Excel as a Dancer
The Value of Critique
By Nicholas Westlake
Minnesota Ballroom Blast on October 25th is coming up very soon. It's an excellent critiqued ballroom dancing event (in beautiful Saint Paul). While dancers perfom in the format of a ballroom competition, instead of marking couples as placing against each other, the judging panel writes concise critiques about each couple on the floor. This is one of a great many critiqued ballroom events in the United States. Why should you attend a critiqued event, and how do you make use of the feedback? Here's my angle:
When you practice (and when you're working with a coach), you spend most of your time hacking on your dancing. You work on things like how to hold your body, how to perform a pattern, and how to time the steps. These are all good things to work on, but you're neglecting part of your training by keeping certain variables constant all the time. Dancing on the same dance floor in the same practice clothes with the same playlist you've had on your phone for the last three years can help you limit variance while you experiment, but at a competition, you'll be on a strange floor in your costume with music picked by Skrillex.
When you see footage of yourself at a competition, it's generally easy to commend your recorded self on his excellent throwaway oversway, and shame him for his bobble-head-inspired styling, but are those the things the judges see? Why did they give you that mark? Enter the critiqued ballroom event. You do everything for the judges as usual, but you get to learn what they're thinking during the twenty seconds they're looking at you on the competition floor.
Performing as a dancer is complex. Here are some facets to keep in mind for those of you at home saying, "Pssh. I'll dance exactly the same at a competition as I do in practice."
- The flow of a competition can be disorienting. For the newcomers out there, get some exposure in a noncompetitive setting so your future self gets to see a nicer competition video.
- There's pressure. When the music comes on, that's when you have to dance your best. You get one try, and you dance differently when you're under pressure. The details often deteriorate when you're on the competition floor. Don't settle for slogging through your choreography like a 1940s lumberjack; represent the character of the dance. Make your one try as beautiful as possible.
- A bunch of other people are on the floor with you doing the same dance, so you have to adjust to traffic. Long is the study of delivering your performance exquistitely while adapting to changing surroundings.
- Spectators are rowdy. You need to practice maintaining your poise even when the supportive screams of your name and number become deafening.
And even if you do dance exactly the same at the competition as you do in practice (which you won't), that's not everything you're being judged on. The panelists must judge you very quickly. Whatever stands out to them will be the basis for the marks the give, so remember that they'll look at a variety of aspects. Some things to keep in mind when you're making a list of all the reasons you love judge feedback at a competition:
- Your hair, makeup, and costume are a large part of what a spectator sees. Jump at the chance to practice preparing these elements. Although these are judged less critically at lower levels, when you're finally competing in champ, you'll be really glad you practiced along the way.
- Hearing what stands out about you from a few judges will help you identify what problems are showing to the panel. They may not see what you were stressing about. It's not uncommon to discover that you're doing pretty well keeping your top line flat even though you spend all that energy worrying about it. Of course you improved it; that's the only thing you're thinking about. You'll not only learn what stands out to a single judge; you'll also be able to compare the critiques from multiple judges and get a picture of how your dancing translates from mind puzzle to judgable product. Remember, each judge will priortize the elements of dancing differently in their assesment. Look for trends. If all the judges wrote "questionable foxtrot rhythm," you may want to spend more time practicing to Sinatra and less to dubstep.
- A critique often helps identify what your strengths are. Do you have a really killer invite? Great spin turns? Take note of the positives and use those to your advantage. You may as well feel good about your dancing for a moment too.
Want to suck every drop of knowledge potential out of those critiques? This is what you're going to do:
- Read all of it and discuss it with your partner. Is it just the list of stuff you were already stressing about? Yes? Yay! You have learned that you have good intuition about what parts of your dancing show to a judge. No? Update your perspective. Refocus your practice time to address the issues you and your partner understand.
- Share the critiques with your coach. Ask about anything you don't understand. For hair, makeup, and costume notes, you may find yourself consulting fellow dancers as you hunt for ways to experiment.
Clearly this will be great for your dancing and a great use of your time. Bonus: it's a ton of fun. Enter a few dances at Blast, have a great time, and fill your brain with great new dance ideas. You should have all those notes in action in your routines just in time for Dance Fest in March. See you at Blast on October 25th!