Part I: The Audition

Dance-Audition sandwich board

We recently received an email from Melanie in Fort Collins, CO (a big shout out to Ft. Fun where I first learned Lindy Hop from the Jumpin’ Jive Cats) regarding leveling at events and the frustration of placement.

Ah, the leveling question. In truth, leveling at events is the thing I hate most because it causes so much undo stress for both the teacher and the student. That stress, in turn can take away from the learning process and even potentially ruin one’s workshop experience.  The truth is, there is no perfect way to measure a person’s level because it’s relative to several factors.

  • First, a student is being evaluated against everyone else on the floor at that specific event, so their

    level in their home community is no longer the strongest rubric for self-assessment.

  • Secondly, evaluation is being done by different individuals (instructor) who have differing values when it comes to skills relative to one’s level. So I may value rhythm over connection, where Evita may look more at how the partnership is succeeding. Yes, you would think that we all get together before hand to agree on how we will evaluate students, but the truth is we don’t.
  • Thirdly, some students get overlooked in the process because they’re in the middle of a blob on the floor instead of on the periphery where the judges are standing.  Honestly, many of my peers and I look for outliers in any group such that if you blend in, you’ll probably not be moved.

I was doing some light research regarding this topic with some of my peers, and I found a wonderful piece from the ever-thoughtful Bobby White. His article pertains to judging contests, but I found this quote to be quite applicable to what we’re talking about here.

“You should also know, as a dancer, that the swing world does have judges who do the

following: They favor dancers they know. They don’t have a consistent judging method. They are tainted by what they know about the dancing habits of the people in the competitions. They have preferences for or against certain styles. They might weigh certain aspects of dance disproportionately larger than others to an alarming extent. Or, the most prevalent, they simply haven’t put a whole lot of thought into their judging, they merely get handed a clipboard and rely on their instincts. (Perhaps they think they have put a lot of thought into their judging, but the art of judging isn’t simply having strong opinions.)”

The full article can be found here, and I think it’s absolutely worth your read, but what stuck me is that what he was referencing for judging contests can certainly be extended to leveling assessments. As I already said, there is no perfect system by which all dancers are evaluated, but maybe these ideas might better help you navigate the leveling process and outcome.

Part II: The Deeper Meaning Of It All

…There is none!  And I hate to philosophically simplify that idea in this next section, but the basis of what I’m about to write is buoyed by this belief.  I think the truth is that labels of “Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced” are nebulous and are not necessarily representative of your skill and ability. Sure, there are dancers who are lacking in many skill sets, like rhythm,  balance, timing, creativity and empathy… and on the other end of the spectrum there are wonderful dancers who seem to have an effortless command of the dance in all its facets.  But by which metrics can you make a declarative assessment of one’s level? I say you can’t because, as I already pointed out, there is no codified rubric by which all dancers are evaluated, therefore at what point(s) do instructors delineate between levels?  How we as instructors decide who goes into what level is based on many factors and values which may or may not be in line with each other (and they usually aren’t), nor the event organizers nor the students being evaluated.

To illustrate this point, I offer this example: What if the organizer decides that they want/need only 15 couples for the top level? Right away the evaluation staff (usually instructors) is given a finite number to reach, so what if there are more than 15 leads and follows who could fit that category? Or worse, what if only 6 leads belong in the top group?  Then either the Advanced class becomes 6 couples and 9 follows suffer, or it’s a class of 15 couples…and all 15 follows suffer.

One year at a major dance event, the leveling team – all headlining instructors had quite an interesting situation. The process was such that the students had danced with each other the day prior and placed each other in what they felt were appropriate levels.  That put them into relative placement, and by the time we saw each group, we were looking for outliers (i.e. anyone who was grossly mis-leveled).  Up first, the “Advanced” group, and they weren’t that good, per se, but being labeled as such, they set the bar that week for what the top group would be.  After that, the next highest group, and they were far better than the previous, theoretically more advanced group.  All the instructors looked at each other, confused and wondering whether or not we were all seeing the same thing. We had a pow wow to quickly decide what action should be taken.  Do we rename this group, telling them that they are actually the top group, thus demoting the first group (and subsequently breaking their egos), or do we all stay quiet but know that when we see that first group, teach to their (lower) ability? Ultimately, we decided not to say anything to the students and we knew when seeing each group what level to teach to. Subsequently, it was quite humorous when some people from the second group wanted to appeal their placement, hoping to get moved into the “Advanced” group.  We said they should probably stay where they were… “no really, stay,” but we couldn’t quite tell them why.

I think this example reaffirms how important titles and labels are to us as humans; to our desire to be perceived as something, whether it be advanced or rich or cool, etc. But more so, I hope it illustrates the fallacy of labels as it relates to ability in this dance. To look at it another way, I think back to a moment with Sylvia Sykes where she framed for a student their level placement like this: somebody always has to be the best or the worst in a class, so which one would you really rather be? Speaking as my younger, more arrogant self, I’d have opted to be placed in a higher level (thus making me the worst lead in that class) and accept any fallout from the judgement and disdain from the follows. But the thing is, you have to dance with these people at the evening dances, and do you really want to be that person?

Part III: So What Can I Do?

You’ve gone to the leveling hour prior to the start of workshop classes and you’re now assigned to your level for the weekend. If you disagree with your placement you have several options in terms of redressing your situation. I think the first step in process for you to take would be to attend the appeals hour (usually that evening or the following morning) to contest your placement because that is where you’ll probably get one-on-one feedback regarding what the instructor(s) sees.

This next suggestion may sound shady at first, but hear me out… I might recommend taking a private from an instructor at the event so that a) you get direct feedback on things to work on, but also because b) it’s about making a deeper personal connection such that you get noticed when being evaluated.

Now, I’m not saying that this is a back door entrance into higher levels through favoritism or buying someone off, but I am saying that with the sheer number of people that national and international instructors meet, it’s often times hard to put names with faces, and I for one tend to notice people whom I know over strangers. I was surprised, maybe even a bit relieved to read an excerpt from Bobby’s blog post where, in his discussion about judging contests, he wrote, “you’d probably have to take a private lesson from a judge you respect in order to get an in-depth lesson on how they judge (which I highly recommend.)”

Part IV: In Summation

I’m not saying that these actions are a panacea for getting into the exact level you want, but they are options that may help you navigate the process with more confidence and understanding.  I would challenge you to think about what you can learn at the level in which you are placed, and be more thoughtful about questions you can ask while in class. As cheesy as it may sound, the advanced dancer tends to be more interested in the basics because it is mastery of those concepts, those pearls of wisdom that truly unlocks the magic of this dance.  It’s a cyclical journey, where we hopefully find ourselves returning to the things that at first glance look and feel like review, even mundane, but with careful attention can seem refreshing and more powerfully applicable based on our experiences since having first learned them.