Before we start, it will be useful to ask yourself a few questions:
What purpose do competitions serve in the national blues scene?
Why do you think many events host competitions?
What is good blues dancing?
Why do you want to compete?
Keep pondering those questions as we continue.
Types of Competitions
Showcase/choreography are partnered or solo competition where you bring your own music. These are usually choreographed.
Strictly is a partnered competition where you don’t know the music you’re going to be dancing to, but you do know your partner ahead of time so you can (and should!) practice with them.
J&J (from Jack and Jill) is a partnered competition where you don’t know who your partner is going to be before the competition (or sometimes even the song) starts.
Solo competition comes in a few forms. Pure solo competitions feature dancers dancing by themselves. Cuttin’ competitions are a game of one upmanship. Riffing competitions are judged on making your fellow competitors look good.
All Skate – Everybody dances at the same time. Sometimes these occur in “heats”, where just a subset of the competitors dance.
Spotlight – Means that one couple dances at a time for a specified amount of time. All competitors may dance to the same song or competitors may dance to different songs.
Typically a competition will start with preliminary all-skates to narrow down the field to 5-10 finalists. Those finalists will then compete against each other in a mix of all skates and spotlights.
Judging criteria can vary quite a bit from place to place, so make sure you know what criteria will be used in your competition.
Quality of Movement – Thoughtful, intentional movement choices throughout the body.
Blues Aesthetic – Grounded, polycentric, polyrhythmic movement.
Partnership/Teamwork – Work together; don’t over- or under- dance your partner.
Musicality – Dancing in a style appropriate to the music, dancing to reflect or enhance the instruments, rhythms and/or melodies.
Showmanship – Step outside your comfort zone, set and defy expectations, engage the crowd.
During the competitions, judges get score sheets to take notes and score competitors. The judging processes are slightly different during prelims and finals.
During a prelim, judges will typically be wandering around the room looking at couples. The score sheets offer a spot for notes as well as a column for final scores. Each judge is typically given 6 yes's and 2 maybes (exact numbers may vary), effectively picking 6 couples that they think should definitely be in finals as well as two that didn't quite make it. After the head judge tallies up all the scores, the dancers with the most yes's and maybes make it to finals.
During finals, the judges will be arrayed directly between the competitors and the audience. Again, the score sheets offer a spot for notes, but this time judges are required to rank competitors 1-6 (again, exact numbers may vary). Ranks are tallied using the relative placement scoring system and winners are announced.
It can be seriously depressing to find out you didn't win (or even make finals) in a competition. We've all been there. But don't despair! Ruth Hoffman, a longtime dancer, competitor and judge recently wrote up a lovely blog post about hearing and interpreting competition results.
Let's get down to brass tacks. How do you win these things?
- Dance well. This should go without saying, but the first thing judges look for is the basics of blues aesthetic and connection. Without the appropriate posture, pulse or grounding, you probably won't get very far.
- Change your movement to match the song. Competition DJs like to play a variety of music during competitions. You need to show that you're a master of any blues style they can throw at you.
- Demonstrate mastery of different positions. These include close embrace, closed position, open position and breakaway. It also doesn't hurt to throw in a couple crazier connections as well.
- Demonstrate mastery of different styles. These include jookin’, ballroomin’, struttin’, and latin', but the most important thing is to always be dancing to the song that is played.
- Find and use contrasts (e.g. big/small, fast/slow) to highlight specific movements or moments. These are one of the best ways to win big in scoring opportunities.
- Don't use props or other gimmicks. Light characters are ok, but in general the cheesier you are the lower your score will be.
- Find and create scoring opportunities (see our next blog post).
- Do things that everybody else isn’t doing. If everybody else is standing still, move. If everybody else is moving, go to the middle of the floor and stand still.
- Dance bigger than you normally would. To be scored, you need to be noticed. Judges may also be subconsciously looking for couples they think will be able to do well (read: put on a good show) in finals.
- Get yourself in front of the judges. Remember who they are and note where they are in the room. Don't just go find a spot to dance near your friends—though cheers do help attract attention.
- Demonstrate solid, quality movement and aesthetic. Judges are looking for negatives as much as positive. If you're off balance or flustered every time a judge looks at you, you're probably not going to get a 'yes' from them.
- In a J&J prelim, dance to your own abilities. A J&J prelim is one of the few places that you probably won't get marked down for letting judges see how much more skilled you are than your partner. That said, J&J is about partnership so you can't just do what you want; it's all about striking the right balance.
- Get connected by spending the phrase before your entrance connecting up to each other and the music.
- First impressions matter. Your entrances don't need to be super flashy, but they should be extremely connected and musical. If you do want to add flash, try to contrast whatever the previous couple was doing and set up a theme for your spotlight.
- Get out there! For the love of whatever you hold dear, make sure your entrance is on time. Though competitions may have somebody counting you in, it's ultimately your responsibility to make sure you get your allotted time to shine. Similarly, when the next couple comes on, get off the floor quickly or you may get scored down.
- Don’t over- or under- dance your partner. Finals place a lot of emphasis on working together to kick ass rather than just great individual performances.