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On Judging, Part 3: Swing Judging Philosophy 101

January 5, 2012

[So far in this series, we’ve discussed the Basic Competition Blueprint, as well as some of the tricks for watching a competition. Now we’ll start getting into the deeper questions involved with judging. Also, please note, Part 2 of this series has been extensively updated since its first publication.]

Judging an improvised partnership swing dance is not a clear-cut black-and-white task. First off, there are two complex factors a judge is being asked to consider: expression and execution. Then there is the question of what it means to dance the specific dance form itself. If you’re judging a Lindy Hop competition, what MAKES it Lindy Hop, versus something else?

As we will explore in the next few sections of this essay, there are different judging philosophies out there, and the most important thing judges can do is find out what their philosophy is, and why they believe that is the way to do it. (For instance, if you judge half a contest under one philosophy, and then change your philosophy for the second half of a contest, then your results won’t be consistent, nor will they have a foundation to stand on.)

But first, let’s discuss what most judges see as an irrefutable rule, and I offer it here, dramatically, because it is a very important (and difficult) one to keep.

The Irrefutable Rule

I mentioned this in first part of the essay; however, I thought I would discuss it a little bit more. The irrefutable rule of swing dancing, as clearly stated in Aristotle’s Poetics, in English and everything, is this:

A competitor should be judged only for the dancing they are doing in the contest they are in. They should not be judged for how they danced in the past, and they should not be judged based on hopes for their future.

When my dance partner and violist Kate auditions for orchestras, she will often first come into a room with a curtain, the judges on the other side. She will not be allowed to speak; she will simply play her selection. If she’s wearing heels, they will ask her to take them off before she walks onto the stage. This is all to ensure that judges only hear her play that single piece, without any other knowledge of her. They won’t know her sex, her resume, or if they have met her before. It is, in a sense, the perfect way to judge how that piece of music is played.

Now imagine a swing dance contest where everyone had to wear paper bags over their heads? Doesn’t matter, you’d still be able to tell Skye from Kevin, or Alice from Frida. Okay, then try to imagine judging a contest with all of those dancers, and pretending you didn’t know who they were; they were all just people from off the street you had never seen before and who happened to be incredible swing dancers. All the hours you had spent watching those one or two favorite leads—you have to forget that. All the hours you spent hanging out with one of them, all of the times you felt that other couple got more awards than they deserved, you have to throw it all out. The fact that last week they killed it? Can’t think about it. That one follower is still doing that thing you’ve told her to fix a hundred times? Can’t let it sway you more than a stranger dancing would. The fact that you want to make out with one of them? Perhaps the fact that you have made out with one of them? You have to get rid of it. Because all that matters is how good of a swing dancer they are in that very contest in front of your eyes compared to everyone else in that same contest.

Perhaps you can imagine how hard it is to completely remove all bias, even if you are really working hard to do so. Imagine how much harder it would be to judge unbiasedly if you hadn’t even thought about it before? Imagine that clear conscious thought that says “they’re the best” and not hearing that barely audible, subconscious whisper: “Because I thought they were the best before they even started dancing.”

I do believe judging people strictly on the dancing they show in the contest they are in IS an irrefutable rule.* I also believe it’s one of the hardest for many judges to live up to. You could even argue that it’s actually impossible for anyone to really completely live up to it. (Luckily, that’s already been factored into the contest. That’s why you have so many judges in a contest, to dissolve the power of those hard-to-reach biases. However, sometimes there are biases so subtle and yet wide-spread that multiple judges are affected.) The mental battle of fighting biases is also one reason why judging is so hard for some, and why good judges are worth their weight in clipboards.**

Now let’s turn to what you’re looking for as a judge, which is another aspect of the basic judging philosophy.

Expression and Technique

As I mentioned earlier, the two fundamental things that are judged in art (including partnered Lindy Hop) are expression and technique. In other words, what they are trying to say, and how well they say it. In a future chapter, we will discuss a very interesting dilemma one specific Lindy Hop judge faces in his own judging; however, for now, it’s mainly just important that we mention it.

In swing dancing specifically, how do dancers express themselves? Musicality, styling and variations, move choice, the conversation between partners, showmanship, emotions. You could probably argue for a few others, but in my opinion those are the big ones. Now, there are very different techniques involved in all of these, which is yet another thing that makes a contest so complex. You are, after all, trying to compare the strengths and weaknesses of all of these factors, not to mention the degrees to which a competitor has each, and, finally, once you’ve judged how well they said what they wanted to say, you then have to judge what they had to say against what other competitors had to say. Thankfully, our brains are pretty good at handling complex stuff, and we do a lot of this quickly and often even subconsciously. (It reminds me of the note on “blinking” in Part 2 of this essay.) Still, there’s incredibly intricate machinery there behind the curtain.

Now let’s look specifically at the basic factors by which a swing dance couple can be judged.

You’re given a clipboard. You know HOW to look at couples, thanks to a nifty article you read once online. But now, WHAT do you look for? We’re going to start to answer this question with a Judging Philosophy 101 method handed down to us from West Coast Swing, though Sylvia Sykes suspects it was probably handed down to WCS from somewhere else. It’s called the Three Ts.

The Three Ts

The “Three Ts” stand for timing, technique, and teamwork.

Timing

Timing is not just good rhythm, though that’s a large part of it. Rhythm in small movements as well as big movements should be clear and match the timing and feeling of the music. But there are other dimensions of timing. For instance, advanced dancers can hit musical swells and changes in mood in time with the music. (It’s a sign of how much they are listening to the music and understand the music they’re listening to.) Their movements last the perfect amount of time; they are not too eager or so lazy they are out of time with the feeling of the music.

Technique

Technique is, obviously, the blanket term for how refined and skillful they are in accomplishing what they are trying to accomplish. Both good partnership dancing technique and good solo dancing technique make up this category.

Teamwork

Working together well as a partnership. (See partnershp below.)

One of the strengths of the Three Ts is that they’re easy to remember, there are only three categories to put everything in, and they vaguely cover a lot of bases. However, their strengths are also their weaknesses: Being vague, they may not be very helpful to a first-time judge, and they leave a lot of room for certain things to not be considered. For instance, musicality is perhaps implied, but not explicitly mentioned. It’s the same for a few other things. (Many of the judging sheets at WCS events actually have six categories on each competitor’s judging bar: timing, technique, teamwork, execution, choreography, showmanship.)

So I’d like to offer a different list of categories a judge can look for if they don’t think the Three Ts are their kind of thing. (Or, these can also simply be added to the Three Ts method. I don’t mean to imply Three Ts is a bad method; A skillful and experienced Three Ts judge could still be taking into account all of the following concepts within the Three Ts notes on their clipboard.)

Basic Aspects of Great Swing Dancing

So, what makes great swing dancing? What are the aspects one sees when they look at a competitor? I believe these are the main ones:

Movement and Shape


A major category almost every judge takes into account is a couple’s quality of movement and shape. One could say dancing, at its bare bone basics, simply IS movement and shape (“to music” perhaps you would add, in this case, swing music.) So what are the qualities of these things? First off, though they are separate words and ideas, I believe that in dance, movement and shape are entwined and cannot be separated from each other. Don’t worry, I’ll put the science down in a moment, but to me they are like the idea of space-time. In dance, there is no point to there being one without the other.

The quality of these things is kind of abstract: How they flow, both from where they were and into what they will be [movement], and their connection to what it is they flowed into and out of [shape]. How does a couple show this? How they generate momentum and what they do with it once they have it, how they pulse, the way they turn, the way they step, the size of their steps compared to other steps, the lines they make, their balance, transitions, their rhythm. Those are all aspects to the movement and shape. However, I think all of these still basically mean what I said first How they flow, both from where they were and into what they will be; and what it is they flowed into and out of. And, what cannot be forgotten, is how this relates to the music being danced to.*** (For instance, a master ballet dancer has incredible movement and shape, but wouldn’t look right dancing ballet to swing music.)

This also happens to be the aspect of the dance you can judge simply by seeing a swing-out. When you see a simple swing-out that blows you away with how incredible it is, I’d argue that what is blowing you away about it is the quality of its movement and shape. Movement and shape also happen to be tied to partnership technique: how partners move together and good leading and following are all entwined with it in a partnership dance.

I know for myself and many other judges, this is usually the thing instructors look for in level tests. Sure, knowing some snazzy moves and being able to pull off fancy lead/following is good, but if we only have ten seconds to look at you, we’re looking for only one thing, and I’d argue it’d tell us much more about you as a dancer than the fancy moves or the variation you’re doing. In fact, the only time a fancy move or variation looks good is when it is done with great movement and shape.

Whether they would label it as “movement & shape” or not, I would not be surprised if this is the most important thing for many other judges as well. For instance, imagine your favorite professional dancing couple in a contest with nothing but a group of beginner/intermediate dancers who have all been trained in five fancy-pants moves and one aerial, and can bust them all out to the music, and they are all having a blast and being very passionate and showing off for the crowd, but they still move and shape like beginner/intermediate dancers. So, picture that contest, and picture your favorite dancers of all time doing nothing but swing-outs, side passes and tuck turns. They’re not allowed to do any different footwork, they’re not allowed to do any other moves, they are only allowed to move differently through those basic patterns and change the shape of their bodies or the movement. Picturing that among those intermediate couples performing passionately and throwing each other around to the music, who do you think deserves to win? If you chose the great dancers who didn’t do anything fancy, then you might believe this is the most important thing, too.

[Note: When I hear the phrase quality of motion, I think of these things. However, as I did not invent the phrase, I can’t claim here for certain whether or not it has a similar intent.]

Partnership


Partnership is basically all that “teamwork” implies in the Three Ts. Judging a couple’s partnership is judging the conversation the follower and the leader have in a dance, how they help each other attain greatness, or perhaps keep each other from attaining greatness. It’s about how they interact, how they listen, how they act to one another, and basically what page each of them is on, the ideal being the same page. What’s particularly interesting about partnership is that it is the only one of these categories that demands a judge look at both the leader and follower of the couple. One of the easy traps for judges to fall into is for judges who are leaders to mainly look at the leader in a couple, and for judges who are followers to mainly look at followers. And in all the other categories, it’s possible to get a rating on a couple by only looking at one of them; after all, a solo dancer can be musical, have good movement, be passionate, have good showmanship, have difficult variations, you get the idea. But to see how well a couple handles partnership demands the judge look at how both partners act.

In fact, it’s not a bad method to look at couples for partnership as a default, and then you’ll be able to tell how the couple falls in a lot of the other categories, without a bias leaning more towards either the leader or the follower.

Musicality


Though all the Three Ts imply musicality to some degree, musicality is so important that it probably wouldn’t hurt for a judge to consider it separately. As Frankie Manning said, swing dancing itself is a marriage with both the partner and the music. (“Which do you love more you know? Hahahaha!” quoth the Frankie.)

Sometimes it’s easy for judges (and competitors) to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s a quantity scale: the more musical you are, the better. But I think most would agree that quality is much more important than quantity. Dancers can be musical in both micro and macro ways. Dancers can be musical by literally interpreting the music, sure, but they can also be musical by suddenly becoming their own instrument and adding their own dance-riff to the music. Dancers can be powerfully musical by only choosing a few moments in their spotlights to be incredibly musical, and then laying back and taking it easy in the downtime between. Some dancers are 80 times more musical than others simply by the way they move and shape to the music. Now, just as a plethora of musicality is not necessarily a (+), the absence of it is not all it takes to get a (-). For instance, you’d probably want to put a frowny face next to the musicality section of your notes if the dancers in front of you are doing intricate, “musical-looking” moves that have absolutely no relation to what the music was doing when they did it. Some judges might decide spending so much time on micro musicality and missing all the macro musicality is worthy of a (-) on the clip board.****

Composition


Composition is basically the word to describe the overall effect of the moves and variations a couple chose to do, and how they transitioned between them. For instance, if you had never seen the California routine, and a couple went out and did it, you would probably be impressed with its composition. Three swing-outs and a circle. Okay, not difficult, but solid. Especially if they had beautiful swing-outs and variations. Then comes the kick ups, tuck turn, side pass, and all of which climaxed with a throw-out? Nice. Then right from there into a little crazy legs followed by that cool looking tango thing, and overall a big finish with an aerial? It had a nice balance of basics and hard stuff, it had a nice balance of subtle and flash, the moves naturally flowed from one to the other so that it wasn’t jolting, no moves dominated over the others (for instance, there weren’t eight side passes), it escalated excitingly, it was phrased well, (though that starts to get into musicality, but what is important to composition is the move chosen to fill the spot in the phrase that a move fills): basically, that routine had good composition.

Composition is also a relatively easy aspect to label with difficulty. So, for instance, take two couples who moved the same, were both equally musical and performed equally well. However, what if one couple did harder moves than the other? And first, let’s say that couple succeeded in those harder moves. You now probably have a clear winner.

But just to give you a challenge, what if that couple trying the harder moves didn’t succeed? What if they tried something difficult, but there was a stumble, or a noticeable hand fumble, something slightly off about it. Who should win?

Should the slightly-fumbling couple be rewarded for at least taking a risk, or should they who danced clean and solid, though not attempting something as difficult, be rewarded? (I will take this sentence to give you time to think.)

This is actually a pretty common happening, at it’s a dilemma that doesn’t necessarily have a right answer, so you have to make the call as a judge. Some judges I know always choose one over the other. Other judges I know chose within the context of the contest: for instance, if it’s a contest where everyone’s playing it safe, the one who made the mistake will be rewarded for at least taking a risk. If it’s a contest where everyone’s taking risks and failing at them, the one who gave good, solid dancing may get the reward.

Performance


I originally called this section “showmanship” but decided against it, as I think it has a connotation in the modern swing world that involves putting perhaps a little too much attention towards showing off for an audience. Performance, however, is a relatively unbiased word, one that hopefully would not lead to cheesy smiles and over-acting. Whereas things like movement, musicality, and move-choice are probably obvious aspects to judging the dance, performance is one of the more controversial ones. It’s controversial because of this: Though it is probably somewhere on most judges’ clipboards, some judges make it the number one priority of things to look for in a competitor, whereas some judges make it the last thing to look for in a competitor.

Basically, every Lindy Hop judge has to decide, ultimately, to what extent is competition Lindy Hop a performance dance and to what extent is it a social dance? The problem, of course, is that it’s both.

Let’s think black-and-white for a moment and imagine there are only two stances you can take on performance: One is that all competition swing dancing should be dedicated to performance if it’s in front of an audience. The other is that it doesn’t matter; it’s all about the partnership and the music, the audience are just voyeurs on a good social dance. (Not to get too deep into this, but it is possible for competitors to be so good at subtle performing that they dance a dance that doesn’t seem to have showmanship, but you do somehow feel a part of the intimate social dancing happening. Then you realize they’re actually being incredible performers.)

Both of these sides have plenty of evidence and logic to stand on. The side that looks at Lindy Hop as a performance dance has Hellzapoppin’, The Harvest Moon Ball footage, and the basic theatre philosophy that where there’s an audience, there’s a performance. The side that looks at Lindy Hop as a social dance only has to look at the dance’s roots in the ballrooms, the improvisational nature of it and most contests, and the fact that it’s a partnered dance, rather than a solo dance, for a reason.

The actual answer most judges have is that it’s both, but again, judges have different recipes. One might think it should be 70% performance, 30% social, and be standing next to another judge who thinks it should be 5% performance, 95% social.

Regardless of how much performance means to a judge, I recommend judges not just grade on the presence of performance, but on the quality of that performance. Don’t think of competitors as dancers, but actors: a great actor looks like they’re actually having the time of their life, they don’t just throw on a cheesy smile. A great actor actually looks like they’re blown away, they don’t just have an “O” face.***** Competitors and judges should also remember that showmanship doesn’t just equal “big performance faces.” There are some basic performance traits every competitor should be thinking about—not looking at the ground the entire dance, not doing your trick steps towards the speaker stand, and any number of small things that detract from the experience of watching a couple.

Even if a judge decides performance plays an incredibly small role in their judging, it can often serve a good use in breaking ties when a judge simply can’t decide between two competitors.

Passion


(Actually, it would perhaps make more sense to call this one spirit, but it’s hard to find a picture that matches it so nicely.)

How much does the competitor show the spirit of the dance? It’s more than just performance, thought it is certainly an aspect to performance. And, much like performance, this is also a very controversial category, perhaps even more so, and for the same reasons: some judges consider it a small thing; other judges think it is one of the most important factors in dance.

Everyone who watches Lindy Hop competitions can probably think of a time when that one couple went out there and really brought out a raw emotional energy to their dancing. They gritted their teeth, they hollered, they showed how excited they were, they seemed to be electrified, and everyone was yelling because it was obvious how much they were feeling it. Often times, though, these couples get too big, they get sloppy, and they get contrived. At what point does their passion become a negative because it actually limits their dance, or becomes the sole reason for their dance, rather than their dancing being the reason for their passion? It can be a fine line, but a line a judge should probably be aware of.

Then there’s the fact that a lot of competitors artificially use passion as a performance device. Now, it actually doesn’t matter if they do that or not—what matters regarding this essay is what it looks like to a judge. And just like every other aspect of a performance, a judge has to grade the quality of the performance. It’s not enough that they’re showing emotions.

One could argue that a competitor who tries to express an emotion and does so inauthentically, or with the hint of ulterior motives, is in a similar predicament as the person who tries a complicated move that fumbles, and the judge has a decision to make as to whether that’s a positive or a negative.

I also recommend strongly that judges remember that there are many different ways to show the spirit of Lindy Hop, that you might even say there are many different spirits of Lindy Hop and swing. Imagine a contest with Jewel McGowan doing swivels next to Jean Veloz next to Irene Thomas next to Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Joyce James. Jewel will show her passion for swing music through her power and grace, Jean will show her passion through cutesy playfulness, Irene will show hers through sass, and Joyce James will show hers through her joyful wildness. I’d argue that all of those are different spirits of Lindy Hop, and none of them are so far above the other that they should necessarily dominate the dance.

(After all, I’d argue that swing and early jazz music was almost always powerful, graceful, playful, sassy, and joyfully wild, all at the same time.)

Expression and Technique Revisited

Now that we’ve broken down the basic aspects of a dance spotlight, I’d like to jump back to the idea that judges are looking at two things: what the artist is saying, and how well they are saying it. Each of these aspects above will have those two facets. Sometimes it’s pretty clear cut. For instance, some dancers are often musical in funny ways—what they’re saying is that they find that part of the music whimsical or witty. If they make you laugh, and you know it’s on purpose, then they are probably saying it well. Other times, though, it can get complicated. For instance, in composition, a leader might be successfully doing very difficult moves, way more difficult than everyone else, but they all happen to be Todd Yannacone’s moves, and he’s not Todd. Another leader in the competition might have some only medium-difficulty moves, but they’re all original, made-up moves, and they’re pretty damn good swing moves. The former is saying he wishes he were Todd, and he’s saying it very well. The latter is saying “I’m trying to be me” and may be saying it just pretty alright. Now one leader having more difficult moves than another isn’t such a simple choice.

Putting It All Together

So, probably the most common and basic way of judging is to have categories like these in mind when you’re looking at dancers in a contest. You, however, have to decide which aspects are the most important for you, which ones are less important, and perhaps which of them might not be important to you at all. For some judges, the list of what’s important may depend on what the dancers are doing in the contest. In some contests, organizers specifically ask judges to reward one category over the other. As we’ll discuss in another chapter, the importance of these aspects will probably change based on what type of contest it is. For instance, guess what will probably be pretty important in a showcase competition? And what would probably be more important in a Jack and Jill final?

Now, remember from our chapter on watching and note-taking technique that you don’t have to go through a checklist with every competitor. You can use abstract scoping to get a lot of information (looking for things that stick out as good or bad), and then, if you need more info, you can begin using a checklist. But, let’s assume a judge was able to get a complete checklist based on all the categories above for two couples in a contest. Let’s steal that judge’s contest notes before ranks are added to it:

Now, let’s say these couples are neck and neck, but one of them must be put first. Assuming we have an unbiased judge, it all depends on what this judge rates highest in the contest. Let’s say the [M with a circle around it] is quality of movement and shape. If the judge puts this highest, then this puts couple 101 in a good position to win. But let’s say the judge is more concerned with Musicality [the musical note]. In that case, couple 101 didn’t do so hot.

If the judge put’s partnership [the P] the highest, then this judge has a tough decision to make. According to the notes, couple 101’s follower was obviously bringing the partnership down. The leader, however, was good. (I forgot to put a “Leader +” thingy, but pretend that it’s there.) Couple 299, however, had an “alright” partnership. So, how does a good leader balanced out by a bad follower compare to a couple that is well balanced, but not particularly amazing? For scientific sake, assume they are perfectly equal when all the facts are in (for instance, the leaders strengths are perfectly neutralized by the followers weaknesses). Some judges might reward the bi-polar couple, for at least having something above par. Some might discount it for having something below par. (We’ll talk about judging negatively versus positively in a future section.) Others might choose the well-balanced couple for being solid and clean, though maybe not necessarily awe-inspiring. And yet even other judges would just say they are equal and use something else as a tie breaker.

Now, if a judge puts showmanship [the star] really, really high, then couple 299 really has a strong chance of taking first. However, if content [the C] is most important, it looks like couple 101 pulled off some difficult moves very well, while couple 299 fumbled a bit, or perhaps didn’t do very difficult moves, depending on what the notation meant to the judge. Couple 299 also seemed to show a lot of spirit [!], which, depending on the judge, might help bump them above couple 101.

That’s a rough idea of how a judge might decide a winner, but in reality things are even more complicated, as many judges don’t put one of those categories supremely over others. A super-computer might be able to look at a judge’s scoring history and figure out that the judge tends to doll out 20% to movement, 25% to musicality, 20% to partnership, 10% to composition, 15% to showmanship, and 10% to spirit. Yet another judge might have 35%, 15%, 5%, 30%, etc. Obviously, judges don’t really bring a calculator with them to judge, but the results of a contest are often how those factors all relate to each other, often subconsciously.

I tried to give an unbiased take on these aspects regarding how much each category should factor into an ending score, because part of becoming a judge is deciding what YOU think. However, I do have personal opinions on these, and other judges do as well. I recommend, when talking to a judge after a contest, or when taking a private from a teacher you admire, asking them how they judge a contest, and what things are most important to them. Speaking for myself, I will be happy to talk in person to anyone who asks about this, provided I have the time and that person has the patience.

In conclusion: Sometimes you look at a the score sheets for a contest, and see that your favorite couple got ranked 1st, 2nd, 5th, 9th, and 56th depending on the judge. A look at other couples on the sheet might show that everyone else was all over the map too. When this happens, it is usually simply a case of a contest’s judges having different formulas about how the categories listed above are processed into their scores.

And occasionally—I’m not going to lie—it’s because a judge is smoking crack.

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[Author’s Note: Now these certainly aren’t the ONLY ways to judge a contest. And these are not standard titles for what the aspects of swing dancing are. For instance, some judges might lump showmanship and composition and passion all together under one category. In fact, no one judge probably looks at judging the same way. Here is merely what I believe to be the main aspects of what judges are looking for in a contest. Also, a special thanks to Sylvia Sykes for looking over this article.]

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* — If you are a head judge who doesn’t believe this rule, simply have your judges jot down the names of the couples they want to win, tabulate, and mail out the trophies without even having a contest.

** — This is tangential, but still applies: A judge can’t clap for some people and then not for others when the emcee calls them out onto the dance floor. This isn’t so much a rule as good etiquette—if you clap for your friends, and then not for others, and then judge the contest, people can make assumptions about a bias in your judging. It’s better to not clap at all as people are introduced, anyway, so you can make your notes.

*** — A judge can NOT judge a dance in a vacuum. A dance is done to music, and the movement and shapes of the dance should reflect the music they are dancing to. It’s why the swung, pumped kicks of 1930s jitterbugs convey swing music more than ballet grand battements could. It’s why dancers dancing with a heavy Charleston pulse to smooth swung rhythms don’t look quite right. It’s why Frankie Manning decided to have a “running” look to his dancing. It’s why Bal-Swing is hard to do to Charleston music without simply making it Partnered Charleston with lots of spins.

****–By the way, I don’t mean to imply that I’m guilt free in these things. I love playing with musicality, and have been guilty of all of these infractions at some point, and most definitely will be again. It’s a good reminder that you should still judge according to your highest standards, even if you don’t always live up to them yourself. Ideally, you would give yourself a frowny face if you were competing and doing the same thing.

*****–Okay, so here’s a debate for another time, but an interesting one: Old school vaudeville performers, and several dancers of that era and later, might have had “cheesy smiles,” “O” faces and otherwise exaggerated facial expressions. How do you judge a modern dancer who takes on these characteristics to create the old-timey look to their dancing?

My personal thoughts on this debate are slightly divided. On the one hand (1) A lot of that came from “acting to the bleachers”—making sure the people in the back row of a theater could see your expressions, and, more importantly, (2) most of the best dancers of the day didn’t have those huge over-acting facial expressions—Frankie Manning, the Whitey’s followers, Al Minns, Jewel McGowan, Dean Collins, Fred Astaire, Irene Thomas (maybe a little), Nicholas Brothers, Leon James (mostly),etc. (I think Gene Kelly pushed it sometimes, but still did more good than harm.)

On the other hand, I appreciate the attention to detail and practice in going for that look and exaggerated performance style and would not be opposed to putting such dancers first in a contest. However, personally, if there was a dancer who showed a little more sophistication and “genuine-ness” in an equal performance, I would grade them higher. This starts to get into the deeper philosophies of judging though, as will be explored in future posts.

Funny (and related) story: In Marshall Stearns’s Jazz Dance, Al Minns said he first met Leon James at the Savoy shortly after the movie A Day at the Races came out. Al mentioned what a ham he thought Leon was for the smile and finger waving part in the dance part of the movie clip.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Thom permalink
    January 5, 2012 9:58 am

    Great stuff Bobby; really interesting.

    I have a question (or set of questions). Perhaps you’re planning to address this in a later post. But still: Everything above is about judging couples. How do you approach judging individuals (i.e. the heats of a JnJ contest)?

    For example: How do you weigh the lead/follow who has only danced with excellent partners against the one who has only danced with weak partners? How do you judge a lead if their follow can’t recognise a swing-out? How do you judge a follow if their lead is hopelessly out-of-time, or isn’t dancing lindy hop? Etc.

    • Bobby permalink*
      January 5, 2012 2:50 pm

      Why actually, this is a subject in an upcoming post. However, I welcome other readers to give their opinions on the matter.

  2. January 5, 2012 11:23 pm

    Bobby, I love your writing, thoughtful and interesting as always.

    I don’t have a lot of comments to make (or perhaps too many to put in one little comment box), but one thought is that as we grow in our appreciation and understanding of the dance, we may sometimes lose the ability to see it as an overall performance.

    I thought it was really interesting watching youtube videos with my partner’s (non swing-dancing) parents. It was very thought-provoking to hear which couples and performers they found most enjoyable to watch. Sometimes it’s nice to stop admiring the steps, variations, and even the basic form of the dancers, and just try and take it all in at once. Of course, with so much going on, it would be quite hard to judge!

  3. December 30, 2013 9:05 pm

    Hey, Bobby! Long time reader, first time commenter… but I just have to… verses should be versus. The former pertains to lyrics or poetry, and the latter means against. Joe Verses the Volcano would be epic poetry rather than an epic comedy. Then again…

    • Bobby permalink*
      January 2, 2014 10:08 pm

      Thanks for the catch…ah, the days when I occassionally didn’t send stuff to my editor.

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Trackbacks

  1. Posts in Order of Publication « Swungover*
  2. on succeeding in competitions | move(me)nt
  3. Swungover Turns 3! « Swungover*

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