The Politics of Dancing

Well, lots has happened since I last sat down to write a post.

In this “webisode” of my dancing life we’ll peruse a lesson with Mr. Ivan, including a special practice session, and we’ll recount a night at The People’s Choice dance competition that I spent with dear ballroom friends.  Lastly, I will opine about, well, the title of this post.  The glorious politics of dancing.  Who knew?  I thought it was just the title of a catchy song.

So rewind to yesterday morning, 10 am when I arrived for my lesson with Ivan at Dance Starz.  It was a great lesson, as always, but there were some extra twists that made it especially wonderful.  First, well, we did some work on cardio.  Ivan really pushed me with Samba and Cha Cha and although it made my legs wobbly, it was a good thing.  We both agree this is one of the things that holds me back most and that we should work on it.  I am hoping to get some time today after packing up my office (we are moving in a week) to put together a playlist where I can cut songs for each of the 5 dances in American Rhythm, the 4 Smooth dances, and Latin Samba, Rumba, Cha Cha and maybe Jive together in a row at 2 minutes each with 10 seconds of rest.  That way, on every lesson, we can just blast through the dances as if we were in competition and I can begin to build up some endurance.  I remember doing this with my first dance instructor and it worked well to help condition me.  I think that with a little over a month to prepare it will make a difference and help me survive the competition a bit better.

Next, we practiced presentation and winning.  I never understood why presentation was so important in ballroom before being a “ballroomer” myself.  I thought it was kind of weird, coming from a jazz/ballet background, all the parading and grandstanding that goes on before the dancers even take their first step.  A little presumptuous, I thought.  But now I kind of get it.  Kind of like how I now appreciate International Standard and Smooth dances when before I didn’t “get” them and didn’t think they looked that impressive.  How wrong I was!

So anyways, all the presentation, it reflects how a couple owns their space on the dance floor, and their confidence.  I swear you can sometimes tell who will win (or “should” win) just by their presentation.  Whoever presents themselves with calm confidence, ease, grace, well, they will also probably dance that way.  If a couple presents with overexhuberant, chaotic energy, well, they’ll probably dance like that too.  It reminds me of the class with Inna when she acted out the three couples walking on the dance floor.  The presentation is important – it’s part of the entire package.  So much of ballroom is about that.

Indeed, I thought it was kind of silly to practice this stuff when I first got into ballroom.  I wanted to get to the “meat” of the dancing.  Skip the fluff and just get to my Cha Cha basic.  But I’ll never forget my first coaching.  It was with Igor Suvarov.  He coaches Artem and Inna and they had him come when they were at the studio with my old instructor.  Well, I’d had zero experience with Standard at that point but I was up for any coaching opportunity that came my way.  Anyways, all we did was work on getting into frame.

Honestly, I felt completely unprepared and a little embarrassed that my instructor (at the time) and I had not spent anytime practicing this aspect of the dance.   It was then that I began to have my first inkling about how important all the presentation and preparation to dance really is in ballroom.

One bright aside, although the coaching was on the most elementary of subjects, and I had no idea how to do that properly, toward the end of the session Igor placed me in the proper frame position and something pretty cool happened.  He put me where I was supposed to be, with my arms out like wings, my chest up and arched back, my neck in alignment, and he was like, “Oh, I’ve never seen anyone get into that position after one try.  You should come to Los Angeles to train with me.”  He was kidding, of course, but I can’t tell you how good it made me feel to be acknowledged like that.  It made me feel like maybe there was a real dancer in me yet.

Okay, so back to the presentation stuff on my lesson with Ivan.

We walked around the studio arm in arm.  One of my old ballet habits is to walk on my toes and to try to be as silent as possible.  My former dance teacher, Glenda, was always admonishing us to not “sound like elephants” running across the stage.  But in ballroom, this won’t do.  I would try to do my ballet walk with Ivan and pretty much couldn’t keep up.  He was like, “Why you walking like this, with a stick up your butt.  Walk normal!”

It was a revolutionary idea.  Really?  Walk normally?  Not “dance-y?”  With all the presentation stuff in ballroom and how important it is, and you’re supposed to walk like normal when getting places on the ballroom floor?  It boggled my mind.  But, that’s the way to do it so I practiced stomping around.

So anyways, we walked a lot and then Ivan started running.  He put his hand out as if to give me a high-five.  I was like, what?  He was like, “Haven’t you seen this presentation?  You do a high-five and then spin out.”  “Nope.  Haven’t seen it, or if I have, didn’t take note of it.”  So we practiced that, but it felt kind of out of control and really big.  I kind of can’t imagine actually doing that but maybe we will at Desert Classic.  Who knows.  And I will say that I saw many couples doing it as I watched the People’s Choice last night, so it seems to be a pretty popular presentation style.

But then we practiced winning!  What?  You say.  Yes!  We walked over to one of the large trophies on a table at the studio and picked it up.  Ivan played the announcer.

“And now, first place, Stefanie and Ivan!  From Phoenix, Arizona.”

“Yay!”

I lifted the trophy above my head, and we posed for a picture.

“One more!”  Ivan exclaimed.

“Oh, I need to turn my foot out!  Have to make it look pretty!”

With big smiles it was fun to pose and practice being a champion.  Why not, you know!!?  It’s important to practice these things.  And it is always an adventure with Ivan.

Now fast forward to the evening.  I met up with Colette who, booger, didn’t tell me she was competing.  Apparently she didn’t know until Monday that she was going to dance Thursday.  But it went well!  And she did share one photo with me that she gave me permission to post on the blog.  All my friends are so gorgeous!

Well, anyways, I missed seeing her actually dance but she will be there with me at Desert Classic so I’ll get to see her boogie woogie then.  But we sat next to each other for the evening session, along with Rebecca, Toni, Katie, and Ceci.  Plus, I got to see lots of other familiar faces at the event.  Turns out ballroom is kind of a small world.  If you start going to competitions, you begin to see the same people again and again.

Well, we had an absolute blast cheering and hooting and screaming ourselves silly for Ivan and Marietta as they competed in the open professional American Rhythm championship.  I know that I’m biased because Ivan is my instructor and friend, but I just love the way he and Marietta dance.  I honestly prefer them over any other couples I saw on the dance floor, including the ones that placed first.  Ivan and Marietta came in second which was fantastic, but they have such great technique and an amazing connection.  I wish they’d get first once in a while because sometimes they really deserve it, in my humble opinion.  They actually look like they are enjoying dancing together.  In fact, Collette even blurted out, in an uncensored moment, that it was “getting hot in here” as they performed their Rumba.  That’s no joke.

But alas, it seems, from my perspective, that the placements are already somewhat decided no matter what happens during one particular night on the dance floor.  It feels like no matter what, certain couples are going to be positioned in a particular order, and that just stinks from a spectator perspective.  It feels unfair – like it’s not a level playing field, so to speak.  So what’s the point in having a competition if the ending is predetermined?  It’d be like watching Lakers versus the Suns and no matter how many baskets the Suns made, the Lakers would be awarded the win by a panel of judges.

It’s a sticky subject, I know, and in the case of my favorite couple, of course I’m biased!  I feel as though I can separate technique and objectively tell if there is a better couple out on the dance floor, but because of my bias, I can’t know that that is absolutely true.  I mean, there have been dances that I haven’t thought Ivan and Marietta did the best on.  They don’t get blanket adoration, you know?  They’re not perfect.  I’m just acknowledging that I may be somewhat blind to any minor weaknesses they have because I care for them.  Anyways, last night they were “on.”  They moved me the most.  I thought they should have won.  But, I’m not the judge.

You know, the situation is what it is.  I think any time you have people involved, you are going to have some sort of politics.  I don’t claim to know how widespread or deep or even how such things work in the ballroom world, but it feels like it is one of those things that exists but isn’t really talked about or even acknowledged.  It’s just this thing operating behind the scenes in the background affecting how the sport is played.  It’s tough, you know, because ballroom isn’t a sport that can be objectively scored.  There aren’t baskets to count, or a time in seconds to beat.  The competitors look different, dress different, and do different choreography.  Of course placement is going to be subjective and depend upon who is watching and who else is on the dance floor at the same time.  But I think we all know greatness when we see it.  We all can feel when we are emotionally moved.  We may not agree on who is number one, but we can probably agree who should be in the the top or bottom of the bunch.  We can see who has nice technique and who is sloppy or chaotic or uncontrolled.  We can see who is boring and who is not.

Maybe I’m completely wrong about all this political stuff.  Maybe it is fair and and unbiased and everyone who dances does have an equal chance of winning, and rankings are based solely on the merits of how a couple performs that night in comparison to the other couples on the dance floor.  I’m simply sharing my experience and feeling.  It’s an opinion, and what feels true for me, but maybe not necessarily “the truth.”

But what do you think?  What has your experience been regarding “the politics of dancing” in the ballroom arena?  Am I off my rocker about this?  And what does it mean anywyay?  So what if things are political?  Why does it even matter?  I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

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4 thoughts on “The Politics of Dancing

  1. Marian Condon says:

    Stef – Very interesting info about the importance of initial presentation in competition. Had not really thought about that, as am still a relatively new dancer.

    Regarding your question about politics and judging: When I was a youngun’, I used to compete in horse shows and actually made it to the national level. Thus, I feel qualified to weigh in on the subject of subjective judging and bias. I used to hear the “you were robbed!” lamentation, subsequent to a defeat, all the time from friends and the folks who ran my stable. Even as dumb as I was then, though, I realized that, on occasion, while I probably did place lower in some events than I should have, I also placed higher in others.

    I agree with you that there are two kinds of bias a given judge might have, unconscious and conscious. You addressed unconscious bias when you recounted how, because of your high personal regard for Ivan, pretty much anything he does looks good to you, and were you actually judging him, you might honestly perceive him as better than he is. I can think of a few other reasons, besides liking or disliking, why a given judge might have an unconscious, or perhaps conscious, bias for or against a given person’s dancing: A judge might favor a dancer because the dancer has/has not ponied up for coaching sessions with the judge, or be noting that the student is/is not demonstrating improvements the judge/coach suggested. Or, the judge might like/dislike the owners of the dancer’s studio. I would also add that the perception of bias on the part of a judge is also subjective; we may, for various reasons, think bias exists when it does not.

    IMHO, there will always be the possibility that bias is in play, innocent or otherwise, when judging is subjective. One of the life lessons that can be learned from pursuits such as dance competition is to roll gracefully with judging bias, as well as other forms of unfairness. A wise psychotherapist once told me to always “do the thing for itself.” What he meant was that a wise person indulges only in those activities that are rewarding in and of themselves, When we dance well during a competition, we know it, and feel great about it. if we hold that intrinsic reward as our primary one, formal recognition becomes secondary.

    • loveablestef says:

      Marian,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful response to this post! I love what your wise psychotherapist said – to do the thing for the love of itself. That is truly why we do what we do, right? And yet there is some level of risk putting yourself “out there” whether in horse competitions or dancing competitions. We are putting ourselves in the position to be evaluated. But ultimately, I think you are right – it matters most what we think of ourselves, and that we love what we are doing just for the love of doing it.

  2. Alaina says:

    Regrettably, everything involves a bit of politics, which goes hand-in-hand with economics. There’s supply and demand, and in order to meet those two efficiently, corners can be cut and distasteful decisions made. So, does dance have politics? Yeah. I don’t know much about it, but it’s probably there.

    By the way, I accidentally unfollowed your blog (Oops! :(), so this comment may be awaiting your okay.

  3. bgballroom says:

    Hi Stef – wow, I have not been keeping up with your blog and have a lot to catch up on. The judging thing is really interesting and yes there is politics and bias involved, though we all have to admit we all have biases in everything if we are honest.

    It was quite confusing to us when we first started moving up a bit, to find that the judges are not unanimous in their opinions of us, even when we have international panels who have never seen us before. How can one judge mark you first in waltz and another mark you dead last? Our coach knew the one judge in particular and said he understood the mar, bases on that judge’s preferences of style,etc. We are also aware that we are not a physically well matched couple (DH is nearly a foot taller than me!) and that we have to overcome that esthetic disadvantage before the judges can really see our dancing sometimes.

    We have won a few Senior III Silver events now (yay!) but still struggle to impress certain judges. One loves to get us out of the quarter finals into the semis, but is very leery of putting us in a final. Even when I really, really smile on my way past! LOL And for one dance in our last comp in one waltz heat, from five judges, we got a 1st, a 2nd, a 3rd, a 4th and a 5th. Pretty much what you call all over the map,eh? Well, as you say, we do it for the love of it, the fun and the friends:-)

    Have a great time in the Desert and here’s hoping for good results!

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