The Oil & Water of Dance & Politics


An innovation in ballroom instruction took center floor at the 2018 Congress of Superstars in Tampa Florida.  The February Congress was, in fact a joint effort made possible by Michael Chapman and Victoria Regan as organizers with support from the Arthur Murray Organization and generous assistance from sponsors who elected to remain anonymous.

Participating in a Congress taught by Rufus Dustin is to expose oneself to a devout hunger for knowledge and an indomitable passion to share it.  Mr. Dustin (or simply Dustin as he is known in friendly circles) brings to the dance floor a resumé of credentials that show him to be “the total package.”  He is a champion cabaret and theatrical dancer, a documented educator and trainer, a tireless coach, and a gifted performer.  What he is not… is a politician.  As far as opinion is concerned, he takes his responsibility as a judge with incisive seriousness.  He marks what he likes, and he doesn’t mark what he doesn’t like.  Ask him about it, and he will pull no punches, nor will he mince words.  What he dispenses on the dance floor is a one-two punch — honesty backed with knowledge… or is that vice-versa?  Regardless… if you’re there, you will know it when it hits you.  Change if you will.  Don’t if you won’t, but know you will emerge a wiser, better dancer.  Such is the atmosphere that enveloped the room when Rufus Dustin took the microphone at center floor in the Congress of Superstars.

When it comes to guiding the competitive dancer, the sheer breadth of Rufus Dustin’s experience immediately shows.  Rather than dive right in and tackle the minutia of one dance or another, Dustin’s lecture approached the concept of dance lessons as a whole.  His thesis was stated in four very simple words:  Find the right teacher.  The approach can best be described as organic.  Mr. Dustin looks at finding the right teacher with the same degree of importance as finding the right doctor.  

“Your dance teacher is your Primary Care-giver,” says Dustin.  “He or she is in charge of filling your need for dance health.”  Using that platform, Dustin’s lecture developed into a veritable competitor’s Bible of philosophies, ‘best practices,’ and procedural 'Dos' and 'Don’ts.'  While the art of dancing seems to be in a constant struggle to avoid lists, two definite lists emerged from this session of the Congress, and dancers everywhere could carry them as if they were Cliff’s Notes for success.

List One:  Select the Right Team.

Primary Teacher:

Dustin’s discussion of a Primary teacher causes a moment of serious reflection.  He said that the Primary teacher is the single most important person that a dancer can employ.  The irony of the dance lesson environment often tends to be that one’s primary dance teacher is a selection often left to chance.   Too often, a receptionist or studio director places the initiate student with the instructor that happens to be available at the time the student wishes.

In session, Mr. Dustin stressed that all Primary Teachers must have the communication skills necessary to serve the students.  He maintained that extraordinarily developed communications skills are absolutely mandatory for a teacher who expects to clearly transmit the highly refined knowledge of dance with enough variety to create clear understanding on the part of a student dancer.

Along with the communication skills, Dustin mentioned that regular visits are the cornerstone to a good dance education.  He stated that the foundation of knowledge being established requires, “at least weekly visits — especially at the beginning.”  That concept is supported by so many business models that state that repetition is a fundamental tool for creating foundational knowledge.   Note how many songs relate to the alphabet, numbers, and colors as opposed to how many jingles there are about things like algebra… calculus.  It may be stating the obvious, but then again… 

Dance Specialists (Coaches)

Courtesy Victoria Regan
Dance Specialist is a much better term than the simple “coach” so often used in DanceSport vernacular.  Dancers take “coaching” or “coaching sessions” so frequently that the term has become ubiquitous if not downright feeble.  Mr. Dustin approached this topic with a flair of elegance by discussing the best ways to get the most out of the “Referral Lesson.”  If any are left behind by the seeming new jargon, we might call this section, “How to Take a Coach.”

Hats off to Mr. Dustin for pointing out the elephant in the room at the outset.  He began saying, “First let me say this:  The Political lesson is a fruitless effort.”  True to form, he pulled no punches.  More than that, however, Dustin explained why.

He said that if a dancer goes to take a lesson from a high level coach or official purely for “political” purposes, the result is that the professional will teach a very generic or “composite” lesson.  The lesson will cover somewhat generalized information relating to dance as an overall concept, and the student will come away with a mere dusting of knowledge.  The other side of the coin was far more revealing.  Dustin said that further, the political lesson seldom ever provides its supposed gain of improving one's marks.

The more proper use of a “coach” is by way of the “Referral Lesson.”  When the Primary Teacher refers a dancer to a higher level dancer or judge, there is so much more to be gained.  Firstly, trust is gained because the learning dancer perceives that the Primary Teacher cares about his/her individual progress enough to seek higher level advice and guidance.  Secondly the lesson product improves dramatically.  According to Mr. Dustin, you should know why you are being sent to the specialist.  There should be a specific focus for the lesson, and the learning dancer should more actively adopt his/her role as a customer.  Says Dustin, “Go to that lesson with a plan.  You are the customer… If you have a specific question or plan, you get a lesson designed for that specific need.”

As much sense as this makes, one should realize that it also takes tremendous effort, as it represents a far more team-oriented approach.  It is more complicated than simply throwing money at a problem and expecting the coach to miraculously improve your results.  The expected inference here is that as a dancer, you will work hard before, during, and after your referral lesson.  Dustin also counsels against showing the specialist moves that are contradictory to their style.  If you know from the specialist’s reputation that they don’t like a particular move, you are not well-served having them coach you in that move.  Of course, as customer, the learning dancer is free to make certain demands, however the use of the experience is significantly diminished.  Picasso did not paint houses.

Finally, Dustin provides perhaps the most overlooked bit of guidance for the referral lesson: Accountability.  Put simply, Dustin says when you take a referred lesson, be certain to go back to your Primary Teacher with a thorough explanation of what you’ve learned.  In many cases this can be overlooked because the Primare Teacher often takes the Referral Lesson with the student, but many teachers take extra care to spend time after the coaching session to review changes and suggestions made.  This common-sense strategy maximizes the investment and the usefulness of the Referral Lesson.

List Two:  Etiquette

Grooming

Dustin brought this up first as it seems that dancers spend so much time with grooming and then make certain fundamental mistakes.  Clearly, when it comes to high level dance competition, the grooming must rise to the event.  Hairstyles should be firm and not distracting.  Clothing and costumes as well should enhance the experience for the watcher.

As Dustin says, your grooming sets the overall town for how you walk on the dance floor.  He did not mention specifics in terms of costume, but his general comments alluded to the fact that loose ends, wrinkles and unkempt hair styles draw the eye needlessly away from the dancing you’ve worked so hard to perfect.

From Grooming, Dustin segued easily into:

Competition Performance and Presence

The first thing a judge sees in any couple is how they walk on to the dance floor.  Dustin showed three distinct classes of the traditional Walk-on.

1.) Presentation.  The man walks with girl on his right hand.  He stops in position and presents the lady her place on the dance floor.  

2.) The Hand Clasp. (The Italian Style - as Dustin refers to it.)  The couple is more holding hands than presented.  The man escorts the lady to a position.. They pause and move into position from the hand clasp or a partial embrace.

3.) The Invitation.  The man walks on first and turns to invite the lady onto the floor.  This style is seen in many high level international events.

It bears noting that Dustin made no determination about which style was best.  He simply stated that each has a purpose and that couples have to figure out what works best for them in a given situation.

DO:

Acknowledge each other and your audience.

Accept defeat.   Mr. Dustin reminded dancers that the most difficult part of competitive dancing is losing.  Winning is easy.  All dancers will tell you dancing is fun when they are holding a trophy in the air.  Again, here Dustin was succinct.  “Just like life,” he said.  “No one is prepared for death.”  A good dancer is compelled to evaluate what has happened so he/she can apply what has been learned.  

DON’T

Adjust your dance wear - Not even guys.  Dustin states that adjusting of dance wear, digging at costumes, etc. are quite simply undecorative and run a high risk for turning judges’ opinions away from you.

DON’T

Turn your girl for a bow - On this subject, there was discussion…. plenty of discussion.  Dustin said that turning for a bow does nothing to enhance a couple’s score and that it can be a distraction for the judge.  One dancer said, “But what if I like to turn and bow?”  As mentioned before, Dustin pulls no punches and minces no words.  To paraphrase his response would not do it justice.  Here, it might be wise to point out some competition dynamics:  Once a runner collects the judges’ ballot, no amount of turning will change the scores.  Further, if the judge is bothered by the activity between dances, it might adversely affect the next score.

DON’T

Take an unusually long bow.  It again bears saying that competitive ballroom dance is specifically NOT about bowing.   In his lecture, Dustin stated with most expletive authority that a bow is not what he is interested in seeing as a judge.  Anecdotally, judges have been sharing the story of one couple who complained about the interval between their Closed Bronze Syllabus Rumba and their Closed Bronze Syllabus Paso Doble.  Their complaint:  “We didn’t have enough time for our bow.”  This story has caused a great deal of mirth among judges on the circuit.

As commentary, it is worth mentioning that DanceSport Events routinely run more than 300 individual heats in a day with as many as 3,000 entries being presented.  The single most precious resource to an event is Time!  All competition officials are trying to stay on time.  They are standing for long hours and have many other demands on their time in terms of travel, teaching, business, family, personal, medical, and countless others.  Helping an event stay on time is the single best demonstration of sportsmanship that a dancer can exhibit.  The most generally accepted text on Competitive DanceSport states that dancers should leave nine seconds between numbers to prepare.*  Nine seconds is a brief period.  To put it more diplomatically… when officials are pressed to stay on time, a long bow that delays time between rounds can undo a lot of your hard work on the dance floor.  Let’s not lose focus on the fact that the competition is about the dancing and not the applause or the bow.

Even before the applause, Dustin discussed the overall attitude of a dancer.  “You must dance with confidence and still strike a chord of humility,” he said.  “Without some sense of humility, the audience will not be there for you on a bad day.”  What did he mean?  He explained that the best dancers perform with confidence knowing that they’ve ‘brought their A-game,’ so to speak.   Yet in the most beloved of dancers like Barishnikov, Zagoruychenko, Hough and others, one still gets the feeling that the dancer somehow feels lucky to be there.

There is something special in sharing that feeling of happiness when the performance has truly moved the audience at the soul level.  Mr. Dustin told his pupils, “The audience makes the performer, not the performer makes the audience, because it is the audience that gives the performer his power.”  Once the power is there, then the dancer knows that imperfections can be overlooked because even if it is a “bad day,” the audience knows who they have seen, and they become a part of the performance themselves.

It provides perspective when a world class dancer, educator reminds us to dance with humility.  Dustin says that with humility, you can get to a point where the audience adores you, and when they adore you, something happens:  It takes the anxiety away.  Without being sure about that, maybe a few of us can at least build enough confidence to get those butterflies to fly in formation.

_________________________________________________________________________________

* Winkelhuis Maximilian, Dance To Your Maximum: The Competitive Ballroom Dancer's Workbook.  Dance Plaza. 2001.  ISBN 978-9080655515

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