A Look At Ourselves

by Bill Heimann, November 1988

Originally Printed in Zip Coder Magazine

Let's create a scenario. You and I are friends attending a C2 dance with someone we never saw before. After the dance you ask me if I danced with that couple in the red shirts. I said, "No, I didn't. Why?". You reply, "They're really good dancers."

That's a scenario that's probably happened to you if you've been around challenge dancing for any length of time. But let's take it one step further. What do you mean by saying they're good dancers? Did you ever try to analyze exactly what you observerd that created that impression? Most people probably couldn't verbalize the precise reasons. It's just that their "general sense," their "gut feeling" was that the people were good dancers.

That's happened to me too, but those kinds of emotional responses to a rational setting bother me. Consequently, I've tried to quantify what's really involved in leading me to such a conclusion. Here are some of the criteria I use in evaluating a dancer.

  1. Mistakes - This is the most common failing of most dancers. They simply make too many mistakes. Dancers must be able to execute the routine steps flawlessly. It's just like baseball. Nobody wants a shortstop who is capable of making the spectacular plays if he can't be relied upon to make the routine ones. It's simply a matter of numbers. There are hundreds of routine ones for every spectacular opportunity. In this case the price of the spectacular play is too high.

  2. Command of Fundamentals - Absolutely critical. If you can't split circulate, who cares if you know the latest and greatest call? I think a dancer is allowed one of these types of mistakes every time the United States loses a war!

    Here are just a few examples of what I consider fundamentals: split circulate, counter rotate, single rotate, pass in or out, roll, left from right, beaus and belles identification, and the most difficult call of all, cast 3/4.

  3. Degree of Help - How much help can a dancer provide at the level he considers himself? It's probably not unreasonable to expect him to provide some help to someone standing next to him, and to some extent to the square as a whole. Few people have the ability to provide dynamic help to a whole square on a consistent basis, but to be considered really competent at a level, a dancer should be capable of providing this help on an occasional basis.

  4. Ability to adapt to new situations - Must a dancer be walked through a familiar call from a new setup before he can dance it correctly? A good dancer develops the ability to adapt to these new situations at a dance and at dance speed.

  5. Ability to recognize and deal with a distorted figure - Examples are T-bones, concentric setups, magic columns, phantoms, triangles, and parallelograms.

  6. Precise formations - Some people seem to spend all night dancing at a 45 degree angle with the walls. Can a dancer circulate exactly two positions on a Perk Up even if the centers are T-boned to them? Does he know where he is relative to the other dancers in the square? Does he stand exactly alongside his partner?

  7. Ability to recognize when something doesn't seem right - For exampmle, it constantly amazes me that some dancers can go several calls T-boned to the rest of the square and not know it. Some dancers just seem to be dancing to the beat of a different caller.

  8. How does he react when he doesn't know what to do? - Does rigor mortis immediately set in? Does he move anyway hoping no one will notice he doesn't know what to do? Or, does he immediately find his opposite, listen for a cue from the caller or someoone in the square, or try to blend in with the other dancers who seem to know what they are doing? Does he know how to wait?

  9. The dancer's demeanor - Does he dance with confidence? Does he appear to have control of the situation? Does he dance with the other dancers or is he a solo artist? How's his timing? Can he dance at the right pace, not too slow or too fast?

These are some of the qualities I think constitute a good dancer. Okay, there may be others. It wasn't my purpose in writing this article to specifically exhaust the possibilities. My purpose was something else.

Take another quick look at the list - go ahead, I'll wait!

How many of the items are related to level? Maybe some of the distorted figures in number 5, but other than that, none of them! In other words, being a good dancer has nothing to do with level! Other things being equal, if dancer A makes fewer mistakes than dancer B, dancer A is a better dancer. If he can execute fundamentals better, he's a better dancer. If he makes more precise formations, he's a better dancer. How about if dancer A attends C3 dances and dancer B dances no higher than C2? Is dancer A therefore a better dancer than B? Absolutely not. According to the list, considerations like what dances a dancer attends, how many calls he knows, how long he's been dancing, or what workshop he's in have absolutely nothing to do with evaluating his performance.

Aren't the criteria on the list the ones usually used by the challenge community to judge other dancers? Unfortunately, they don't seem to be. Let's look at an example at our C2 dance. I've heard many people say things like, "that last tip should have gone better than it did because we had two 'C4 couples' in it." Isn't the implication here that the square was potentially strong due to the presence of the two C4 couples? In other words, these couples were good dancers simply because they're "C4 dancers." But does that fact mean they're any good? Not according to the above list. It's been my experience that people can be incompetent at any level. Just because someone "dances" C3 doesn't me he's a good C1 dancer. Indeed, that fact alone doesn't mean he's a good dancer at all! It simply means he spends part of his life inhabiting a C3 floor.

Why is it that we as a dancing community seem to value progressing through levels more than we value good dancing? Why do we value level movement more than quality? I believe the answer is ego, or status. We want others to think well of us, and the most visible way to do that is by advancing through the levels. Many think the progression through levels is the only means we have of showing our prowess. That's how we keep score. So much energy is put into learning a new level. Feelings are irreparably hurt because someone wasn't invited into that next level workshop, or perhaps asked into a star tip. His life is over. What a shame that we treat this wonderful activity that way. Just imagine how great it could be if this energy were funneled into improving our performance rather than our egos.

On the other hand, who are these people that many think will be impressed by their movement? I really don't know. They certainly aren't the people who dance with them when they obviously aren't prepared. The good dancers aren't fooled. The callers aren't. Who is? So much time and energy goes into the charade, to what end? Who's impressed? Honest folks, nobody is! The honest to gosh real fact of the matter is that nobody is.

What's the answer? We as the challenge community need to clean up our act. We need to appreciate the activity for what it is rather than use it as a means to improve our self-image. We need to take harder looks at ourselves, to more accurately and honestly evaluate our ability before deciding to attend a dance. We need to understand that it's no disgrace to spend time at a level, to become good there, to become comfortable dancing the level, to enjoy it, before moving on. We need to accept the commitment to the other dancers to be reasonably competent at a level before attending a dance. We must understand and believe that it isn't fair to impose ourselves on other dancers who in many cases have spent considerable time and money to be there.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that we have to stop abusing this activity. I've always felt that the most wonderful aspect of square dancing is that there's a place for every level of ability and interest. Some people only want to dance once a month while others enjoy workshopping several times a week, or dissecting the calls, or studying hours at a time. There's a place for everyone. But dancing a higher level doesn't make you a better person. It simply means you know a few more steps than someone else.

In the grand scheme of things, how important is that, really?

Bill Heimann bill@h2ideas.com