure.

(Haven't you noticed? You can "earn" enough points to be a champion, but you're never really treated like one or called one, are you?)

Oh yes, some previous ballot holders called in, asking where their ballot was. But the ones who talked to me said they were told that it was already "too late" to send them a ballot - that the vote was over.

What the?

And so, my dears, we were left with routine dancers who had the lovely joy of voting themselves into that division, year, after year, after year.

And that row of men and that row of women suddenly looked the same in both Jack & Jills and Strictlies. The fun, the excitement, the shocks and the surprises... they were no more.

That's when we lost the rest of the dancers... the ones who loved to watch. Even I left. I was so bored, and a studio was so much fun. I never thought it would continue. I never thought people would want to watch the same pairings, night after night after night.

But then, I didn't realize that Points could be such a drug. How could I? I never had to face Points. And neither did anyone else. There's a line drawn in the sand... it's aged and from long, long ago... but it's still there. And though we may bicker, fight and dance - we are still family. We just go back that far. We are Champions.

Champions who never bent a knee to the WSDC.

Champions created by our brothers and sisters who came before - by our skill on the social dance floor, and our spirit, gold and glow on the spotlight floor.


who will never, ever, have to know what it's like to face the great, mighty and costly, unforgiving wall that is...


We don't know your story. We never will. And I, for one, would take the burden of Points that hangs like a chain around your necks and would break it.

But then again, I love you
Not your money.



From Weekly Note #68: History of Points and Champions (Champion of Champions). Released July 2013. Revised and updated May 2014. Copyright 2014.