Such An Inspiration For The Ways That I’ll Never Ever Choose To Be

This weekend was quite the rollercoaster of reflection on competitive dancing for me. After what I wrote last week about my existential crisis toward dancing, I had hoped in my heart that the competition I was planning to go to would help me see that dancing was still just a fun pastime that I could lose myself in. Instead, this competition decided to take the negative things I had seen in the periphery of the competitive dance world and shove them into my face so that I could no longer deny that those things were happening. As you might expect, that didn’t help my existential angst about dance one bit.

Before I go any further, I want to let you know that I did sit down with my Amateur dance partner Sparkledancer one afternoon last week to try to explain to her what was going on in my head. I felt that it was only fair to keep her in the loop. After all, I am one of those rare males that lives in the world of ballroom dancing and actually does take it somewhat seriously. If this existential crisis cannot be resolved and I decide to quit dancing competitively, she would have a hard time finding another partner.

(That’s one of the other sad parts about this world – if I drop out, she would likely have to find the money to take up Pro/Am, since the chances of her finding an Amateur male to dance with are slim. Whereas if Sparkledancer ever decided to stop dancing, I would probably have several Pro/Am male instructors that I know calling me to set me up with some of their students… if my own coach didn’t just dump a new partner in my lap, that is.)

Part of the reason that I met up with her to have this talk was that Sparkledancer had been sending me messages throughout the week to let me know what she had learned about the other competitors that we were going up against in the competition. She really likes to know who she is facing – something that comes from playing sports in her youth. The problem was that information that she was sending me was not making me feel good about going to this competition. In fact, based on the way I usually look at and interpret data, I already could see what the results of the competition were going to be even before I got to the venue.

When I tried to explain my existential angst to Sparkledancer, she didn’t get it at first. Then when I tried to tell her how I really didn’t want to go to the competition any longer once she sent me all the information about the other people we were dancing against, she didn’t seem to understand that either. She told me that I should try to go into this event and just have fun and do my best. Nothing was set in stone she told me, despite how I was reading the data, so the results might not turn out the way I expected. Plus, it was already too late to get a refund on our entry fees, so we couldn’t get out of it without losing money.

After our first round was over and we were sitting next to each other quietly in the audience while waiting for our next round to start, she told me that she finally understood what I was trying to tell her earlier in the week.

If you dance competitively you will probably already know this, but outside of the franchise dance worlds and the local studio-only competitions there are basically three different paths you can take as an Amateur competitor. Each path has its own rules and regulations that tell you when you should be moving up in your proficiency level as a dancer. These paths set your required proficiency level using some kind of ‘point’ system, or your win/loss ratio as a competitor, or something similar. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these systems so you get the gist of what I’m talking about.

The major problem that exists, that people have mentioned to me in the past but I never took much stock in until this past weekend, is that these proficiency levels on each of these paths are independent of each other. That means that a dancer could, if they wanted to, train and compete while following one path, and then when they hit a level where they can no longer beat the other competitors in their proficiency level along that path they can start over back at the beginning on one of the other two paths. The term I hear a lot of people use to describe this behavior is “sandbagging.”

That is the kind of Amateur couple that I faced this weekend. Sparkledancer sent me information from their competitive record that she found online, showing that they had been competing and winning in the highest levels of beyond-syllabus proficiency while following two of the competition paths, and now here they were in a competition from the third path, back to dancing Bronze syllabus in International Standard. They weren’t the only couple signed up for this competition that was doing this, but their record was the most uneven of the mix out of all the competitors that I looked at..

So when I looked at the records that Sparkledancer had sent me in the week leading up to the competition, I could logically arrange the competitors and figure out who would get put into all the top spots of the rounds based on the proficiency levels they were competing in at other competitions. And guess what? Those placements that I had made logically by looking at the data presented to me was exactly what happened. I was not surprised by this when the results came back… but being able to look at the data and determine what place you are going to get before you even take the floor and do one step in your dance routine takes all of the fun out of going to the competition in the first place.

So far, I have kept all the competitions I have done, no matter which competition circuit the competition happens to be in, at the same proficiency level. My coach has told me to compete at my level all the time, and not to mess around in any other proficiency levels until he tells me that I am ready. I sign up for competitions with some thought to try not to earn too many points in any of the circuits, allowing me to stick with this plan. So I guess you could say that I was disappointed to see firsthand that other coaches don’t tell their students to do the same thing.

Then there were the blatant examples of Dance Politics at work that also left a gross feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The first one was something that I heard about while waiting in line to check in for the competition and pick up my packet of stuff. I was in line behind a group of other people – all members of the same dance studio I assume, since they were all wearing cool matching jackets. One lady from the group was telling a “funny” story from the last competition that she and her partner had participated in, and this story really emphasized to me why playing the Dance Politics game is a terrible curse that we all have to live with.

The story goes like this: at that competition she went to, there was a well-known younger couple dancing in some of the youth rounds. They are really high-level up-and-coming dancers with names that even I vaguely recognized once she said them. The championship round for under 18 International Latin was large at this competition, so it had been split into multiple rounds (i.e. quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals, based on the story) to determine the winners.

Something happened during the quarter-final round that injured the female half of this young couple. The lady telling the story didn’t elaborate what the injury was, but it was bad enough that the young couple dropped out of event. When the semi-final round for the Latin championship came up, a handful of the judges did not refresh their judging pads even though the emcee asked them to, so those judges still had this couple on their list even though they weren’t on the floor during that round.

I’m sure you can see where this is going… without even dancing in the semi-final, that couple somehow still managed to get multiple votes that would have allowed them into the final for the Latin championship! Not just one judge marking them to go to the final, but multiple.

That one story that the group of people in front of me in line were all laughing about really shows that there is a lot of truth to what I have been told by my coach – that meeting with these judges so that they know my name can make a difference with how they mark me in a competition. I mean, if the judges saw the names of that couple on the list and marked them to make it into the final without even checking to see if they were actually on the floor, that means that my coach has actually been downplaying how important the Dance Politics game is for competitors.

More than this story that I heard though, I saw this for myself with how I was marked at events in this competition. Remember all that coaching that my coach had signed me up for in the month leading up to this competition? Well, out of all of those meetings I only ended up with one of those judges actually watching any of my rounds on the actual day of the competition. And wouldn’t you know it, it was the judge that I didn’t particularly like because he told me that I was “boring” to watch.

As I was standing in the on-deck area preparing to take to the floor to dance my Waltz, I saw that this particular judge was going to be watching. I made a quick mental decision that I was going to try to be interesting during these rounds. I knew that was something that this particular judge would be looking for – he had told me that was what he primarily watched for, after all – so I thought that I would just give it a shot. After all, it wouldn’t hurt me. I already knew that the one couple who normally danced at super-high proficiency levels at other competitions was going to win, so the rest of us were just going to be mucking around for the placements underneath them.

During that Waltz I started telling Sparkledancer all about how I felt like a bear on a unicycle trying to entertain the crowd in hopes of getting a bowl of honey afterward. She thought that was funny, so the rest of the time that we spent dancing we kept talking about bears on unicycles. As we moved on into the Quickstep, we talked about what kind of hats a bear riding a unicycle should wear (she thought they should be in party hats, I thought cowboy hats). In the Tango I asked her if they had unicycles big enough for polar bears to ride. As we finished up with the Foxtrot, I told her that I thought the honey was so close that I could smell it.

In some ways, knowing what the results of the event would be helped me stay more relaxed, and telling jokes about bears on unicycles made both Sparkledancer and I laugh pretty much the whole time. A genuine smile that a person wears from hearing a silly joke looks a lot more authentic than the fake smiles a lot of other competitors plaster on their faces when they go out to dance, in my opinion.

When we got back the results for those dances, the results were exactly what I was expecting they would be… except one. That one judge, the one that I had the coaching with who told me that I was boring to watch, he had marked Sparkledancer and I first for everything. Way higher than all the other judges marked us. I don’t know if it was because he recognized our names since we had taken coaching sessions from him only a few weeks beforehand, or if this time around he thought that we were actually interesting to watch because we were being silly as we danced. Whatever the reason, his marks really favored Sparkledancer and I. That didn’t change what the overall result was for the top placements, which still ended up exactly how I had predicted, but it was interesting enough that I thought I should note it here.

So Dance Politics… I don’t really feel good about that. Since the judging system that ballroom competitions use is so subjective, it’s hard to say whether I actually danced better at this competition than I have at other competitions. There are definitely some data points that say that I did – I felt stronger and more confident in all my dances at this event than at competitions of the past for one. Another point is that there were a handful of competitors at this competition who had beaten Sparkledancer and I or that we tied with at competitions in the past, and this time around we were clearly marked better than them. That could  be interpreted as showing some improvement has actually happened, right?

But then again, the judging is subjective. Maybe the one judge really did just like my dancing that day because he remembered my name, or because I was talking about bears on unicycles and being interesting. That doesn’t mean that I have actually improved technically at all as a dancer, that just means that he remembers me giving him money a few weeks ago or he got caught up in my mirth. And that’s a stupid reason to mark me better. How will I know if I have actually improved, or what dance styles I need to work harder on, if all the scores that I get back are just subjective and don’t really tell me anything concrete?

This competition did not make me feel better about dancing competitively like I had hoped. If anything, it just left me more conflicted about whether I want to stay on this path of pure competitive dancing or not. Maybe I am going to have to figure out some way to grade myself on how I dance so that I can track my own improvement over time. If I can’t trust the marks of the judges at most competitions, what else can I use to gauge my own progress?

So this week I am leaving you with more deep thoughts. I had really hoped that I would have a better resolution for you this week after what I wrote about last week, but the dance adventures I went on over the weekend did not give me that. This coming week my life should get back to normal, with regular dance classes and normal practice returning to my calendar. Maybe returning to the routine grind will help.

We’ll have to see! I’ll let you know how things are going next week.

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