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How to Perform Better in Your First West Coast Swing Competition

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Some West Coast Swing dancers dive into the competitive arena just weeks after taking their first class. Others wait years.

And the progress is almost always the same. You either get convinced to attend your first competition, or you finally think you have what it takes to perform well, so you jump on in.

Unfortunately, regardless of whether you’ve been dancing for years, or just a few short weeks, if it’s your first competition, you are in the same boat as everyone else. And probably just as nervous.

And while you’ve been practicing your dancing as much as you can, you’re still missing out on the 1 thing that will really help you out there on that competitive floor.

Knowing how to be a better West Coast Swing competitor.

It’s a completely different skill to being a better West Coast Swing dancer. In fact, we often see people win competitions who are technically not as strong as other dancers on the floor.

So, how can you be one of those dancers that actually performs well in competitions?

Let’s start at the beginning.

How a West Coast Swing Competition is Structured

There are 3 main West Coast Swing divisions:

  • Jack & Jill: a lead/follow dance where you are randomly assign both your partner & your song
  • Strictly Swing: a lead/follow dance where you choose your partner but are randomly assigned your song
  • Routine Divisions (Pro-Am/Classic/Rising Star): a choreographed dance where you choose both your partner & your song

This article is going to be talking primarily about the Jack & Jill and the Strictly Swing. The 2 lead/follow divisions. If you’re doing a routine and you’re new to competition, we highly recommend you work with your teachers & coaches to prepare.

So, back to the Jack & Jill and Strictly Swing.

Each competition is broken into different levels (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, AllStar & Champions/Professional) – being your first competition, you’ll most likely be dancing in Novice division (there is a point system managed by the World Swing Dance Council that determines your level).

The competition is broken into 2 parts:

  • Prelims / Quarter-Finals / Semi-Finals (we’ll call all these “Prelims”): Prelims are danced as “All-Skates” where everyone is on the floor at the same time, dancing to the same song. Judges select the dancers who will progress to the next round.
  • The Final: Finals are either danced as an “All-Skate” with everyone on the floor, or they are danced as a “Spotlight”, where each couple dances 1 at a time. Judges order the dancers in first through last place.

What Do The Judges Look For?

Every judge has certain things they prefer, and often, specific events will ask judges to rate certain things higher than others (eg. some events may want entertainment ranked higher than technique, other events may be the opposite).

However, all West Coast Swing judges have the same starting point – the 3 “T’s” of West Coast Swing.

  1. Timing: are you on time with the music and with your partner?
  2. Technique: do you have good general dance & West Coast Swing technique?
  3. Teamwork: are you and your partner working together, or are you fighting each other as you dance?

And whilst all judges have their own preferences when it comes to styling, moves, entertainment, etc – these 3 “T’s” are mostly non-subjective. You are either on time, or you’re not. You either have good technique, or you don’t. You and your partner are working together, or you’re not.

But then, once you’ve managed to “tick” all 3 “T’s” – you have good timing, good technique, and good teamwork – how do the judges decide who wins?

It’s Not About The Moves

That’s right. The judges don’t really care if you know 3 moves, or 300. In fact, most judges would agree, that at your first West Coast Swing competition, it’s far better to know 3 moves really well, than to sort-of know 300.

Particularly in Prelims, where a judge may only be looking at each couple for a total of 10 seconds each!

The trick to dancing well in Prelims is to dance your best moves (and I mean the moves you are the best at, not the moves you think are the coolest), have a clean dance without any mistakes, and above all – have fun!

Most first-time competitors freeze on the dance floor and look like they are getting their teeth pulled – you’re dancing! You’re supposed to look like you’re having a good time!

A great tip for Prelims is to think about showing each move as if you were demonstrating the correct way to do it for others.

It’s Not All About You

Too often a really good dancer doesn’t make it through to the final, or ends up not winning, simply because they were COMPLETELY focused on themselves.

They were leading moves their partner was clearly not comfortable with, or they were so focused on their styling that their partner couldn’t lead anything!

It can be difficult to strike the balance between showing that you’re a good dancer, and allowing your partner to do the same. However, that’s exactly what the judges are looking for! We want to see a good dancer actually look after and dance WITH their partner, not just dance at them.

So, think about having a really great social dance, which happens to have a bunch of people watching (no pressure haha!). Work WITH your partner, actually look at them, and smile at them! Yes, it’s that simple – but it makes ALL the difference!

So, make sure your partner is having a great time, and then add some of what makes you awesome too.

It’s Not Always Fair

That’s right, it isn’t. Sometimes, the better dancers don’t make the finals, and they often don’t win.

You may have done the greatest move that anyone has ever seen, but the judges were looking at someone else. And when they looked at you, they saw that 5 seconds where you and your partner fell out of time.

West Coast Swing is a subjective sport, so what one judge may love, another judge may hate.

The trick is to not take it personally. Every champion level dancer has gone through not making finals, or having the worst dance you’ve ever had, or had the completely weird experience of having 1 judge place you 1st, and another judge place you 15th! As professionals, you get used to it.

But then, they’ve been doing it for years, and they know the next competition is right around the corner.

If you feel as though you didn’t get the placing you deserved, take that energy and turn it into massive congratulations for the people who did (Remember, nobody like a sore loser!).

It Is Totally Awesome

It’s the only way to describe competing. It. Is. Awesome. And we cannot recommend it highly enough to every West Coast Swing dancer.

And when you do, go out there and have an absolute blast. Laugh, smile, breathe, and you’ll be great.

Check out our competition event, the Australian Open West Coast Swing Dance Championships held every October in Melbourne, Australia.

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