A recent discussion on Facebook became an interesting and useful opportunity for ballroom competition organizers to look at some of the issues that are frustrating ballroom dancers. It also becomes an opportunity for dancers to better understand things from the perspective of an organizer.

The discussion began with a Pro/Am dancer venting her frustration at being unable to dance the full routines that she and her coach have been working so hard to perfect. Some competitions cram so many events into the day that they cut the length of dances to the point where it becomes a problem.

As a Pro/Am teacher, I’ve also noticed music that’s cut shorter than expected. While it would be nice to be able to dance the entire routine that I designed, I’ve never thought of this as being terribly important. Perhaps this is because I know that judges don’t need a full minute and 40 seconds to make their decisions. In fact, a lot of Pro/Am events are uncontested. In those cases, the judging process is even easier and judges definitely can make their decision in only a few seconds.

Yet this is a valid point. The competitors paid good money and put months of work into each routine. Of course they want to be able to dance it. I’m glad people are talking about this.

Like all such conflicts, it’s important for each side to step into the shoes of the other so that we can gain a mutual understanding. Through communication we can then move towards solutions that make everyone happy.

From the competitors viewpoint

Counting the cost

Competitors pay huge sums of money to work on their routines. Pro/Am in particular is very costly. Students pay their instructor for each lesson. They also have to pay for practice time. If they work with a guest coach, often at a much higher fee, they typically pay for that coach plus their own teacher. When attending competitions, they have to pay the entry fees and tickets for themselves and their instructor.

Instructors lose teaching revenue while they attend a competition and so these costs need to be offset. This is done through “pro” fees on a per-dance basis that help make up the lost income. If this wasn’t covered, there would be no incentive for professionals to dance Pro/Am, especially if it meant being out of the studio for several days as can happen with larger events.

Naturally, students are also expected to cover travel costs for their instructor. A coach with several competing students can amortize the travel costs, reducing the portion each student has to cover. But even in the best cases, the cost can be substantial. Most teachers do their best to minimize the cost for their students. Yet the bottom line is that they need to ensure that they earn an appropriate income.

It’s easy to see why competitors, particularly those doing Pro/Am, get frustrated at the high costs involved. No wonder they get upset when they are short changed. Like music being cut off before they get to do half their routine.

It’s easy to see why competitors, particularly those doing Pro/Am, get frustrated at both the high costs and when things seem to get short changed.

A new perspective

One thing to keep in mind is that entry fees, unless you are dancing a solo routine, are not intended to be a “fee for time.” In other words, the organizer isn’t obligated to ensure that dancers get a certain amount of time for each dance. That’s not the idea and would be unworkable. Some competitors design full routines that last the entire 1:40 of recommended time. Others design shorter routines. Still others design even longer routines, even though they are aware they likely won’t get the dance the whole thing. Should the organizer ask each of hundreds of competitors how long they want their songs? Of course not. Instead, what competitors are paying for are an elegant environment with an appreciative audience (more on this later), professional judges that can evaluate their skill, and the things that go with these expectations such as the event running on time, appropriate music, accurate scrutineering, places to change and so on. There are rules governing the length of dances. The rules do provide a minimum length to ensure that judges have enough time to make a decision.

Unfortunately what has happened is that some competition organizers have allowed an excess number of entries to overload their schedule, forcing the event to drop the length of dances to — at times — become even less than the minimum allowable length. If they didn’t do this, the event would end at 3:00am! At Delta Cup, we do our best to keep dances at the recommended length of 1:40, reducing that length slightly only when absolutely necessary.

Who is the customer?

One of the things that came up in the Facebook discussion was the issue of who really is the customer at competitions. Is it the audience that is paying to watch an evening of gala entertainment? Is it amateur and/or professional competitors who are the main draw for those who want to watch competitions? Is it the Pro/Am competitors who may be paying thousands of dollars to attend? Is it the studios who may be bringing dozens of competitors who are cumulatively paying tens of thousands of dollars? Is it the individual teachers who are encouraging their competitors to attend the event, often dancing many hundreds of dances over a multi-day event?

In fact, the customers are all of the above. It would be unfair for organizers to place any one of these groups above the other. We all need each other to create a vibrant and growing community. Some people think that the only people organizers care about are the studios but that’s not the case. It probably doesn’t help that events have awards for top teacher and top studio which further add to this perception. In actual fact, these awards are necessary as a way to recognize those participants. I think it would be silly to not recognize those who help an event be filled with competitors!

Organizers really do care about every competitor, even those who only enter a single event. And they care just as much about the person who buys a single daytime ticket to watch.

What about Amateur partnerships?

I recall the early days as an amateur competitor. For decades it was amateur couples who brought the most entries into competitions. The audience was most interested in watching the amateurs, especially those dancing at Prechampionship and Championship levels. And there were a lot of them! I recall open events that routinely had quarter finals and even larger groups. Today, open level events rarely have that many couples.

Back in those days of huge amateur involvement, many events were able to allow amateur couples to enter with no entry fees, paying only for their tickets into the ballroom. That’s not really financially viable today as it is very hard for any competition to survive with just amateur couples due to the high costs involved (more on that later).

Amateur partnerships have lower overall costs because they don’t have to pay their practice partner. They also don’t have to cover someone else’s travel costs in addition to their own. But that doesn’t mean life is easy. When we were amateur competitors, we spent ridiculous amounts of money on competition. Most competitors, of all ages and whether amateur or pro, struggle to make ends meet. Dancing comes out of a limited budget that consists of what’s left over after paying the mortgage, bills and training costs. The cost of competition is something all partnerships take seriously and organizers need to understand this.

The physical fatigue factor

Other common frustrations for competitors are having to dance many events in rapid succession. Yes, they have developed stamina as dancers but it isn’t fair for them to have to dance round after round with no break. I recall one elderly Pro/Am lady telling me how she had to dance almost 40 dances in a row without a single break. It was exhausting. She will never attend that particular competition again.

Organizers need to be aware of the fatigue factor and do everything they can to mitigate this. Of course, it’s not always possible to avoid putting some rounds back to back. Some competitors enter many events and there are only so many ways you can juggle the schedule to give them breaks. Today’s sophisticated software does a great job of helping organizers manage this. But in my view, if competitors choose to enter a large number of dances then they need to be relaxed about how many of these can be danced without breaks between them.

Competitors ticket pricing

One of the common complaints by competitors is having to pay entry fees and on top of that having to buy tickets to enter the event. This is understandable given all the things we’ve already discussed about the cost of competition.

Unfortunately, solving this problem isn’t as easy as it might seem. The next section of this post shines a light on the costs of running an event from the organizer’s viewpoint. Covering these costs, especially for a smaller event, is a huge challenge. Even with sponsorship, there isn’t enough revenue from audience tickets and entry fees alone to pay the bills. Large competitions receiving more than 5,000 entries are able to cover their costs more readily and can remove ticket prices from the equation. Embassy Ball just announced such a move, and others have done so as well. But for small events it is simply impossible. Competitors need to realize that expecting this from all competitions would mean saying goodbye to all but the largest events, which reduces the total number of competitions available.

Smaller competitions, including Delta Cup, have tried to help in various ways. One is offering discounted “competitor passes” that bring in the necessary revenue and allow the competitors to attend any session they like. Delta Cup gives teachers who bring a competitive Pro/Am student a free competitor pass. This is done to eliminate the need for students to cover the ticket price for their teacher, thus reducing their cost. On top of that, Delta Cup removes all entry fees for Newcomer skill level events to help encourage people to try competition for the first time. We also give an automatic $5 loyalty discount for each entry fee to those who attended Delta Cup the year before. Again, this is a way to reduce the overall cost for competitors. We hope to some day be able to remove ticket requirements for all competitors but currently that’s not financially viable.

From the Organizers Viewpoint

I’ve been on the organizing committee for two very large competitions, and have run Delta Cup DanceSport Gala, now entering its fifth anniversary year. So as well as being able to see things from the competitor’s viewpoint, I’m also well aware of the many issues that organizers struggle with.

The cost of organizing

Most competitors have absolutely no idea what it takes in financial expenditure to put on an event. The cost of running a dance competition is truly staggering. Organizers literally bet their life savings on each event. There is no commercial insurance to cover an event. If there’s a weather issue or power outage or some other disaster, the organizer can be put in a very bad financial situation. I recall a number of years ago when the SARS disease caused hundreds of flights to be grounded just days before the CanAm Dancesport Gala in Toronto, which financially devastated that event and kept it out of commission for many years before it was revived by John Karakis and Ann Harding-Trafford. Organizers really do put everything on the line when they decide to run an event.

The cost of running a dance competition is truly staggering. Organizers literally bet their life savings on each event.

Regulations dictate a significant number of judges. Each adjudicator involves the judging fee, the cost of airfare if they live outside the region, the cost of hotel accommodation and meals and the cost of transportation they need while involved with the event. It can amount to many thousands of dollars for each judge! There are similar costs for the scrutineer who calculates the results, for the music directors (most events need more than one of these), and for the MCs who announce the events and give the competition its character. There are costs for the facility rental, sound and lighting equipment, insurance, music licensing, catering for the officials, special touches such as decoration and more. Most events have to rent a floor. They may need to pay for risers or similar seating. There are costs for flowers, medals (many thousands of dollars), awards, trophies, certificates, advertising and even more. There are costs for the website, for sanctioning, photography or video, for the registration system, for printing of supplies and still more. If the event has showcase performers, these also need to be paid with professional fees as well as any airfare and hotel costs if they come in from out of town. These things add up to outrageous overall costs. All of this has to be paid by someone.

The audience alone could never cover those costs. Ticket prices would be many hundreds of dollars per seat! Sponsors are a vital help in lowering the overall expense but there are still massive costs. So entry fees are absolutely vital to help make ends meet. If entry fees are too low, you still don’t cover your costs. If entry fees are too high your event suffers. Finding the right balance is important to ensure a vibrant competition.

Creating an audience

It can be surprisingly hard to fill the room. As Pro/Am competitors know, one of the most frustrating things is to be dancing in the early morning to an empty room. I personally hate this. As an organizer, I’ve struggled for years to find a solution. We even visit the local seniors homes and offer them discounted pricing if they are willing to bring in a block of people to watch the event during those times before the room fills up. We had one facility agree to bring in dozens of seniors only to cancel the day before. The amount of time and effort this all takes is ridiculous. I’m an advocate for helping to bring awareness of ballroom dancing to the general population as I feel this is the only way we’ll be able to ensure large audiences and the growth of ballroom dancing in general. But doing so involves a lot of time, effort, social media promotion. And advertising.

Advertising is essential to bring in an audience. But it comes at a price. The more an event pays in advertising costs, the more those costs add to the overall budget. It can seem that you are only bringing in enough additional ticket sales or entries to cover the costs you spent to get them. If that. This is truly frustrating for organizers.

The problem of late entries

As any organizer will tell you, the most frustrating thing they face is late entries by competitors. Events have tried everything under the sun to deal with this, and it seems that there’s really no workable solution. Organizers have tried late fees, early bird discounts, blocking late entries and more. Things just never change. Every organizer I’ve ever talked to says that up to three weeks before a competition, there aren’t enough entries to run the weekend. Then suddenly, finally, hundreds of entries come in. Not only is this extremely stressful for the organizers who have put their life savings on the line, it makes it essentially impossible to do any kind of scheduling or planning until the last minute.

We certainly understand why entries come in late. Competitors aren’t sure they will be ready. They want to be sure they don’t spend money only to have to back out for some reason. They want to cover their ass in case there’s a work emergency or other issue. All of those are valid reasons to wait until the 11th hour to get entries in. But even though the reasons are valid, they are no less frustrating for organizers.

The Facebook discussion I mentioned at the start of this article also suggested that organizers should simply not accept entries after a certain date. One comment said, “If there’s an entry deadline, why isn’t that honored?” The reason is that a huge percentage of competitors disregard the entry deadline! When so many entries come in after that deadline, there’s not a whole lot an organizer can do. At the end of the day we only turn people away if their late entries will result in the addition of an event. For example, if there are 7 people in an event and a late entry makes that 8 and thus creates a semi-final, we have to disallow the entry. What’s hard is getting a half dozen entries in for that event, all coming in after the entry deadline. What do you do then? Especially if half the entries you know are coming still haven’t been submitted.

I strongly urge all competitors to do everything they can to get their entries in before the entry deadline. That change alone would make a huge difference to the entire competition scene. Organizers would be more relaxed. They would have time to calculate their costs and to adjust the schedule. They would be able to plan more efficiently. They would be able to find ways to streamline everything from registration to communication.

The bottom line for all of us is that we need to have more discussions about these issues. We need to realize that whatever side of the event you are on — competitor or organizer — we are really all on the same side. Together we create a vibrant community of dancers. Together we grow public awareness of ballroom dancing. Together we help people see the joy and passion and power of ballroom dance to bring people together in a healthy, active setting that benefits humanity in a thousand ways. Let’s talk. Start by adding your comment below.

Author George Pytlik

Before turning pro, George achieved impressive results as an amateur competitor, holding the Senior (30+) Latin championship in BC, Canada for 7 consecutive years with his wife Wendy. The couple twice achieved a top-3 Canadian ranking in Senior Latin as well as a 3rd place Canadian ranking in 30+ Ten Dance. Today, George and Wendy are professional teachers with a vision of growing a strong dance community in Delta near Vancouver, BC.

More posts by George Pytlik

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