The Trouble with Salsa Competitions
by Ana Gherasim
Disclaimer: This post lays out Ana’s personal opinion on salsa competitions, and does not necessarily represent the stance of other Azucar! instructors or of the school as a whole. Differences of opinion are encouraged and, if you think Ana has got it wrong, please leave a comment and let us know why.
Spirited, respectful and reasonable debate is always welcome here. Disrespectful or offensive comments aren’t.
Jeff and I routinely get asked why we don’t compete. I have developed a repertoire of politically correct answers, but here’s the one you don’t typically hear from me: I think salsa competitions are complete BS.
Why, you ask? Find a comfy seat and a cup of tea; we’re going to be here a while.
1. The atrocity that is “competition style” salsa
Let’s start with the fact that in order to have a competition you need a level playing field – it’s nearly impossible to judge different styles of salsa against each other, so a “competition style” salsa curriculum was developed by the World Salsa Federation (which governs most salsa competitions). If you’re curious, you can find the official “step list” for each competition tier here.
To me, this makes salsa competitions incredibly dull to watch, since the vast majority of competitors will do the same standard moves in order to have their technique evaluated by the judges. After the 3rd or 4th routine, instead of feeling like I’m watching people dance beautifully and illustrate a piece of music, I start feeling like I’m playing salsa bingo and checking off the same 20 moves on the list over and over again.
This also makes musicality practically nonexistent. Most competition songs are chosen for their tempo and lack of variation in beat structure and melody – it feels like most routines were choreographed without music and a soundtrack was added later, almost as an afterthought.
In short, “competition style” salsa is everything that actual salsa dancing isn’t: it’s rigidly structured, it discourages innovation and personal expression, it’s deaf to the incredibly rich music that it’s supposed to be based on, and it feels cold and impersonal.
This also makes many competitors (not all!) less than stellar social dancers, since their training emphasizes rigid form and technique, rather than the nuanced flow of informal salsa.
2. Competition “categories” are a joke
When you enter a salsa competition, you generally have 3 main “categories” to choose from: “Am-Am” (both competitors are at the “Amateur” or “student” level), “Pro-Am” (an instructor dancing with a student), and “Pro” (both competitors are at the “Professional” level).
Seems legit, but here’s the rub: these tiers aren’t determined by any measure of actual proficiency; they’re not determined by technical mastery or by years of training or by any sort of certification or pre-screening. An “amateur” is anyone who has danced for any length of time, at any level, but who has never been paid to teach salsa. A “professional” is anyone who has danced for any length of time, at any level, who has ever taught a salsa class and been paid for it.
In other words, if you dedicate your entire life to training in “competition style” salsa, but never teach a class, you’re still an “Amateur”. If you’ve been dancing for a few months and you were coaxed into teaching one beginner salsa class for your neighbours’ kids at your local community centre in exchange for $30, you’re now a “Professional”.
Obviously, competitors have learned to take advantage of this system, with many instructor couples entering the “Pro-Am” category and either erasing any history of one of them ever having taught a class, or listing one of them as “assistant” rather than “instructor” for their classes. All so they can dominate the “Pro-Am” competitions and come home with a chestful of shiny medals. Petty and dishonest? You bet! But the system allows it, so who cares?
3. Everyone’s a winner
You’d think that, with all these “rigors” in place, it would be difficult to win a salsa competition and bring home a medal, but you’d be wrong. It is, in fact, a rare day when someone enters a competition and comes out without at least a bronze medal. There are a couple of reasons for this:
First, there are myriad “divisions” of competitions you can enter, and there is no minimum number of competitors for any of them. Which means that you’ll often see at least one division where a single couple is competing – take a wild guess who’s winning the gold there! Most divisions at salsa congresses will have less than 4 couples competing, pretty much guaranteeing everyone a medal. And you can enter as many divisions as you want (congresses love this, because each entry fee means extra money in their pocket), so if you find yourself in two or three divisions where you’re only competing against yourself? Even better for the medal count!
Second, some competitions are moving away from only giving out 3 medals per division – in fact, in some divisions, competitors are ranked so that the top third will get gold, the middle third will get silver, and the bottom third will get bronze. If you’re the bottom of a 14-couple division, but you still get a bronze medal, are you still a winner? Of course you are, because now you can plaster photos of yourself with your medal around your neck all over your favourite social network and claim you won “3rd place” in a prestigious salsa competition! Most people don’t know the difference anyway, so why not capitalize on it?
So the next time you see a dancer’s Facebook post or photo touting their medal count at the latest competition, take it with a grain of salt.
We’re conditioned to see medals as a mark of great distinction. Believe me, I grew up with the Olympics being a huge thing, and national medal counts being reported more seriously and assiduously than national disasters. But I also grew up with elementary school competitions and talent shows where everyone took home a trophy or a medal or a ribbon or a sash. And sadly, at this point salsa competitions are much closer to the latter than the former.
But would you compete if…?
The truth is, even if salsa competitions were to become fair and medals actually meant something, I still don’t think I’d want to compete. To me, salsa is most beautiful when it’s danced from the heart, spontaneously and joyfully and informally; not on stage in a sparkly bikini and with a “stage smile” plastered on my face for the judges.
I have a lot of respect for world-class dancers who make competitive salsa their livelihood, who train day-in and day-out to perfect their skills, and who compete fairly and honestly, but I don’t aspire to be like them. The dancers I look up to the most don’t do competitions – they explore movement and engagement with the music; they innovate and create artistic choreographies that touch your heart, instead of technical demonstrations of skill; they seem to radiate joy both when they’re performing and when they’re dancing socially. And when they do dance socially, they’re deeply engaged with their partner in each dance, rather than showing off to an imaginary audience. That’s who I hope to be one day, and they don’t have a competition division for that.
Why does any of it matter?
You might be thinking: “ok, salsa competitions are flawed, but so what? What’s wrong with salsa instructors using competition medals and titles to attract students? What’s wrong with salsa congress organizers making money off of competitors? What’s wrong with students entering competitions just to have the experience of performing in front of judges and seeing where they stand?” In my opinion, two things:
First, the idea of an unfair competition nags at me. I take ethics very seriously, and the idea that an instructor entered a competition division, competed against one other couple, got second place, came home with a “silver medal”, and started promoting himself as a “salsa champion” in order to attract students doesn’t sit well with me.
Second, and even more important in my opinion, competitions are being falsely promoted as the “peak” of salsa dancing. I’ve heard instructors refer to competitions as an “exam” at the end of their salsa lessons, the only real way to see how good you’re getting.
This creates, in people’s minds, a linear progression: you start by learning the basics, you dance socially for a while, you join a performance troupe, then when you get good enough, you compete, and that’s the apogee of your salsa journey. Nothing could be farther from the truth!
As I stated at the beginning of this article, “competition style” salsa is one of many types and styles of salsa you’ll find around the world. As a social dancer, you get the choice to explore and experience any and all of them. As a competitor, however, you have to limit yourself to the forms and techniques that will be useful to you in competition; other styles are seen as a distraction. One competitive dancer once confided that his coach would be quite unhappy if he dabbled in Afro-Cuban moves, since they’re taking away from his competition training. By choosing to compete, rather than “perfect” your salsa dancing, you are purposefully limiting yourself and cutting yourself off from the wealth of movements and music that salsa has to offer. That doesn’t sound like the best of salsa to me.
In addition, there’s a false sense among some dancers that if you’re “only” dancing salsa socially, then you will forever stagnate at the intermediate level, since the only way to improve your technique is to get into competitive salsa. Again, this could not be farther from the truth. Oodles of social dancers strive to continually improve their repertoire of moves, the smoothness of their lead and follow, their musicality and timing and styling and so on – not to impress a judge, but to make their social dancing better and better, to have a deeper connection in every dance, and to take full advantage of every song they dance to.
If you’ve read this entire article, there is one thing I want you to take away: competitions are not the be-all, end-all of salsa dancing. They are not the peak of one’s dance career or ability. They are not the destination of your salsa journey. They are simply one of the roads that you can take in your dancing.