Sylvia Sykes on Judging and Competing

Sylvia Sykes began dancing in 1966, competing in 1970, and teaching in 1979. She has studied with many of the dance greats, including Frankie Manning, Dean Collins, Maxie Dorf, and Willie Desatoff. Her extensive studies and travels have made her an expert on regional dance styles and she is known for her expertise in, and the preservation of the older forms of Swing dance. In addition, she is credited with helping to preserve the Balboa by introducing the dance World Wide. 

In 1985 Sylvia and Jonathan Bixby co-founded the Santa Barbara Swing Dance Club, a twice-monthly live-music dance club that they continue to run. She is still teaching her weekly classes that she started teaching in 1979, plus she teaches out of town over forty weekends per year. She is the most sought-after head judge in the modern Lindy Hop & Balboa dance scenes and is now part owner and head judge of the International Lindy Hop Championships.  
Her dance troupe ran for fifteen years, performed with some of the great Swing bands, and nurtured other International teachers. She has been a member of the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance since its inception, has taught at the University of California, and has appeared in many TV shows and in several documentaries on Swing dancing over the years.
Sylvia is actively judging and teaching various forms of Shag, Balboa, and Lindy Hop throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Asia.

Name: Sylvia Sykes
Homebase: Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Year you started judging: not sure, but approx. 1984
Approximately how many competitions have you judged: way too many
What other dance forms do you work in? Just pantheon of swing

What is your background or connection to the Lindy Hop Community?
Been doing it since 1965, though very poorly.

Team USA — with Mario Robau, Valerie LaFemina, Lance Shermoen, Lynn Vogen, Jonathan Bixby, Sylvia Sykes, Jackie McGee and Charlie Womble.

* Why do you judge?
Now because I sort of have to…originally to have a voice for where the dance was going – whoever wins will drive the dance – so I wanted to put my two cents worth in to keep the dance connected to the roots.
* What do you enjoy about judging?
Not much these days other than a bit of influence to keep the dance current and connected to roots.
* What are some of the challenges about judging?
Weighing innovation and great ideas, but not stellar execution against perfect execution but same old same old, as well as differentiating between several couples all performing about the same and having to include and exclude them from the “money.”
* As a judge, what are you looking for in a Routine?
Musicality – seeing the music more clearly, connection, still lead & follow not just close by execution, humor (or pathos), some sort of emotion, a story, and hopefully something danced well, with some soul.
* As a judge, what are you looking for in a Strictly?
Great partnership, action-reaction, both listening and reacting to the music as well as their partner, modifying a movement midway in reaction to music or partner.
* As a judge, what are you looking for in a Jack & Jill?
Great social partnering! Dancing to the level of the partner, listening, and modifying to find a common ground.
* What do you think the biggest misconceptions are about routines/Strictly’s/Jack & Jills?
Hmm…not sure… but a pet peeve is choreographed jam in a Strictly.
* Three pieces of advice to give to the next up-and-coming competitors?
     1) You have no control over whether you win or not, just how you dance. Your legacy will be the dance, not the placement.
     2) Use the process to better your skills.
     3) Have a reason to compete beyond “I want to win and be famous.”

Photo by David Holmes

* Why do you think competition is valuable?
It forces you to work on your dance skills and it brings people into the dance.
* Why did you compete?
I don’t.
(Note: I think what she meant to say was that she doesn’t currently, because we know she did. Just click here to check her out in 1995 at the US Open!!)
* What competition have you done that meant the most to you? Why?
Probably the National Shag Dance Championships because it really was out of my comfort zone.
* What is/was your favorite competition to watch?
Anything with good dancing!
* Any recommendations on how to deal with getting nervous before a competition?
Pee and poop, beforehand.
* What would you like to see more of in competition?
Good dancing, not merely flashy moves
* What would you like to see less of in competition?
Soulless execution.
 If you want to hear more from Sylvia, check out interview on Ryan Swift’s podcast, The Track.

Want To Be Successful? You Must First Learn To Fail.

Reposted from Big Think. Written by An Phung on June 25, 2012, 12:00 AM

What is the Big Idea?

Walter Mosley is famous for his mystery and crime fiction. But there is very little mystery behind the secret to his success.  First, writing takes practice. Mosley has been writing every day for the last 27 years. Then, he says, he writes without regard for acceptance or success.

“Some of my stories work, some of them don’t work,” said the 60-year-old.  “Some of them are like, you know, fit perfectly into you know, like a structure that somebody would want to publish and deal with.  It doesn’t matter to me because I’m writing, I’m using language and I’m using that language to tell stories and even more so to get ideas across.”

Mosley writes because he loves it, and not because he needs fame or recognition. His passion and willingness to fail may be the source of his award-winning career as a novelist. He is the author of more than 37 books, which have been translated into 23 languages.

“I never really thought I’d be successful,” he said. “I never thought I’d get books published, but this was something completely beyond me.  You know, the fact that it happened is wonderful, but it is not something that I was aiming for.”

What is the Significance?

Failure is a daunting concept in this competitive economy, where job seekers and employees are expected to outshine their peers in order to rise to the top.  But whether you’re attempting to write your first crime novel or start your own company, trying and failing is much more interesting that playing it safe and consistently succeeding.

Growth and learning happens when you fail, says Mosley.

“In art and in science it’s failure that teaches you,” he said. “Doing something right never teaches you.  It’s only failure that you learn from.”

Watch Walter Mosley talk about the role of failure in a successful career:

Image courtesy of djgis/


I personally couldn’t agree more. I think it’s important to fail so that you truly understand why something works.

One place Kevin and I have experienced this with aerials. On countless occasions, Kev and I have seen aerials, tried them, and found immediate success. As time continued, the aerial(s) would stop working for one reason or another. As we fixed one problem, we then were introduced to another problem. After about a 6 month period, anything that could go wrong had, but we were back to the beginning when the aerial worked and this time with a much greater understanding why we were successful. Once we have come full circle, then we start teaching the aerials. 🙂

So students, if you are working on your dancing, don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t get something right away. Fellow instructors, please don’t be afraid to refrain from giving your students “the answers” immediately. The process of discovery why things work is actually a lot of fun and can be incredibly satisfying.

Hugs from Herrang!!


Killer Diller Photo Shoot

Yesterday was a long day, but it was so much!!

We, Juan & Sharon and Kevin & I, got up at 7 and were out the door a little before 8am with all of our luggage and 2 bags of snacks from Trader Joe’s. We took a cab down to the studio and met up with Nathan & Evita. The studio we rented had an infinity background and it was so pretty to look at! Nothing but white everywhere. There were clothing wracks which we immediately proceeded to hang our belongings on and then Shaz and I proceeded to take over the make-up counters. I was thrilled!! We were feeling like professionals already!!

While I took the sponge rollers out of my hair, Shaz and Evita had plugged in their curling irons and started on their make-up as well. Simone, Kevin’s sister, began steaming clothing for us. The boys had thrown on their tuxes and began shooting once AO and her team were done setting up. As the boys smiled and threw their canes about, the girls preened in the background and squealed with delight…..we were finally going to get the promos we always wanted!

We found our rhythm as a group and did a good job staying to the time slots we had previously allotted ourselves. So let me give some background on this. Weeks before this photo shoot, we were all supposed to start collecting pictures of images we like, one for us to have something to reference, but also so we could show the photographer what look we were going for. Two days before we left for NY we categorized our photos (group, couple, solo) and looked at what everyone else had. We had similar ideas in mind, thank goodness. Then we needed to get costumes together. I would totally recommend doing this earlier than 2 days before you leave for a big weekend where you’ll be too busy to do any other prep work. We had some costumes, but not for 3 people since we’ve mostly been working at a foursome and twosome. That being said, we did manage to cob somethings together and as you’ll see, it worked out just fine. Finally, we outlined how much time everyone was to have so that everything we wanted could be shot.

Ok, so let’s fast forward. We did a really great job at sticking to the time schedule we made up a week earlier. I think we were all really surprised by that, but oh-so-pleased.

Some highlights from the day:

– having Simone steam clothes, help with make-up and styling, and fixing our clothes when the got pushed/mushed/yanked out of place
– having a mirror in the studio so we could see what shapes we were going to make
– seeing the boys in their tuxes
– having us girls look so fucking cute!!! (just wait and see)
– being able to stick to schedule
– having no disagreements about ANYTHING the entire day. The smoothest photo shoot ever done. Ever. Seriously.
– getting to work with AO and her team
– getting to take some “love shots” with Juan. I don’t know what we’ll use them for, but it was fun to be lovey-dovey with him and get some photographic proof of it
– getting to be really, really ridiculously good-look for a day
– knowing that the Killer Dillers made some major progress

Some other notes:

– doing aerials over and over again on cement isn’t pleasant
– in an all white room, it’s really tough to see where you are flying to and from becuase there is nothing to spot off of
– having music playing is an awesome thing
– snack food rocks
– working with professionals is sooooooooooooo worth the money
– Sharon is such a freaking pro in front of the camera, it’s ridiculous. I’ve never seen anyone go into a shoot and have 90% of everything shot for the day be usable. Wow.
– trying to swing out in sync for a picture is silly….just hit the line you want and move into that position
– photo assistants who haven’t seen aerials before will most likely make disconcerting noises while you fly through the air. Don’t doubt your safety followers!!
– doing stock shots is sooooooooooo much fun. Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to see them!

So there’s a quick really-really about the long-ass photo shoot. It was fun and nobody died. Yeah!!