At Last, Ready To Compete

At last, ready to compete

By Izabela Jaworska
USISTD Fellow

Published in Issue #36 (Spring 2018) of Topline, the official magazine of the USISTD

That wonderful couple you’ve been teaching is ready to compete! Their syllabus figures are beautiful. They know their choreographies to perfection. What else should you tell them before they enter the competitive world? Here are some tips I like to give my students.

Calm down! Let’s start with the most obvious: overcoming nervousness! How do we help students overcome the trembling legs, tense shoulders, and butterflies. At a time when clear thinking is needed for competition, some students can be quite terrified. But nervousness is not always bad: it can sometimes improve performance by increasing alertness. Here are some ways to make it work for your anxious couple.

  • Be prepared: Check the costume. Dance in it before the competition. “Break in the shoes before they break your foot!”
  • Breathing control: Observe your breathing, without the urge to change anything. People who meditate know this skill, as it releases tension.
  • Move! Remember the warm-up. Move the shoulders, twist the torso, shake the entire body. A few exercises prepare muscles, heart, and lungs.
  • “Choose your thoughts, or they will choose you.” This wisdom is from body mechanics expert Eric Franklin. Some dancers think too much about what they don’t like. Instead, get your competitors to think about what they want to achieve. Tell them to shower themselves with uplifting thoughts.
  • Here’s a great one-minute exercise: Your couple can choose a quiet place, close their eyes, be still, and do NOTHING for ONE minute. Tell them not to analyze or comment on what they notice: just be present with their bodies.

Avoid the crowd. Your couple is calm and ready to dance. But uh-oh! That corner where they planned to start their routine is occupied! Here’s some advice about where to begin on the dance floor. Use strategy! For example, choose a different corner to start each dance. After selecting a starting point before a dance, walk toward that point with confidence and always on a straight line. Don’t linger, wondering where to start; this will diminish the look of self-assurance. A good strategy is to learn your starting choreography at different starting points. Remember though: practice, and don’t surprise your partner on competition day.

Get a grip. At last, your couple is in position, the music is starting, it’s time to get into frame! Stop squirming! There is no penalty for waiting too long on the dance floor, but shifting from foot to foot and adjusting one’s hold costs dancers precious moments. Judges do not have time to look at someone who stands still. Here are 5 contact points I teach my couples that are widely used to get into frame quickly:

  1. Make eye contact. Take a few seconds to acknowledge your partner.
  2. The man connects his left hand with the lady’s right hand. Feel the sensation.
  3. Now connect the bodies, with the lady closing the gap. Notice how the partners stay in perfect individual balance.
  4. Next, the man’s right hand is gently placed on the lady’s back.
  5. Last, the lady’s left hand completes the hold on the man’s shoulder. Remember, the more they practice it at the studio the less time it will take on the competition floor.

Move it! Now, your perfect couple is dancing beautifully, but wait! Somebody is in the way! It’s a dance traffic jam! Your couple’s choreography was well rehearsed, but this calls for some floorcraft: those “emergency steps” when the path is blocked. Every elite professional and amateur couple has a “toolbox of steps” that they can quickly use to avoid a crash. Unfortunately, this toolbox seems empty when it comes to newcomers. Here are a few examples of what we should teach:

  • Understand the term “line of dance” (LOD). Line of dance is like a river that pushes us down the stream. Every consecutive step needs to go with the flow of the river. There are only a few exceptions.
  • A good body-weight connection with the partner is a must. This will enable the lady to react to the man’s sudden changes of direction.
  • Learn how to: side chasse, hover, check, or hesitate to avoid another couple. Hesitations are perfect steps for beginners because they give them time to regroup and start fresh in the correct part of the music.
  • A little more complicated, but still possible to teach beginners, is the ability to anticipate other competitors’ moves. For example, after the Reverse Corte, one should anticipate backward movement. The more students know about the figures, the better they can anticipate an opponent’s move.
  • Leaders who participate in social dancing learn to use a variety of figures so they don’t lead their partners the same way each time. I encourage this, so the couple will be rewarded with admirable floorcraft in competition.
  • Last, look ahead. I can’t stress out how important it is to have good eyesight. If you are not blessed with a good pair of eyes, then wear those glasses or contact lenses.

Disaster strikes! A collision or a fall! There is no competitive couple in this world that has not experienced an embarrassing crash. Most of us also fear an injury. Bang! It happened, now they are both on the floor. Who should stand up first? While there is no rule of order, most likely the lady will be tangled up with yards of crinoline, making a graceful rise impossible. So, gentlemen, pick yourself up quickly and offer your hand. Shake off your embarrassment, smile, and continue where you left off. There is no time to argue while the music plays.

Take a bow. Dancers get a kick out of the audience’s reaction, but don’t count on it if you dance at 7:00 in the morning. The scattered audience of fellow competitors are most likely half asleep, judging by the coffee cups in their hands. So what to do? Well, end the dance, take a small bow (could be toward each other) and walk to the next starting position as quickly as possible.

But let’s say you are the lucky couple! You made it to the final of the Closed Scholarship event at 7:00 in the evening. You have a room packed with a wildly cheering audience. How to acknowledge them in a graceful way? I teach my students to share the moment with their partner! They should practice their bow, the same way they practice their other figures. When bowing, make sure that the lady is either diagonally forward to the man’s position, or parallel. If the man is positioned in front of his partner, this may be perceived as arrogant. Avoid that. At the end of the applause, the leader may gesture to the partner the direction for her to go (forward, backward, or to a new position on the floor). Also, be clear to your partner if you want her on your left or right side. You may offer a hand or arm to walk away together, sharing the triumph.

Picture perfect! Your couple made it to the end! It’s time for a picture. One of my coaches once said: “Look at the difference between how beginners line up, versus elite dancers.” The beginners always stay on both feet square to the camera, holding the trophy in both hands. The elite dancers angle themselves to the camera, creating diagonal lines with their bodies, with poise for their legs and ankles. This creates an artistically pleasing look. Your new competitive couple can practice in front of the mirror or even start doing this for family group photos. Soon their family may comment: “Honey, you lost so much weight!” But your perfect dance couple will know it’s all about these diagonal lines, while posing for a perfect shot. After all, a great teacher showed them how to practice. Good luck!