One of the things I did at the Canadian Swing Championships was do a little competing. It’s been just over two years since I did my first competition at Lindy Bout, and competitions are a bit, or maybe even a lot different now.
At first, I was pulled into competing because it was yet another aspect of lindy hop I hadn’t done. A lot of things were new at that point, and competing was one of those things teachers told you to do because it was good for your dancing. It’s a scary thing – right in the mind space of public performance – but a lot of it was blunted by signing up en masse with friends. It’s an odd space, when you’ve done a lot of the classes – thinking back, I probably thought of myself as both a novice – after all, I was definitely not as good as the teachers and I was in no way a pro – but also with the hubris of an intermediate-advanced dancer – after all, it felt like I could basically do a lot of the moves while social dancing. It’s about pushing yourself and growing as a dancer, but also secretly hoping that you luck out and have an awesome dance and win.
Thinking about things now, I feel I’m at a very different place in my dancing – older, wiser, more “advanced” – and yet I’m at a very similar place. I’m more than ever convinced that competing is one of the things you can do to improve your dancing. In some sense, I consider it a bit of an extension of why I think learning to dance fast is important – being forcing myself to dance at (what felt like) incredibly high speeds to the Jen Hodge All-Stars for a summer (and luckily having amazing friends willing to support this insanity) made medium tempo songs positively relaxed. I remember having an epiphany – I was listening to a song, wondering who played this slow, mellow version of this famous song, when I realised this wasn’t a new version of the song – it was exactly that famous song, but now it felt so incredibly relaxed and mellow. By learning to barely survive at extreme tempos, I suddenly found myself with plenty of time to relax and reflect at lower speeds.
Competing is basically the same idea, but with a much broader range of restrictions. The necessity to do it while being watched and judged adds all sorts of extra stress, but ultimately the hope is to make social dancing, my real target, seem like a positively relaxed and blissful experience in comparison. I think it’s important to try to dance your best when you’re competing – actually, I think one of the important stresses in competition is that you’re suddenly forcing yourself to do All The Best Things All The Time – and it also made me realise that there were some falsehoods I clung to. One was that getting the right feel was more important than looking good – it’s a bit of a trap to think that (at my level anyways) that you have to choose between the two. It might be harder to have both, but looking and feeling decent is always achievable – and I know that I have a pretty far ways to go on that front.
Another thing that I realised, once winning is possible, is what does winning mean? After all, I definitely believe in trying my best, trying to win – but what does it mean to actually win at most levels? That you are the best of not the best? If the contest could evaluate and identify you as the best in a particular level – isn’t the true reward for that revelation that you no longer fit in that particular level and should be higher? Does that mean that all winners at anything but the highest level have basically proven that they are in the wrong level (or else does it mean that it was a fluke?) It makes for weird mind games – you kind of want to be in a low level competition to maximise your chances of winning, but a higher level competition means that you will guarantee yourself better dances – but if it’s too high you’re instead pulling other people down. In some sense the ideal competition pits people “of equal skill” against each other, but if they were really all that equal there wouldn’t be any point in the competition since they really the winner is the one who was luckiest? And if people aren’t all equal in skill, wouldn’t that mean that the person who “cheated” the most – or maybe was the least matching the level – is the winner? Or maybe everyone needs to get a chance to win and then graduate to the next level? But sadly that’s pretty infeasible, as there are so many more people than winners – far too many competitions. I guess that’s why there are level exams for things like piano – a competition against yourself and a set of criteria, rather than a guaranteed unequal playing field.
I want to win, and I revel in all the successes – from just having awesome dances, meeting new people, pulling off something difficult For Real Under Stressful Conditions, making finals – but it’s also important that I unwind a bit afterwards and remember that strange effect where winning isn’t the true (only) goal, but to truly reach my goal I have to treat winning as the goal. And, not so secretly, all the kinds of winning are delicious icing to the cake of dancing better. It reminds me a bit Pol Slattery’s stance in Ender’s Game (by Orson Scott Card):
And at the end of the battle, Slattery shook Ender’s hand and said, “I’m glad you won. If I ever beat you, Ender, I want to do it fair.”
“Use what they give you,” Ender said. “If you’ve ever got an advantage over the enemy, use it.”
“Oh, I did,” said Slattery. He grinned. “I’m only fair-minded before and after battles.”