To Judge or Be Judged…that is the Question

For those of you who love dance, you have options. Maybe now, at this point in your life, you want to be a famous ballroom dancer and appear on Dancing With The Stars, or appear on Broadway, as a dancer in a famous show.   All good intentions but remember for every dancer, there is a teacher, mentor and choreographer somewhere in their lives. Things happen along the way in dance careers and one day you could be coaching dancers yourself! To take it a little further, maybe, you are just starting out in the dance competition world of ballroom/dancesport. I’ll bet you have asked yourself, “What exactly will the judges be looking for?” I’m here to tell you – exactly what they are looking for. But before I do, just take note, that almost all judges were dancers, teachers and/or choreographers too. So you see, a dance career can quite possibly lead into some very interesting turn of events along the way (okay, shameless pun).

We can definitely say that judges are experienced or professional dancers themselves. So, when they are judging a competition, here are some of the specifics they are looking for. To make a good impression, a dancer has to have impeccable technique and posture, accurate execution of the steps, speed and flair in their artistic expression. Of course, how you groom, dress, and costume is extremely important. Costuming attracts attention and if you are already a good dancer, it can make you a stand out.

Judges write down numbers of each couple (worn on the back of the leaders) usually on a form. Then they pass the form to the person referred to as the runner. The runner passes the forms to the scrutineer. A scrutineer is a trained person who knows how to sum up the scores. In this day and age, judges are using PDAs to transfer the scores to the scrutineer’s computer electronically. A PDA is short for a handheld digital device for managing personal information. It can also be used as a word processor, voice recorder and interact with personal computers to access the Internet. Now that you know basically how the procedure works, let’s break everything down for you, so you can be the best possible dancer on that dance floor and appeal to the judges, all the time.

Posture – One of the most important aspects of dance is the way you hold yourself. Good posture makes you look elegant and exude confidence. It improves balance and control, and allows your partner to connect well to your body in the smooth dances. One’s competition result is often directly proportional to one’s postural correctness.

Timing – If a couple is not dancing in time with the music, no amount of proficiency in any other aspect can overcome this. The music is the boss.

Line – This means the length and stretch of the body from head to toe. Attractive and well – executed lines, either curved or straight, enhance the shapes of the figures.

Hold – This is the correct and unaffected positioning of the body parts when in closed dancing position. For example, the line of the man’s arms should be unbroken from elbow to elbow. There should also be symmetry of the man’s and woman’s arms coming together to form a circle, which, although changing in size, should remain constant in shape so that the dancers remain in correct body position to each other. The silhouette of the couple should always be pleasing.

Poise – In smooth Ballroom dancing, the stretch of the woman’s body upwards and outwards and leftwards into the man’s right arm must be smooth to achieve balance and connection with his frame, as well as to project outwards to the audience.

Togetherness – The melding of two people’s body weights into one, so that leading and following appear effortless, and the dancers are totally in synchronization with each other.

Musicality and Expression – The basic characterization of the dance to the particular music being played and the choreographic adherence to musical phrasings and accents; also the use of light and shade to create interest value in response to these accents and phrases. For example, in Foxtrot, the stealing of time from one step to allow another to hover; or a quick speed of turn in an otherwise slow Rumba; or the snap of a head to suddenly freeze and then melt into slowness in Tango, all must be done easily and flawlessly.

Presentation – Does the couple sell their ballroom dancing to the audience? Do they dance outwardly, with enthusiasm, exuding their joy of dancing and confidence in their performance? Or do they show strain or introversion?

Power – Energy is exciting to watch. Let’s say you are watching a Jive, it always seems to be the most energetic couple that wins this dance. But the energy must be controlled, not wild. For instance, powerful movement is an asset in Waltz or Foxtrot, but only if it is channeled into the correct swing of the body, and not just by taking big steps. The lilt of the music must be matched by the action of the body. In a Waltz for instance, the dancer’s body action must clearly show the influence of the one down beat and two up beats. So the release of power into the beginning of a figure must be controlled and sustained during the rise at the end of the figure.

Foot And Leg Action – The stroking of feet across the floor in Foxtrot to achieve smoothness and softness; the deliberate lifting and placing of the feet in Tango to achieve a staccato action; the correct bending and straightening of the knees in Rumba to create hip motion; the extension of the ankles and the pointing of the toes of the non-supporting foot to enhance the line of a figure; the sequential use of the four joints (hip, knee, ankle, and toes) to achieve fullness of action and optimal power; the bending and straightening of knees and ankles in Waltz to create rise and fall; the use of inside and outside edges of feet to create style and line all fall under this most important of categories.

Shape – Shape is the combination of turn and sway to create a look or a position. For instance, in Paso Doble, does the man create the visual appearance of maneuvering his cape? Does the lady simulate the billowing flow of the cape through space? In Foxtrot, does the man use the appropriate shape on outside partner steps to enable body contact to be maintained?

Lead and Follow – Does the man lead with his whole body instead of just his arms? Does the lady follow effortlessly or does the man have to assist her?

Floorcraft – In Ballroom dance, this refers not only to avoiding bumping into other couples, but the ability to continue dancing without pause when boxed in. It shows the command of the couple over their choreography and the ability of the man to choose and lead figures extrinsic to their usual work when the necessity presents itself.

Intangibles – This refers to how a couple look together, whether they are “a good fit” on the dance floor, their neatness of appearance, costuming, the flow of their choreography, and basically whether they look like “dancers”; all have an affect on a judge’s perception and therefore on his markings.

Of course, no two judges are alike. They have different predictions in what they want to see and expect. One judge, for instance, might be especially interested in technique, while other judges may want to be moved by musicality and expression. While both factors are very important, it can result in couples getting markings they did not expect or even understand how the judge arrived at a certain conclusion. A couple might wonder what a judge saw to give them a particularly high or low mark.  I’m sure it will be one of the many factors I mentioned in this article that could be responsible. The use of a heel when a toe is warranted can just as easily hurt you in a judge’s eyes as a meticulous closing of feet can help. Remember, the judge really only sees you for a few moments, anything that draws the attention, either positively or negatively, could very well be the deciding factor on how you are marked. No one judge can make or break you. That is why it is very good to have a panel of experts. This usually insures that the end result is a combination of honest and fair evaluations.

I would like to give special credit to Dan Radler, as my reference, in writing this blog. He is a professional Ballroom dancer and teacher of Ballroom and Latin dance. He has written an outstanding composition on “How A Ballroom Dance Competition Is Judged” and is considered a worldwide and concise authority on judging ballroom dance.  I wanted to make sure I was bringing you the very best information possible on this extremely important subject.

Thought Of The Week:

“Persistent practice of postural principles promises perfection.”



Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website