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A New Perspective on Volunteering

By Rosemary O'Connell

I've been to quite a few different competitions over the last seven years, and last year I helped out with the preparation for Star of the North and Minnesota Ballroom Blast, primarily by helping to stuff the competitors' packets with their heat sheets and programs. This year, in addition to helping out with the packets and other miscellaneous tasks, I opted to actually spend some of my time at Dance Fest volunteering instead of just competing and spectating.

Volunteering ended up being an excellent decision. Competing and spectating is a lot of fun, but volunteering added an unexpected element. By volunteering, I was contributing to everyone else's enjoyment, which just made my time even more fun. I also enjoyed the opportunity to learn the vast amount of work that goes on behind the scenes.

The coordination necessary between the judges, MC, scrutineer, DJ, and on-deck volunteers for the competition to run smoothly is amazing. Even though the MC announces "waltz music, please" before a waltz, the DJ should already know what dance is coming next. If not, the competitors will have to wait while he or she pulls up a song instead of having the music start right away.

In the on-deck area, the volunteers make sure all of the competitors are lined up and ready for the next event. For some of the events at Dance Fest, there were eighty couples in the first round. That means the on-deck captain and his or her assistants have a lot to do and often can't really pay attention to what the MC is saying. Part of their job is to make sure the right numbers go out on the floor at the right time so that everyone has room to dance. There's a lot going on behind the scenes to make sure that the on-deck volunteers know the details without actually listening to the MC.

Then there's the judging. The judges need a lot of information in order to do their job. For each event, they need to know how many couples to call back, and how many flights of dancers there are. The latter is very important in large heats, because without that, the judges have to make decisions without seeing everyone on the floor at once. If they don't know how many flights there are, they might end up giving out all of their allotted callbacks before they even have a chance to see everyone in the event. That information is typically determined by the scrutineer and announced by the MC, so the judges have to be paying close attention.

After each event, the judges have to get their marks to the scrutineer, who compiles them and determines the final results. Many of the competitions I've been to have used an electronic system to do that. There are many advantages to that kind of system, but there are also problems that result from the system failing. At Dance Fest, the organizers returned to pen-and-paper judging, so the judges wrote down numbers on notepads, which gave them a surprising amount of joy—who knew they would love judging on paper so much? After each heat, a runner went and got the papers from the judges and took them to volunteers who entered the numbers into computers so the scrutineer could compile the results. A paper system definitely requires more volunteers than electronic systems, but we never had to worry about the system malfunctioning, and things went very smoothly.

Of course, these are just the volunteers who are directly involved in the competition itself. There were countless others doing things like refilling the water jug for the competitors, selling snacks, and registering competitors. Many people, especially students from the University of Minnesota Ballroom Dance Club, got up extremely early Saturday morning to set up the event, and then helped clean up afterwards as well. Coordinating between them happened on a different level, with the chairs of the event making sure everyone had all the help they needed.

I encourage everyone to offer their help at a dance event when able. You'll learn a lot, meet interesting people, and most likely have a great deal of fun.