We’re Wicked By The Book And Class Is Back In Session

Let me tell you – volunteering at a much higher level for a competition lets you hear about a lot of stuff that you’d probably not want to know if given the choice. There are aspects of running a competition that, while I understand them from a business perspective because the ideas come straight out of the business course textbooks I used to have back in college, as a dancer who would be looking to sign up at an event like this they make me feel… slimy. There’s just something that feels wrong about doing things in certain ways.

Let’s talk about the example that’s been the bane of my free time this past week: I have been part of a lot of meetings, emails, text messages and long phone conversations trying to figure out the schedule for the competition I was talked into helping out with. I’ve gleaned a couple of facts from all of this talk, and they don’t make me feel good. These may seem obvious to other people reading them, and I guess deep down I knew these things to be true as well, but saying them out loud makes it sound really bad.

The shadowy figures that plan competitions… and me!

So I’m going to write them out here instead…

  1. Competition organizers really focus on catering to the competitors who dance at the highest levels when they consider how the competition is organized, or what kinds of perks to add to the event. Even though the number of competitors who dance at this level is tiny in every competition I’ve been to compared to the number of competitors who dance in all the levels below, listening to the competition organizers talk about the event makes it sound like that larger group is really irrelevant compared to those competitors at the top of the proficiency scales.
  2. While the competition is set up to cater to those competitors at the highest levels, large parts of it also seem specifically designed to try and extract as much money from these same competitors as possible.

Case and point – this competition is scheduled to cover three days. Two days are used for the actual dancing, and the third is set aside for post-competition activities. When talking over the schedule, there were really no comments about how to set up the events for all the syllabus heats and anything else below those top proficiency levels. Those all ended up being grouped together by style and set down during the morning/afternoon sessions on the first two days (Smooth and Rhythm one day, Standard and Latin the other). That discussion took all of two minutes to finalize.

The rest of the time was spent deciding where to put all the rounds for the top proficiency levels. This competition was given the rights to host high-level events from a couple of different four-letter dance organizations (you can probably know all the acronyms, just pick a couple from that list and you’ll probably be correct) in a bunch of different age groups. So much time spent worrying about and figuring out how to arrange just a handful of events!

I remember the very first conference call I had to sit in on about scheduling these – the very first note that someone threw out was that we needed to put the events from these different dance organizations that are for the same age groups into different evening sessions. The reason given was that if they were arranged that way, the competitors for those age groups who wanted to sign up for those different events would have to stick around at the competition for more than one night. Yeah, that was actually the primary reason thrown out for everyone to consider!

On top of that, if they stuck around for multiple nights to compete in different events for their age group, the thought was that they would be more likely to stick around for the third day of the competition to participate in the post-competition activities. If you haven’t guessed by now, “post-competition activities” is code for scheduling and attending private lessons with the various judges whom they are bringing in for the competition. The more people whom stick around and sign up for lessons with the judges, the more worthwhile it is for the judges to want to come and judge for this competition this year and in future years.

Why is it that the talk is all about how to get the highest proficiency level competitors to stick around an extra day to hopefully sign up for private lessons, but no thought is given to how to get the lower proficiency level competitors to do the same thing? Well, the idea is that in all likelihood these competitors didn’t get to the highest proficiency levels without taking a lot of extra outside coaching, and also playing the dance politics game that I’ve talked about before. If the competitors have done it before, they are the most likely group to do it again. Sticking around for one more day to meet up with the judges doesn’t seem quite so bad if you have to book at least one night in the hotel just to dance in all the events you want already, right?

Of course, the option to sign up for coaching from the judges is open to all the competitors who dance in heats below the highest proficiency levels, and the advertising for the competition that goes out to them gives them the information needed to sign up if they so desire, but no one expects a dancer who is still working through syllabus-level heats to look for coaching from some big-name judge on the international circuit.

On top of that, all of these highest proficiency level events are only held in the evening sessions. No one said this specifically, but it’s something I’ve thought about in the past – unless you live somewhere in the country where the airlines offer a super late flight so that you can leave once you are done dancing, you are almost guaranteed to have to stay overnight on any night where you compete in an evening session. Have you ever thought about that before? If the evening session starts at 7:00PM, and finishes up at 9:00PM, then there are awards… even if you can leave right away while still wearing your competition outfit and the airport is right next door to the venue you really can’t make a flight any earlier than 10:30PM or 11:00PM. Assuming a flight that late even exists.

Ugh… thinking about the schedule in this perspective just makes me feel… gross. Do you feel it too?

Like I said, I can understand needing to do this sort of thing from a business perspective. If you host a competition at a hotel ballroom, or even if you don’t host it there but you make arrangements with the hotels near the ballroom where the competition is held to offer discount rates to your competitors, you need to have a certain number of people staying in those hotel rooms to fulfill your end of the contract with the hotel. They usually don’t just offer you a discount coupon code without expecting to make some money off of your event. Arranging the schedule of events to require competitors to stay at least one night helps you meet that quota so that everyone can benefit from the deal. It’s a sound business plan that works toward the overall good of your customer base.

But as a dancer who has gone to competitions over the years, I prefer to have all of my events on the same day. That’s my personal preference for one thing – I’m in good enough physical shape that dancing a bunch of rounds on the same day doesn’t seem like a terrible idea to me, plus it also makes arranging my travel easier. I have to take off less time from work if I only have to worry about being there for one day, or if I have the options to get flights at convenient times I don’t have to worry about getting a hotel room at all necessarily. Who doesn’t like saving money?

Granted, someone else did bring up a different reason on a later conference call for arranging the events on different nights. They said that for those competitors dancing in those top-level four- or five-dance events, doing multiple rounds of that in one night can be exhausting. Especially for competitors in the oldest age groups. Splitting the events up to different nights gives the competitor a chance to rest in between and perform at their peak in all the events, rather than just at the first one.

Now this reason makes more sense. Why wasn’t that the first reason given when we started talking about how to arrange the schedule? That would have made the whole conversation feel less icky. But instead, the whole idea is clouded by the fact that I can’t get past the primary reason given to split the events being that they want to try and force the competitors to stick around for more days. When that’s the first thing you hear, that clouds over the valid point given later that actually sounds beneficial to the competitors.

So… now you have an idea of what I’ve been wrestling with over the last week. It just makes me wonder… if I ever manage to become proficient enough to dance at these highest levels as a competitor, am I going to be able to look at going to competitions in the same way, knowing that these sorts of discussions are being had by the organizers behind the scenes? It would make me feel like all I am to the organizers is a blank check that they are hoping to write a big number on that they are able to cash and portion out to the people that join them on their competition train. I don’t want to feel like that.

Also, seeing how much I am struggling with feeling good about working on the competition at this level, is this why it’s really hard to get other dancers to volunteer to help out with competitions? Even trying to get people to volunteer for just the day (or days) of the actual competition is difficult, let alone having them volunteer for more administrative help like I was convinced to do. Does peeking behind the curtain and seeing how the mechanisms of dance competitions work make it seem like less fun, so no one wants to do that? Do my struggles that I talk about make any of you want to rush out and volunteer to help out with a competition in your area? I’m guessing not.

Boy… I sound like a real positive voice tonight, don’t I? After reading through this to edit things, I can really see how much this has been bringing me down. I’m going to go back through it once again and try to cut out a bunch of of the negativity, but I don’t think I can get rid of all of it and still get the point across that I wanted to talk about. Hopefully the final product doesn’t sound quite so bleak when I finally end up posting!

2 thoughts on “We’re Wicked By The Book And Class Is Back In Session

  1. Don’t some of these comps sell afternoon and evening spectator tickets? If they charge more to see the evening, then maybe they want people to see the best dancers. As you said, there are business reasons for doing these things but it doesn’t make them less icky.
    On the other hand, I think that most of us know that one goal of ballroom is to separate you from as much of your money as possible (slight sarcasm). If you’ve advanced to a certain level and really want to do these things, maybe you kind of expect to have to shell out more.
    But then I wonder if this is just another thing that keeps ballroom from being truly accessible to all and primarily a hobby for those with significant amounts of disposable income. OK, I didn’t come up with anything real positive either. Guess I’ll stop.

  2. I can’t honestly say that I’ve looked into the price of spectator tickets, since the competitions I’ve gone to in the past I’ve gone as a competitor… but it wouldn’t surprise me. For this competition, from what I’ve been told, we are charging a single price for a spectator ticket that will grant you access to watch for all of the days. That seems like the right way to do it, in my opinion.

    But yeah, I think that the significant cost of entry does keep the idea of competing out of reach for many people. There’s a reason why you can go to local college competitions in the area (like one’s I’ve volunteered for in the past) where the entry price is dirt cheap and see tons of competitors on the floor in almost every heat… but then go to a USA Dance or NDCA event where the ticket price is ridiculous, and you end up watching tons of uncontested rounds.

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