On Judging, Part 2: Watching and Note-Taking Technique

[UPDATED: Better footnotes (11/14), new section (11/11)! Wild Card section! (11/15) Compare and Contrast, Adding It All Up (12/2) ]

[This is the second part in a series. Introduction here. Part 1 here.]

In its simplest form, a judge’s job can be said to be this:

1. Look at competitors.
2. Make notes and rank them on a clipboard.

Simply covering these bases is a great first step if you’ve never judged before. However, there are a lot of different techniques judges use to make these steps more efficient after a little experience.


“Scoping” is looking at large areas of dance floor and waiting for something to stick out. This is a great way of tackling large numbers of dancers with very little time.

Let’s say you have to judge a prelim all-skate with 100 people in it. You have to choose ten couples to move on to the finals in one two-minute song. If you tried to give every dancer the equal amount of time (a noble aspiration), it would leave you exactly seven counts of music to watch every couple.

However, what if you broke up the dance floor into quarters, and watched each quarter generally, waiting for your eye to naturally see what sticks out? After a few seconds pass, you will probably be drawn to the dancers that stick out (for better or worse) in that crowd. After looking at all four quarters, let’s say you have seven couples you are sure rise above the group. Now, whatever time you have left can be spent looking at the sections again searching for three more couples. It’s a matrter of changing your focus from judging individual dancers to judging the group, and then focusing on individual couples when needed.

Scoping is not necessary all the time; for instance, you might be perfectly fine without it for three-song heats of eight couples. Also, some judges make sure they look at every single dancer in a prelim, no matter how large it is, and no matter whether they rely on scoping or not at some point in the process. Others might rely on scoping only if the prelims are simply too big to compare individuals to one another under the philosophy that good dancing technique will always stick out in a crowd. That’s an individual choice a judge has to make.

Abstract Scoping

So, how do you actually watch an individual couple? As in, what are you looking for? You certainly can look at your competitors and go through a mental checklist of qualities of good dancing. But in an all-skate, this could obviously take a lot of time. Scoping can be applied on a more abstract level when watching individual competitors or couples. Basically, you watch a couple’s dancing and wait for something to stick out, good or bad. You then try to pinpoint why it sticks out, which may be hard at first but will get easier with practice. Often these will be the things you note on your clipboard (more on that below.)

The important thing with scoping is to keep it abstract. When you’re scoping, you’re seeing how that couple measures up to your idea of great swing dancing. If your idea of great swing dancing is based on certain concrete specifics, you might be doing a disservice to your competitors and to the individual spirit of swing dancing when you compare them. For instance, if your idea of great swing dancing is tied to specific style of Lindy Hop, then you’re comparing someone’s individual styling to another style, not to whether or not it fits into great swing dancing as an abstract idea. I know that’s a pretty simple description for a complex philosophical idea, but I hope it conveys the general idea.

It should be mentioned that sometimes going through a checklist when you’re watching a couple has its benefits. For instance, I might have two competitors I think are absolutely tied. I might then go through my checklist of priorities for that contest. I might start to see which one of those tied couples is working better as a partnership as a tie-breaker. In that case, scoping helped me get a general picture of what was happening, and a checklist helped me cover a few other bases.


Swing music is wonderfully divided into phrases, which are little stories in four eight-count chunks (Unless it’s a blues song, where the phrases are six eight-count chunks). If you’re watching a competitor or couple in a large all-skate or during a spotlight battle, and are undecided on how you feel about them, try to keep an eye on them until the end of the phrase, to see how they dance to that phrase’s story. The way a couple dances to an entire phrase in a chorus says a whole lot more about them than you’d get by watching them for four random eight-counts in a chorus. After you watch a couple end a phrase, the start of the new phrase is then a great time to look at another couple.

Rough Grouping

“Grouping” is compartmentalizing couples into a top, a middle, and a bottom section to make ranking easier. For instance, when judging finals, you don’t have to decide immediately everyone’s exact placements. Just put them in one of the three categories: top couples, middle couples, bottom couples. Then, later, you can juggle them around and get your specific placements. This has the added benefit of allowing you to put all your concentration on arranging your top placements, confident that you know roughly where everyone else will fall.

I agree wholeheartedly with the judging philosophy that the most important placements are the highest ones, and deserve the most concentration. Most head judges would agree as well. So I always recommend judges make sure they are as firm as possible in their choice of 1st through 5th, and only after that’s settled should they worry about that dreaded battle between 8th and 9th place.


As we mentioned, the two things a judge should be looking at are the competitors and the clipboard.* If you look at only the competitors and don’t take notes, you will likely forget things about the dancing you saw when you go to rank them or break ties. But, the more time you spend looking at your clipboard, the less time you spend looking at the dancing. And you want as much data from the dancers as possible to determine your score.

So, part of doing the best judging you can is maximizing the time you look at competitors by minimizing the time it takes to make a note on your clipboard. Many judges do this is by inventing shorthand symbols that make sense to themselves (and often have the added benefit of not making any sense to anyone else who might accidentally see the score sheets).

Here are some examples of my shorthand as well as shorthand I’ve collected from other judges who were nice enough to allow me to share theirs for this essay.


One of the quickest ways a judge can cut down on writing time is by coming up with a shorthand for the clothing the competitors are wearing. Clothing is often the easiest way to identify competitors on the dance floor, even the competitors judges know by name. (The shorthand pictures allow judges to quickly find the right place on the score sheet to take notes about that couple, connecting the visual on the floor with the visual on the page.) Here is a few examples of clothing shorthand, a lot of them thanks to Sylvia Sykes:

Examples of clothing shorthand for swing dance judges.

The judging shorthand you use should reflect your judging philosophy, which, as I mentioned, will be the focus of the rest of this essay series. However, here is an example of one style of judging shorthand. It’s based on the basic philosophy that judges have a few major things they care about, minor things they also might want to note, and a way to comment on those things, like whether a competitor was doing them well or badly.

(However you choose to judge, just promise Swungover you won’t simply do it by putting a (+) when you see something good, and a (-) when you see something bad, and then adding them all up together. If you judge this way, “four cool footworky things” (++++) might end up beating “great technique and two great moments of partnership teamwork” (+++) and that’s when good dancing dies and you killed it.) [UPDATE: I don’t mean to imply by this description that using (+) or (-) or check marks or frowny faces are bad. They’re super quick to write down and very helpful—what I want to discourage is when the only system of judging you have is simply to just add up the number of good things you saw and think that you’ve judged a contest. Certain good things are much more important than other good things.]

Now, this doesn’t cover all the criteria you can have shorthand for, but it does give you a rough idea. So, here’s how it would all work together:

Judging shorthand at work.

See how much time is saved and how much detail a note can go into simply by using a shorthand?

Raw Scoring

Raw scoring is a way of comparing competitors to one another by assigning relative numbers to each couple. For instance, you might use it when judging a long line of spotlights. The first couple comes out, and you give them an arbitrary score: a 50, perhaps. The next couple comes out and you think they were way better, and you assign them a 70. The next couple comes out and is between the two, so you give them a 60. The next, 65. The next was way worse than all of them, so you give them a 40, etc. Doing so is a common way of getting an order of placements you can then translate into 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. **

Raw scoring is a very common way of scoring finals.

WILD CARD! “Blinking”

[Updated 11/15: I thought I would throw this in for a wild card. Surprise!] This section is named after the psychology book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s premise is basically that people’s split-second decisions are often better than the long, drawn-out ones where they consider everything they can think of (as long as those people are well-informed about the thing about which they are making the decision). Sometimes people get bogged down in the details or overvalue unimportant information, and a quick, intuitive choice (what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing”) circumvents this because in a quick decision only the most important factors can be used. (Of course, where split-second decisions go wrong is in stereotypes or biases.) In his book, he backs this claim up with lots of research stories and anecdotes, though critics have argued that some of his claims are still too bold for the evidence he provides.

Now, whether you believe in this ideaem or not, you as a judge still usually have a little time to try it out and see how you like it. So, if you’re having a hard time figuring out placements in a contest you are judging, imagine you have to turn in your scores immediately, and write down your split-second placements on the side of your page. After you’re done, think about what subconscious factors may have influenced your off-the-cuff placements. If the reasons make sense, they might make it easier for you to decide on your scores. Please note: I am NOT suggesting that this is all you have to do for to produce your scores. I’m suggesting this can be yet another tool to help you make your rankings. It is also a skill that will become more developed and more accurate as you learn more about swing dancing.

Besides, if you only do this method, you’ll have competitors come up and ask you for your feedback and all you can say is “Um, I just went with my gut. Can’t tell you more than that.” And you don’t want to be that guy (even if you’re a girl). Always try to pinpoint why you feel the way you do about your placements before turning in your scores.


There are very few skills in this world that can’t be honed by practicing aspects of it by yourself. Challenging a Mako shark to a knife fight might be hard to literally practice for, but even then, practicing swimming, knife fighting, and holding your breath separately will help take the edge off a lot and give you perhaps just enough confidence to do something stupid.

If you know in advance you are going to judge, and judging brings you anxiety, then take some time to practice at home. Luckily, we have YouTube. Grab a sheet of paper. Then, go through a contest’s spotlights, making sure to not give yourself too much time to take notes between them. Finally, after you’ve finished your notes, rank the competitors. (Sylvia Sykes used to do this.) Or, the next time you’re watching a dance clip, grab a piece of paper and practice your shorthand while you watch.

Overall, practice simply by taking time to think about people’s dancing. Not just the people you love to watch, but random couples on the dance floor. While sitting out a song social dancing, take the opportunity to compare dancers to each other, and even possibly consider mentally ranking them as if they were in a contest. Just don’t do that too often, lest you become the creepy person who stares at people when they dance.

Compare and Contrast

Sometimes the contest will be over and you won’t necessarily be able to tell a single placement. But you will probably know that, deep down inside, you think Sally and Elaine were better than Bob and Kay, but weren’t as good as Frank and Norma. (Some judges I know have very intricate shorthand for comparing couples this way on their score sheets; they might draw a cloud next to the two couples that are neck and neck, and an up arrow on one of the clouds signifies that couple is the higher up of the two. One judge I know who scores this way will turn in a score sheet with so many clouds and flowers and easy to draw things that it looks like a children’s book.)

There may be contests where you will decide almost your entire 1st through 10th simply by knowing couple A was better than B but not as good as C.

Adding It All Up

You’ve probably noticed that many of the tricks mentioned here have specific times and places where they really help out. Part of the key to being a good judge —and the part that simply takes a lot of time and experience— is having a command of all of these tools, and any others that come naturally to you (cause you will probably find your own based on how you watch and think), and knowing which tool is the perfect one for that moment.


* — There are also, of course, places you shouldn’t look. You shouldn’t be looking at the audience, at your nails, at other judges, and, ESPECIALLY at other judges’ score sheets.

At one comp a few years ago, a fellow judge asked me about my scores while the comp was finishing up. I asked them if they were done with their own scoring, and they said they were. I showed them mine, and not two minutes later, they were changing their scores.

Perhaps this person meant it completely innocently. It’s possible that they were completely unswayed by my scores. But I’m not certain I could count on myself to not be somewhat subconsciously swayed in such a situation, and the only way to ensure you won’t be is to not look at another judge or talk about the contest before you are done scoring. So, I have since decided not to share my scores with anyone until after both of us have turned them in. I recommend you do the same. You as a judge are asked for YOUR opinion. And so too are the other judges chosen for theirs. You decide what you think, they decide what they think, and that’s a very important way a contest keeps its integrity. I think every head judge I’ve ever talked to would agree.

** — In researching this essay, I heard an interesting argument against raw scoring from one well-regarded judge. If I recall correctly, this judge believes that assigning concrete numbers to dances (rather than, say, grouping them) does a disservice to the dance’s integrity by relatively placing things with concrete labels.

For instance, let’s say the first dance in a spotlight contest really, really kills it. The judge assigning the raw score, however, knows it’s only the first spotlight and there could feasibly be dances that are better, so the judge gives it a raw score of 80 to leave space above it and below it for other dances to fall. So, it could be one of the greatest dances of all time and yet by assigning it even a raw score of an actual number, a judge is labeling it as other than it should be (for instance, what if the dance was really a 98 in the grand scheme of dances). Simply using grouping, however, avoids this, because each dance is only compared to each other with strictly relative ideas like “top third of the couples.”

The counterargument is that the numbers are all relative to each other, anyway, so it’s not that big a deal. It’s not like the number 50 will forever haunt that dance in the memory of a judge. More likely, the judge will forget two hours later what raw score they gave it.

But this argument does have some heavy implications: Practically, it’s arguable that labeling a killer first spotlight dance in a contest with a raw score of 50 can sway the judge’s opinion of that dance, so that, by the end of the contest, after the judge’s seen many more spotlights, he or she can’t accurately recall how good the dance was, because it was given a mid-range 50.

One might argue that if the numbers don’t fit strictly into the academic 0-100 scale, then they can have more relative power. So, sure, that first spot light was so damn good, it gets a 98. The next is somehow even better, it gets a 110. Or perhaps this method, which, bonus, doesn’t remind you of high school: a random scale starting in the 300s. First one gets 310; second one gets 320. However, I don’t believe it totally wipes out the arguments made against raw scoring mentioned above.

Theoretically, these issues point to important philosophical questions about judging an art form. Questions we will strive to tackle in the next few chapters of this essay. Once again, raw scoring is a decision judges will have to make for themselves. I would imagine the majority of judges I know often use raw scores to help them decide placements.

However, one thing I do really like about the argument against raw scoring is that its main concern is the integrity of the dance, not making judging a contest easier. It puts the dance, and not the contest, first. And I like that.

11 responses to “On Judging, Part 2: Watching and Note-Taking Technique”

  1. I’ve been waiting for the continuation of this series! I had no idea I’d been waiting since January! D:

    Anyway I would totally fight a mako shark on land. Though I’m not sure what he’d do with the knife.

  2. While I have never judged a dance competition officially, both the concepts of grouping and raw scoring make sense to me. However, I would imagine that raw scoring and grouping can be used effectively together in most major competitions, which usually have a warm-up dance or all skate, a spotlight, and then an all-skate to finish out.

    Here’s how I could see it: the first all skate, one could group the dancers in top, middle, and bottom thirds. Then,keeping those general placements in mind, the raw scoring can be swayed a little (assuming 1 – 33 for bottom, 34 – 66 for middle, and 67 – 100 for top).

    If the first couple kills it but was originally grouped in the middle, then maybe they get a 60; because they were the middle third, they are generalized in the “middle” of grading on a scale of 0 to 100. However, because they killed it, they are almost at the top of that middle range. Then, if the couple originally placed in the top third comes out and bombs it, that couple can be placed slightly below the first.

    The final all skate can then be used to even out any discrepancies. I think an important part of this would be to re-analyze the top dancers, especially if there was margin of scoring was small.The final all skate, you can directly compare at least the top three (hopefully the top five) to make sure you’re comfortable with your scoring.

  3. Great article Bobby! When I judge I use a combination of techniques. Abstract scoping for sure in large J&J’s combined with the dreaded checks (only I have a shorthand for categories). Then I go back and evaluate after it is over. I also use raw scoring for finals. It really helps to make sure I am being fair to the all couples I think. Otherwise, especially in a large final it is hard to remember details and rank from the first couple to the last. Someone will have a distinct advantage I believe if you don’t. i use all-skates only for tie-breakers between couples. I don’t believe it fair to use other than that, as all judges don’t have the same vantage point. Couples should be judged first on their spotlights or solos.

    • Thanks Tena!

      Your comments mean a lot coming from you (er…not that they would be coming from anyone else).

      And the only problem I have with checks is when, unlike your method, they don’t categories. (I didn’t mean to imply people can’t use check marks to note something is good. However, now that I know it can be read that way, I’m going to alter the text in the article.)

      For those few who don’t know, Tena is a revered judge across the land and helps put on some incredible events, including ILHC. She’s put a lot of years and hard work into judging, so I definitely recommend taking note of her comments.

  4. I liked some of your advice on how to take notes when judging. I wouldn’t have thought to create some shorthand for it, but I can see how it can be helpful. I wonder what the judges’ notes look like for Allstate.

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