When I first started dancing, I had no idea what judges look for in competitions – but I thought, over the last couple of years, that I’d figured it out. At ILHC, I learned I still had no idea. As such, I figured I’d share a few helpful tips. I’m sure this post has been done a hundred times (look at Swungover, Wandering and Pondering, Dance World Takeover, Art and Dancing or any of a hundred other dance blogs for similar advice), but I definitely noticed some consistent difficulties misunderstandings between competitors and the aspects of dancing in which it was most important to excel.
I would like to preface this post by saying that what I have learned is not a definitive guide on ways to place in a comp. Different judges look for different things, based often on experience, their preferences in dancing (musicality, clean movement, showmanship, etc.), the guidelines of the competition, the desires of the organizers, etc. If you ever want to know how to do better in a comp, the best people to ask are those actually judging; however, don’t be offended if the judge can’t remember any advice, especially at bigger competitions – they judge so much, it’s incredibly challenging to remember each and every dancer.
Jack and Jills
The biggest mistake most people who don’t make finals in a Jack and Jill make is assuming it was because they had crap luck and only danced with intermediate dancers in the prelims. In fact, the most important thing in Jack and Jills is to match your partner, no matter their level (go look at the Art and Dancing post!).
Matching is not the same as partnering; partnering the basic ability to lead and follow moves, and there’s a good chance that if you’re competing in a J&J, you are at least moderately competent at partnering. However, what most people fail to do is match their partner. For advanced dancers, this means scaling your dancing back when you encounter a more intermediate partner. It’s tough. But if you do it well, there’s a good chance you’ll do better in comps.
In essence, the judges are actually looking for someone who dances with their partner, rather than using their partner to dance for the judges. It’s a subtle difference, and it’s significantly more challenging to manage than you’d think.
For a really good example of this, look at Peter and Jo in the Invitational Jack and Jill comp (I included the entire thing so you can compare and contrast, but you can search for just Peter & Jo’s spotlight — they start around 18:52). Neither try to outshine the other just to fit a variation or cool move in; they are dancing with each other, rather than at each other. It’s gorgeous!
Strictly comps are strange, because theoretically you already match well. Most people, though, could work on it. It’s not just about feeling good and nailing awesome patterns because you dance together all the time – it’s about looking good dancing those patterns, too.
The other part about strictly comps is that you should be clean – especially in fast dancing, because there will almost certainly be some faster music. Clean dancing is far more valuable than crazy aerials – especially if the aerial doesn’t look effortless.
Finally, showmanship is incredibly important in Strictly comps. In J&Js, showmanship is a little more difficult, since you have only three songs to figure out how to dance together – there’s a little give and take between paying attention to each other and getting the crowd riled up (though that give and take becomes less and less the more advanced the level of dancers in the J&J). In a Strictly, on the other hand, you should already be comfortable dancing with each other; as such, good showmanship could decide between placing and not.
There is some controversy I read once about choreographing phrases versus social dancing in Strictly Comps. There are some clear advantages and disadvantages that I’m not going to go into, so I’ll just say that if you’re competing in a Strictly, it’s up to you whether you choreograph a set or not.
I can’t remember how everyone placed, but for a good strictly couple, look at Pontus Persson and Isabella Gregorio in the Invitational Strictly (starting around 1:50). Also, I love Mikey Pedroza and Annie Trudeau at 3:02! I especially love how they bring energy and showmanship to the table, while still keeping their dancing clean and technical.
Classic / Showcase / Teams
I think the biggest misconception with any choreographed competitions is that there have to be aerials to place (though this obviously isn’t an issue for Classic comps) – and not just any aerials, but flashy, innovative, and complicated aerials which wow the audience. While this is true if you’re going to compete for America’s Got Talent, where the audience gets bored if no one’s feet leave the ground, it is absolutely not true when you are dancing in front of your fellow Lindy Hoppers.
This is to say that while we as a collective audience are still awed by incredible aerials, we also understand and appreciate the subtlety and inspiration in syncopations, variations, and creative patterns. When a jazz sequence surprises us, we as Lindy Hoppers get incredibly excited.
In reality, one of the most important factors of competing as with a choreography is being clean. This means matching each other, which is difficult as a large group; it means not flubbing steps (especially not aerials, which are fairly obvious flubs), and it means paying attention to things as little as the position of your arms, where you’re looking, and the angle everyone is facing.
Another important thing to consider is to be surprising. Go in a different direction than the audience might expect. Hit an interesting musical phrase. Use a funny prop (I’m just going to say “Mustache” and “Koreans,” and if you haven’t seen that team comp, you should catch up).
Last but not least is an often-overlooked concept: dance with the music. I know this seems obvious, but it’s so frustrating to see a choreography which dances over the music, rather than with it.
For good examples of choreography dances from ILHC, look at Todd and Ramona’s show-stopping Classic, as well as the Lindy Hopper’s Dozen team competition. Both do a fantastic job of making creative shapes and going in unexpected directions. And I think it’s incredibly important to note that the Lindy Hopper’s Dozen placed without using any aerials – instead, it is their musicality, energy, and clean routine which puts them ahead of the competition.
There is no magic formula to doing well in comps, but there are some general rules: dance with each other rather than at each other; dance with the music, rather than on top of the music; be creative and innovative; make your movements as clean and crisp as possible; simple is better than sloppy.
I am hoping to take all of this competition information to my next Jack and Jill — we’ll see how it goes!