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Seniors: An Uneven Playing Field - Spark that started the fire

by Steven & Triena Ong

UK Dance Scene
Writer : An Annonymous Singaporean living in UK, 8 Oct 98

I read with interest the article on your site about uneven playing field for seniors. This is because I am only familiar with the competitive scene in UK. I am a Singaporean dancing and living in UK at the moment. (I will return to Singapore in two years). Although I have danced in Singapore and UK I have only competed in the latter, hence I am not aware of those problems mentioned in the article. This is how the situation is in UK and my opinion regarding the system:

The categories in a full programme usually consists of: 1. Novice 2. Intermediate 3. Pre-championship (or pre-amateur) 4. Amateur (or championship). Each of these categories 1,2, or 3 can be under 21 (self explanatory), open (each member of a couple may be any age) or senior (meaning both members of a couple must be over 35). Less commonly 2 or 3 may be stipulated 'under 35' ; by far they are more commonly 'open'.=20. Category 4 is usually either Amateur (both members of a couple must be 16-35) or senior (both members above 35).
In bigger competitions the lowest grade is often Amateur or championship. Professionals generally don't dance in the above but in bigger events there will be a professional championship category often with different rules.

Occasionally there is an 'over 50' trophy (both members must be over 50; this is not a championship category) such as the one introduced in the British National Championships. These couples are also eligible to compete in Senior championships with those over 35. There are usually also junior categories (12-16), juvenile categories (both members under 12). The British National also has an under 21 championship category where the couples often also dance in Amateur Championship as well.

Occasionally in regional competitions there are 'open' one dance events such as open viennese waltz or open foxtrot. Each member of the couple may be any age. Also there may be 'Beginner' or 'Starter' events with one or two dances each. Beginner or Novice competitions in England have restricted figures and judges can disqualify anyone not complying to these permitted figures. There may also be ten dance competitions which involves dancing both latin and modern.

No of dances:
It is common practice to dance only 2 dances in novice, 3 or less commonly 2 in intermediate. Most pre-championship or championship consist of 4 dances and in the semi-finals of championships etc a fifth dance such as Viennese Waltz is introduced. These practices hold true for any grade from junior to senior. I greatly admire some seniors who dance in up to 3-4 categories in one day in modern alone, each having many rounds. Organisers try not to arrange events such that the couples dancing 4 dances in senior pre-championship do not have to immediately repeat these 4 dances in senior championship.

Dance affiliate:
It is necessary to join the English Amateur Dance Association in any competition (novice and above) that is not 'open to the world'. I have to pay an annual fee for this. Politics are present in any country, nevertheless it is common for many couples especially the well known ones and professional competitors to have more than one coach. Often traveling to a coach may mean traveling for more than one hour each way to a different city.

There is no limit to how many categories a couple may join when the age limitation is complied with. However if one wins a trophy at the same level 4 times the couple may not do this category again in any future competitions. Of course at the Championship level one may win any number of times.

All that I have mentioned so far apply only to open competitions. In addition there are many other competitions in UK such as inter-varsity competitions and medalist competitions (where one member of a couple may be a professional, although the merits or pitfall of this member is theoretically ignored). These have different rules to those stated above. At big final events the standard of dancing is similar to open competitions.

Like the situation in Singapore, there is a great preponderance of seniors (over 35) compared to under 35 Amateurs. My own feeling is that the age division is quite strict and often dancers near to the age of 35 may not easily find a suitable competitive partner till he or she is over 35. I am just over 30 and this division makes people like me feel very old. I have danced over 8 years but I feel I am still approaching my summit (in terms of endurance as well as maturity in dance, I do modern).

Although many coaches are proud to have their own students doing well, most are not so possessive that they do not recommend other instructors to them or exchange students or partners. Many coaches are previous champions and competitors and they remember the days of traveling from one coach to another. They understand it is important for a couple to 'click' with a coach to perform well. At big competitions some people look out for potential change in partnerships for the best 'cutting edge'. In my opinion competitive ballroom dancing is declining in UK, although it certainly is not in Italy or other European countries. This can be seen by many good couples from these countries entering local events. I am sure the standard is increasing in Singapore and Far East countries.

Hope to hear from you your views.

Organisers Should Take Note On The Plight of Seniors
Writer : Peter Lim Swee Tiam from Singapore, 8 Oct 98

Agree with Steven Ong and accept the merits in the arguments put forth by others. I guess the topic has no rights or wrongs, hence I would like just to express my opinions based on the articles, replies and comments.

When I first started competitions, I realized that the Senior Category, appears to be one in which an experience dancer, say from Amateur Ranks, grows of age and proceed to the 'Senior' Category. It wasn't one meant to encourage late starters! It seemed to me that in order to do well in the Senior Category, one has first to be a seasoned dancer, from the Pre-Am or Amatuer ranks. This appears to be the natural evolution in the competitive dancing in S'pore and Malaysia. I wonder what was the original intent by those who had started sponsoring Senior category? I guess that according to the intent of the event, the outcome of the arguments would be different.

I have not come across Senior Categories in Europe/UK - maybe there is, and I wonder what is the nature of their competition. It appears to me that they retire before becoming seniors. If they do start dancing, they begin in an early age - 9 yrs old or younger, and reach rising star by 18yrs old, and pro later.

I tend to agree with Steven as I hope to see the Senior event being one that encourages the late starters (one who started at a late age). This is because in our local context, the interest in dancing does not catch on like in the UK. It is usually triggered when one has spare cash, spare time, stable career, or paid for (by parents, by partners, by ... ). If the intent of the Senior category is really for this purpose, then I would say to those that over-qualify, give those truly relevant to the category the right encouragement.

I guess Steven doesn;t complains about the Latin Senior Category, since in that area, the Seniors, are not Latin Amateurs that have aged, but truly the late starter's competition. (The Amateurs in this group simply retires before they qualify for Senior category).

I agree with Chan HS that if we wish to see a high standard in the 'Super' Senior Category, and yet encourage the late starter's (a realistic situation in the local scenario, would be even more so as the demographic structure shifts to a larger aged population) we should start to evolve the competition into several senior categories. For example, have an 'Open' Seniors category, where if you feel you are good enough, fit enough, you are free to participate in this category together with the Amateurs (against the younger). Then, have other 'Intermediate' and 'Beginners' Senior categories, where one can choose to be in either category but not both.

This hint has to be taken up by organisers of competitions, of course. In the last 1st Universal Competition, when they had the rule that some categories are strictly meant for 1st timers, others are meant for beginners, yet some for intermediate and advance. The idea was great, except that they had too many categories, with not too clear set of rules, creating some confusion.

I also agree with the Australian system where they discourage couples from competing below their standard. If they feel that they have a chance to get into Amatuer, don't compete in the Novice or the 'One dance' meant for the beginners. I think at most one should be allowed to compete in two adjacent levels, not just a question of their physique and ability to last for the number of dancers.

If we had the situation as in UK, where the top professionals stay put for years, and there are 300 - 400 couples competing, then we see the top 6 for the show (their places seem predictable) while we watch who gets into top 24 and even top 48. If organisers are not taking the hint to have more Senior events, and the situation continues to evolve as it is today, we will start to watch who is starting to get into the finals, and who into top 12, top 24 couples (as in the Blackpool situation for Professionals).

Which ever way it goes, as SH Wong says it, take it easy competing and enjoy competing for the competition itself and not for winning or loosing. I would say, use it as a motivation to keep up the standard, as the aim to learn more, and become better dancers. Winners need to be more sensitive to those who didn't get good results. These competitors tried hard too, but maybe they are not good enough yet, maybe no luck, and lots of other maybe's. It is less important to be congratulated for winners, they are already happy and overjoyed enough. It is more important to encourage for those that hasn't made it yet.

Regards to all.

Fully Agree With SH & Amy's Comments
Writers : Goh Wee Giam & Kelly Goh from Singapore, 7 Oct 98

Kelly and I feel that we have to feedback some of our feelings. In fact, we were shocked when we were being told by a fellow competitor not to take part in the Senior event the night after the 1st Universal Dancesport Championships because we were also competing in the Amateur. We were stunned and couldn't think of any better reply at that time. We were also told by the same competitor that it would be OK if we only take part only in just the Senior event.

There was so much thinking after we sat back and pondered over what had been said to us. Would we be challenged in the first place had we not made it to the finals for both Amateur and Senior events in order to allow an even playing field?

We shared the ill feeling of having to compete with stronger couples and could not make it to the finals. We could still vividly recall those early days when we first competed as a Novice, we were in a similar situation of having to dance with the Pre-Amateur and even Amateur at times. Securing a place in the finals then was almost impossible. We were kicked out so often that we felt being prejudiced also. But soon we realised that this is the reality that we had to face and accept. We just have to dance with lots of good couples no matter which category we are in. Complain alone will not make us a better dancer. We realised that we have to work much harder towards Amateur standard if we want to win the competition. It is precisely why some of the Novice couples nowadays are dancing as good as Amateur couples.

To us, competition is just a milestone in our dancing hobby. It is a driving force for us to excel further and a time to reflect and assess our progress. It is through dancing with fellow competitors that we are able to explore our potential. Competition is a challenge against ourselves. We agree that the feeling of winning the finals is great but we were as satisfied if we had danced our best and achieved better than before even though we might not make it to the final. It is impossible to be a winner all the time. All the world champions have to give way to the new and younger dancers. Whenever we were defeated by stronger opponents, we found ourselves more motivated to work harder and we aimed to dance better the next time. We are sure that competitors will feel much better if competitors can see what we meant and improve themselves each time.

Just to share with RpMerlion readers a personal encounter a few years back after we were being placed 4th in one of the competition. We were expecting warm praises and encouragement from a friend but instead we were thrown with a question : "How many couples were there in the competition?" We felt a bit insulted at first but soon we learnt a lesson. It is not what we achieved that matter but how we achieve. We would not feel as great the champion of five average couples entering straight into the finals as a semi-finalist struggling through rounds of heats and quarter-final with 30 good overseas couples. If we do not make it to the final this time, we can't blame on others for being too strong. This is the result of their hard work. We just have to admit that we have not done enough. All our opponents are working hard and improving everyday anyway.

We personally don't see what is wrong to take part in both Amateur and Seniors events. Senior is one category based on the age group instead of the standards of dancing. There are many senior couples from overseas who dance as good as an Amateur and some are ex-Amateurs. We can't penalise them just because they have come a long way and they are good. If you want to be a sure winner, perhaps should choose one event that specify Senior Beginner. But again, how would other Senior Beginner dancers think about dancing with one seasoned competitor with ten years of experience. Isn't it another uneven playing field?

Reply to Feedbacks
Writers : Steven & Triena Ong from Singapore, 5 October 1998

We are pleased that our article on "Seniors: An Uneven Playing Field" has generated interest. We are especially heartened by the many positive suggestions from all the respondents.

We believe that in today's fast changing times, it is important to be receptive to change in order to improve things -- this concept applies in business, in sport, at home, in organizations, etc.

We are more positive and consider that ballroom dancing in Singapore has the potential to be a sport that is more regulated and more fair. It has developed immensely in recent years and this is exciting. (Ten years ago, there would only be 3 to 6 couples in the Senior Modern category; now there are 20 to 30. This is a big change in itself. We have simply highlighted this fact and suggested ways of retaining this large group of competitors by giving them a more fair opportunity to continue to compete.)

Dancesport is still developing in Singapore and there will definitely be changes to improve and upgrade it. This is inevitable if Singapore aspires to join the ranks of the Dancesports Olympics.

All respondents have provided useful ideas on many other issues that we did not touch on in our article. But open discussion certainly augers well for the future development of Dancesport in Singapore. Thank you.

Competitive Dancing Has Never Been An Even Playfield
Writers : SH and Amy Wong from Singapore, 4 October 1998

We have been competing together for the past ten years and we face almost the same problems of dancing against increasingly tougher, younger and better competitors. This is a natural evolution of competitive dancing. It is a welcome improvement which we should not frown upon with contempt and envy. There will always be a new crop of better and younger dancers joining the fray. We believe this is good for Singapore. The old giving way to the new.

Competitive dancing has never been fair, like all other competitive sports. Let us be realistic about it. There is no such a thing as a level playing field. There are so many variables and so many subjective factors that influence the outcome of a competition. Even very good competitors are sometimes unplaced. It is a fact of life which we must accept.

We have come to a conclusion that if a couple want to compete, they must be able to accept all the warts, anguish and despair. They must be prepared to accept defeat and prejudices graciously as it has never been even and it will never be even.

As for couples competing in both the Amateur and the Senior categories, we believe that credit and encouragement should be given to them for their sporting spirit and effort. They should not be censured and accused of competing in an uneven playfield. In fact, these Seniors are dancing against couples who are half their age! This is more unfair and more uneven! But, we are not complaining. It is our choice. It is our way of enjoying the competition and relishing the festive mood.

We suggest Seniors to try competing in the Amateur and the Senior categories in the same competition, one event following closely after another. It is full of fun, we can assure you. Give yourself a treat! It is good nourishment for the mind and body.

Competitors have the right to participate according to the rules set out by the organisers. If the rules stipulate that those taking part in the Amateur category cannot at the same competition participate in the Senior section, then we will not break the rule. If the competition is open to Amateurs, Pre-Amateurs and Novices, why not? Why waste the opportunity to dance and compete ? Why waste a good day ? But, why only the Seniors? What about Pre-Amateurs competing in the Senior category? Should they be banned too?

Every couple want to win. Every couple want to be placed in the final. But this is not always possible. Some win and some lose. If we do not qualify for the final, we can always try harder the next time. Maybe we should work harder and train more vigorously.

If a couple think the competition is unfair, they can always opt out. No one can compel them to take part. If they think the competition is prejudicial to their standing, they can always sit on the bench and watch.

Ten years ago while we were competing in the Seniors, we were dancing against our fellow competitors who were much older in their late fifties and early sixties. Yet, they danced and competed sportingly and accepted the results with gracefulness and magnanimousity. I salute in particular the respectful Mr and Mrs James Lee, Siew Hoy and Poh Ling, Gan Chin Eng and Helen, and Mr.and Mrs.Hsu Tong Mong - just to mention a few venerable sporting couples.

In the end of it all, dancing is a form of recreation. For those who enjoy the competition, may they continue to do so, happily and heartily.

Grading System for Seniors
Writer: Chan Huang Seng from Singapore, 1 Oct 98

I certainly sympathised with the frustrations of Steven and Triena competing in the Senior category against younger and possibly more skillful competitors from the Amateur Category.

However, I would like to point out that the example given, from the recent Universal Dancesport Championship at the Neptune Theatre, where there is only one senior event compared with several Amateur events (Open, Closed, SEA, etc) is not an accurate picture of the local dance competition scene. In fact, more often than not, there is only one Amateur event in the local and even regional competitions with the notable exceptions like the Lion City competition.

Singapore has an aging population. We have a relatively larger number of local competitors who are within or fast approaching the defined Senior age group (over 45 years of age). These seniors typically started to dance after they had already established themselves in rewarding careers and generally would have more money to spend on dancing lessons and practices compared to the younger folks who have other distractions and many still are relying on pocket money their parents.

There is always the possibility that some second-rate Amateur who feel that they can never made it to the top of the Amateur ranks would want to try to win at least the Senior title. However, I would certainly hope that the current competitors who are participating in both Amateur and Senior categories do so for exposure in dancing in more events due the limited number of our local competitions.

It is not very often that one can dress up in such lavish attire. For the Standard event, I can certainly appreciate the frustration after spending a lot of time and effort to get ready for the competition like putting on the gent's tail suit (I don't know why the suit is designed with so many buttons and to be so troublesome and uncomfortable for wearing) or the elaborate makeup and the magnificent ballroom dance gowns for the lady only be knockout if the couple is unlucky during the early rounds.

Given that we have a larger pool of local senior competitors, perhaps it is time to introduce a separate grading like the Amateurs for the Senior category like Grade D (1 dance), Grade C (2 dances), Grade B (3 dances) and Grade A (4 or 5 dances). Steven and Triena spoke about their experiences about dancing against Amateur competitors who are within their age group. Imagine the experience of a new Senior couple dancing against seasoned competitors like themselves in the same Senior category or even in the Novice category against competitors young enough to be their grandchildren. We should be having more Senior couples than the present group of familiar faces.

This "fairer" system of competition has already been implemented in the more more developed dancesport nations like Australia, Japan and several of the European countries. Amateurs and Seniors do not have to compete against each other and there is also room for further improvement and development for the Seniors proceeding from 2 to 5 dances.

The Grade A category of this system was introduced in the Penang Open Competition last year. Although it was a straight final for the Senior event, it was received quite successfully.

However, are we ready for such a system? The number of serious dancesport competitors locally and even in the region is still very small compared to the countries mentioned.

Would the local dance competition organisers (many are professional dance studio operators themselves) want to organise separate events for Senior and Amateurs? This would appear highly unlikely as profit maximisation appear to be the key if not the sole objective from some of the local organisers and promoters from the exorbitant ticket charges and entry fees for relatively small pool of local competitors who are support their events. True, organisers need to make money to survive but they also do their part in promoting the industry and give back to this group of people who are already paying for expensive dance lessons to the dance teachers in the industry.

There is also a need for a governing body representing local dancesport competitors to ensure that implementation of such a grading system in Singapore. Although ABDA is trying to play such a role, support has to be given by the competitors themselves to support such a movement by joining the organisation.

The uneven playing field is not only in Senior
Writer: Remain annonymous from Singapore, 1 Oct 98

I fully agreed with the writer on the uneven playing field as far as ballroom dancing competition is concern. I would like to add that this situation is not unique only to the Senior Category. In recent competition, you can find some competitors who took part in the amateur category also took part in the lower categories. However we must recognise that there are some genuine cases where the competitors are actually of the lower categories, but are trying out in higher categories, something which should be encouraged.

These situations cannot be avoided as long as there isn't any proper ranking record to keep track of which category the competitors belong to. Even if Singapore does have the system to keep track, how about overseas competitors? How are we going to rank them? Probably the organisers can limit the competitors to take part in only ONE category lower than the highest category they are taking part in. These are some areas where future organisers have to address. Until then, we would have to live with the fact that in ballroom dancing, it is an uneven playing field.

Why we need the Amateur Association
Writer: Robin Chee from Singapore, 4 Oct 98

In the absence of a widely implemented ranking system, all organisers should start imposing rules on competitors taking too many multiple categories. This is not only unfair to lower level competitors, but also very boring for the spectators who are probably just waiting to see which couple will die of exhaustion first. In many competitions, there will be some super couples taking everything from one dance all the way to Amateur or couples taking Novice, Pre-Amateur and Amateur. At most, they should be allowed two adjacent categories plus Senior. eg. Combination 1 = One dance, Novice & Senior; Combination 2 = Novice, Pre-Amateur, Senior; Combination 3 = Pre-Amateur, Amateur, Senior.

Once the ranking system is widely implemented, Pre-amateurs who have been promoted to Amateurs (and therefore classified as true Amateurs), should not be allowed to take Senior. Amateurs who are Amateurs by their own wish and not by promotion should still be allowed to take Senior if they desire. Similarly, anybody promoted to the next level should not be allowed to take the lower levels (eg. if you are promoted to Pre-Amateur, you cannot take Novice, but you may take Pre-Amateur and Amateur).

Strangely enough, the people who complain most about having no system in place to protect them are the ones reluctant to join the Amateur Dancesport Association. These people usually cite their instructors' wishes (more about that later) or wanting to stay out of politics. I used to think that all I had to do was just to dance, stay neutral and be happy. This is a fallacy and typical Singaporean attitude which does not help the dance scene in Singapore. So if you want something done, do your bit and join the Association. Otherwise, the probability of something changing for the better would be very slim and you will continue being unhappy. So the time to talk is over, we need action.

The other thing I find disturbing is dance instructors discouraging their students against joining the Amateur Dancesport Association. These dance instructors are letting past disagreements with the Amateur Dancesport Association affect the future of dancesport. If they are unhappy about something, let's talk about it and see whether this affects present or future events. If it's an event that happened in the past and nothing can be done to remedy it, let bygone be bygone and move on. If it is something we can improve upon, let's discuss and come to an agreement.

The talk about the Amateur Dancesport Association being dominated by a single school is also utter rubbish. While this is true to a certain extent, the Amateur Dancesport Association does not stop anyone from joining. So if dance instructors from other dance schools stop their students from joining, then that will always stay true. So it's a chicken and egg problem. Thankfully, this year, a number of new members are from other dance schools and so this is proving to be less and less true. If only other schools can see this.

In the past, I used to think that the Amateur Dancesport Association really did not serve much function other than to send Amateurs to represent Singapore. Now after being more exposed and by talking to other competitors, I realise that there is a demand from the competitors for something to be done about dancesport and the Amateur Dancesport Association is in a position to do something. But the Amateur Dancesport Association can only do something if competitors, dance teachers, competition organisers, Professional associations and the Amateur Dancesport Association work together. In fact, the very dance instructors who oppose to the Amateur Dancesport Association have the most to gain because the Amateur Dancesport Association's aim is to further dancesport in Singapore.

Writer: Remain Annonymous from Singapore

Agreed with Steven and Triena's comments. The same should apply to Pre-Amateurs competing in Novice categories or Amateurs competing in Pre-am categories. It makes nonsense of the whole concept of categorising.

Ladies in Senior
Writer: Robin Chee from Singapore

There should be age limits on the ladies as well, as in most senior competitions the age limit only applies to the gentlemen. This is unfair to couples who are both senior vs another couple which has a senior gentlemen and a young and energetic lady (especially so for latin). The senior age limit should also be standardised in all Singapore competitions; some say 40, some 45, some have limits on ladies, some have not.

Writer: Robin Chee from Singapore
A number of readers wrote in with their feedback. Some agreed while some did not, but all felt very strongly about the whole issue. As we see it, basically we need some agreed rules which apply to all competitors and all competitions (at least in Singapore). Although the article was on Seniors/Amateurs, the basic concept applies to all levels. We hope to see the day that all competitions in Singapore follow standard rules, especially those pertaining to taking part in multiple categories. Tell us more about how you think dancesport competitions can be made fairer.

This is why it is important for all dancesport couples to support the Amateur Dancesport Association (Singapore). ABDA already has a fair ranking system in place. So ADSA acts as a sort of "Union" for amateur dancers, looking after their interests, setting systems and improving standards. However, this can only work if there is enough support from the competitors themselves. So if you feel unhappy with the competition dance scene in Singapore, stop moaning about it and do something positive. Send us your thoughts or better still, join ABDA as a member! (right click on mouse to save this file, Adobe Acrobat Reader is needed to open the file). God helps those who help themselves.

While some organisers have started charging competitors because that's the practice in other countries and the current Asia economic crisis, they should also consider that other countries also implement ranking systems for competitions. So organisers should not just implement things that are beneficial to them, but things that are beneficial to the competitors as well (the ranking system being one). As the National Sports Association for dancesport, the ABDA has the charter to centrally administer such system. We therefore urge all competition organisers to have their competitions endorsed by ADSA and start enforcing ranking systems. Ultimately, this will benefit both competitors and organisers.

This article was published on Thursday 08 October, 1998.
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