JUDGING – Part 1

JUDGING – Part 1

Why Judges are needed.

There are many reasons people choose to compete, and most of those reasons have nothing to do with trying to win.  That is not to say that we enjoy losing, but merely a way to say that we all want a way to measure our accomplishments, our achievements, our work and yes, even ourselves.  Let me give you an example.  A person who placed sixth last time and places second this time has as many or more reasons to enjoy the accolades of being the runner-up as the person who placed 1st last time and places 2nd this time.  Why – Because it is the progress, the journey, the work, as much as it is the result that we appreciate and remember.  There is no better way to approach this work than to decide that you are going to compete.  Competition in of itself, once decided upon, changes the way that we approach most sports and endeavors.  This surely is true for dancesport.

You decide that you are going to compete in an event.  You pick the date; you pick the event; you make it final; you make it impending and your way of life changes.  Whether you want it to or not doesn’t matter.  Whether you tell yourself it’s not a big deal or not doesn’t matter.  People as a general rule will not waste as much time, they will exert more effort and will get more for their money once the contest has been defined, and the goal established.  I don’t believe this a choice.  This is something for which people are hard wired – men more so than ladies.  Which is also why women let the men think they are actually doing the leading and are in control.

When it comes to competition, the process is what is enhanced.  Not the goal.  Your goal can be artistic expression, your goal can be more fun and or it could include the many social advantages given to accomplished dancers.  It doesn’t matter.  It is not about becoming a competitor.  It is not even about being competitive.  It is about accepting what we are and using that to become, enjoy or create what we love, admire or think of when we think of being in someone’s arms and dancing.

Having said that, there is something added to life when you put it on the line.  “The exhilaration of the hunt, the excitement of the chase, the satisfaction of the kill.”  All these terms, though not politically correct, portray emotions that are common, natural, and enjoyed vicariously from films, the world’s best plays, and novels of various genres.  But real life is so much more fun, so much more exciting, and so much more precarious than fiction, no matter who has written it, or biographies, no matter who lived it, or fantasy, no matter who has imagined it.  Yes, you the competitive fighter, and you the dramatic actor, and you the competition dancer all get more out of a life when you experience what ABC so famously called “The thrills of victory or the agony of defeat.”

In some competitions, one might think the victory is obvious, in others and many think dancesport falls into this category the victory is subjective, and dependent upon the whim and will of the “JUDGE”.  It is judging that we want to spend time on, but before we do that, let us understand that judges are needed and necessary in most sports and many for which you might think they are unnecessary.  Track events that for years used the tape to determine who was the winner, still use judges to insure no false starts occur, or to verify that participants stay within the lanes or to make sure illegal or improper contact did not affect the outcome.  Boxing events where a knock out is the natural and obvious outcome, most often are decided by judges counting the number of hits, quality of punches, and number of illegal infractions.  Ski jumping where the obvious number of feet traveled in the air is tempered with the realization of style points.  Baseball would not be the sport it is if the crowd couldn’t yell out, “Kill the umpire”.  Not that I am recommending that approach for dancesport.

Your Chance to Judge

Before we go on, imagine that we are going to give you an opportunity to become a judge yourself.  Each of you has been handed your own scoring cards.  Gold is for 1st Place, Silver for 2nd Place, and Bronze is for 3rd place.  Our first competition includes couples, 1, 2,and 3, and they will be dancing the Foxtrot.

Now we can see what is important to you or at least to your teacher.

Couple #1 dances with no regard to footwork, but all else well at the same level as the other competitors.  Footwork in and of itself may seem to be a useless and extra technique developed by teachers so that they can sell more lessons, and spend more time and hold you back from your true potential, and those that selected couple # 1 might be more inclined to think so.  In fact top dancers and teachers recognize that such technique enables you to move more, to move more easily, and to move smoothly as opposed to rigidly, haphazardly or without style.  Most definitions of dancing include, “moving to music” or some such definition that makes it clear that movement is intrinsic in dance.  Some teachers might even tell you that the reason you use a heel lead in a smooth dance is that it allows you to continue to move through your body as your free leg has time to move into place for the next step.  In fact they would be right, and if continuity or smooth movement were part of your impression of Foxtrot, then that heel lead would have to be part of your expectations as a judge.  Yes at a beginning level many people can move enough without such technique to still look OK, but is it the job of a judge to judge what you do, or just how it looks?

Couple # 2 has danced, but without regard to timing, but all else well at an equal level of the others.  Can you dance a dance and not care about the music?  Yes, you have ever been out in the real world; we have all seen the man, lady or couple that were dancing to their own music so to speak.  We have all seen the couple that does the same steps no matter what the music, what the speed, or what the occasion.  While it may not matter to them, as we said before the definitions of dance always include a reference to music.  We assume they are dancing to the music provided, and that is what judges see, look at and compare.  You as a judge have to take that into account.  How important should it be?  What would you think if you saw someone at the lounge tonight that is dancing around on the floor when no music is playing?  When a judge sees someone off time it is just about the same.

Couple # 3 danced with bad posture, but all else well.  Good posture as those that are accomplished social dancers can attest provides security, space, and comfort for the lady.  Anyone who enjoys dancing at any level will also enjoy the visual aspects of dance.  As much as any art, dance provides an aesthetic image that has graced movies, posters, and commercials primarily for its visual impact and beauty.  How can any judge rate a dancer that does not embrace the visual aspects of the art?  The look of Fred Astaire is etched in the psyche of anyone aspiring to be that next American smooth champion.


The British define judging in the Oxford Dictionary as:

t verb  – form an opinion or conclusion about: a production can be judged according to the canons of aesthetic criticism.

Americans define judging in the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary as:

t verb – forming an opinion about and through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises

Both derived from the Latin:

judic- = jus (law) + dicere (to say) = to say the law

All this is to say that judging has been around from time immemorial, and though subjective, it is still defined and regulated by known laws, traditions, premises and expectations.  Deciding which traditions and expectations are important is a decision each Judge must make after they have shown the expertise of exhibiting, recognizing, understanding, and describing the needed skills and arts in dance.  Rules and traditions have no place outside the context of what is necessary to portray the attributes, skills, character and imagery of the dance.

It does not get easier

Now it is time again for you to be the judge.  The dance is now Rumba, and once again there are three couples competing against each other.  You job is to pick the winner.  The victor will gain the awards, trophies, accolades, and bragging rights.  You are given the right, responsibility, or honor to pick who will be happy and who loses.

Couple # 1 dances OK, but lacked the style normally considered part of Rumba.  Cuban Motion and staccato action are an integral part of the dance.  Considered part of the movement and traditions of the dance, they are much more than fluffy accessories added to make the dance “pretty”.  You have all heard stories of how Cuban motion is a result of walking with things on your head, so that they will not fall off, and to this day you can go to some Caribbean islands and see people using this means of conveyance.  Staccato action is maybe more a symptom than a cause.  Latin dances are characterized not through the use of the feet, but the movement, that key word again, that is done sensually, softly, and smoothly through the rib cage, hips and body.  Getting the feet to a grounded position as soon as possible allows the body more time to develop, move, excite and do all the necessary moves that are so consistent to the music.

Is this important?  Most would say yes.  To what degree and extent and compared to what follows is what makes judging an art and skill that is both subjective and necessary.

Couple # 2 had a bad day, but has some motion, and variety.  Maybe they couldn’t find his socks; maybe he stepped on her feet during practice.  Is talking during the competition bad?  Is that what judges should be caring about?  The expression on the competitor’s face or whether they look happy or not should have nothing to do with the skill shown and the marks received.  That is often the argument of many who partake in such antics.  Regardless of whether you consider dancing a sport or an art, you have to agree that once you enter a competition, judges look at you.  Not just parts of you.  If that were true, we would all like the opportunity to be able to tell judges and people in general what they should have to overlook when viewing us.  Just imagine how much better we all would appear to our bosses, spouses or in-laws if we could choose what traits they must ignore when judging us.  The real world doesn’t act that way, and dancesport judges don’t either.

Couple # 3 is nice but only dance the basic and one step.  What is wrong?  Some may say nothing, some say variety.  Others are just standing there shouting, “OK now, do something else already”.  This may be the hardest for the judges.  We recognize that steps are popular not because somebody from England made them up.  Steps become popular because they do something.  Some steps get you from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, and at times that is very necessary like when someone much bigger than you is coming straight at you.  Some steps keep the style and feeling of the dance while going nowhere which is preferred over just stopping by most ladies when there is no where to go.  Other steps are designed to show off the lady, and considering that most of the expensive stuff on dance dresses is still on the front, this makes sense to me.  Other steps turn, and if you have ever been out in the real world two things are certain.  One most ladies like to turn, and two, most men don’t know when to stop.

The question comes in competition.  Displaying a prowess to be able to dance all the moves, directions and turns should definitely be an asset, but is it an asset if the moves are not necessary for the space or conditions.  Is it not fair for a judge to assume that if you do not dance the steps you don’t know them, and another couple that does, has a better grasp of the realities of a dance?  Should a judge just judge what you do, and not be concerned with what might or might not be; even when what might be is an integral part of the fabric of the dance?  These are the questions that judges have to consider, and debate is ongoing and continuous as to what is most important, what is most relevant.  As long as this debate continues, chances are good the quality of judges will remain high, and standards will be fair.  If this debate ever ceases, then we all should start worrying.


The greatest safeguard competitors have to the integrity, honesty, and fairness in judging is in their independence and numbers.  To that end, the National Dance Council of America is to be commended.  To date the council has remained an alliance of independent governing organizations and groups that each has their own well-publicized goals, rules, and requirements.  Membership in the N.D.C.A., again has to date, not meant subordinating your standards to the will of others but merely the recognition that those standards are universally recognized, and in the best interests of dance as a sport, art, hobby, occupation and/or passion.

The National Dance Council of America’s Web Site (as of November, 1, 2003) lists 11 Organizations that offer certification for Teachers and/or Judges and they include:

  • National Dance Teacher’s Association
  • North American Dance Teacher’s Association
  • Arthur Murray International
  • Pan American Teachers of Dancing
  • Dance Educators of America
  • S. Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance
  • Dance Teachers Club of Boston
  • United States Terpsichore Association
  • Dance Vision
  • Fred Astaire Dance of North America

Each of these organizations has their own criteria for membership, qualifications for teachers, and requirements and standards for Judges.  Membership in the N.D.C.A. requires only the understanding and confirmation that its judges are members of one of these member organizations.  They should not be entitled to establish any other standards, because in doing so they will undermine the necessary independence of the judiciary.

What does this mean to you, the competitor?  It means that as long as there are numbers of judges in a competition, the chances of having a fair and impartial result are good.  As long as participating Judges continue to be part of different member organizations the criteria, and standards expected of any one judge will be balanced against the criteria of the other judges.  This is a good thing.  Numbers are good.

Many people think popularity, prestige and previous placement are more important than:

TECHNIQUE including:  Footwork, Movement, and Control

EXECUTION including:  Physical Skill, Timing and Performance

POISE including:  Posture, Poise, Hold and Self Confidence

SHOWMANSHIP including:  Entrance, Exit, Style, Personality and Appeal.

To the overriding extent this is not true.  Is recognition a fact of life?  Yes, it is.  Is it an advantage?  Rarely if at all.  To the contrary, many judges will tell you recognition comes with an implied higher standard of acceptance.  This means, if I know you, I expect more out of you.  It will take more to excite me.  Others can amaze me more easily.

Even if a judge wanted to give the edge to a recognized couple, he or she would not be able to affect the outcome alone, and anyone who has sat with any two judges at the same time knows that there is little they will agree on, and conspiring to affect the outcome of any event would evoke calls for expulsion, and rightfully so.  Politics if it is an issue at all, really could only apply at the very highest levels.  People and couples who think that politics plays a role in getting to the second round or even to the semi-finals need to spend more time practicing and less time worrying about how others get there.  Major championships do what they can to hire a plethora of judges, most of whom don’t know who most of the competitors, and also couldn’t care less.

Does this mean that dancesport shouldn’t be vigilant?  No, just the opposite is true.  Many feel the potential for abuse and subjectivity has kept dancesport out of the Olympics and that the judging abuses at the last Olympics for ice-skating did more to set dancesport back as an Olympic event than all the disagreements between Amateurs and Professionals.

Conflicts still exist between American style and International style.  There still are a relatively small number of South American and African countries that have dancesport as a recognized sport.  Add to that, that many countries expect that their competitors should be competitive and can win before they would endorse the sport for inclusion.  You see these are just some of the issues that have to be resolved before dancesport gains that illusive status of Olympia.  That still leaves out the biggest issue, which is a discussion for another day.

Michael Reichenbach


Dance Week

January 2, 2004

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