Thoughts on swing dancing and Lindy Hop, one word at a time…

How To Put On A Swing Dance Contest

While I am not a top-tier traveling international instructor, I would say I have done my fair share of competitions in my last few years of dancing. One thing I have noticed is the diversity of the types of competitions in the swing dance community in terms of organization and advertisement.

 

An example in respect to advertising would be the contrast in these two contest descriptions from ILHC and Lindy 500:

The Second Annual Amateur Champions Invitational Jack & Jill.  from Lindy 500 (2012)

The Second Annual Amateur Champions Invitational Jack & Jill. By invitation or request only. If you think you should be in this contest, contact michael@mobtownballroom.com. You cannot be a regular instructor or international teacher or any such shit. If you teach some locally, that’s okay. Skye Humphries is specifically barred from entering this contest. $5 entry fee.

Invitational J&J from ILHC (2012)

This will be an Invitational social dance competition open to dancers determined by the organizers. Leaders and followers will be randomly drawn to dance together to several songs of varying styles and tempos and judged as a couple as they compete in spotlight format.

Competitors are not allowed to dance with “regular” partner (one that they dance and/or have competed with in a choreographed routine in the last 4 years, Team routines do not count) Social dance partners are accepted and will be considered “luck of the draw”.

Competition Blueprint 

Below is my recommended blueprint or guidelines to setting up a competition:

  1. Developing an appropriate vision.
  2. Write appropriate contest rules and descriptions.
  3. Fill necessary roles.
  4. Figure out and write down logistics.
  5. Last minute checkup.

1. Developing an Appropriate Vision

Your have decided to have a competition, great! Now the question is how many swing dance events have you run in the past? If the answer is little to none, having a ULHS or ILHC sized competition is probably a bit too lofty of  a goal for your first competition to be organizing. The first part of developing an appropriate vision is:

  • Realizing what experience you and potential co-organizers who are putting on the competition have and the resources you have to work with.

Another thing to consider is the context of this competition being organized. Is it part of a workshop weekend with a live band? Is it part of a weekly dance with attendance of less then one-hundred people? Is your scene near a lot of big cities with sizable scenes or are you in the middle of no-where and rarely get out of town visitors? Will other local organizers support your event or openly antagonize you and conflict with your event in spite of advance notice? Some of these things are not pleasant truths to deal with but are the reality of organizing any event, let alone a competition. The second part of developing an appropriate vision is:

  • Realizing what kind of attendance your event is likely to get.
  • Considering if you have local swing dance scenes that will support you.
  • Deciding if your event targets out-of-town dancers and if you have the resources to attract them to support you?

Lastly the intent of the competition is something that is important to think about. Is this a competition that is created for new competitors to get their feet wet and has more of a fun community feeling or is this more of a serious competition where it is going to be on youtube later and the prizes are nothing to scoff at? The context of the contest decides everything from entrance fees, if you use in-house judges or hire professional instructors to judge, if the finals are an all-skate versus phrase-battle, and et cetera. The last part of developing an appropriate vision is:

  • Realizing the purpose of why you and your co-organizers are putting on the competition and the context you want it to have.

2. Write Appropriate Contest Rules and Descriptions

You now have a vision or outline for what type of event you and your co-organizers want. This can be anything from a small Amateur Jack & Jill that is part of a weekly dance to a competition with a Jack & Jill, Strictly Lindy, and Solo Charleston contest that is part of a workshop weekend with a live band.  The next part is to come up with contest rules and descriptions that are appropriate for your event.

I listed the Lindy 500 contest description for their Jack & Jill above because I wanted to illustrate the point that “appropriate” is relative to the dancers which the contest is trying to appeal to. Baltimore’s scene addresses a different audience for their workshop weekend event in comparison to ILHC which is an international competition weekend.  With their description one can infer that having fun and taking oneself not too seriously is something the contest organizers are trying to advocate. My general advice is unless if you know your target audience fairly well, err on the side of being too professional versus potentially confusing or alienating potential competitors. This means assume everyone reading your descriptions are first time competitors and do not know the definitions of phrases such as “Strictly Lindy”, “Jack & Jill”, or “Phrase Battle”. The first part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:

  • Write rules that are appropriate for the atmosphere of the contest you are trying to create. When in doubt, err on the side of being too explicit and professional.

Another thing important to note is no matter how relaxed and carefree the competition you are about to host is, addressing safety is a highly recommended idea. The last thing you want is the newer dancer who is entering his first competition trying to throw an aerial he or she learned off of youtube in the middle of an amateur Jack & Jill. If you want to reinforce the seriousness of ignoring the rules, listing the penalty of it such as disqualification from the contest is a good idea as well.  The second part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:

  • Especially for safety, if you don’t want something happening in a competition explicitly write what is not allowed.

Lastly make sure to address the essential questions about a contest in your description such as,

Who is allowed in each division? Where are the competitions being held? What time are the competitions? What kind of competitions are they? How are the competitions being judged? What tempos are going to be played in the competition? Who is judging the competitions? How is preliminary rounds being held? How are finals being held?

It is the prerogative of an event organizer of some of these details if they are publicly listed, perhaps the final format being secret is part of the atmosphere of the event. It is a nice touch though to let people know where and when they should be. On a positive note if you actually post contest rules and descriptions you are already ahead of the game. I have participated in many contests where I simply knew there was going to be a contest at that event and that was the only information I was provided. The last part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:

  • Make sure it is written out what type of competitions you are having, where they are, when they are, and other essential information relevant to potential competitors.

3. Fill Necessary Roles

Now that you have the rules and descriptions for your contest, you now need individuals to run your contest under those guidelines. Depending upon the scope of the competition you are attempting to put on you may need a few people to an entire team of people to help you run a competition.  If this is just a casual local competition you can probably use volunteers/compensated individuals from your local scene, whereas if you are trying to make it a serious competition you will probably have to hire people experienced at their respective roles.

Below is a short list of roles that should be filled at a minimum.

  • Competition DJ or Live Band: For either a DJ or a live band this should preferably be people who have experience doing this or at very least been educated and briefed on what playing for a competition entails. 
  • Judges: Depending upon the seriousness of your competition this can be randomly chosen people to professional dancers who are regularly hired to judge at events.
  • Master of Ceremonies (MC): The job of this individual is to host the contest and this entails introducing competitors, announcing what is happening, making sure the judges are ready before a contest begins, and other miscellaneous activities. 

Here are optional roles that may or may not be necessary depending upon the scope of your competition.

  • Wrangler/Phrase Battle Counter: The job of this individual is to count people off when they are supposed to enter in a phrase battle. If you are having finals where couples go out one at a time, it is advised to have someone do this.
  • Contest Tabulator: If you are having multiple competitions it is advised to have an experienced individual handle contest tabulation. For a smaller event with only one to two competitions, often the head judge can be responsible for this.
  • Contest Coordinators: This is only necessary if you are having a competition with a massive amount of dancers. I’m talking like ILHC, Frankie 95, Camp Hollywood, and et cetera sized. The job of this person is to make sure people do things like rotate during Jack & Jills properly and are lined up while waiting to go on the floor.
  • Sound Guy: This is only necessary if you are having a large and professional competition and are renting/using a massive room for your event. The job of this person is to make sure your band/DJ’s music is clearly audible to the competitors and the crowd.

Below is the Invitational Strictly Lindy finals from ILHC 2012, notice Falty doing the job of Wrangler/Phrase Battle Counter.

4. Figure Out and Write Down Logistics

At this point you should now have a mission statement or vision for your contest, contest rules and descriptions decided upon, and know which individuals need to be hired/delegated to fill in the necessary roles for your event. Now that you have all the puzzle pieces, you need to fit them all together.

You can have the coolest event in the world with the best instructors, a beautiful venue, and a killer live band… but if nobody knows that your event exists all your efforts are for naught.  Advertising is key to having not just a competition but any successful event and the earlier you start the better. An important thing to note is how you advertise your event can also set the tone for it:

With high production value Lindustrial Revolution 2012’s youtube advertisement sets the tone that the organizers are professional. In addition the youtube clip emphases that their steampunk theme is something to dress up for. The ways you can advertise for your event are limited by you own creativity; word of mouth, fliers, free-shirts for traveling dancers to wear with your event logo & date on it, youtube advertisements, and paid advertisements on yehoodi are some of the few different ways I have seen organizers advertise their events.  The first part of figuring out and writing down logistics is:

  • Develop an effective advertising strategy that sets the tone for your event. 

Now that there is a system in place for people to find out about your contest the next thing that needs to be accomplished is how is it actually being set-up, run, then taken down. In simple terms, “Who does what? and where?”. My advice is to create a  detailed schedule of events that what individual, is doing what particular task, and at what time. An example is below:

8:00 PM – Jim Jones – Unlock the doors to the venue and set thermostat to coldest possible temperature.

8:10 PM – Kendra Robbins/Robert Jones/Sarah Smith – Start setting up tables and chairs according to the floor diagram.

The important thing this covers is who is responsible for every task. The reason I put emphasis on writing this all down is when you say things verbally it is not as binding and people have a tendency to forget. When things are on paper (and/or google documents) it makes it easy for people to know what they are responsible for and when they need to do it. The second part of figuring out and writing down logistics is:

  • Create a schedule of events that lists of tasks need to be completed, what time they need to be completed by, and the individuals responsible for working on them.

Lastly an important detail to cover is what prizes you are providing for the competition. This can be anything from cash, trophies, passes to other events, passes to vintage shops/shoe shops, and et cetera. A piece of an advice though big events like Lindy Focus/Camp Hollywood and such have a billion organizer barking up those respective trees for free passes for competitions, a better and more realistic idea is to probably offer to other organizers you know to trade passes for events. Also it is your choice as an organizer if you want to advertise the prizes for your event beforehand. I have noticed the larger events tend to, whereas smaller events don’t. The last part of  figuring out and writing down logistics is:

  • Decide upon what prizes will be provided for your event and if needed network to obtain them. 

On an aside I have not noted the process to renting a venue, how to hire instructors, and things in a similar vein because those are basics to organizing an event. In the scope of this article I am focusing on mainly how to organize a competition.

5. Last Minute Checkup

You now have everything to set up to run your own competition and haven’t pulled out your hair or killed someone yet, congratulations! The last thing to do is just to oversee your competition, create contingency plans for any possible problems and handle any situations that come up. The last responsibility can often be prevented by effective planning, but sometimes things come up that no one could foresee.

As an organizer what I mean by oversee the competition is just making sure things are at where they should be and people are doing their jobs. Some examples of this could be checking to make sure safety-pins and numbers are available at the registration table or making sure the judges are present a few minutes before the competition starts.  The first part of doing a last minute checkup is:

  • Making sure everything in your schedule of events is running smoothly.

If you are planning to have a competition outdoors sometimes rain happens or perhaps a ton of people signed up for your competition, but not as many people showed up as you planned for. Contingency plans should be created for factors that are out of your control, especially if you are dealing with as something as fickle as weather.  The second part of doing a last minute checkup is:

  • Creating contingency plans for conditions that are out of your control. 

Lastly no matter how much you prepare, stuff just happens. One event I know literally had one of their headlining instructors stranded because a volcano grounded his flight. Another event I know had their headliner band literally get snowed in so they couldn’t travel to their event. The important thing for you to do as an organizer is not to freak out and instead explore your option and choose the best possible one to deal with the situation. At times unfortunately this may consist of choosing the lesser of two evils. The last part of doing a last minute checkup is:

  • Being prepared to make difficult on the spot decisions if something out of your hands goes awry. 

Concluding Remarks

While I tried to cover the full scope of how to run a competition, I did not literally cover everything. To do so would be a document far lengthier then this already long blog post. My advice is if you have any doubts or concerns, seek out an organizer who is experienced in running competitions or even season competitors and consult them for their experience. My personal advice on someone who has been in multiple competitions and have helped to run a few myself is:

  1. Never underestimate the ability for dancers in a Jack & Jill to mess up rotation. Assume they are sheep that need to be herded.
  2. Safety wavers, have them. If I run an event this is a non-negotiable because it prevents liability issues from occurring.
  3. Have a strict time schedule and stick to it. My biggest pet peeve as a dancer at a competition that I am not a participant in is competitions taking forever.

If you have any particular advice for individuals putting on competitions or any questions yourself feel free to post in the comments section!

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