On Judging, Part 1: The Basic Competition Blueprint

As Well as Explanations of the “Natural Break” and Relative Placement Scoring

This is Part 1 of a series on judging the classic swing dances. If you missed the introduction to the series, it’s here.

If you start to sweat the first time you are asked to judge a swing dance competition, take comfort in the fact that there is a system behind it all, and if there isn’t, then the contest has bigger problems than you possibly judging wrong.

It all begins with the organizer.

The Organizer

The organizer has the most control over a contest, and the quality of its judging. After all, it is the organizer who chooses the head judge, possibly chooses the other judges, has the power to decide the method of determining a winner, and can reward certain aspects of the dance if they so wish. It is the organizer who creates the guidelines and requirements for contests, a subtly powerful tool. Finally, the choice of prize money, titles, and trophies may heavily affect the way the competition is viewed by the rest of the swing dance world.

At one event a few years ago, the organizers attempted something almost unheard of—the judges were left in a room and told to debate among themselves to come up with a winner, Twelve Angry Men style. Another event organizer has told judges in the past that showmanship is the main point of their contest and that competitors should be judged as such. Some organizers discourage teachers from entering their contests, to encourage more up-and-coming competitors entering. Other organizers encourage their teachers to compete, so that the competition is given a high status. See?

But every organizer probably has the same goal: to run a quality contest. Where the ambiguity comes into play is when an organizer tries to figure out what exactly “quality” specifically means. Does quality mean a contest the competitors enjoy, or a contest the viewers enjoy? (They aren’t always one and the same.) Does it mean a contest that measures up to the organizer’s idea of what the dance should be, or does it mean a contest that measure’s up to the scene’s idea of what the dance should be? The organizer has choices, and it would be getting (further) off topic to explore that, as interesting as it is.

Regardless, the first step every organizer can take towards a quality contest is to choose a head judge they can trust to put together the best judging panel possible from those available. After that, they can make sure their mathematicians know what they’re doing and will double check all the numbers, and make sure their DJs know what they’re doing.* They might have to research a lot to find their head judges and DJs, but it will make all the difference in the world.

(And even if this is all an organizer does, it’s probably going to be a good contest.)

Though organizers should give a rough number of how many finalists they want in a competition, it’s technically not as fair to the competitors if they set a definitive number. This is because of the natural break. Let’s say you have fifteen couples in the prelims to a contest. The judges scoring reveals that seven of those couples are pretty much equally worthy to be in the finals. (The “natural break” in this instance is the break between the best couples and the rest of the couples in the contest prelims.) If an organizer demanded that only five couples be in the final, then two of those worthy couples will get the nix.

If possible, organizers should also try to find a way to pay a small fee to judges for judging. (This is by no means common or expected in the Lindy Hop world, but is certainly appreciated when it happens. It’s a small way of showing that organizers value the judges’ opinions and appreciate the time the instructors could otherwise be spending doing private lessons or resting.)

The head judge or the organizer usually then finds an odd number of judges for a contest. Often, a mixture of leaders and followers. Choosing judges is probably the most important step in determining the integrity of a contest (otherwise, why not just have a demo?). After this, the head judge takes over.

But before we give over the keys to the head judge, one final thing an organizer can do to assure great quality contests is, after the event, to seriously review the competitions. Look at the judges’ sheets, talk to the head judge about how the competitions went, ask individual judges about their choices if you are curious about them. Look at the finals of the competition on YouTube and try to pinpoint, with fresh eyes, what message your contest’s placements would send to an average viewer.

The Head Judge

The word “Head Judge” means different things to different organizers. Some Head Judges are only expected to break prelim ties, and that’s the extent of their title. Others are expected to assign the judges, do the math, hand out clip boards, assign contest times, announce winners, etc. One of the first things a head judge and organizer should do is determine the workload the Head Judge is expected to cover (and probably the payment expectations if it’s anything more than break ties). For the rest of this article, we will assume the Head Judge chooses the judges and determines the scoring.

In the introduction to this essay series, we posed a bunch of questions that might be going through the mind of a judge. Many of those questions have to do with handling our natural biases. Though a judge should strive for non-biased judging, a good head judge usually creates a system that, at least to some extent, automatically counters a lot of generic biases.** For instance: in a Jack and Jill, a head judge probably wouldn’t have only leaders judge leaders and followers judge followers.

Another tool the head judge might use to counter general bias is the relative placement scoring system, currently the most popular method of scoring a contest. The reason it is so popular is because it gives each judge exactly the same power—single judges can’t knowingly or unknowingly throw their weight around to tip the scales. ***

For instance, let’s say we’re judging a contest, with seven judges, and we decide we will just take the average of all the judges scores combined and use that for our final scores. After the contest, six of the judges have given Captain Swing Hero 1st place. But the seventh judge, the one with the mischievous laugh, cape and top hat, doesn’t want Captain Hero to win. So, he puts the Capt. in dead last, 15th place. 15 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 equals 21, divided by 7 equals an average of 3. The evil judge’s one score has become much more powerful than any of the other judges’.

If the evil judge put Super Flippy Dude in first, and that guy got all 2nd places from the other judges, his average is now close to 2. That means he would beat Capt. Swing Hero, a man who unquestionably was the best in 6 out of 7 judges’ opinions.

Relative placement, however, mathematically steps around this problem, and each judge gets an equal voice (except the head judge, who is given the additional power of breaking ties in the callbacks for finals, to keep an even break). To understand it better, a place to start is a description of it here.

Scores can be confusing to a new competitor, especially when they look at a relative placement score sheet and see that someone who might have gotten two 2nd places, a 3rd, a 5th and a 7th place ends up in first place when five other couples might all have a 1st place in their scores. In that instance, the winning couple was the one that had the most agreed upon “greatness,” even though they obviously didn’t steal the show in any one judge’s eyes.

The Judge

Next up is the basic judge. The entire rest of this essay series will concentrate specifically on the act of judging swing dance, from both the technical and philosophical sides. So, we won’t say much more about it now.

However, I’d like to take this moment to express a simple aspect of judging that will help out everyone: If you are asked to judge, make sure you know what you’re judging and when, and show up at least ten minutes before, ready to do so. If you have any questions, ask them as early as possible in the event.

Something so simple goes a long way in making everything run smoothly and keeping anxiety out of the picture. And it’s a great first step towards gaining respect as a judge.

The Competitor

The competitor is the focus of all of it. If everything goes well, then the organizer has clearly made the contest requirements known, the judging panel is trustworthy, and the DJ is going to play great music to fit the style of dancing the competition is designed for.

And, more importantly, it’s the competitors’ dancing in that one single contest, and at no other time, that they should be judged on; They should not be judged on what they’ve done in contests before, they should not be judged on their potential for the future. This is one point I believe is irrefutable, and should be always be in the back of your mind when you judge—before you realize it, your knowledge of a person’s dancing past or hopes for their future could creep into your judging. And keeping it out is surprisingly difficult to do sometimes.

The Audience

Finally, the audience plays an interesting role in the competition blueprint, mainly because of the way all the other roles may react to the audience. An organizer *might* make a lot of choices based on what they expect the audience to like. On a smaller scale, the audience screaming and cheering for a couple may draw the judge’s eyes to an area. Some judges might even consciously or sub-consciously take audience reaction into account when they’re scoring.

And every competitor knows the impact an engaged audience that claps enthusiastically on even-beats can have on a competitor versus one that doesn’t.****

Special thanks to Sylvia Sykes for checking over most of my work on this article and series. (And for listening to almost any question I’ve ever had my entire judging life, by the way.)

*—Contest DJing is another topic altogether, but I think it bears mentioning here: As a judge, I personally don’t think a contest DJ should care so much about playing rare unheard of music in competitions–unless every competitor gets the same treatment, and the beat can be heard. If one couple gets the 1912 song with the saw-solo in the mix of mid-30s swing, then it becomes much harder to judge the contestants against one another.

The other philosophy I strongly recommend for contest DJs is to try to inspire your competitors, not test them. Keeping up with the 270 BPM piano-plinkerty song with the two-minute vibe solo might be a great test of a dancer’s skill, but no one’s going to actually enjoy dancing to the song, and that means no one’s going to enjoy watching that as much as they would something that gets competitors excited.

**—The first step in this is choosing judges known for not letting their biases interfere too much with their judging. But such judges are not always available.

***—At least, not as much as other contest scoring methods. But we’ll discuss that in later sections.

****—Occasionally, the audience and the judge are the same. Solo Charleston contests often have an audience-judged finals, and I’m not quite sure why, except that it is a sort of modern tradition now.

One simple rule of thumb for judging an audience-judged contest: If you want your vote to count more, make more noise than anyone else. Though there are a lot of pros and cons to an audience-judged contest, one neat pro is that those who are passionate about their opinions have a chance to sway the vote, by simply being louder.

7 responses to “On Judging, Part 1: The Basic Competition Blueprint”

  1. One thing I’m curious about is (possible) differences in how different dances are judged. After the controversies of the early 00:s about ‘lindy content’ it now seems like Lindy competitions are usually judged mostly by what is considered great swing dancing, where the discussion if it is ‘real’ lindy takes second place. Balboa competitions on the other hand, struggling to maintain a separate identity from Lindy, seems to place more focus on if the dancing is ‘in character’ with the dance (See for example the judging of Max and Dominique from ILHC 2009). These are just my impressions from watching competitions and the results.

    • I think this varies from judge to judge, regardless of the dance in question. You’re right, though, it’s a conflict for certain judges.

      Often times the tricky thing to judge in Balboa Swing contest (not necessarily the one you mentioned, I’d have to go back and watch it) is when good Lindy Dancers do Balboa swing and the mechanics look like Lindy Hop. Those are always hard to judge, because it could be great dancing, but the dancers didn’t show they understood how mechanics are different in the two dances.

      But more on that in the future posts.

  2. Thanks Bobby for describing the judging process. Yes rechecking the relative placement scoring is important. I have seen several examples where the wrong winner was called, which caused not only confusion but hurt feelings. Also, I think the organizer should include information on how ties are resolved in relative placement. Is it by decision of the head judge or some other method? When decisions are that close it is comforting to know that the winner is not arbitrary.

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