Bachata and zouk over the course of the last couple of years have become competitive in an institutionalized way. People can sign up to compete as couples performing. This happens a lot in European bachata nowadays. People can also now increasingly enroll in social dancing competitions called jack and jills. Jack and jills are not super popular (yet), but the idea is being played with, tested, implemented.
I am nervous.
There are a lot of differences between the Afro-Latin dances and the American swing dances with which I am familiar.
Yet for me the greatest difference is that many American dances (such as west coast swing) have social dancing competitions, and Afro-Latin dances do not.
Obviously this is a debatable point: are competitions really all that impactful? I would argue that they are. Every aspect of the dance, from its social structure to its commodification to its technique, is ineluctably shaped by competitions. In today’s post I simply talk about how.
It will become clear throughout this post that I am not a fan of competitions. It is therefore worth stating at the outset then that I do participate in them from time to time. I can’t condemn something without trying, right? I do have a good time. There is a quite lovely thrill to competing. Even when I don’t do well (which, to be clear, is quite often), I still really enjoy it. I experience the same thrills that I imagine keep others coming back for more. I must cede however, that it’s possible that if I won all of the time I’d feel differently about competitions. I might have a stronger emotional attachment to them, or value them more highly relative to social dancing. I also cede that I am relatively inexperienced. Quite. Nevertheless, the effects that I witness on the west coast swing community I believe are quite real. It doesn’t necessarily matter all that much how I experience, love, or hate competing, because they will regardless have the same effects on dance communities.
Jack and Jills: What are they?
Real quick, for our Afro-Latin readers: Jack and Jills (at least in wcs) are social dancing competitions in which you get randomly paired with leaders or followers and are evaluated for your performance as individuals. If there are many people participating (and usually there are) you can go through a couple rounds of elimination until the final round, in which you get paired with just one individual and then compete as a couple. The two of you compete against other couples for the street cred, financial reward (yep, you pay to participate, and you get paid if you win), and points for advancement. As you collect points you advance in levels. You are judged by the quality of your performance.
Competitions: The Good
Here is the one big plus to having social dancing competitions. The wcs community is highly driven by the need to become better dancers – by and large because it means winning and advancement.
Wcs is often referred to as a ‘dancesport,’ and I would say a significant portion of dancers regularly compete. This means that people learn new moves, work very hard at their musicality, and become better dances in a much more directed and quick fashion (generally speaking, as a group) than in the Afro-Latin dances. People are almost always improving in west coast swing and I have no words for how much I love this fact.
2. It’s fun
Lots of people really enjoy competing. There is definitely an aspect of ‘let’s see what we can do!’ that thrums in your veins and makes you feel alive when you compete. No doubt about that. I don’t wish to understate the importance of this part of competition culture.
3. It rallies people to support each other
The west coast swing community is very supportive. You might think that competitions would tear a community apart but at least in the west coast swing community the opposite happens. People become each other’s greatest cheerleaders, and that’s super awesome.
There are a lot of factors that go into lead/follow dynamics in a dance. What about certain communities makes them approach leading or following in certain ways?
There is a disparity in this regard between west coast swing and the Afro-Latin dances. Afro-latin dances are very much dances in which there is a lead and there is a follow and the lead leads and the follow follows. West coast swing…not so much. West coast swing is much more of what I call co-creative (more on which here). It is a “conversation.” Followers do still follow but there is a lot more flexibility around that role and the ability for followers to contribute to the flow of the dance. Competitions definitely encourage followers to be more pro-active with the flow of a dance.
Competitions: The Bad
1. De-prioritization of social dancing
Competitions pull dancer’s attention away from the social floor and towards their competitive goals.
This is apparent in many different ways. For example, some people only take classes, and rarely social dance. For another, people will often spend much of the potential social dance time sitting out because they need to “get in the zone” or don’t want to mess up their dress, hair, or makeup. For another, people skip out on social dancing in the evening entirely or retire early because they need to rest before competitions.
The more energy any one gives to competition the less, necessarily, they have to give to the social floor. That’s all well and good for competitions but it simply means that many people get lost in their goals, and forget about the basic loving fun that brought us all (most of us) together in the first place.
2. Working against your partner
As much as competitions help encourage co-creation, like I just talked about above, they also can turn the dance floor into a battle for control.
You can see this simultaneously at both higher and lower ranks of dancing. I have heard many higher ranked west coast swing leaders remark on the assertive, steering quality of their followers. They end up fighting for control. I have also heard it encouraged many times (by professional instructors) that lower ranked followers need to fight their leaders to have good timing, to focus on the basics, and to do a dance, basically, that they think the judges will like. Because remember: in the initial rounds of a competition you are not being judged as a couple but rather as individuals who just so happen to be dancing together.
This goes against every single instinct that I have as a dancer. Dance, for me, is a sacred union between two people. It’s an agreement to be in harmony, to listen to one another, to take care of one another. At least this is, I think, what it should be. For competitions to sometimes (though obviously not always) have this combative flavor is for them to downplay the potential empathy and love that can flower between two people.
3. Emphasis on appearance over feel
Competitions are judged based on the way you look. Period. It’s about show. It’s about performance. That’s fine for people who dance in order to shine. It’s not for those of us who dance to connect.
Of course, feeling and connection are not mutually exclusive. I readily cede that you can have a very flashy yet still very well-connected dance. In fact, for a dance to go very well you must be well-connected in at least some ways. But the focus is obviously not on how good you feel for your partner. The judges cannot see that. The audience cannot see that. Only you and your partner can feel it.
I know very many higher ranked who look great but who do not feel great. Their leads are jerky or rough or overly-strong. I know an even greater number of lower ranked dancers who are incredibly fun to dance with and feel amazing, but who do not advance because they don’t look the way they are supposed to look.
Unfortunately, because of competitions, people are encouraged to be more of the former than of the latter. When we focus on the way that we look, on our styling, we draw attention away from the way that we feel and connect with our partners. Certainly you need to communicate well – and should therefore lead or follow well – as a partner who pulls off really badass dances that are fun to watch. Most certainly.
But it remains a hard fact that competition encourages the fancy, the flashy, the aesthetic, more so than the connected, (read my thoughts on the different kinds of connection here), the gentle, the subtle, the silent, the swaying, the slow, the intimate, the invisible.
All dance communities have hierarchies. That’s just the way it is. People organize by power, and in dance, power is given by and large by perceived dance prowess (I talk about this in this post on hierarchy). There’s really no way about it. It’s how we are as a species.
But in west coast swing, due to competitions, we see two big differences.
One of these differences is that the hierarchy becomes based on appearance more so than it does on feel. I mentioned above that I know many lower ranked – “novice” – dancers who are super fun and feel amazing but who don’t advance because they don’t look the part. This may be all well and good except for the fact that these people get very little street cred. People might enjoy them well enough on the social floor but no one reveres them or aspires to dance like them. This kind of breaks my heart. In the bachata and kizomba communities especially we often find that people who move the least are desired and valued the most (or at least used to be) because they feel and connect the best. If there is going to be a hierarchy – and, inevitably, there is – then I would rather it based on connection and feeling rather than looks.
The other difference is that the hierachy is formalized. In the Afro-Latin communities hierarchy is pretty loose. It’s there but everyone has a different experience of different dancers and different connections with them, so people’s opinions often vary widely regarding skill. There’s a lot of flexibility.
West coast swing could not be more opposite. Now, to be clear, people at all levels of dance are super nice to each other. Super nice. But that doesn’t change the fact that a hierarchy exists and everybody knows it. How advanced someone is or not is public knowledge. And whether people intend to or not, this matters. Subconsciously, someone’s level alters your perception of them, changes how much you want to be friends with them, and makes you judge yourself relative to them.
This is okay. It really is. But I’d prefer if it weren’t this way. I like people to have better access to their own opinions, without them having been colored so much by a label.
All of which is to say that I am not entirely stoked (to say the least) about the prospect of competitions becoming popular in bachata and zouk. We are already seeing, with the advent of youtube, the popularity of performance teams, and the rapid spread of sensual bachata, a decrease in the intimacy and quality of dancing and an increase in the flashiness of moves people do. I know I am painting a broad stroke here but I am merely paying attention as best I can.
For me, personally, the reason that I love Afro-latin dances so much, and particularly bachata, is precisely the focus on the interpersonal, the felt, the emotionally connected. I have trepidation about what competitions could do to our community. That being said, perhaps being aware of the ways in which competitions affect us – in bachata and other Afro-latin forms as well as west coast swing – can help us to avoid their pitfalls while still delighting in their strengths.
And, to be clear, I am not saying that wcs needs to do away with competitions. WCS is a highly functioning, lovely dancesport full of amazing people who do amazing things. It is simply its own kind of animal, different from the Afro-latin dances. I would simply like to be mindful of those differences.
As ever, I would love love love your feedback.