Anatomy of a Dance Contest: The Champions’ Strictly Lindy Hop Division at ILHC 2009 pt. II

This is part two of an inside look behind the 2009 International Lindy Hop Championships Champions’ Lindy Hop Division.  You can read part one here.

Champions’ Strictly Lindy Final All Skate:  “Jersey Bounce” by The Boilermaker Jazz Band

Finals Format

There’s been a lot of discussion about the use of pre-planned choreographed sequences in social dance contests for awhile now.  (Yehoodi, Lindybloggers, and White Heat) Event directors Nina Gilkenson, Tena, and Sylvia shared those same concerns.  At the same time, they didn’t want to tell the dancers how they should dance . . . even though they really wanted to.

They split the difference by asking the band to play a song with a blues structure.  In a normal contest with a song with a standard AABA structure, dancers get two phrases, which amounts to eight 8’s or 64 beats, to do their stuff.

In this contest they still got two phrases, but with a blues song, there are six 8’s to a phrase.  It just added a little extra time for people to dance, so if someone went out with there with a pre-planned 16 bar choreographed sequence, then they were going to discover that they needed to do a little more dancing.

We didn’t surprise the competitors though.  We gave them fair warning at the evening competitors’ meeting.

The Ringleader

After our meeting, Nina went to brief  the person who was going to manage all these people and expectations during the actual competition, Mike Faltesek.  He’s been doing this sort of thing for the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown for years.  In addition to letting the dancers know when to go out, he also talked with the band to tell them what we need in terms of tempo and structure.

Later, I talked to Faltesek right before the finals, and told  him that we were going to have 10 couples.  Despite or maybe because of his experience, he gave me a look that led us to go back and forth as to how long to let the finalists dance.  In the end, I left it up to his discretion to make the call towards the end of each round of spotlights.  If he sensed that the band and the dancers were clicking, I gave him the green light to keep the contest going.  Otherwise, he would cut it off if he thought everyone was dying out there.

Random aside:  Right before the Open Strictly, we were scrambling to find Mikey until he showed up right before the contest started.  Later, before the Champions Strictly, Tony Tye ran up to me, frantically asking if I knew where Faltesek was.  Without missing a beat, I told him that he was already inside without actually knowing that for sure.  I wasn’t going to doubt Mikey again.  Tony relaxed and we both walked into the ballroom to find Mikey already casually chatting with the band.

The Band

There’s probably no other band in the world that has as much experience playing for dance contests than The Boilermaker Jazz Band.  They’ve done All Balboa WeekendThe Northeast Lindy Hop ChampionshipsThe American Lindy Hop Championships, The Big Big Event,  and few other competitions around the country.

Despite that, the band leader, Paul Cosentino, admitted to me after-wards that this contest was one of the hardest ones they’ve ever done.   Still, he’s super accommodating and loves playing and working with dancers.  I think that comes from the fact that he and the rest of the band respects dancers as creative equals rather than just a bunch of arm flailing fools.  That inspires him to go that extra length to make competitions special.

For example, you may notice Paul signaling to the band several times in the videos.  He’s actually signaling a change in key in order to keep the song from sounding too stale to the audience during those 13 minutes.

Also notice that the band gives each dancer a different instrumental solo.  The whole band starts off for the first couple, Todd & Mia.  They then cycle through Paul, Gerry, and the rhythm section, each taking turns as a new couple takes the spotlight.  To provide more variety, Paul switches between clarinet and saxophone for his solos while Gerry alternates between plungers and mutes on his trombone.

With any other band,  the energy drops when someone in the rhythm section takes a solo.  Paul recognizes that this is bad for a contest, so he usually lets the whole BMJB rhythm section jam out full tilt together.  One member may take the lead, usually Mark Kotishon on keyboard, but others may step up.  Notice at 2:53 in the 2nd finals video where the rhythm switches to a boogie woogie feel, but it’s not coming from Mark.  That’s Ernest McCarty pounding that out on his vintage bass.

I don’t know if this is intentional, but you’ll also notice that the band speeds up slightly as the contest goes on.  At the beginning its 225 bpm, then it’s at 234 during the second round of spotlights, 240 bpm during the third, and finally topping off at a brisk 243 for the finale.  The gradual increase helps build the intensity of the competition, but is done imperceptibly so it doesn’t throw off the dancers.  Last year we did the finals as three separate songs at different tempos.  I think this year worked out better in terms of the flow of the contest.

I’m actually not sure what song this is supposed to be.  I think the band might just be playing a simple blues jam.  You can hear Paul play the theme to “One O’Clock Jump” at 5:39, but we never hear that again.

The Dancing

The finalists in order of their appearance in the final:

  • Todd Yannacone & Mia Goldsmith
  • Laura Glaess & Jonathan Jow
  • Frida Segerdahl & Skye Humphries
  • Juan Villafane & Sharon Davis
  • Max Pitruzella & Annie Trudeau
  • Carla Heiney & Nick Williams
  • Dax Hock & Sara Deckard
  • Mikey Pedroza & Nikki Marvin
  • Aurelia Lepine & Jay Le Roux
  • Jo Hoffberg & Kevin St. Laurent

Notice that the finalists represent six countries from four continents including half a dozen cities from across the US.

The dancing pretty much speaks itself, but I do want to point out a couple of tidbits that aren’t that obvious.

1:34 Check out Max as he mimics Juan’s tap step.

Giving the band a clear line of sight is important to keeping involved in the contest.  At 2:16 notice dancers bunching up out front, blocking the band.  Todd signals Jo to get down, and then she tries to pass this along to her partner Kevin.

3:08 Nina magically appears to make sure that the competitors don’t block the band.  After awhile they get into a rhythm of shifting themselves so there are roughly an equal number of dancers on each side of the band for the rest of the contest.

5:11 You can tell everyone is getting into a groove as Max releases some energy by getting the crowd up and right after that Carla & Nick strut across the band space.

6:30 Simpatico as Max & Annie mirror Carla & Nick’s slow motion during their brief transition, and then they all speed back up simultaneously while Max & Annie walk off stage.

The energy is building, and at 6:50 while Paul is signaling to the band to change keys, Mikey makes the call.   He gets in there to tell Paul that they’re going to go another round.

At 1:00 of this second video, the message is sent down the line during Kevin & Jo’s spotlight. Once it’s understood, the dancers now know that they should stay out of the band’s way, and get down without any prompting.

1:12 Check out Carla getting into the energy of the contest, having a grand old time in best the spot in the house.

At 1:59 Laura Glaess loses a shoe and a sock.  Flying shoes I’ve seen before, but how do you lose a sock?  Max gets it out of the way, but Mikey Pedroza goes the extra mile to hand it back to her.  Gentlemanly or brave?

I have been remiss in not mentioning the co-MC for the evening, Nicole Frydman.  In addition to introducing all the contestants before the competition, she and Peter Strom did a great job keeping the crowd up during the course of the evening.  She does that again as she helps signal the the all skate at 5:16.

Finally, as the dancers swingout into the all skate you can hear the whole band jump in there right with them.   The band was so on top of things that no even had to tell them that it was time for everyone to play.  I’ve seen too many bands be so oblivious that they signal another solo before ending with a bunch of false finishes.  Paul has done enough of these that he knows when it’s time to go wrap things up.  Of course, playing for 13 minutes probably helped too.   They play another three choruses which gives everyone just enough time to show off their stuff without tiring them out.

That was good because I don’t think anyone anticipated what was going to happen between Frida & Skye and Max & Annie.  Here is a perfect example of two very different approaches to the dance colliding on the floor and producing something special.

I think Max has been on this swingout showdown for awhile because I’ve seen a few clips of him from a couple of events trying to goad people into something like this for the past year.  There’s a very dark video of him and Dax dancing with follows I can’t identify alongside Ramona and Peter in a jam at Frankie95.  I think they do something like 20 swingouts together until Max & Dax bail leaving Peter and Ramona to do 22 total.

Skye on the other hand isn’t really into pre-planning stuff.  He’s more into letting things happen in the moment.  I think if someone asked him to do this beforehand, I don’t think he would have gone for it.  I asked him afterwards, and he didn’t realize that they were actually swinging out together until he just felt something and looked over the Max & Annie.  From there, it was on.

Eventually everyone in that room felt it too.  The energy was crazy; like everyone wanted to get up, get in there, and swingout with them.  There’s a great clip on Facebook put up by Shesha Marvin where he’s trying to film his wife Nikki dancing with Mikey Pedroza.  During the all skate, as the crowd noise quickly engulfs the entire room, you can almost sense his indecision as if he’s not sure if he should keep filming his wife or switch to what’s going on with Skye, Frida, Max and Annie.

For those of you counting at home, they do 15 swingouts together, with Max & Annie doing 16.  This included the swingout to open, but not the swingout to closed which they do separately.  Although, notice at the end where Max leads the same Charleston syncopation that Skye does after he bails on the swingouts.

Afterwards

The band ended up playing almost 13 minutes.  12:58 actually.

The whole room was pretty hyped up.  People who weren’t even in the contest were hugging and high fiving each other.  The judges still had a job to do, and ducked out of the room and into the staff room next door.  The quiet stillness of that room was a necessary contrast to the energy in the main ballroom.  It allowed the judges to sort out how to rank all ten couples before turning in their sheets to Scott & Michelle.

The top three announced the next night at the awards ceremony were:

  1. Frida & Skye
  2. Max & Annie
  3. Carla & Nick

You can see the score sheets and accompanying judges list online.

Final Words

In a dance competition or just about any event, there’s a temptation to over manage or “over program” in order to make sure that “something” happens.  But that shouldn’t be an excuse to let Fate take its course either.

If there’s a lesson in any of this, I think it is that you need work hard to find that balance each time around and try to provide a solid foundation for all of your event participants to build on to do their best.

Thanks to the following YouTube users for recording and putting up footage of this contest.

http://www.youtube.com/user/floridave1

http://www.youtube.com/user/pschitttt

http://www.youtube.com/user/Toutfeutoutswing

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7 Comments

  1. Alex said,

    November 11, 2009 at 3:25 am

    If i remember correctly, one of the things I’ve noticed when i’ve watched the videos, is that they actually played several (three?) different melodies (or quotes… but i think they are generally on the long side) that could be recognizable to swing dancers. this would have been another device to keep the music interesting.
    That said, I didn’t go back and watch the video to verify this before posting. So, I could be wrong

  2. August 3, 2010 at 4:01 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bluesy_mind, Nalla Kim. Nalla Kim said: 나보다 더 스윙오타쿠를 찾았다 ㅎㅎㅎ http://j.mp/drijMl 이쉑 대박이다 ㅋㅋ #swingkr […]

  3. Kevin said,

    August 6, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    I’m curious how the scoring works. Can you explain the system to me?

    • Jerry said,

      August 10, 2010 at 10:50 am

      We work with Relative Placement. Basically, the system is based on who earns the majority of placements that the judges award to the competing couples in a division.

      So if there are 5 judges and 3 of them award first place to a couple, then that couple comes in first, regardless of where the other 2 judges place them.

      If there is a tie, then you add up points assigned to each placement. Higher placements are worth fewer points, so the final rankings are based on who has the least amount of points. Sounds counter intuitive, but it’s not. If there’s still a tie after all of that, then the Head Judge breaks the tie.

      A more in depth explanation can be found here http://www.swingdancecouncil.com/library/relativeplacement.htm

      The system is designed so no one judge can jack the final placements, which can happen if you’re relying on an a straight up average or cumulative total of those placements. A couple of years ago a judge had a problem with how a competition was being run and decided to reverse all of his placements so he put the last place couple first and so on down the line. Fortunately it didn’t throw anything off because relative placement was being used.

      • Kevin said,

        August 11, 2010 at 3:32 am

        Wow. That system doesn’t make sense at all until you put it in your own words. I was totally confused until it just clicked, and now it makes total sense. That link is more informative but less accessible than your explanation.

        By which I mean, thanks for the explanation. See you in two weeks

        Kevin

      • Jerry said,

        August 11, 2010 at 9:15 am

        This morning on the way to work I thought of a different way of looking at it: It’s democratic first, objective second.

        I thought it used to be super confusing too, but the more I work with it, I think it’s not a bad way of fairly reconciling differing subjective opinions into some sort of objective ranking which is always the challenge in comparing creative endeavors.

  4. dogpossum said,

    November 12, 2011 at 2:01 am

    I’ve only just read this post. It’s really interesting, and super helpful.


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