This morning I registered for a competition with my girlfriend. There were some difficulties using the online registration form so I downloaded the paper form and as I was filling it out I had two thoughts. The first was, This is the easiest registration form I’ve ever filled out. This was immediately followed by, Why aren’t they all like this?
Registering for a competition can be a lengthy and confusing process, and if done incorrectly it can be an expensive one as well. Worse, it’s a needlessly expensive hassle that is almost never addressed. Today: how to register yourself for a competition and save hundreds of dollars in the process. For purposes of example, we’ll use one of the local competitions in my area, Philadelphia Festival Dancesport Championships. Let’s go to the forms and registrations page (link) so we can all follow along together.
Why is this so complicated?
Before we get into how to register, one needs to understand that the complexity of registration is deliberate. Not maliciously so, but deliberate nonetheless. Why would someone make registering for a competition needlessly complex? To understand that, one needs to understand how the competition industry is organized.
Now before I start accusing competition organizers and dance teachers of being shiftless, money-grubbing capitalists who are only out to make a quick buck, let me state that I hold no such beliefs. Ballroom dance is a very hard industry in which to make a go of it, and if all one desires is to make money, dance is about the worst business one could have chosen. I hold it absolutely true that the overwhelming majority of people in the dance industry, no matter what capacity they operate in, do so out of a genuine love of dance. There are a few bad eggs out there, as there are in any business, but by and large, dancers do not receive their principle motivation from profit.
That said, any successful business person, in the dance industry or elsewhere, must be aware of the fact that without profit he or she cannot survive in that business. A competition does not consistently turn a profit, or at least break even, will die unless it receives some outside sponsorship, and a dance instructor who does not profit from his or her dance must find some other line of work with which to support him or herself. This can hardly be considered a shocking revelation but it must be ackwnoweldged because it allows us to state the mandate of every competition and instructor must include the stated goal of making money.
From the Organizer’s Point of View
Competitions and instructors do this in different ways. Competitions make money by attracting competitors and selling entries. As in most businesses, it is usually very difficult to attract new patrons (competitors) and is comparatively easier to self additional entries to the competitors already planning to attend. This is an example of the 80/20 rule in action. In many respects it is fairly easy to sell additional entries. The dancer is already at the competition, and likely wants to do as much dancing as possible rather than sit on the sidelines. The organizer can accomodate the dancer by offering additional opportunities to dance and by charging per event rather than for the whole competition. If those opportunities are not present, the organizer must create additional events to manufacture opportunities.
A common case of manufactured events is offering both single-dance and multi-dance events. A beginning bronze dancer may know standard waltz, tango, and quickstep. If these are all danced as a multi-dance, averaging the scores in each dance, the organizer only receives one entry fee. If they are offered as single-dances, the organizer receives three fees. If the organizer offers both single-dance and multi-dance events, there are four fees. The organizer can even create different events by offering the same event as was earlier danced but with a prize, which is exactly what the Scholarship event is (otherwise pro-am multi-dance).
Another way events are created is by offering different levels of and allowing dancers to enter more advanced levels than they are rated. Dancers are generally allowed to dance up, such as a bronze dancer competing in both bronze and silver. This doubles the potential number of entries, but it extends beyond such simple doubling. While the syllabus (pre-bronze, bronze, silver, and gold) and open (novice, pre-champion, champion) levels are generally well-known, there are others that exist only within the competition world such as Advanced Bronze, Pre-Gold, or Open Silver. We’ll get into the details of these categories below, but they all exist for the purpose of creating additional entries.
Then there are age categories. Just as one dance “up” levels one can also dance younger. It’s obvious that a 16 year old dancer will probably have very different physical capabilities than a 90 year old dancer, and so normally dancers are separated into age categories. Some dancers may want the challenge, or just the opportunity, to dance against younger dancers and so competitions permit dancers to dance down in as many age groups as they like, down to 18 years old (adults competing against children is not permitted, but often children can dance older to dance against adults).
This is why the forms have so many different options: competition organizers create lots and lots of events so that the dancers in attendance do lots and lots of dances, paying separately for each one.
From the Instructor’s Point of View
The dance instructor makes his or her money in a different way. The instructor and his or her studio have made money selling lessons, but the competition itself presents a different financial situation. If the instructor is at the competition, either dancing pro-am or continuing to coach and advise the dancers, he or she is not at the studio teaching lessons (thus not making the studio money), to say nothing of the costs involved in attending the competition, such as hotel, travel, and food. As such, the instructor needs to pay for his or her expenses and make up the missed lessons.
Hence, the instructor or studio will often add a fee to the competition registration when a dancer registers through the studio. This may be an overall fee (usually done for the studio), a per-dance fee (usually for the instructor, and almost certainly applied if dancing pro-am), or both. I’ve seen overall fees of $50 to $500, and I’ve seen per-dance fees of $10 to $20.
Before I talk about how to avoid these fees, we should at least acknowledge that they can ocassionally be worthwhile. Studios have access to several perks that individual dancers lack, including:
- Preferential Seating – When studios register they are often given block seating in the audience or reserved tables. In addition to being able to sit with your friends and teachers, these seats usually provide a better view than most of the general seating. This is particularly advantageous when watching professional competitions or evening showcases.
- Studio Support – Instructors attend competitions to take care of their students. A student who registers separately is telling the instructor, “I don’t need you,” and the instructor will hear the message. He or she will spend the competition time, when not on the floor, looking after the students who are paying for the instructor to attend the competition (see above costs), not on the students who’ve removed themselves. It can be very helpful, especially at early competitions, to have an experienced hand guiding you about where to go, when to queue up for heats, deciphering schedules, assisting with costumes, and all the myriad difficulties of competitions.
- Pro-Am – If oone is dancing pro-am, one will have to register through the studio, and pay their fees, since the student and pro must register together. In these instances the extra fees make it possible for the instructor to attend and compete with the student.
- Eligibility – By registering with a studio, your performance is factored into your studio’s and instructor’s averages, making them eligible for top studio and top teacher awards, and making you eligible to participate in those awards. Likewise, one must register with a studio in order to compete in team matches.
- Assistance Registering – When you register with a studio, they often take care of all the paperwork for you. While this article will attempt to explain how to do your own paperwork, sometimes it’s just easier to turn it over to someone else.
- Bonus Perks – Studios that support competitions for many years often have additional perks thrown their way by the competition’s organizers. For example, one studio I know when attending a certain large competition is often given the presidential suite to host parties, and for students and instructors to relax in.
Are these benefits worth the extra costs? That’s up to you. I’ve registered independently and I’ve registered with studios and the benefits are often justified, but not always. Compare your studio’s registration prices with those of registering independently, and if the costs are out of line, don’t be afraid to ask the studio’s competition coordinator what you get for the extra money. Don’t say, “Why does it cost so much more to register with you? Why shouldn’t I just go sign up on my own, dance, and pay $200 less?” which is both confrontational and rude. Instead say, “I noticed that our studio has added some extra fees to register. What are the benefits to registering with you and paying the extra money?”
If they can’t say anything more than, “Well then you get to be part of our studio at the competition,” I’d run.
Okay, I’m Going on my Own. How do I Fill out the Damn Form?
Maybe you don’t think the studio is worth the extra money to register with them or maybe they’re not supporting the competition you want to go to. Either way, you need to sign yourself up. How do you do it?
What Forms do I Need?
More difficult than filling out the forms themselves, the biggest hurdle is often figuring out which forms need filling out. Let’s go back to the Philly Festival website again. There are thirteen downloads, some of which are clearly forms and some of which are not. Rather than guess which ones we’ll need based on vague titles, we’re going to go through them one-by-one.
1) Package Information is not actually a form. Instead, it provides information on package registration that include hotel reservations, admission to the ballroom, preferred seating at events, and so forth. These can actually be very good deals but, as you see, the page does not include prices which would have been sent to the studios so that they could add their own mark-up without students being the wiser. call or e-mail to get the price (in fact, do this even if registering with the studio so you have something to compare).
You will note that while package information is given, neither this form nor any of the others allow a way to order said package. One should e-mail or call the competition organizers to place an order for a package.
Next we have 2) Pro Am Entry Form. We’ll skip this one since we would only fill it out if registering with a studio, in which case they would fill it out for us or with us. Moving on, however, we come to 3) Am Am Single Dances, one of the most important forms for an amateur competitor. Going from the top we have the names and contact information for the competitors which isn’t too difficult. We also have a line for NDCA#. Most competitions require dancers to register with either the NDCA or USA Dance (depending on who is sanctioning the competition). This can be done on each organization’s website for a small fee (between $30 and $80 depending on one’s specifics) and numbers usually arrive in about a week. The most difficult line in this opening section is “Teacher” and is used to calculate Top Teacher awards and for Scholarship events (see below). Unless one is competing as part of a studio with a teacher bringing dozens of students, that teacher is unlikely to win top teacher and scholarship is usually reserved for pro-am. Fill it out honestly or leave it blank; it doesn’t usually matter.
Next on the form we come to the meat and potatoes: the entries themselves. Let’s go through column-by-column.
The first column is level and is, probably, the most confusing part of this form. The legend at the bottom helps a little but not much, so let’s just define each level:
- Newcomer – Seemingly the simplest category, everyone knows you’re a newcomer when you start but it’s hotly debated when you stop being a newcomer. I’ve seen definitions that include, “Your first comp and only your first comp,” “Has been dancing for less than 6 months,” “Has been dancing for less than 1 year,” “Has taken less than 50 hours of private lessons,” and “Has never placed (top 3).” I recommend always doing newcomer if it’s your first competition and get your teacher’s opinion after that. If you can, stay in newcomer until you place in the top 3 or they kick you up. Interestingly enough, there are no restrtictions on figures in Newcomer, but dancers are strongly advised to limit themselves to basic (pre-bronze) figures.
- Pre-Bronze – This category is often combined with Newcomer at competitions. When separated, it’s a category for dancers who aren’t allowed to compete in Newcomer because that category is limited to first-time competitors or is limited by a maximum time or number of lessons, but who don’t feel they’re ready for Bronze yet. Usually figures are limited to the first half of the syllabus (specified as pre-bronze in international. Varies in American).
- Intermediate Bronze – This category has the same figure limits as pre-bronze but is for dancers who’ve placed in pre-bronze. I don’t recommend dancing intermediate bronze unless you’re trying to do every dance you can; very few dancers enter it. Even if you don’t know full bronze figures, go to Full Bronze and dance your pre-bronze routine.
- Full Bronze – This category allows the entire bronze syllabus and is the definitive bronze category.
- Open Bronze – This is a strange category. Open work is normally limited to the open post-syllabus categories (Novice, Pre-Champion, Champion) and in open dancers are not restricted to school figures (a.k.a. syllabus). Open Bronze allows dancers to compete with that freedom but against other dancers at their same level. It provides an opportunity to dance with minimal restrictions much earlier than would otherwise be possible.
- Pre-Silver – This level is not listed on the Philly Festival entry form, but I’m including it for the sake of completeness. Pre-Silver allows Bronze dancers to dance with Silver technique and some Silver figures (usually the first third of the syllabus) but they only compared against other bronze dancers. It provides a way to try out a higher level a little bit early.
- Intermediate/Full/Open Silver – As Intermediate/Full/Open Bronze for Silver dancers.
- Pre-Gold – As Pre-Silver, for Silver dancers.
- Gold/Open Gold – As Full Bronze/Open Bronze, for Gold dancers.
- Gold Star – Some studios include a syllabus that extends past the Gold level. Regardless of their names, they are usually competed as Gold Star and are danced like Full Bronze, for Gold Star dancers.
The next column is age. As we said before, age category is designed to increase the number of total entries, making the event more lucrative, so one may enter one’s own age category and lower. It should be noted that the base age category is based on the younger partner. Thus a 65 year-old man and 60 year-old woman could enter C category (51-60 years) but they could also enter B, A1, and A. They could not enter D because the woman is too young.
The next column is where one specifies dances. The dances are abbreviated under their categories by the first initials and include smooth waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, Peabody, rhythm cha cha, rumba, swing, mambo, merengue, samba, bolero, hustle, west coast swing, salsa, standard, waltz, tango, Viennese, foxtrot, quickstep, and Latin cha cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, and jive.
In each line, one should select the level and age group, the enter all the dances the couple will be entering under those headings.
Next, total up the number of entries and fill in the appropriate spaces to determine how much one must pay for single dances. WARNING: THESE COSTS CAN QUICKLY SPIRAL OUT OF CONTROL. It is strongly recommended to avoid entering unusual categories (i.e. Open Bronze, pre-silver, etc.) to save on numbers of entries.
There is also a section for exhibition dances. These are solo performances with your own choreography in a style of your choice to music of your selection. Typically you will receive written remarks from the judges as well as individual scores. If you are planning to do an exhibition dance, mark the entry here.
Next there is 4) Pro/Am Scholarship Form. This is a multi-dance event and is the only event in which amateurs can win money (however the money may only be used for lesons. In fact, the check is made out to the student’s teacher!). That said, because it is a pro/am event, we will not be discussing it here.
5) DVIDA Entry Form is for another pro/am scholarship event, the prize money for which may be spent on Dance Vision products (the prizes are awarded as gift certificates).
6) Professional Entry Form is for professional competition. As a student, you won’t need it.
7) General Admission Ticket & Grand Banquet is potentially a very important form. Many competitions do not include general admission when registering competition entries, and one should call or e-mail the competition organizer if at all unclear where your competition falls (this competition does not include general admission). One should refer back to the competition schedule to figure out when all of one’s entries will be run, and then figure out what sessions will be needed. It should be noted that many packages (see Form 1) include these general admissions and banquet tickets.
Of particular note are items 4/5 and 5, the banquet & competition and pro competition entries. Saturday evening is when most competitions have professionals compete, and often precede this with a dinner. If you are interested in seeing the professional competition, one should order either the banquet & competition or the professional competition, but not both. Personally, I don’t find the banquet worthwhile and can get a much better meal for less, even from the hotel restaurant, but many people prefer the convenience and camaraderie of the banquet, as well as the opportunities for social dancing (though they are often surprisingly limited).
8) Awards Page simply contains prize information for top teacher and top studio. We need not concern ourselves with it.
The following page, 9) Dancesport Series is for an ongoing qualifying pro/am event. If you’re dancing pro/am, ask your instructor about it, but even then you won’t need to fill this out on your own.
10) Visit Philadelphia and 11) Hotel Information contain tourist and lodging information respectively. The Hotel Information form is somewhat useful but does not need to be filled out.
The last form for us is 12) Adult Amateur Form. The form is filled out similarly to the Am/Am single dance form but is greatly simplified. Note that each event is multi-dance, meaning every couple dances all the listed dances in each style, the scores of which are considered collectively. There are fewer levels and age categories as, because this is multi-dance, each event takes longer. The form notes that dancing multiple age categories is not recommended as events may be run simultaneously and, in my experience, they often are. Take this warning seriously.
The last form is 13) Rules & Regulations. I strongly recommend taking the time to review these rules thoroughly. For example, these rules state that Newcomer is for dancers who have never competed before only and that you may only dance in two different age categories, both of which may require us to revise our entries.
So there you have it: these forms aren’t particularly confusing once the terminology is explained, but they do require some understanding. Remember, they are not written for the independent competitor, so if you are going it alone, don’t be afraid to contact the competition organizer and ask for help.
After all, it’s your comp too.