I haven’t been posting a lot because I keep working on very grandiose essays, and subsequently not getting very far. But I have been writing. Mostly emails to friends about different things. Since I’m not getting far in my regular posting, I thought I’d pull out one such email, clean it up a bit and post it. It’s a little bit of a cheat, but the advantage is that I have a lot of these, so I may be posting these more often. At the very least, they’re somewhat cogent thoughts on stuff I think people will find interesting. This particular post is in response to a question from a friend about competition judging and how to stand out in a contest, which is why it goes back and forth between the two subjects.
I should add the disclaimer that even though I work for The International Lindy Hop Championships, I don’t have anything to do with the judging, so don’t take this a guide to winning. I also did not talk to any of the judges about these particular contests. I mention how some judges could interpret a dance, but these are all hypothetical views. My main point is to illustrate how different people can look at the same thing, but not see the same thing.
I will start by answering your first question directly: that the way anyone sees dancing is very subjective. That's the whole issue in trying to evaluate a creative thing like dancing. Competitions like the International Lindy Hop Championships try to mitigate that by bringing in many experienced judges in the hopes that most of them will come to some sort of consensus. Because everyone is coming from a different perspective, we don't expect them all to agree. I don't think there's any combination of dancers that could.
Sidebar: Several years ago I was at a competition watching one of the contests with a judge not judging at that time. He turned to me and pointed out how terrible a particular dancer was moving out there. This was Friday night. Sunday rolls around and we’re watching a different contest and that same dancer comes out. That judge turns to me and points out how good that dancer is, without realizing that we were looking at the same person that almost made him physically retch two days before. Go figure.
How does one stick out in a competition? Well a lot depends on everyone else on the floor at the time. It’s easy for a good dancer to stick out at a a smaller event because a judge there is just looking for anyone who is not going to fall over. It's much harder in a situation like ILHC when the average skill level is very high.
To be honest there is a lot of dumb luck involved. Dance competitions are less like sports and more like going to Vegas. A lot depends on your partner, the music, whether you are feeling it and a host of other factors that you don’t have any control over. Then multiply that by the number of other competitors and judges in the room.
True story: I once kicked a judge walking behind me in the middle of a J&J prelim. Shockingly, he did not interpret my kick as a symbolic stand against cultural imperialism. I did not make finals.
One thing that I think modern competitors are losing sight of is that Jack and Jills started off as more of a social activity than one whose point is to evaluate who is the "best dancer." It was more about having the opportunity to meet new people. Events have some responsibility in that change in perception, but a lot of it comes from the people competing in them too.
I will say from watching a lot of comps that it’s easier to pick out the "cream rising to the top" in bigger all skates because you can get a feel for the average skill level, and then see who is rising above that. Maybe its a cool move or variation, but a lot of it is just the way you carry yourself.
I was at another event a few years ago watching a follower with another judge/instructor who referred to her as a "sweat hog" because she was working so hard. Good dancer, but she was visibly trying all the time; which is fine when competing against a bunch of poor to decent dancers. That will get you so far . . . to a point. But then you get to a situation like ILHC, where the exceptional is the average. Your smiles and clean lines don’t look so special when everyone else is doing the same thing the same way.
Annabel Truesdell is a good example of someone who has been doing pretty well for herself in Lindy Hop, Blues, and Balboa events all across the country. I think a lot of that is the way she approaches comps and carries herself. On a very cursory level, she moves and feels like a lot of advanced dancers. But she stands out because she’s able to exude a high level of confidence and just have a good time out there, whereas a lot of other people are panicking about simple things like staying on rhythm. Everyone, not just judges, notices that kind of stuff. When everything else is equal, it's the little things that stand out.
But not so much at ILHC
Compare their first spotlight at CH to their 2nd one at ILHC. Look familiar? They’re juuust a bit off in their ILHC one, and as a result not nearly as crisp as their CH performance. It’s still a good dance, but that kills you in a contest like ILHC because the competition is so stiff. It's a game of inches a lot of times. Look at the score sheets and notice how 7 out of the 10 couples get at least one 1st place vote. You can't tell a winner until they get to the 3rd place placements. One interpretation is that all the judges are on crack and have radically different agendas. In actuality, it’s just a super tight contest.
- So some people will say that Skye & Frida (7th couple in) don't do anything terribly exciting. It looks like a lot of judges agreed because its not a unanimous 1st place. But the tightness of the rest of the field is what allows them to get into first place.
- Maybe Max & Annie (first couple) are more athletic, but they’re not as crisp this time around because he was injured.
- Naomi & Todd (2nd couple) have a couple of cool but more subtle moments, plus great stage presence between the two of them.
- Jo & Kevin (8th couple) have good charisma, and some good sequences, but are not completely together and miss a few lead/follow cues. However, they also almost brought the audience to their feet with the crowd surf. Good showmanship or cheap heat?
- Pontus & Isabella (5th couple) have terrific sequences, but they’re obviously more pre-choreographed. Plus their short sequence at the end of their 2nd spotlight falters a bit.
- Alice & Tommy (4th couple) do more social dancing, but look a bit rushed upon closer inspection.
- William & Maeva (last couple) have a lot of boogie woogie influence, but don’t translate that very well into their lindy here.
- As for Juan & Sharon and Jeremy & Laura, they do a pretty good job of hanging with the pack, but this just wasn’t their night. They’re capable of better, but “pretty good” isn’t going to cut it when every one else is dancing in the “great” to “outstanding” range.
So what do you think is more important? No matter what your answer is, it’s a game of inches here. It sounds like I’m nitpicking here, but that’s what you have to do when you’re looking at all very high level dancing. Suddenly, the all skate in a close contest like this becomes a king/queenmaker. Little details matter. Stephen and Chandrae almost salvage themselves, but they fark an aerial towards the end. Annie & Max and Mauve & William do a short routine together. That's cute, but some judges might frown on that. What are Skye & Frida or Kevin & Jo doing? They're on the extreme ends of the camera angles, but for all we know they may have done something that could have caused a few of the judges to change their rankings significantly.
This is stuff we can glean from repeated viewing of videos, but it’s an almost a different experience in person as you may remember. Now put yourself into the judges seats who have to make a decision with no benefit of replay within a few minutes of the comp ending.
I was talking to a new peer judge at ILHC this year, who remarked on how different "in the moment" judging can be from more casual watching of a comp as a show. Pick any contest video and try to seriously judge it, and then come to a conclusion within five minutes of watching it once. A few days later, look at it a bunch of times, maybe from a different camera angle, and see if you agree with yourself. You might be surprised.
In her judging talks, Sylvia Sykes likes to talk about how much she envies the audience because they get to "ride the ride" without thinking about it too much. Judges can't get too caught up with Kevin & Jo crowd surfing or the build up of cheers during Dargoff & Brittany’s swingouts in their Showcase. The only thing Sylvia can note at that moment is how Kevin & Jo are the 3rd couple to do a chase sequence in that strictly (and suffers in comparison despite the ending) or how Dargoff & Bethany start falling apart after about swingout number 9. Maybe they did 30 swingouts that brought the crowd to their feet, but it didn’t look so great starting 1/3rd of the way through. Of course these couples were going for something else other than trying to win, but dancing still matters in a dance contest to some people.
The Classic division is another good example of differing expectations. I've heard a lot of how some people thought that Skye & Frida didn't do anything new. However, a judge like Steven Mitchell isn't compulsively watching every Skye & Frida video as it hits YouTube. Maybe for him, what they did in Classic might be 10 times more original than Tommy & Alice re-working the Shim Sham. Plus there’s the quality of movement issue. Even on his best day, Tommy just doesn't match up with Skye in that regard. Alice is an excellent dancer, but does she out dance Frida in this instance?
The other thing I noticed is that Tommy & Alice don’t do a lot of Lindy Hop in their routine. There’s a lot of side by side jazz dancing that’s transitioned with side passes to change places, but relatively little partnered stuff. I know that kind of choreography started to bug a lot of people when it happening en masse in the 2010 Classic. It’s an odd choice for them too because one of Tommy’s strengths is his ability to string together really intricate and musical partner patterns which Alice usually does a great job of following and embellishing.
Maybe some judges thought the umbrella was a pointless distraction. Others may think it was a gratuitous excuse to focus on her ass. One judge may have marked her down for that and another marked her up. Is one more right than the other?
Should ILHC just lay down a rule on how to judge the use of props? If we do that, should we lay down a rule for every possible contingency? Even if that were possible, how are individual judges going to take these factors into consideration on top of the experience they bring to the table? If every judging value is predetermined, why should the judge’s experience matter at all?
You can see the slippery slope we can slide down here, which is why we don't go that route. We just hope that a diverse panel can give us a general sense of what is better than something else in a given contest. It's not an exact science, but it never can be.
Of the judges for Classic last year, Steven & Lennart have been around from the beginning. But Steven is from the US and Lennart from Sweden. Lennart is joined by the Norbelies, also from Sweden, so that gives us a good amount of European perspective. Hilary and Nick are a product of the SoCal scene which almost feels like Sweden since they have such a distinct taste from the rest of the US down there. Carla and Casey have both lived and danced on both coasts. Dargoff is a newer voice compared to the others. 5 men. 4 women. One black, eight not so much. Lots of blond on this panel now that I think about it. Also lots of bald.
There's no way they can possibly agree. Even the Norbelies; dancing and married together for 20 years. They both place Skye & Frida first, but Helena scores Kevin & Jo 2nd while Kenneth ranks them 6th. Kenneth ranks Tommy & Alice 2nd and Helena marks them 4th.
But considering how strong the entire division was, is it really that much of a difference? Between the 9 judges, they spread top 3 placements among 7 couples. Maybe 7th place sounds far from 1st, but what separates them could be much closer than it seems. Game of inches.
Does Skye & Frida enjoy a familiarity/appeal advantage over other dancers? Even unconsciously? Does Annabel make finals a lot because she's recognizable from going to a lot of events, or does going to a lot of events give her an advantage in the sense that she has more opportunity to get used to it, not freak out, and just dance more confidently than others?
I wouldn't rule out unconscious biases. In fact, that's to be expected. We're dealing with Lindy Hop here, not the Supreme Court, and even that institution isn't immune to it. But this is why we have lots of judges on hand. More than anything, ILHC, and I would hope other events, places a premium on people with integrity. But even if one or two judges become blatantly slaves to irrational biases, then we hope the rest are able to override them. That's why we use relative placement; because it's a system based on majorities, and not cumulative scores or averages. Systems like those can be easily hijacked by one maverick judge. The lesson learned from previous events and competitions is that choosing between subjectivity and objectivity is a lot easier in theory than it is in practice. With relative placement, we do the next best thing, and translate subjective opinions into a democratic process.
Ultimately ours is a democratic community. No judge or event is the final arbiter of what is accepted by the dancers at large. That’s what I was trying to get at with my aborted re-write of Artistry in Rhythm. Hopefully I’ll get back to that one day.