Is it worth competing if the game is rigged?

As a rule, I avoid dance politics, gossip and the like. Things like these do nothing to improve my dancing or my life in general; they only distract and upset me. Sometimes though, they can be hard to avoid. When I hear more than one of my fellow dancers questioning whether it’s worth competing at all because of the politics, I feel compelled to say something.

Ballroom dance is a subjective sport because it is also an art form. What one thinks is beautiful art, another may hate or feel indifferent toward. This subjectivity of course comes into play at our competitions. Winners are not determined by the number of points scored, the fastest time, or the greatest weight or distance. We don’t dance the same routines, so we can’t even be judged based on how well we execute the same moves. Music and costumes also vary from heat to heat.

I don’t envy the judges’ task of choosing who places how in the minute or so they have to observe multiple couples on the floor. There are so many variables to sort through to get to the actual dancing, and a lot of those variables can trigger bias.

Humans are naturally biased. The most basic example is we typically prefer things we’re familiar with more than strange things. Past experiences often color present circumstances. Since judges are humans too, they have to deal with their own biases as they do their job. How well they deal is a major topic of dance politics and has become a source of emotional struggle for many dancers.

“Did I really dance poorly in my scholarship versus my single dances, or did I place lower because I was against dancers who are coached by or who belong to the same studios as the judges?”

“I’m sure I danced better than that other dancer. Did she win because she spends so much more money?”

“Did that judge mark me last because he saw that one flub I made or because he doesn’t like tattoos on ballroom dancers?”

I’m sure you’ve heard thoughts like these or thought them yourself at some point or another (the last one might just be me). The longer you’re in the competitive corner of the ballroom world, the more you’ll hear suspicions from both pros and amateurs about judges’ bias affecting their scores.

Having multiple judges marking the same heats is the main way that competitions try to counteract any potential bias, but the claims of bias persist. I’m actually not writing this article today to make some kind of statement about whether I believe the bias exists or not.

All I care about is the fact that political issues like this are negatively impacting my fellow dancers. My mission is to inspire and enable you to own who you are as a dancer so you can perform with greater confidence and joy. Therefore, in true Girl with the Tree Tattoo fashion, I’m here to share what I do to preserve my mindset and maintain my joy of competing in ballroom dance, even if the game is, in fact, rigged with bias and the odds are against me.

Some of you are going to recognize my process, which is awesome because that means I’m succeeding at my mission and you already have the tools you need.

So let’s assume the worst – it’s all rigged to favor the dancers who spend the most money at the competitions and take the most coachings from the judges. How well you dance is only a minor factor in determining your placement.

Well shite, why compete at all then?

That’s exactly the question to start with. Let’s forget all of the nonsense I just listed. Why do you compete?

For me, I like the challenge of competition. Everything comes into play – my choreography, my technique, and my artistry. I love that about competition. It puts me in an environment that encourages me to push myself and give it my all. Competitions are great as interim goals or milestones along my dance journey to help me track and measure my progress.

I also love the camaraderie of my fellow competitors. Many of you I only see at competitions and when I do see you, I smile. It’s like seeing old friends! We’ve all gathered because we love to dance and we love to work hard at becoming great dancers. A competition is a chance to celebrate each other’s hard work as we each get a chance to showcase it.

There is something about volunteering to have your efforts judged that changes the effort. It injects it with a different energy and strength than in the absence of any judgement. Taking your dancing from the studio to the competition floor is kind of like taking your invention from the safety of the laboratory to test it out in the field.

Yes, I am competitive and prefer first place over last. Who doesn’t? But results are not on my primary list of reasons for competing. Admittedly, it’s a fine line. Without the results, competition would lose that “higher stakes” element that I enjoy. At the same time, if all I care about is my placement, I’m missing out on the bigger picture that I described above.

I am also in danger of depending wholly on validation from people who see me perform for probably 10 seconds to feel good about my own dancing. I went through a period when I began to care too much about what the judges thought. The ironic thing was my placements actually went down, not up. My stress level certainly went up though!

It wasn’t until after I shifted my mindset about those people positioned around the dance floor with the clipboards that my results improved and ultimately, I won a World title! Dancing for the judges and trying to do what I thought they wanted or expected didn’t help my results. Dancing for me and owning who I was on the dance floor, regardless of who liked me or didn’t, boosted me back up to the top podium.

Of course, a ton of hard work (hello, solo practice!) helped too. I’ve always maintained that if I’m going to dance, it’s going to be as all of me, which includes my tattoos. I’ve also always maintained that I’m going to work hard to be the best representation that I can be of the ballroom world that I love and respect so much.

So there is a balance between me owning who I am and respecting the world that I want to belong to. At its purest foundation, the ballroom world is about the dance. So that’s what I focus on. I’m proud to say that more than one person has told me that even if the judges didn’t like seeing my tree tattoo, they couldn’t mark me down because my dancing was too strong to ignore.

So maybe the odds are against us and the judges are biased. Maybe not. Either way, the only way I’ve found to continue loving being a competitive dancer is to focus on the dance. Revel in the challenge of being the underdog and being the kind of dancer they can’t ignore because you are 100% in the dance. Dance for you and your partner. Dance for your fellow dancers who know how hard you worked to be on that floor. Dance for the sheer joy of it! The judges who are also in it for the dance will revel with you. The judges who aren’t…maybe you’ll reawaken their lost passion when they see how much you embrace yours.

11 days until CalOpen! Can’t wait to see my old friends again and celebrate how far we’ve come together.

6 thoughts on “Is it worth competing if the game is rigged?

  1. wookiemonsterparallel says:

    Different judges certainly look for different aesthetics, especially at college comps, where some judges are just coaches/professional dancers from local studios.

    My partner and I are forgoing Rutgers and Princeton because we were eliminated consistently from first or second rounds, only to see other dancers not even on time, but who had shall we say better figures. UMaryland and UPenn we tended to make it to semis regularly. Are we trying to lose weight? Yes, but for our own health issues first and foremost. Fact is, even as overweight dancers, we Still have good technique and such. Though we’d probably do better at USA Dance or NDCA comps in Adult B age categories, but, the finances aren’t there, and as our events would typically be Thursday and Friday, and my partner is a high school teacher and doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in time off… Yeah, not happening anytime soon.

    But we still do it because we enjoy it. It’s an adrenaline rush. Though I really want our team to grow so that we have others to cheer on and have others to cheer us on. There’s something about the energy from spectators that galvanizes competitors and, even if you don’t get called back, at least you performed for your friends and teammates and have people to say, “You were robbed and should have advanced,” which can take a lot of the sting out of a disappointing competition.

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