Gilded Serpent presents...

Judging The Judges

Training Judges for Competitions


by Zahra Zuhair
posted August 16, 2012

This past Spring I was on a layover in Vancouver BC with Sahra Saeeda; we were both on our way to the International Bellydance Conference of Canada, hosted by Yasmina Ramzy, May 2 – 6, 2012 in Toronto. Traveling as a workshop instructor is usually something I do alone, so this was an unusual treat to break the tedium of air travel with such an interesting lady as Sahra. It was to be my first time as an instructor at IBCC and I was really looking forward to the prestigious event I’d heard so much about. Besides awesome  workshops, there were several lectures and discussion panels at IBCC. One of the panels was, Competitions – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, hosted by Cassandra Fox. Sahra Saeeda and I were both scheduled to be on that discussion panel, as well as Brigid Kelly, Aurora Ongaro, DaVid of Scandinavia, and Saqra Raybuck.

Standing in a line that seemed to snake endlessly at Canadian customs, we finally got to our gate on the last leg of our journey to Toronto. After we both expressed our relief at clearing customs, the next conversation that came up was started by a question Sahra asked me, “What are you going to say about competitions?” Well, that was a good question! What was I going to say about competitions? There were so many thoughts swirling in my head!

I have never entered any kind of dance competition in my life. I became an Oriental dancer long before the craze of bellydance competitions. It’s almost hard to imagine a large event in our community these days without a competition, but it was very odd to me the first time I heard of one and even odder when asked to be a judge for the first time, in the 1990’s. It was quite a challenge for me, although I like to consider myself a forward thinking person and wanted to rise to the occasion. Many dance forms have competitions, why not bellydance?

I’ve judged numerous competitions since then and I’ve always considered it an honor to be invited to sit on prestigious panels of judges, but I have to say, it is a lot of pressure. It is a huge responsibility to the contestants, the sponsors of the event and the dance community at large, to be as fair and unbiased as possible. I take it very seriously.

Sahra and I had an interesting conversation that day. We shared a lot of experiences and talked about the endless controversies, pros and cons, about competitions and the effect it may have on our art form. I can only give my viewpoint as a judge and as a teacher and coach of many dancers who have entered these competitions. Some of these ladies have won, or placed in the finals and some have not and are devastated by the loss. The latter is hard to witness, even though I always advise dancers not to enter if it’s going to take too much of an emotional toll not to win. Many excellent dancers have entered and not even placed in contests. One has to take the experience with a grain of salt.

I agree, some people should not put themselves in the line of fire if they don’t want to get shot at, but the false promises of fame and fortune seem to cloud many dancers’ judgment.

Others love the experience, win or lose, and can’t wait to sign up for the next event. Some dancers see it as a good career move, or a good opportunity to push themselves to the next level in their dance abilities. It all boils down to perspective.

Judges including autho ZahraI was really glad Sahra Saeeda and I had the opportunity to discuss the subject beforehand. It started to get my thoughts in order for the panel which was the next morning at 10:30 am. We arrived at our hotel in Toronto and I could hardly sleep that night out of excitement, which is not unusual for me when traveling to teach workshops. I still find it exciting and I hardly sleep a wink for the entire event. The next day we arrived at the Lithuanian House, where the conference was being held. I was familiar with the venue, having taught there with Rhanda Kamel the previous year at an event sponsored by Little Egypt. That was fortuitous. I knew my way around a bit and had no trouble navigating the workshops going on in different rooms, on different floors. I was happy to have time to attend most of Mahmoud Reda’s workshop before the panel discussion began, but I stayed in the back of the room knowing I had to slip out the door a few minutes early to get upstairs in time for the panel.

The time came and the always lovely Cassandra Fox started off the discussion, passing the microphone down the line to each panel member one by one.

When it was my turn, everything I planned to say sort of flew out the window and I just blurted out that my main concern about competitions was the lack of training on the part of the judges. Not as being unqualified to judge (well there’s a few of those), many competition judges are well-known in the community and seasoned, esteemed artists, but rather that they lack training on how to judge a competition. There seems to be an inconsistency in rules for judges, if there are even any rules at all.

Many competitions are judged on a number system, for example, 1 – 10 points, 1 (one) being the lowest score, 10 (ten) being the highest, or by the letter grading system, D through A+. The performance scoring system is broken down in sections such as Musicality, Technique, Choreography, Personality/Entertainment Skills, Overall Appearance, and Costuming. These are some of the main scoring sections seen on many judging sheets.

These are fine scoring points, but there are usually no detailed guidelines for each scoring section in each category, nor strict regulations for judges, which seem to cause some grey areas. Contestants have rules and regulations, why not the judges?

An example of a few grey areas for most judges seem to be costuming and appearance. Although I would like to see dancers judged on their dance ability alone, these categories do have importance. Dancers need to be well groomed and the costume needs to fit and be well suited for the style of dance being performed, Oriental, folk or fusion. Also, in a situation where there are two or more dancers running neck and neck in the competition, impeccable costuming, hair and makeup details can be a tie breaker, but it shouldn’t overshadow the overall score of the performance. However, I’ve seen contestants get very low scores because the costume they were wearing didn’t suit a particular judge’s personal taste. I’ve witnessed this many times and have heard complaints by former contestants about the biased costume scores or inappropriate comments they’ve received, such as, “You should get a spray tan, you’re too pale”.

Commenting and scoring someone on the color of their skin is not appropriate! Or just because a contestant isn’t a raving beauty, doesn’t mean she should get a low score on overall appearance.

Belly Dancer of the Year TrophiesThere seems to be some difficulty distinguishing the difference between judging contestants based on the judge’s own personal style preference and personal taste, rather than judging each contestant on their individual style and ability. We all have our opinions, but that’s where scoring tends to get cloudy.

Saqra Raybuck of Saqra’s Showcase Competition in Washington has very clear guidelines and rules for the judges of her event. I think her detailed instructions are very helpful and makes judging much easier and is fairer to the contestants. Here are a few examples from her judging guidelines regarding appearance and costuming.

  1. APPEARANCE – Overall attractiveness of the performer should be considered but specific natural faults overlooked.
  2. COSTUMING – Type and style are largely to be ignored.
  3. FITS WELL – is clearly correct size for the performer
  4. IN GOOD CONDITION – clean and appears to be in good repair
  5. IN GOOD TASTE – appropriate for a family venue
  6. GOOD CHOICE – for the body type and style of dancer
  7. APPROPRIATE FOR TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF DANCE – does not expose the dancer or fight the dancer during dance movements
  8. APPROPRIATE FOR MUSICAL ASPECTS OF DANCE – costume reflects musical content if alternative or specific ethnic musical choices are used
  9. DOES NOT DISTRACT FROM THE DANCING – overpowers the dancer, too busy, makes audience spend significant time speculating about undergarments

It should be very clear to the judges what category they are judging, what the contestants’ criteria are, as well as an explanation and details on how to judge each section of that category. Another good example from Saqra Raybuck’s judging guidelines:

STYLE: All styles of "Belly Dance" performer are accepted. Our goal is to find someone qualified with the ability to be a good International Ambassador to the general public for Belly Dance. You will be instructed in "the question" to consider the likely impact of the performer on general public opinion, and a favorable opinion can be made with any style of belly dance regardless of your own preferences. Please try to be objective.

I won’t include all of Saqra’s guidelines and rules for judges, it’s lengthy. But I do appreciate her thoroughness and her emphasis on fair and objective judging. I am sure there are other competitions that have good guidelines for judges and forgive me for not including them, but so far Saqra’s is the most detailed I’ve seen.

There are also ethical issues in judging and Saqra addresses this, too. She offers a $500 reward for anyone reporting an unethical judge!

I think most judges will agree judging is a very difficult job. I know most judges take it very seriously and do the best they can. Many complain that there’s not a sufficient orientation for judges before the competition begins, or time to really write clear, helpful comments on the score sheets during the judging process. In many situations the score sheets are collected immediately after each dancer finishes their performance and it’s on to the next dancer. I realize there are time constraints with sometimes as many as 25 dancers in each category, but if judges can’t do their job thoroughly, maybe the number of contestants allowed in each category should be lowered. The other side of the coin is that sponsors need a certain number of registrants to even break even, let alone make any money. The time and effort that goes into planning these events is enormous not to mention risky. There’s not an easy solution but maybe a happy medium can be met.

Perhaps if the competition sponsors could help clarify some of these grey areas by having more detailed rules and regulations for judging and giving judges a few more minutes to review their score sheets, it would help alleviate some of the issues that are brought up time and again by many of the participants of these events. I vote for more education, orientation and stricter rules for judges!

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  1. Shelley Muzzy (Yasmela)

    Aug 16, 2012 - 03:08:13

    Great article, really well done and very helpful!

  2. SeylenaTroi

    Aug 19, 2012 - 05:08:29

    Wonderful information.  I completely agree on information being provided to judges on HOW to judge.   I judged a local beauty pagent once and the guidelines were extremely helpful.  I did make the gal wait for the card till I finished writing my comment though.  Thank you!

  3. Baraka

    Aug 20, 2012 - 10:08:28

    During my 30+ year career, I too served as a judge at a number of competitions, as well as entering several (and winning a few) and coaching innumerable entrants.  I agree that judging criteria should be standardized for each event. (it always helps when the presenter categorizes entrants by style – Egyptian, American, Tribal, etc. so one can rate apples-to-apples.)

    I think it is also very helpful to provide time and space for judges to make specific suggestions to help contestants improve their performance. These comments can be more specifically targeted to aspects of performance that may be either laudatory or helpful in some way.  I have given feedback to entrants on everything from costuming suggestions to potentially harmful dance habits that could curtail a promising career (especially positions that affect the spine.)

    Saqra has always been a highly-organized and ethical presenter and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that her judging guidelines are so specific.  One of the most difficult tasks for a judge is to put aside their personal preferences (in style, costuming, music, etc.) and view contestants from a relatively level playing field, especially when styles are mixed in a category.

    The hardest contests to judge are those I think of as “legacy” events; I once judged at a contest where the most outstanding and exciting dancer came in third because the majority of judges (who were on the panel for many years) knew that it was a specific dancer’s “turn” to win, as she’d entered for several years and had moved up in the standings year-by-year.  I always advised students who wanted to enter contests to research to find ones suited to their abilities and styles.  Someone with a decidedly contemporary Egyptian style would be ill-served by entering an event that historically had given the highest awards to, for instance, American cabaret-style dancers.

    I don’t believe anyone is calling for standardization of style, but standards of quality – in technique, in professionalism, in musicality – that affect how this dance is publicly perceived can only be a positive.  Though my career had to end more than a decade ago, I still hope for a day that this art is respected by both audiences and dancers. 

  4. Sausan

    Sep 9, 2012 - 10:09:12

    I think this is a great article as it relates to the Western standards of competing in events.  But I often wonder if Nagwa Fouad, or Suhair Zaki, or Taheyia Karioka would ever win one of these Western produced competitions if they were competing as unknowns.  These Egyptian dancers all had/have their own personal styles, and they made names for themselves in their own right.  But wining a Western competition with all of its compulsories and expectations?  I really doubt it.  🙂

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