“Well, as a judge I really like to see clean basics…” I replied.
The trope tumbled out of my mouth almost of its own volition.
A competitor had just asked me the ever-popular: “What should I do to improve my placements?”
Perhaps I answered with “Clean Basics” because I’d received this piece of age-old dance wisdom so many times in the past, different formulations pouring forth from every workshop, peer, and mentor on my dance journey. Clean Basics had been nearly a mantra in Ballroom. Our choreography was never the most intricate, but we tried to torque as much power and precision as we could into the simple stuff.
So, maybe I said it because it was my truth, something I’d learned and implemented.
Clean Basics: Easier Judging, not Necessarily Better Dancing
Maybe I said it because I was unconsciously choosing to not answer the question at all. Maybe my brain was answering a difficult question by substituting an easier, related question, and then spitting out that answer instead.
After careful consideration, I’ve realized this: when I say I like clean basics as a judge, it’s not necessarily because I think it makes for the best performance or even the best dancing.
It’s because it makes my job easy.
I think that bears repeating, so I’ll put it another way:
Clean Basics make you easier for me to place in a hierarchy, but they don’t necessarily raise your probability of being placed highly in that hierarchy. They can, but they don’t guarantee it, at least not to the extent we judges like to suggest they do.
There’s a bit to unpack in that, so I’d like to start with why humans are bad at answering difficult questions.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
In Daniel Kahneman’s epic tome “Thinking, Fast and Slow” there are many nuggets of wisdom, but one of the most impactful chapters for me was definitely Chapter 9: Answering an Easier Question. In order to understand what I’m getting at here some context from this chapter is quite useful. If you’d like a longer explanation this article does a fantastic job.
The basic premise goes like this:
Humans are bad at accurately answering difficult questions, especially if asked to do so quickly. In order to parse through an infinitely complex world, we rely heavily on substituting intuitions and feelings to inform our quick decision making.
This is actually quite useful and saves us time; we don’t have to sit down to sketch out a problem, use a calculator, or make a pro-con list.
The catch: it happens so fast that we usually don’t know it’s happening and this leaves us wide-open to error, especially in an age where computers (very good at complex calculations, not so good *yet* at intuitions) are the things we interact with most.
When we quickly respond to a complex question our brain chooses a heuristic, a simpler question that is both easily answered and can be retrofit to the context of the original question. Literally a ‘rule of thumb’ that we employ to lessen our cognitive load and quicken our response time.
In essence, our brains, like a politician on TV, belligerently blurt questionably related, easy answers to the difficult questions we don’t want to answer.
(If you’ve already read the book or are sufficiently comfortable with the concept, you can safely skip these next two sections and not lose out on the main thesis.)
To borrow an example from Kahneman, if I ask you, right now, how much a financial adviser who preys on vulnerable senior citizens should be punished, you could likely come up with a number. Would you go through the full process of understanding the case, recalling past penalties paid for similar crimes, weighing it against other possible financial offenses, etc?
Of course not.
Your brain will more likely answer the easier question of “How much anger do I feel towards someone who does that sort of thing?” instead. This is your heuristic question. It’s a far easier question to answer–you probably feel mildly furious like me–so your brain jumps to this. It must be right!
All that is left to do is to translate that point on the anger scale to a financial scale using something Kahneman calls intensity matching. If my anger scale goes from “This stoplight is taking abnormally long,” to “Someone just stole all of my money and simultaneously slapped me in the face with a slimy fish,” then I’ll peg this at a 7/10. Let’s say $5,000,000 and call it a day, shall we?
Notice that my answer of ‘millions of dollars’ is based on nothing more than my perceived anger. I know nothing of the case. That’s the power of a heuristic at work.
An Anthropological Angle
Our ancestors likely faced many time-sensitive decisions that needed an answer. In lieu of googling what to do if their village faced imminent invasion, they had to make do with the best their intuitions could give them. In this context, this system makes perfect sense!
Spoiler alert, we (mostly) no longer live in small, autonomous village communities. In the modern world, we should be wary of the things that pop into our minds first when considering a complex issue.
To reiterate, the point of Kahneman’s chapter is that our brains are really good at avoiding answering difficult questions. Instead, we find easier ones that feel right and substitute those answers in order to speed along through life without getting bogged down.
Putting it Together
Linking the two, I have come to believe that when I ponder the question “How could someone best increase their competitive success?” my brain recognizes this as a multifaceted problem that is going to be very hard to give a concise answer to. This especially true when taking into consideration how much this varies on an individual basis.
In other words, it’s a difficult question.
In a fraction of a second, my brain finds a far simpler question for me to answer: what would make my job as a judge easy?
Well, if everyone did pushes, passes, and whips–especially whips–to the count of a metronome, I could pretty easily fill out my scorecard and return it to the chief judge very quickly. With everyone doing simple things to the same beat I could compare each competitor’s timing, technique, teamwork, quality of movement, and all of those other cute buzzwords we love to banty around. Boom, job done.
(I’m ignoring the fact, of course, that this would also be soul-crushingly boring to watch.)
Clean basics. Clean basics would make my job easy, so that’s what my brain puts forward as the quick answer to the difficult question. Of course, my brain also helpfully forgets to mention that this actually answers a question other than the one asked. Oops.
Clean basics it is!
Clean Basics: Scapegoat or GOAT?
(PSA: GOAT stands for Greatest Of All Time in case you, like me, were confused about this for, oh, ya know, a good year or so there…)
So are Clean Basics just a judge’s scapegoat or are they the one true path to great dancing? Don’t they do good in the world of dance?
In fact, I’ve been trying for several months to write an article about why I do think ‘Clean Basics’ is a useful concept statistically speaking, one that people can deploy to reduce the variance in their performances for greater competitive success. I still think it’s a good article, and I hope to finish it soon.
There is also the self-evident truth that good dancers can (and often do) execute their basics with extreme cleanliness and precision. It’s never going to hurt to be really good at your basics. Get thee to a partner and practice.
That all said, the speed with which we so often throw out ‘clean basics’ as a judging panacea deserves scrutiny, scrutiny which I hope have brought here. Clean Basics are not the whole story, and I believe the reason this comes up so often in conversations about competitive dancing is that, at least in part, we’re answering a question about dancing with an answer that is actually about judging. Related, absolutely, but not the same.
Think of it this way: in most Jack and Jill finals except newcomer a competitive field filled with nothing but metronomic clean basics would be easy to judge but would fall far short of the best dancing those dancers are capable of. Better dancing is inventive, hits mode changes in the music, and involves taking some chances.
Chase your best dancing, not a quick mark from your judges.