So… I recently saw a post someone else wrote that talked about why people should go into competing in the ballroom world if the game is rigged. As I read through it, part of me thought that things that I said over the last two weeks might have had something to do with influencing the post. But then I got to the suggested solution of dancing for yourself during a competition, because something something even if the game is rigged behind the scenes they can’t take that away from you, inspirational point, motivational words, and so on… and all I could think at that point was: why?
Why is it that we are putting up with this in the first place?
Let’s all be honest here – if you’ve spent any time in the competitive ballroom world, you know there are problems. The way that competitions are judged is a major one lots of people complain about. What is it that judges are looking for that makes one dancer better than another? You can list off all the points that your instructor tells you that you need to practice (posture, footwork, timing, alignment, etc.), but how do you know that the way you are doing those things is better or worse than the other competitors on the floor? There’s no real concrete system in place that can be referenced so that you know what the scores you get mean.
Because the way that competitions are scored or ranked is… well, pretty arbitrary, there’s are a lot of issues with it. You can dismiss it for whatever reasons you want and try and tell yourself that it’s always been this way so we should just learn to accept it, but I have to ask again: why? Why do we have to accept something that is fundamentally flawed and not ask that it be changed?
I’m going to break character and actually use some formal names here for a minute, so forgive me. We already know that there is a problem with the way that ballroom competitions are judged based on what USA Dance has been doing to try and make ballroom dancing an Olympic event. For those that haven’t been keeping up, one of the major points that keeps being thrown back at USA Dance is that they can’t consider ballroom dancing as an event in the Olympics until they can implement a more objective and consistent judging experience. WDSF have been testing out a system that would begin to solve this problem, but from what I have heard the system has been given mixed reviews.
But that problem that the IOC brought up about judging goes hand in hand with the problems that dancers bring up when they talk about the issues in judging ballroom competitions – specifically, how bias and name recognition can influence the results of a competition. We all know that dance politics exist. There is a game of influence being played behind the scenes that involves a lot of money changing hands to give you name recognition. Whether you want to admit that it’s happening or not, I’m sure we’ve all heard about it, so it has to be happening on some level if people keep bringing it up.
I’ve certainly heard accounts of it, and possibly even experienced it myself (though I can’t prove it): At a competition I was at I was sitting near a group of competitors who were talking about how the night before the most well-known couple in an age group had scratched from a round because of an injury, and somehow still ended up getting marked as first place by more than one judge even though they weren’t even on the floor. That’s name recognition right there.
As for me, in one competition I was marked in first place in all dances of an event by a judge I took a coaching lesson with the month prior, even though the other couple that ended up winning the whole event normally dances other competitions in events four proficiency levels higher than me and wins. In my mind the only way that someone could have marked a couple who is clearly more advanced than me as dancing worse than I did, even though all other judges marked them first, is because of bias brought on by the judge remembering who I was because I had worked with them recently. There’s really no other way it makes sense.
People have argued that the way things are judged right now is important because ballroom dancing is not just a sport, it’s also an art, so it’s hard to figure out a way to quantify it objectively. I hear this argument from lots of people, both professionals trying to explain placements to their students and other competitors. And I totally get where that argument comes from. People don’t interpret artistic expression the same way, so it’s hard to set objective rules around scoring for art. But if we all know that these problems exist, and that dance politics do detract from the enjoyment of dancing and competing, why should we be content to leave things like this?
Not all who dance are wealthy. We can’t all play the games behind the scenes to make our names known among the judges. Then there are people (like me) who are lucky enough to make enough money that they are able to dip their toes into the dance politics game, but really don’t like doing it. I would prefer that people remember who I am for other reasons, rather than because I paid them money to take coaching lessons with them. You know, like how hilarious I am! I mean, at least I believe that I am hilarious…
Having gone to a fair number of competitions in my life, I know that the vast majority of the people who attend these events fall under the umbrella of either not being able to afford to play the dance politics game, or completely uninterested in it in the first place. So why is it that we as the majority don’t get together and make our voices known, to ask that things change, and ask that the organizers work on finding a way to remove the bias that money brings into these events?
Think that the scoring in ballroom competitions can’t be more objective since dancing is an art form? Well, why don’t we find a way to compromise and make part of the score based on elements that can be objectively measured and part of the score based on artistry! I would love to be able to tell people that I managed to be technically perfect but artistically terrible during a competition – that sounds like a result that would be right up my particular idiom! Also, think about how much it could benefit you during your lessons if you could take your expanded scoresheet back to your teacher and say “Hey, I did really well in posture in all my rounds at this event, but got low marks for using my standing leg. Can we figure out what I’m doing wrong?” I don’t think that this is an impossible thing to ask, and I also think that there are enough people out there that would like to see these changes that, if we made our voices heard, the people in the upper echelons of the ballroom dancing world would have to listen!
Confession time: I usually downplay how well I do at competitions when I write about them here. I’ll say things like “I did pretty OK’ a lot of the time, when the reality is that I have won most of the competitions I’ve been to since I started taking competitions seriously. I have tons of first place ribbons, medals and trophies sitting around my house because I’ve done really well as a competitor. That should tell you that the way the current system works is actually working for me. But you know what? I STILL THINK IT SHOULD BE CHANGED! I don’t care that I know how the game works, and that my coach helps me to play the game somewhat so that I benefit from more than just dancing well. I firmly believe we could find a better way if we all worked together.
Think about it like figure skating – there were problems with the way figure skating events were judged, and they managed to work out a different way to judge their international competitions to correct those problems. While it hasn’t been perfect, they are having the conversations and continue to work on making the system better. There are a lot of similarities between the worlds of ballroom dancing and figure skating (OK, I know it’s more like ice dancing, which is a separate sport, but bear with me). Don’t you think that we could use that as an example to show that change is possible?
Getting the major dance bodies to work together to discuss this would be the first major hurdle that we would need to get over though. While USA Dance and WDSF have become fairly friendly with each other, there is some real animosity between USA Dance and NDCA. Then there are the major franchise players like Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire that prefer to live in their own little worlds. And those are just the bodies in this country that would need to set aside their differences to start discussions. It would take some work, I know, but the potential benefits of creating a politics-free system that is fair to everyone would be enormous for all competitors!
But that won’t happen unless we, as the majority of people who want to compete in this sport, stand up and tell the people in power that we want to see change. We can start by actually acknowledging that there is a problem, and rather than finding ways to work within the system to make ourselves happy, we can begin to have conversations about ways to change the system to make it better. Many of you have been in this world competing for a long time, and I’m sure you have great ideas about what could be done to make things better. So why not bring them up? In the wide world of the Internet, we could easily create a place where we could have a public discourse about what we would like to see change, and how we might go about changing it. If enough of us get together and start doing that, the leaders of all of the dance organizations would have to acknowledge us at some point.
We can’t just wait around for a person who is charismatic enough to reach out to the leaders in all these organizations and convince them to come to the table and start discussions on how to change the world of competitive ballroom dancing. It is us. We would need to work together and start the change ourselves.
Sure, we’re not all going to agree on everything right away, but if we don’t even start talking about it seriously, then we are resigning ourselves to living with the system as it is now forever. Sure, going out and dancing in a competition for fun, or dancing as a way to measure your own progress year after year is OK as a temporary band-aid, but it isn’t going to heal the wound underneath. There are underlying problems that need to be fixed, and I truly believe that we could find a way to fix things if we acknowledge the problems and actually start talking about them seriously.
So what do you want to do?
(Note: sorry that there are no pictures this week. I got on a roll with this, and couldn’t think of anything to add graphically that would mean something for this discussion. I’ll go back to my normal format next week)