Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Are Dance and Competition Natural Enemies?

With the increased interest in competitive dancing on television (and especially after the dismal failure of Superstars of Dance), some of my friends have wondered if dance as an artistic and social form could be compatible with the competition formats. Competitive dance is often criticized for damaging the artistic integrity and the communal power of dancing. There is some truth to this, tho it doesn’t tell the whole story.

When a dance form moves out of its original social context to become a competition form, it must undergo regulation in order for dancers and judges to know what criterion are being employed in their analysis. This often means that dances are standardized by regulatory organizations, innovation is limited, and local variations are lost. In addition, steps and routines become more dramatic—faster or flashier moves get the attention of judges. There may be a loss of the subtle aspects of dance as technical virtuosity takes the spotlight. Separate categories for styles, genders, and age-groups are created, diminishing the communal aspects of the dance. And sometimes entirely new forms are created by these changes: the samba of Latin Ballroom competition bears only a passing resemblance to the native sambas of Brazil. But they each exist and are appreciated within their own contexts.

Does competition necessarily engender athleticism at the expense of aestheticism? Is this always the case or are there competitive contexts that can support both? I think the later is true, that there are competitions that leave room for innovation and individual expression as well as advanced technical skill. There are many such examples, but for now lets take a look at the history of competition clogging.

I first encountered Appalachian clogging when I was an undergraduate student at Livingston College in New Jersey around 1973. A group of us drove an old VW van down to western North Carolina for a bluegrass festival which featured a new team of dancers, the Green Grass Cloggers. Tho I didn’t know this at the time, this group actually represented a change in traditional, old-time clogging: they fused traditional precision clogging with square dance sets and figures, added taps to their shoes, and invented new steps such as the high kick. Their energetic, up-beat style was criticized by traditionalists, but it won competitions which helped establish them as leaders in modern clogging.

Competition team clogging began to appear in 1928 and the intensity of the competitive form increased with each generation. Previously, competition took the form of playful tests of skill between soloists in social settings. With the establishment of team competition, traditionalists worried that the sociality of dancing was in jeopardy. “What was being lost,” old-timers complained, “was the individuality and spirit of old-time buckdancing and freestyle clogging that comes from the heart.”

Last season, on MTVs America’s Best Dance Crew, we witnessed the latest iteration of clogging. Dynamic Edition, 7-time national champion cloggers, fused the exciting, high-spirited steps of clogging with hip hop formations and sounds. Competing against hip hop and street dance groups, these young Alabamans introduced something fresh and unexpected to the mix. On the final night of the competition, Dynamic Edition, Quest Crew, and Strikers All-Stars created a large group choreography that incorporated clogging with hip hop and stepping. And it was as exciting a moment as I have seen in modern choreography.

So, Does competition engender athleticism at the expense of aestheticism? Certainly, athleticism is a dominant element in competitive dancing, but not to the complete diminishment of aesthetic values. In fact, the spirit of MTVs competition dance program produced a new variant of clogging, profiting from both traditional and contemporary genres of dance, and expressing our present globalized communities.

Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America's Southeast and Beyond. Susan Eike Spalding and Jane Harris Woodside, eds. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1995

See also my post of 3/9/09 "Quest Crew IS Americas Best Dance Crew"


  1. Great post!

    Competition has always been a major factor in percussive dance traditions in the United States. As a matter of fact, the 1928 event (Rhododendron Festival, later Mountain Dance and Folk Festival) was a square dance competition. One of the teams added clogging steps as an act of competitive team spectacularity. At that point, it wasn't recognized as "clogging," but a new variant of square dance (Southern Appalachian "big set" variety). Team clogging (the organized tradition that most of us know today, including Dynamic Edition) was born on the (formal) competition stage. I respect individuals and groups who opt for recreational modes of clogging, but I think it is a hoot when justified as "the way clogging should be done--about fun, not competition." It has always enjoyed some element of competition--formal or informal, and the benefits of such are the forms we share today, competitive or recreational.

    I wrote my Master's Thesis (American Dance Studies, Florida State University) on this and related topics, concerning American team clogging.

    Andy Howard, Florida

  2. Thanks for that great input. I think I read about the Rhodeodendron Fest in the Spalding/Woodside book. Are there any new ethnographies I should know about? I am totally jealous that there is an American Dance Studies program now...it would have been perfect for me.

    What did you think of Dynamic Edition's performances on ABDC?

  3. I think "DE" represented clogging well. They faced an exceptional challenge... unlike other broad talent shows (i.e., Star Search, America's Got Talent, etc.), this show was specifically for "crews" (implies hip hop genres specifically)... so the fact that they even made it on to begin with is remarkable. When apples make it that far in an orange competition (so to speak), you know you are doing something right, or at least keeping someone interested...

    As for clogging research... have you looked into Loyal Jones' biography on Bascom Lunsford? Has some related information to this topic...

    I enjoyed reading Celeste Ray and Gwen Neville... not information on clogging, but enlightened my understanding a good bit. Also, "New Tribalisms" (author escapes me)... there is an essay in there on Ethnicity (including symbolic or voluntary ethnicity) which is very interesting, considering folk dances sometimes symbolize heritage.

    Are you on facebook? Andy Howard in Orlando, Florida if you want to look me up!