Bobby White on Competing and Judging

Photo by Steve Wong

Bobby teaches vintage swing dances around the world, and holds championship titles and placements in Balboa, Lindy Hop, and Solo Jazz. Over the past two years, he and his competition partner Annabel Quisao have won 8 major Balboa titles. He is the author of the popular swing dance blog Swungover, and the book “Practice Swing.”  As a dancer, he is widely recognized for his floppy hair, and as a teacher, by his sound effects. 


For more competition advice from this fabulous human being, be sure to check out his book, “Practice Swing!”




Name: Bobby White
Home base: NYC
Year you started judging: 2004
Year you started competing: 1999(?)
Approx how many competitions have you judged:  Hundreds at this point.
Approx how many competitions have you competed in:  No idea! Maybe hundreds, definitely more than 50.


 * Why do you compete? What does it do for you?
Adrenaline and peers watching can make you rise to levels in your dancing that you never have before. Reaching those moments is an amazing feeling. Sometimes you find those for a few counts, and, sometimes, you find them for an entire spotlight or song. But even if it’s just a few counts, the experience is worth it to me.

Part of the reason, I think, is because the vintage swing dances are not just social in nature, but also performative. Some people concentrate mainly on the social nature—they are happy to social dance, express themselves only as far as their partner is concerned, and never compete or enter a jam circle. A few people concentrate heavily on the performative nature, and mainly focus on putting on a show with the dance and/or on competing, and invest less in the social aspects. (This is something obvious in corporate gigs in Manhattan, by the way—when dancing for one of these gigs, our job is simply to show onlookers with hors d’oeuvres the visual power of two people doing energetic movement to swing music, and that is all. There is little desire for more.) 

For me, I *love* the place where the two meet and become intertwined—the social and performative aspects. The place where competing is social dancing with the entire room. Where both showing off and trying to rise to the heights of your technical and expressive ability is done hand in hand with showing off the conversation and relationship you have with your partner, and allowing yourself to share that vulnerable, powerful, emotional, naked experience with the people watching you.

* Why do you think competition is valuable?
As I mentioned, competition is an important way I experience the spirit of the dance. It can also be a very valuable way of giving one a goal to work for—that competition happening in a few months can inspire you to work on your dancing. The stakes and situation can inspire some great dancing that we wouldn’t have otherwise.  

That said, I agree with many of my peers that competitions tend to carry too much weight with the scene in general. It reminds me of school testing: at some point in life most of us have realized standardized school tests didn’t tell you everybody who was smart in our class, they just told you who was good at taking standardized tests. It can be the same with contests. Contest placements don’t necessarily tell you everyone who are incredible dancers, they tell you who those five judges thought danced the best in the contest that day.    

* How long before you start prepping for a competition? 
Well, every contest you prepare for is helping you prepare for the next and the next and the next just by getting you better at competition dancing. So, in that sense, I feel I began prepping for every comp I will ever do from the very first comp I did in 1999. I mention that especially so that people realize how long some of their fellow competitors have been working on the skills of competing, and don’t beat themselves up if it can take a while to feel comfortable on the comp floor. 

 Sometimes I will enter a contest just for fun, and will have very little, if any, prep.

If I have a contest coming up that I am really invested in (usually a strictly) and there are some big picture goals or techniques I want to make sure I have in my dancing by then, I will start adding specific competition prep into my usual practicing about six to four months before the comp.  I wouldn’t start any closer to the comp, because that’s how long it’s going to take for especially my new technique to get refined and engrained into muscle memory.  That also plenty of time to get the creative juices flowing, and so some new moves usually come out of the process and the time allows me polish them up. Ideally I’d be practicing at least two times a week for a few hours each practice, but more or less can often happens based on my schedule.      

* How often do you train your dancing? And what does that mean to you?
It’s hard to say when you’re a full time instructor—I spend most weekends social dancing, where I’m not only having a great time experiencing the joys of social dancing, I’m also definitely working on some aspect of it. As a teacher, you’re planning classes and teaching, and helping students master their dancing, all things which are also training your own dancing. Other than that, I try to practice at least twice a week with a partner for a few hours each practice, sometimes more. But that’s the place I am currently—I’ve gone through times when I’ve practiced a lot more, and less. It’s natural, I think, for a creative dance to have periods of focus and periods of rest. If I practice too much without inspiration, it’s easy for my dancing to get stuck in a box. 

* What do you tell yourself when you get frustrated?
After I’ve thrown an appropriate amount of furniture (just kidding) I try to remind myself of a few things. How the dance felt is almost always an exaggeration of how it went—it never goes as horrible as it feels, and you can often be surprised at how unnoticeable something can be that you thought went badly.

Secondly, I remind myself (both before and after the comp) that a contest is just a point on my dancing journey, not the journey’s end or goal. That mindset helps take pressure off of the comp which allows me to both have more fun dancing in it, and take it more in stride when things get frustrating.

I get the most frustrated when I don’t understand why things happened the way they did—why did I make that choice in the comp, or why did I not make finals when I thought I should have based on who did, etc. So an important way to handle that frustration is to search for answers—I ask myself, my peers, and my judges, which helps give me a direction for the future.   

* Do you still get nervous before a competition?
I do, though it’s changed over the years. Now it’s a heightened, excited feeling without any physical side-effects (for instance, no butterflies in the stomach) except perhaps that I end up pacing a lot.

And now my nerves are very rarely a negative feeling like “anxiety.” When I started thinking of contests as a chance to check-in on how my dancing goals were going, as opposed to the ultimate test of my dancing goals, I started having a lot less anxiety before contests, if that makes sense.  

* How do you deal with nerves before a competition?
I love nerves. Being nervous is really, ultimately, just being excited. The adrenaline pumping through your body and brain is superfuel revving your engine. You want to embrace that. You want to focus them and steer nerves, not get rid of them. 

The two biggest things that help me do that are (1) working with mantras throughout my practicing, and (2) having a few rituals before the comp.

By mantra, I mean, a statement I say in my head that emotionally connects me to a healthy head space. “I love this dance because it is fun to do” is a simple mantra, for instance, that I might use if I find myself getting too serious and anxious about a contest. I will constantly say that mantra (and make sure it connects emotionally) throughout the preparation for the contest, so that I basically engrain that reminder just as much as I engrain whatever new move I want to show off in the comp. (Ultimately, it’s waaaay more important in showing off what the dance means to me than the cool move, anyway.)   

The second thing is contest rituals. For example, with Annabel, my Bal comp partner, we have a quiet cocktail about an hour before the comp away from the dance. That gives us a chance to breathe calmly, get perspective, and thus focus our excitement. That’s only one of many examples of rituals, but I think there’s a reason why professional athletes are notorious for their rituals—they work.      

* What competition have you done that meant the most to you? Why?
In 2015, Annabel Quisao and I did the ABW Classic Balboa Strictly (below). There’s a lot of reasons why this was the most important to me, but probably the biggest one is that, for the first time, I truly felt we danced without thought along “the edge”—The place where you’re dancing completely in the moment, right there with the music, not knowing what’s going to come next but trusting that the song and your partner will take you there.

The reason it worked so well was because of how well we work together, and the literally hundreds of hours we had put into working on our partnership, which is another reason it meant the most to me—looking back, the contest reminds me of all those great times in the studio of exploration and refinement and exhaustion and going to get hot dogs afterwards because the only place near our studio was a hot dog place, and we both love hot dogs.      

That competition reminded me that a swing dance competition exists to reflect why you dance, not be why you dance.

* What is/was your favorite competition to watch? Inspiration?
Hmmm, tough one. I watch and get inspired by so many, and the very breadth of amazing dancers and partnerships and the many different ways our dances are danced is perhaps the most inspiring part of all. I’ll have a favorite clip for one month and then the next month find a new clip to geek out about.

I will say that my inspirational clips are a combination of demos and competitions, not just competitions. Demos can often have a lot more socially relaxed experience which can be hard to find in comps, but is still valuable when preparing for comps. 

* Three pieces of advice to give to the next up-and-coming competitors?
Well, I’m glad you asked! It just so happens Annabel Quisao and I did a video on comp tips: 

Though one tip we didn’t mention that I think would be great for up-and-coming competitors is this:

Make it a goal in a contest to show what swing dancing means to *you.* If you don’t like a certain move, then don’t do it, even if it’s trendy and people do it in contests. If you have a weird thing you like that other people don’t do, do it. If you do something from an authentic place of joy and the music and your partner, it’s never wrong. Who got first place will be irrelevant pretty quickly, but who inspired people will not be easily forgotten.


* Why do you judge?
Because someone has to, and I’ve got some pretty strong opinions about how it should be done correctly.

That said, I think I might be perfectly happy if the finals of some swing contests ceased having judging. I think at that point, the placements can often detract from the inspiration that the contest dancing gives the audience. If I run an event with a contest again, I think I would try to have all finals be unjudged and unplaced, not even audience judging, and see how it went down. I think the dancers would be more themselves, the natural competitive energy would be there anyway, but the removal of the fear of being ranked would make the dancing be even more inspiring. So, yeah, the more I think of it the more I think that it could be the perfect competition format for an artistic dance. I’d love to try it. Maybe I can get an event I work at to allow me to host one.

(You heard it here first, folks.)  

* What do you enjoy about judging?
Very little, actually. It’s not natural for me, and I have to work hard to create what I think of as a fair assessment of the competitors in comparison to each other. Then after I will discuss with judges and often they see some very different things, which means further work in updating and reevaluating my system or what I think of theirs. I do, however, enjoy learning a lot about my values and the values of others because of all the hard thought that goes into judging and competing.

This might sound strange, but one thing I really enjoy about judging is when I get to tell competitors who haven’t won that I thought they were fantastic for this and this and this reason. They can look at my scores, and they might see I put them in first or second, or whatever, and I get to prove to them that they inspired me even though they might not have walked home with a trophy.   

Contest placements don’t necessarily tell you everyone who are incredible dancers, they tell you who those five judges thought danced the best in the contest that day.  

* What do you dislike about judging?
One thing I dislike about judging is I think a lot of judges have some pretty big flaws. They judge with huge biases for certain styles/moves/techniques, or very closed-minded or even bluntly inaccurate ideas about what Lindy Hop/Bal/Shag/Solo jazz  is “supposed” to be. (And, of course, I have been one of them, especially in my early years.)  They may care more about small things like hand-misses than they do about big things like depth of partnership interaction or overall precision of rhythm. They judge by gut feeling alone, and never thoroughly explore those gut feelings to make sure those feelings are right.  

Judging well requires a lot of work exploring what the dance means and what values are more important than others. It takes constantly revisiting those values and having conversations with other judges.  I think everyone knows that teaching, dancing, and competing are their own skills that take lots of specific practice. Judging is no different.  

I encourage anyone who wants to be a judge to watch lots of videos of the history of the dance *from all eras of its history*, to have conversations with other judges both before and after a contest (during is not usually considered fair unless it’s specifically stated the judges are allowed to do so), and whenever you have a gut feeling about a placement, always take a moment before scoring to explore why you have that gut feeling.    

* As a judge, what are you looking for in a Routine?
In routines, I rate showmanship as a high priority. It’s the very nature of a routine to know exactly what’s going to happen, and so the judgment now is on what they’ve chosen to choreograph, and how they get that vision to the audience.  

* As a judge, what are you looking for in a Strictly?
Since strictlys are for people who know who their partner is, I rate partnership as a high priority. I’m looking for how they work together, how they move together in complimentary ways, how they support each other when their partner is playing, and ultimately, what they are showcasing as a partnership, be it something specific like complicated steps, mini-choreographies, or air steps, or on a much broader scale, what the dance means to them.  

* As a judge, what are you looking for in a Random Partner Contest?
In a random partner contest, I rate adaptation and conversation as a high priority. That could mean a lot of things: I’m looking for how dancers express themselves and how they support their partner’s expression, I’m looking for how they make changes to their dancing in order to keep the dance successful, and what difficult things they are so good at doing that they can make it work with a random partner. 

Final thoughts?
Being truly happy and confident as a competitor comes naturally to almost no one. It takes a lot of self-reflection, habit-changing, and time. If you did not grow up competing in things that judge you as an individual or partner, then it’s understandable that as an adult competing might throw your personality for a loop. You suddenly act differently or have surprising amounts of  anxiety.  It can even make you severely question your worth, not just as a dancer, but as a human.

With that in mind, know first off that you’re not alone. Secondly, if you really enjoy the idea of competing, I recommend making that the main goal of your next contest. Throughout your practicing, and the moments before during and after your contest, keep reminding yourself of whatever it takes to put you in a healthier headspace.

Maybe start with “I do this because it is fun” and go from there.

Photo by Wandering & Pondering