Cover image sourced from WOWmalaysia

Disclaimer: The writer of this opinion piece has no formal training in the discipline of dance or sports, but those who write, write, and those who don’t, well. The writer however assures that he is no stranger (and also no expert) to both the disciplines and to the term ‘discipline’ itself. But he sure knows how to write faithfully. Please read with an open mind. This is an *edited version of a piece that was first published on Azam Arifin’s Facebook page. 

The intention of this piece is to create discussion among the practitioners of dance, specifically those actively involved in competitions, be it as participants or organizers.

As a reassurance that whatever I’m writing has merit and some grounds, I should disclose that for the past six-years, I’ve been frequenting dance competitions as an audience member. Since the nature of performing arts requires the existence of the audience, I believe my observations throughout these years could offer some benefits.

What could dance possibly borrow from sports especially when it comes to competitions?

Now, sports first emerged in competitive form during the ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC. Anyone could join and compete. For dance, however, its competitive nature only emerged much later.

What makes both disciplines similar is the fact that they first began as ritualistic rites and social activities. However,  the idea of “champion” or “winning” in sports was influenced by the prehistoric practice of hunting — which some also call a sport. This type of sporting was a measure of who the better male was.

Dance on the other hand, remained a ritual and was reserved for social activities among communities. Its competitive nature emerged when theatre houses began competing with each other to be coined as the best and most profitable. Such competition exist to this day.

Over time, the existence of categories in sports shaped how we eventually formalized dance competitions into what they are today. In sports, those who participate in javelin throws won’t compete againsht those in the 110m hurdles. Similarly, you don’t send a team performing Inang to compete in with ballet.

The categorization in dance, however, has not always been so clear-cut. One thing that dance has adopted from sports to make its competitions better: Rules and regulations.

When you join a dance competition, the organizer will give a long list of rules and regulations, terms and conditions, the marking rubric etc. There are also unwritten rules set precedence from one competition to another, affecting how future participants will compete. They all compete with one goal in mind: To win.

“Inang gong kaki kanan”, “zapin dia salah ni”, “ni zapin kreasi bukan tradisional”, “Why kaki dia sauk kiri”, “kenapa pakai confetti dalam tarian tradisional”, so on so forth. (“Inang gong should begin with the right foot”,  “this is creative zapin not the traditional kind” ect)

Some rules are not clearly stipulated by the organizers. I believe the rules keep changing, affected by previous results of the same competition. This is and will be a continuous process of learning even for those who have been involved in various competitions for quite a long time.

The process is tiring, yes, but for me this is good. It shows that the dance practitioners don’t take their discipline lightly. It may get pening (confusing) at one point and you may want to scream “can you all duduk and bincang (sit and discuss) and standardize everything” but I guess that’s the nature of competition. Even in sports, rules changed and athletes adapted, added or abolished new records etc. So, I guess, there won’t be one single reference for any dance competition category like Panduan Lengkap Tarian Rampaian Tradisional Melayu untuk Sekolah Menengah in the nearest future. And even if they managed to make one holy bible for dance to be used in competitions, it will still be up for revision.

To me, there are two other aspects that can be borrowed from sports and implemented in dance competitions. The difficulty in scoring and handicap.

Difficulty score for me is a good start to revolutionize how a dance piece is to be judged in a competition. This score should be considered the ‘starting score’ given to the participant based upon the difficulty or the complicated-ness of the overall routine. It can show how many points the whole ‘planned’ routine is worth. The higher the difficulty score, the more complex the routine or set of movement.

This scoring style is implemented in games like gymnastics and diving. In diving for example, each panel of judges will give a score between 0 (fail) to 10 (excellent) based on the executions made. The sum of these scores (after discarding the highest or lowest score, or the highest 2 and lowest 2 scores) will then be multiplied by the dive’s difficulty rating. This rating is set beforehand by either the same or different panel of judges based on the routine outline submitted by the participating team. If you plan to give a very complicated and daring routine you will require a higher multiplier. However, the catch is higher difficulty is exactly what it means; it will be more difficult for the contestants. If a dancer is unable to execute it perfectly, the dancer will have a higher risk in getting a lower execution score.

The same applies to a dancer who decides to do a safe and simple routine. They might be able to execute it perfectly and obtain a higher execution score. However, the multiplier given by the difficulty score will be lower, therefore the dancer’s total score may not be able to beat those with higher difficulty dance routines.

This is the game of chance, making rehearsals in dance as not the only winning factor.  Dancers will have to be creative when its comes to planning and strategizing their routine. It’ll be time consuming – yes. Leceh (A hassle) – yes. But the scoring system is fair. Why?

Let’s look into what could happen in a dance competition. Assume it’s a zapin competition. Team A and Team B both are going to showcase Zapin Pekajang, for example. But, Team A dances with one Ragam. Team B on the other hand uses 3 or more ragam in their choreography. You may think that Team B will win. But what if by being ambitious in incorporating 3 or more ragam in their choreography, Team B couldn’t deliver it well in terms of execution of the ragam or synchronization of the dancers’ movement?

Team A may be able to deliver a clean overall performance. But then you may argue that it’s because Team A has not much stuff to fret about throughout the choreography unlike Team B. So how?

Let’s for example set a low difficulty score = 1, a high difficulty score = 5. Also, a low execution score = 1 and a high execution score = 5. Let’s observe possible scenario that could happen to both teams as tabulated below.

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Of course, the scoring is not binary: It could take any value from the lowest (1) to the highest (5). But you get the idea how incorporating difficulty in scoring could make judgement and planning of choreography in competition become a little more clearer. By the way, I am by no means asserting that all dance competitions so far, have never considered the difficulty factor of a choreography and stunt execution — it is simply less obvious.

Obscurity in judgement is what causes the commonly heard post-competition arguments. “Macam mana boleh menang, gitu-gitu,” “Setiap tahun tu je la set tarian dia, dah boleh baca,” “Ada dua tiga yang salah step, boleh jugak menang,” etc. etc. (How did they win? Every year, he does the exact same routine, we can already tell” ect)

The judge of course considered this, but the rubric never differentiated clearly between planned choreography and how well it was executed — at least this is not  made aware to the dance participants in the rules and terms. It is always a 5 or so elements marking style. And for each element, the jury must use their experience and knowledge to decide the points to give or deduct. They have to utilise score recommendation techniques by taking planned choreography and its execution to be judged side by side.

Another example. Assuming Team A performs Zapin Pulau and Team B performs Zapin Suara Siam. They are 2 different zapin with 2 different styles, 2 different usages of energy and charisma. Could a perfectly executed and synchronized Zapin Pulau be considered better than a not-so-syncronized Zapin Suara Siam? What’s your take?

The above example just touched lightly on traditional form of dance that is quite coded. You could in a way find the defining characteristics and references in distinguishing which one is executed well, which one is not. Which one is the correct form? Which one is not? Opinions on it may differ, but it may only differ slightly. How about those Creative (Tarian Kreatif) or New Creation (Kreasi Baru) dance categories? How could you tell if the perfect execution of the dance is not because of the simple nature of the routine?

It will be complicated to implement this style of scoring. The jury must beforehand be briefed by every competing teams, what are the ragam or set of movements they’ll be using, in what order, in which manner, how many and the complexity of the floor pattern etc. But when there’s a will, there’s a way. Just see how Malaysian Floor Pattern Sport Dance Competition has been conducted. The keyword here is ‘Sport’.

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The teams competing have to showcase their performance floor patterns, one by one, before performing it in full. And their choreographers behave in the manner of a sport coach. They used whistles to instruct the floor pattern showcase. Yes, you may argue that it could be done here because the competition is specific in its requirement. However, this concept like many other concepts in any fields in this world has the potential to be expanded in the future. Hopefully it can used as part of the scoring mechanism in any local dance competition.

The next addition will be handicap.

Handicap is the “method of offsetting the varying abilities or characteristics of competitors in order to equalize their chances of winning” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Many sports such as golf, horse racing, bowling and baseball implement this. It is either used to limit the imbalance (imba, a term introduced to me by one of my favourite dancer-not-dancer in UM) between competing teams, or used to compensate those teams with higher handicap.

In golf, this will be the measure of the golfer’s potential ability. By this we mean in simple terms: How good or how bad you are. In golf, the lower your handicap is, the better you are. If say your handicap is 6 and your friend’s is 10, you’re a better player than he is. On average, four strokes better, to be exact. So when competing in a tournament or one on one match they will consider your handicap to see which category you could compete in or whether a team exceeds the lowest handicap line set by the organizer.

Let’s get back to Team A and Team B. In competing in Rampaian Tradisional Melayu Dance competition, Team A is filled with expert dancers. Let’s assume they teach (traditional) dance as profession in a well-known performing arts institute. Team B on the other hand is only made up of secondary school students who have no formal training in dance and only started to learn the art form solely for the competition. What’s your take?

You may argue that if you know you are not capable in being on par with the rest of the participating teams, don’t compete. Easy. But in this way, for me, you won’t provide exposure for those who really want to be a part of the dance circle. There are teams who start recruiting way early and only allow their members to compete after a few years attached to the team — after they have possessed a certain degree of skills in performing. That’s one way of doing things, yes. That is definitely a way to lower your handicap.

But not everyone have time for it and we should not deny their passion in it. If there’s an opportunity for them to join, we must encourage them to join. No — you — dance practitioners out there must encourage them.

Making handicap as a criteria in participating in a dance competition may be a good way to tackle this. So either only those with a certain number of handicap in dance could be allowed to compete or the total handicap of a participating team should not be lower or higher than a certain amount — depending on how you define handicap rating. This way, we could be sure that the participants are all at a level-playing field and they all have more-or-less equal chances in executing great performance. This way we could be sure that there’s no team that is imba. Every competing team have a balanced amount of good dancers and the not-so good dancers.

If we really want to proceed with this, then there should be a committee to regulate the handicap scoring and guidelines among those prospective participants in dance competition. How to measure it? Well this might require another post. But say, maybe those with Bachelor’s Degree in Dance will have lower handicap compared to those that only join dance competition out of fun and not formally trained. Unfortunately, there are those studying dance who menari hampeh jugak. Then again, there are dancers from Academy of Islamic Studies who’re self-taught and passionate.

Experience might also be the contributing factor. Although you may say you are not formally trained as a dancer but  you have performed and competed in quite a number of shows and competition, you might have a lower handicap. Who will have the say in deciding the levels of handicap? How will it change each year? Let those with Master’s Degree and PhD in performing arts think about it.

As for me, incorporating and implementing these two elements from sports into dance will be revolutionary. It will reduce subjectivity which is often exploited by everyone. It will portray that dance is not simply a matter of personal taste (which has also been exploited and abused by everyone). By extension, our local culture will be more coded and stronger. Things will be more clear-cut. Yes, this will be the ideal case, but hey, we can’t wait until Jibril come down from heaven to actually make dance competitions better. Or can we?

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This is the personal opinion of the writer. Have a rebuttal? Drop a comment below or submit your own opinion piece to us.

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