On Judging (Introduction): A Few Questions

A Few Questions

Yeah, I can judge the contest. I was going to judge them anyway.

–Nina Gilkenson, said (in an obviously jokingly manner) to an organizer.

The first time you’re given a clipboard and asked to judge a swing dance contest, here are some of the questions that might go through your mind, perhaps even during the first heat, when you’re supposed to be watching competitors:

How do I make sure I give each couple the same amount of my time? Do I even need to give each couple an equal amount of my time? How do I judge a Jack and Jill differently from a Strictly? Do I even need to? Do I care about what they’re wearing? Do I smile when they do something good, or should I have a poker face? Is that even important? What aspects of dancing should I judge? Am I paying too much attention to the leads/follows because I am one? Do I count off for mistakes? If they’re cheesy, should I count off for that? Does good dancing beat out sloppy, but more entertaining dancing? Do I make notes while they’re dancing or wait till later? If the audience applauds something across the floor, should I look? Does a spotlight count more than an all-skate? If one couple got a great song in a spotlight, but another couple got a crappy song, should I adjust for that in my scores? If so, how? If a good follower gets paired with a crappy leader in a Jack and Jill, and dances really well, how does that compare to lesser followers who were luckier in their leads and came out looking better? Does a great slow dancer but sloppy fast dancer beat an awkward slow dancer but great fast dancer, or vice-versa? Will my own taste in style effect my judging? If I think it will, how should I compensate to fix it? How can I tell if dancers are connected? How do I know if they’re a good leader/follower when I am a follower/leader? Was that her mistake or his? What if no one was musical? What if I watch everyone in the contest and, when it’s over, have no idea where to put couples? How will I be able to give people good feedback if they ask me about my scores? I dislike everything about the leader, but how do I know if that’s affecting how I look at the follower’s dancing? What if I need one more song, and I’m the only judge who does? What if I know some of the other judges are going to reward aspects I don’t like, should I overcompensate my judging in the other direction to balance it out? Can someone even objectively judge an art form? Am I even supposed to judge objectively?!? *


“It’s just a contest. Go out there and have fun, don’t worry about it.”

While this is perfectly fine advice for a competitor, it’s terrible advice for a judge. This is partially because judging doesn’t get very fun, (at least, in my experience), but mainly because contests play an enormous role in shaping the dance.**

It also doesn’t help that there is little chance of you ever having learned how to judge before being given your first clipboard. (A big exception is when you judge a contest with Sylvia Sykes, who usually gives people a good review if it’s their first time judging. I still use many of the original methods she mentioned to me the first time I judged.) After all, there are hardly ever classes or talks on judging the swing dances. I haven’t seen any literature on the subject I know of, and you’d probably have to take a private lesson from a judge you respect in order to get an in-depth lesson on how they judge (which I highly recommend.)

You should also know, as a dancer, that the swing world does have judges who do the following: They favor dancers they know. They don’t have a consistent judging method. They are tainted by what they know about the dancing habits of the people in the competitions. They have preferences for or against certain styles. They might weigh certain aspects of dance disproportionately larger than others to an alarming extent. Or, the most prevalent, they simply haven’t put a whole lot of thought into their judging, they merely get handed a clip board and rely on their instincts. (Perhaps they think they have put a lot of thought into their judging, but the art of judging isn’t simply having strong opinions.)

This is very important: I’m not condemning relying on one’s instincts. I’m condemning not putting a whole lot of thought into something, the very thing that hones good instincts. Remember, it’s instincts that make you flap around like an idiot if you don’t know how to swim. It’s training your instincts that makes you conquer that anxiety, relax and simply float.

And, I can guarantee you that every single judge who ever existed, even the greatest and most consistent of them all, has made mistakes. When I asked one very well respected judge about our scores in a recent contest, the reply was “I don’t know what I was thinking, I was on crack.” (It’s easy to forgive, because my partner and I have both made mistakes judging before. What’s far harder to forgive is the fact that a well respected judge was smoking crack before a major contest.)

Looking at my scores and discussing judging with those judges I admire, I have realized over the years that I haven’t put as much thought into judging as I should have. I have since sought to fine-tune exactly what I think about judging, and my approach to it, both by my own journey in judging and by interviewing fellow teachers about how they approach it. I was amazed at the different methods of judging and even entirely different philosophies of judging. The following is an essay that might take a few months to fully publish, but that I hope will, if not educate, then at least raise some good debate about the nature of judging.

And it’s not just those who may be asked to judge who should learn about the process; I think event organizers and anyone wanting to be a serious competitor, or who simply enjoys watching competitions, should know everything they can about judging, because the way a judge judges (ideally) reflects how a great dancer views the dance.

And — which is very important for all dancer’s to understand–it drives home that a contest placement is more often a group compromise and an output of an equation rather than a personal, enthusiastic, unanimous declaration of greatness given by the Ultimate Judging Panel of Swing. (Which can happen, but is very rare.)


* — After searching for answers to these questions, I think some of them are easily answered, some of them you shouldn’t care about, and some of them have extremely complicated answers, possibly none of which are “right.” However, if you’re interested in judging, I’d like you to personally answer these questions. And if there are one’s you’re really sure of or passionate about, feel free to mention them in the comments section.

** — Though this is perhaps not ideal, I think most people would agree that it is a reality.

Teachers, for instance, are sometimes chosen because of their prowess on the competition dance floor, not necessarily because they teach well.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying; it makes total sense that organizers want inspiring dancers at the heart of their event, and a big contest is a sure-fire place to look for inspirational dancing as well as names that will bring in registrations and keep an event financially secure.

The only problem is that there is no direct link between a great competitor and a good teacher. And a good competition dancer who teaches poorly or not smartly can do a whole lot of damage. Imagine a group of beginner dancers taking one of their first classes with an awesome looking couple who are negative, vague, and don’t know how to properly teach the inappropriate-for-the-level move that they show differently every time.

9 responses to “On Judging (Introduction): A Few Questions”

  1. Kudos to you for writing this one up! I think judging in swing dancing is a topic that’s rarely examined (though its results are of course, often debated). I can’t wait to see what else you have to say on the subject.

  2. Bobby, we’ve never had the opportunity to get to know each other; we’ve met only briefly. I look forward to getting to know you at some time. I find your posts extremely relevant and thought provoking. On that note, thank you for posting this very interesting piece.

    I have been asked to judge a handful of competitions and have always been so nervous about it, mostly because I DON’T KNOW HOW TO JUDGE. I *always* come out the polar opposite of those around me and wonder, “am I doing this wrong? Do they see something I didn’t see? Do I see something they don’t see?” My teacherly focus is always so bent on making the material technically good but also fun. When I judge, I tend to try to look for the most connected (in my eyes) couple that is also having the most lindyriffic dance. I can put one aside in favor of the other to an extent, but no one ever taught me how to do this in a truly “judgerly” way. (I like to make up new words)

    Your post reminds me of a post by Tony a long while back about spotting. Spotting is the most important role in teaching/learning a new aerial, yet it is the most neglected. I had the benefit of learning from Chachi, who was a fierce safety advocate, so I tend to teach with the same approach. I have found that to be a rarity. Judging, with its scene-changing ramifications, is equally important – though in a less physical-injury kind of way.

    To inspire potential and active judges to bring more gravity to their role and to encourage “judge training” is an incredibly good idea. Personally, I would take every class I could, just to figure out how the crap to balance my personal dance ideology with the zeitgeist of the moment.

    I can’t wait to read the rest of your thoughts.

  3. I enjoyed this article and I eagerly await for your essay on judging.

    Your advice on taking a private lesson from a judge you respect in order to get an in-depth lesson on how they judge is spot on as well.

    Before my first, what I considered big competition (Boston Tea Party) I took a private lesson with Nick Williams on the premise of fixing things that he would mark down for while judging. The insight I gained during the lesson of how he judges during a competition was well worth it.

    Also, two essays I read on Yehoodi awhile back on judging that found informative were:

    Nicole Frydman (On Judging): https://docs.google.com/View?docid=dhkhj8sz_14dt5c26hn

    Tena Morales (On Judging): https://docs.google.com/View?docid=dhkhj8sz_15dcv6ndd3

    • Thanks! And thanks for posting those links–Tena and Nicole are both friends of mine and I didn’t know they wrote these. I’m going to check them out the first chance I get.

  4. Liked your article Bobby.

    I remember hearing a few years ago Sylvia Sykes commenting regarding judging that it was important to ensure that the high-scoring competitors are dancing the dance the way it should be, because the winners inevitably have their style and moves etc copied by other dancers. This can be really important in smaller, less developed scenes where some couples may win based on crowd appeal but show bad form.

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