Leads and follows, please welcome to the blog, Jennifer Egl! She is one of the Event Directors of the MidAtlantic Dance Classic, which is the first United Country Western Dance Council (UCWDC)-sanctioned competition to go virtual in 2021. She is also a competitive dancer herself in country dance and is actively learning ballroom. When she isn’t dancing or organizing the dancing of others, she acts as UCWDC’s Media and Marketing Chair and the Marketing Coordinator for the UCWDC Country Dance World Championships. Oh by the way, she also works full time, has two children, and freelances as a photographer. We are definitely cut from similar cloths.
Jennifer and I first connected while I was covering UCWDC events for FloDance. When she told me that she was taking her event 100% virtual, I thought it was a great opportunity to share a different view of how the pandemic has affected the dance world. I’ve shared stories of dance teachers and studio owners, but we haven’t heard from a comp organizer yet.
So without further ado!
It Always Starts the Same Way
Like so many of us, Jennifer first discovered dance as a social activity. The guys who lived across the hall in her Ohio State dormitory wanted to meet girls and country dancing in bars was all the rage back then. Even after her dorm mates lost interest, Jennifer kept going because, duh, dancing is fun!
Jennifer’s dance world expanded when she and her dance friends travelled across town to check out a different country bar, and she met a guy who was dancing East Coast Swing. Jennifer was smitten. He was the bees knees, as she put it! He was also a competitive dancer under UCWDC. Soon, Jennifer was dating that East Coast Swinger and competing with him in Couples Division IV. Limited funds prevented bigger dreams like making it to Worlds, but they still travelled the local circuit because they loved dancing and seeing their friends dance.
Even after the relationship ended, Jennifer continued to attend UCWDC events with a friend who competed in Division I. Unlike typical ballroom competitions, there is a significant social aspect to country dance events. Even at Worlds, the dance floor will open for social dancing into between and after competitive heats. Even the top pros will go out and social dance during the breaks. When you’re not social dancing or cheering on your favorite competitor, you’re in a different ballroom taking workshops. So Jennifer didn’t need to compete to get a fulfilling experience out of a country dance event because the competition was just one part of it.
Dancing took a backseat in Jennifer’s life when she decided to move to Atlanta, GA for greater work opportunities. She knew no one in the city and wasn’t keen on the idea of going to a bar by herself. Outside of dance, Jennifer’s life moved onward and upward. She found a job that she still works at 21 years later. She went to graduate school, got married, and had two beautiful children.
One of the wonderful things about dance that I don’t think we give it enough credit for is that dance will wait for you and always be ready to jump back into your life as soon as you give the word. It was ready for Jennifer after she went through a divorce and realized she couldn’t just sit at home on the couch doing nothing. So she ventured out to a social dance hosted by the Atlanta Swing Club. Jennifer said she couldn’t walk for days after the first time she went because she danced SO much! She claims she was horrible at it, but everyone was so welcoming and friendly that she kept going back.
Eventually she met the professional dancer who would become her country dance coach and partner for pro-am country dance competitions. Having the previous experience of competing in the Couples division, where both dancers are at a similar dance skill level (like amateur-amateur in ballroom), Jennifer said pro-am was a whole different animal in both good and bad ways. It costs you a lot more money, but your pro partner can also help you cover up a lot of mistakes or save you when things really go off track.
From Competitor to Event Director
MidAtlantic Dance Classic has run for over 10 years. Jennifer became involved in 2019. I was curious how she went from being an amateur competitor to event director. To her, it was the natural next step for her dance journey. She’s a project manager by nature. It’s what she does for her full-time job and she’s good at it. She also felt like there was a limit to how long she could dance pro-am competitively.
Now, normally, if you want to work up to running your own event, you work at someone else’s event, either as a volunteer or paid worker, and through those experiences, gradually learn the whole business. Jennifer’s journey to event director was significantly shorter. She helped run MidAtlantic in 2019 with the two existing owners of the event. They were ready to retire from all of the work, and when the pandemic came along in 2020, they decided it was a sign and handed the whole thing off to Jennifer. Talk about tearing off the training wheels!
That “P” Word
Peach State Dance Festival in March is normally the kick-off country dance event for the U.S., but in 2020, it was cancelled. Like everyone else, the country dance world was stunned by what was happening here and around the world. No one was sure what to do or how to react. Jennifer and her previous co-directors opened up registration for the 2020 MidAtlantic event, scheduled for the weekend before Mother’s Day, because they couldn’t imagine the pandemic lasting all the way to May. Of course, they were eventually forced to cancel as the state banned large gatherings. One after another country dance event followed suit through the rest of the year.
There was not as much of a surge of online classes and workshops in the country dance world as we saw in the ballroom world. A lot of people were out of work and couldn’t afford dance classes anyway. Others weren’t willing to go online or lost the motivation under the stress and anxiety of the pandemic.
Jennifer has worked from home for years, so she didn’t have to worry about transitioning away from the office. She did have to get used to having her kids home all day though! We both laughed at her recalling how suddenly there were so many more dishes that had to be done and the trash constantly needed to be taken out. After completing a major project for work that took the first six months of 2020 including 7-day work weeks, Jennifer finally felt the empty space that was left behind after everything dance-related was cancelled or shut down. While others learned to bake or knit, Jennifer started tearing her house apart for remodeling projects.
Jennifer learned right around Christmas that she would not be able to run MidAtlantic at the event’s hotel in 2021 because the restrictions around the pandemic still wouldn’t allow it. She thought she was going to have to cancel another year.
Before she had a chance though, some of her friends who dance both country and ballroom experienced their first virtual event at the Snow Ball Dancesport competition. They called her after and insisted that someone needed to do a virtual country dance competition. Jennifer: “I guess that’s me!”
One of the first challenges Jennifer faced was getting sanctioned by UCWDC. When you work with an organization of many, as in many committees and many decision-makers (all with different opinions), coming to a consensus about something does not happen easily or quickly. Virtual was also a brand new concept, so Jennifer had her work cut out for her. Luckily, the spring meeting for the UCWDC was coming up soon and Jennifer would have the opportunity to make her case. She realized that going virtual could be an opportunity to reach out to more people across the globe who might otherwise never get to experience an event like hers.
Being a new concept, I asked Jennifer how the idea of going virtual for a competition was received by the UCWDC. The technology factor was one of the biggest obstacles, simply because some people just weren’t familiar with the platforms available to bring a live event online. I loved Jennifer’s response, which was in that kind of situation, you just need to have faith in other people who are more familiar. She acknowledged though that it can be hard for some because that means letting go of the control.
To help her own faith, Jennifer adopted the attitude of not needing to be the smartest person in the room, just needing to surround herself with smart people. So while she doesn’t know how to edit videos or set up a livestream, she’s found people she trusts who do know how to do those things well.
The next obstacle was deciding how to run the event because you could have people compete live via a streaming feed or you can accept pre-recorded entries. Jennifer opted for pre-recorded entries. Something she emphasized is she just wanted people to dance wherever they can. So you can dance in a studio obviously, but you can also dance in your living room or your driveway! She said she’s been telling her judging panels to focus on the dancing and ignore the setting. The goal is to give people a chance to dance and compete again and get some valuable feedback.
That feedback is an advantage that the virtual format has over a live event. At a live competition, the judges barely have enough time to rank or score the dancers, forget providing any constructive feedback. For MidAtlantic, Jennifer is arranging for the judging to be done a few days before the event is livestreamed to provide time for the judges to give that feedback. She felt that providing the ability to actually get some feedback from a judge was an important part of turning the event virtual.
Not Just For Country Dancers
Another change Jennifer has made to MidAtlantic is the addition of ballroom events, specifically for American Smooth and American Rhythm. She had intended to add ballroom to the in-person competition and there was no reason to not include it just because the competition was going virtual. She hopes to attract strictly ballroom dancers to the event, so the country dancers and ballroom dancers both have an opportunity to see what the other does. While the ballroom day can’t be sanctioned by an organization like the National Dance Council of America (NDCA), Jennifer also recognizes that having a non-sanctioned ballroom event provides an opportunity for people from different areas, i.e. ballroom studios and USA Dance chapters, who would normally only attend their own events, to come together (virtually).
Finding a New Joy in Dance
One of the main takeaways Jennifer has gained from the pandemic experience is that things can’t stay the same. We’ve all struggled with our dance journey through 2020 and into 2021, and while some were able to just pick up where they left off, others are still wondering how dance fits into their lives now or if things will ever go back to “normal.” Jennifer recognizes that we can’t go back, we have to move forward. For her personally, even as the state has lifted restrictions, her country dance lessons have been extremely limited because her country teacher lives in a different state and isn’t travelling as much. However, her fiancé is a ballroom teacher and she’s been working more on American Smooth with him.
While we like to think we have some semblance of control, the reality is we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. The pandemic has been a huge example of that. Through all the uncertainty, Jennifer shared that she really just wanted to give people an opportunity to dance country again.
A struggle that I shared with Jennifer and that I know many other dancers have had to confront is finding the motivation to keep up with my dance training, i.e. solo practice, when I don’t know why I’m doing it anymore. What’s the point of reviewing my routines when I may never be able to perform them again?
The answer is you have to find a new joy in dance. If competing or performing drove you and motivated you before the pandemic, and you don’t know when you’ll have the opportunity to do either again, you have to let that go and find a new reason to keep dancing. Jennifer found new motivation in returning to the basics. She was a strong mover and strong turner on the dance floor and so she moved up the pro-am ranks in country dance quickly. But she realized that she didn’t fully understand the anatomy of the moves, or even the names. So she set an intention to essentially wipe the slate clean and learn from the beginning so she could actually understand what she was doing.
I hope you enjoyed getting to know Jennifer and getting a behind-the-scenes peek at what it takes to transition a competition to a virtual space. Be sure to check out the MidAtlantic Dance Classic! The Girl with the Tree Tattoo is a proud sponsor of the event and has donated some pretty awesome prizes (hint hint). Registration is now open and the event goes live April 30. “See” you there!