Judging Breakdown

Interpreting your Scores:

Dancers are scored in three categories by each judge.  Scores range from 0-10.  The theoretical ‘average’ dancer is scored with a 5.  We’re going to start by breaking down the categories, then break down the scoring, then explain how these numbers are put together to come up with your ‘final’ score in a round.   We’ll then conclude with a detailed breakdown of tips for each category and give you ideas of ways to improve your dancing – and your scores!


N/A – the video you submitted wasn’t watchable or wasn’t a video of dancing. As time allows, we’ll try to let you know if we catch this, but please make sure your video link works and that others can see it when they click the link to it.

1.0 – 3.5:  These scores are usually because one or more core characteristics of the level and dance(s) in question were not met. As an example, dancing off time would be a common reason to see scores in this range.  Take a look at our handy breakdown below to try and identify what might need work.

4.0 – 5.5: This dancing is appropriate for the level and style in question, so keep working at it, you’re doing good.  This is the kind of dancing the judges expect to see in this level and style, but might or might not not merit a callback.  You might look at some footage of competitors on YouTube and review our breakdown to spot what you could do better to get to the next level. Don’t hesitate to ask your peers or your coaches for what they see, an extra pair of eyes always helps!

6.0 – 7.5: This dancing is above average for the level and style in question. These are the kind of scores that get a callback, but don’t necessarily make it into the later rounds. Usually, scores in this range are about continuing to develop your fundamentals. Keep up the great work!

8.0 – 9.5: This dancing is very good for the level and style in question.  By this point you should be preparing or have already begun to compete at a higher level in this style. The judges feel you’re the kind of dancer who belongs in semi-finals or some finals. Scores of 9.0 and 9.5 in particular are outstanding for the level and style in question. Great job! You should begin to compete at a higher level in this style. Scores in this range are reserved for consistent finalists and medalists.

10.0: There are no perfect scores – there is always more to do or more fun to have!


The categories you will be judged on are Musicality, Technique, and Overall Presentation. If we think of dancing as an expression of “Who, what, when, where, why”, then our categories work as follows:

Musicality: The ‘when’ of the dancing. At its simplest, we’re looking for ‘on-time’. At its apex, we want to see crystal clear movement to the music.

Technique: The ‘how’ of the dancing. Examples of technical aspects include posture, frame, footwork, and body actions.  This can be thought of as amounting to “did this individual/couple execute the movement they attempted poorly, okay, well, exceptionally, or flawlessly?”

Overall Presentation: The ‘what’ of the dancing. Steps and Choreography, Costuming/Hair/Makeup, Performance Qualities are what is being judged here. For this particular event, we are explicitly asking judges to NOT judge couples adversely for lack of costumes, hair and makeup. For example, we expect any newcomers will not necessarily have any costumes to wear – or potentially any athletic wear! 

As an additional item, all three categories will include considerations for Characteristics of the Dance –  the ‘why’ of the dancing.  As the characteristics of the dance tends to cut across all three categories,  our expectation is that judges will mark couples favorably for effectively demonstrating the characteristics through movements, foot and body actions, and through their performance and choreography. Similarly, if a judge couldn’t tell that it was a cha-cha without the music on, the scores should be reflective of that.

Connection is also judged as a part of Technique and Overall Presentation. This is because parts of it are technical, parts of it are about the performance and presentation.

Putting it all together:

Judges will give you three 0-10 scores from each category – one for Musicality, one for Technique, one for Overall Presentation.  These scores will be averaged to give you the judge’s ‘composite score’.  There will generally be four judges looking at each video. The composite scores from these judges – with the lowest  score dropped – will be averaged to come to your ‘final score’ that determines if you are called back to the next round. Our plan is to provide you with not only the final scores but also the breakdowns from each judge, so you can look at what you might need to work on!

Skills Breakdown and Tips:

Here is a helpful breakdown of some of the core skills that your scores will be affected by:


Musicality at its simplest is about whether you are ‘on-time’. For example, breaking on 3 in the cha is off-time. As we get more complex, it becomes about arriving on the start of the beat, clarity of movement and ensuring that fast is fast and slow is slow.

  • At lower levels, do not be off by whole beats when it comes to where you should be.
  • At higher levels, dancing off time remains the easiest way to not get a callback. The opportunities to be off-time are even greater with more advanced choreographies.  Assuming you are not off time, the standard is increasingly about being precise about your timing. Instead of being ‘OK’ as long as you arrived somewhere in between the start of 1 and the start of 2, your foot should be finished traveling on the 1 if you are stepping on the 1.  Judges want to see gradation between slows and quicks.  In dances with syncopation, that syncopation should be clear (ex: cha-cha chasses are ‘half-half-whole’, not ‘3 steps of even timing’).
  • Pro tips:
    • Watch your video before submitting to make sure the audio is not offset. This is the easiest way in this format to get dinged for being off time, especially since you can simply not submit any ‘takes’ that you are off-time!
    • Don’t attempt moves that throw you off time.
    • Make sure you know the timing you are supposed to dance for each movement you work through.  An easy way to wind up off time is take slows or quicks where you shouldn’t and become offset from the music.



Your posture is about ‘standing up’.  The implementation of this gets more complicated as we go, but the principle ties back to that simple explanation.

  • At lower levels, this basically amounts to ‘are you standing up’ – at least how we all would define it in everyday society.
  • At higher levels, competitors get held to a higher standard in terms of posture. We start to hear more about words like ‘projection’ and ‘skeletal alignment’. As an example, there is an expectation of smaller and smaller forward angles in the neck.
  • Pro tips: 
    • At lower levels, the simplest trick in the book is to go stand flush against a wall, walk off the wall, and then try to hold to that. Make sure to not introduce any weird tilts forward and backwards when you leave the wall – you are not the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
    • Remember that posture is not just ‘that thing you do when you walk on the floor and get into frame and then forget’.  Posture is a thing you maintain through the entirety of your dancing. Watch your footage to see if your posture is degrading significantly once you start to move or get tired.
    • Check your footage against that of your peers. If they’re standing up more than you are, then they’re getting marked better than you are (all other things being equal).
    • Try not to film your footage after a long day hunched over your computer. In fact, in life, try not to sit all day hunched over your computer. Put your monitors elevated, etc. The more your life involves being in alignment on a day-to-day basis, the easier it will be to have good posture in dance and good posture when you are 80.
    • Yoga is usually an excellent activity to maintain good posture. Other common things you might hear in the dance world for posture are Pilates, Egoscue method, and strength training (with proper form only!).

Frame is about the ‘starting position’ of dance. There’s a lot that goes into this, so we’ll get you started with a handy guide courtesy of ballroomguide.com: http://www.ballroomguide.com/resources/blog/2016_02_26_frame_and_elbows.html 

  • Pro tips: 
    • There is still a frame in rhythm/latin. There is also still a frame when you are doing your open movements – especially in smooth.
    • Frame should be held up from below from your lats and not from above with your traps and shoulders.  Big muscles pushing > small muscles pulling.
    • Leads – do not use a claw on your partners back. Your thumb should be closed to the rest of your hand.
    • Both elbows should be in front of you in frame. Follows – in closed position your right arm is rolled so your elbow is in front of you, not behind you.
    • Your arm and shoulder have many joints.  Even with a large height discrepancy between lead and follow, try to keep your upper arms related to your height and rotate your lower arms to accommodate the difference.

‘Foot judges’ is a famous term in part because footwork is often indicative of how everything else about your movements are going.

  • At lower levels, the general expectation is that:
    • If its smooth/standard and you are not-risen, you step first with your heel
    • If it is smooth/standard and you are already risen, you step first with the ball of your foot and you start ‘up on the balls of your feet’
    • If it is smooth/standard and you are going from a rising step to a falling step, you go ‘ball-flat’, meaning you lower only after you have arrived on the foot, not before
    • If its rhythm/latin, you step first with your ball and don’t use your heel
    • If the step you are doing calls for a particular footwork (ex: pivots), you’re doing that footwork. The step calls for it for good reason.
  • At higher levels, judges want the above without fault (looking at you, gold-quickstep-dancers-who-just-heel-led-from-a-rise).  They also want to see much more usage of the foot. This means full flexion and extension of the joints. It also includes things like articulation, usage of inside-vs-outside-vs-middle, pointing of the feet, full use of the foot for power when moving, etc. 
  • Pro tips: 
    • The fewer mistakes you make from the above, the better.
    • If you’re just starting out, just focus on getting your feet between those core phases (in rhythm/latin, using predominantly toe leads. In smooth/standard, clear distinguishing between rise and fall and movement between those phases).
    • If you’re turning or pivoting and it isn’t a heel turn, putting your heel down during the turn means you’re probably doomed.
    • If you want to work on articulation, try thinking about pushing through the arches of your feet.
Body Actions: 

Your feet aren’t the only thing that works when you dance. Your body does too!  In smooth and standard, proper use of the body is needed to generate swing, sway, partner positions, etc.  In rhythm and latin, hip action is the most obvious example of a body action that judges expect to see. In all disciplines, this also includes how you utilize your body to generate turning actions.

  • At lower levels, the general expectation is that:
    • If it’s smooth/standard, your body is generally calm and still. If you go into a promenade position, your body/bodies should still remain in partnership. Your arms are placed where they are supposed to be, even if you had to force it or be a little stiff about it.
    • If it’s rhythm/latin, you are not trying too hard to demonstrate hip-actions you haven’t learned to do properly yet. Your arms follow the same advice as the smoothies –  no pretending to be inflatables at a used car store or dog paddling.
  • At higher levels, there is an expectation that you will use your bodies to appropriately generate swing, sway, CBM/CBMP, hip actions, turning actions, etc. Your backs should be increasingly active and arm movements should be increasingly reflective of body actions.
  • Pro tips: 
    • The fewer mistakes you make from the above, the better.
    • If you’re just starting out, try not to do techniques you haven’t learned to do properly yet. A good trick is if the movement looks distorted, exaggerated, or painful, the judge is probably going to mark you as if your movement looked distorted or painful. If a judge sees calm body movement that is simply not inappropriate, you’re not giving them reasons to mark you poorly.
    • Body actions are something of a ‘deep end’ of the dancing pool. In general, the more efficient your movement feels, the more likely it’s on a better track.  Additionally, if you think of your skin as a sausage casing, the energy of your movements should never break the sausage casing. This applies in all directions in all three dimensions. 

Overall Presentation

Steps and Choreography:

Everything up until now has been largely about ‘how’ you do it.  Readers take note: this means that 80% of the battle is simply being good at the ‘how’ of what you do – not the ‘what’.  This phase is about ‘what’.

  • At lower levels, this means that each of your steps should be a clearly recognizable syllabus step based on one of the core syllabi. It should also be from the dance you are dancing (so no jive steps in tango, etc.). Remember that these steps have clearly listed timings, directions, footwork, etc.
  • At higher levels, this means that each of your steps should clearly flow from one to the other. At the highest levels, this should mean your choreography tells a story, is interesting and unique, or otherwise demonstrates excellence in some form.
  • Pro tips: 
    • Less is more. Judges want to see simple-but-good over complicated-and-confusing. If a judge can’t follow what it is you are doing, a judge isn’t likely to mark it well.
    • Just because you have moved into a higher level doesn’t mean you have to use exclusively or even predominantly those steps.  Quality of movement always wins, and the organizers know multiple competitors who won gold syllabus (and pros who won as world champions) dancing only bronze figures.
    • Steps you show on a competition floor should be ones you are happy if the judges see them.  Even at in-person comps, you never know when a judge might look your way. However, especially now that judges are getting to look at your full dancing, you might want to skip that eight-pivot-extravaganza that you can’t really do.
    • How to know if you’re ready for a step?  If the quality of your dancing based on the above framework drops when you attempt it in a competitive setting, then the step needs work.  Keep practicing, you can get it, but do consider if you can cut it for performance purposes and keep it purely on the practice floor.
Performance, Costuming, etc.:

This is the icing on the cake.  The reason this is usually viewed as ‘on-top’ is for the same reason for the saying, “don’t put lipstick on a pig”. Costuming and being fun to watch will only get you so far if the foundation isn’t there. But if you’ve got that foundation, this is the difference between great and truly outstanding.

  • At lower levels, this amounts to smiling, having fun, and wearing things that are simple and flattering. 
  • At higher levels, having a unique styling, look, or chemistry with your partner are ‘plus’ factors that can be in your favor.
  • Pro tips: 
    • At this event, costuming is explicitly not judged. Nor is there an expectation of full hair and makeup. That said, rolling out of bed is not a sound strategy.  You should also pick attire that allows the judges to clearly see your movement and body actions. If a judge can’t see it, a judge can’t give you credit for it.  This is true for post-COVID dancing as well!
    • Don’t know what to do to look like a great performer? Smile and have fun.  You’d be amazed how much of a difference this makes in the visual appeal of your dancing. This is the 80/20 rule of performance. Do nothing more than this and you are above average even in the open levels.
    • If you want to go crazy with your costuming for this event to stick it to COVID – or if you’re lost about what to wear when we return to in-person events – here’s our advice. In essence, the rules for what to wear are identical to what works in society at a party, just dialed up to 11. It should fit you, it should be flattering on you, it should be eye-catching, and it shouldn’t be ‘trashy’. That goes for leads and follows.
    • There are about eight bajillion videos, articles, and tip lists for makeup, hair, and yes, even tanning on the web and YouTube.  We highly recommend watching them.

‘Bonus’ qualities:

These are characteristics of the dances that fall across multiple categories.

Characteristics of the Dance

Characteristics of the dance is about reflecting both the music and the emotion(s) of the dance. Dances with staccato notes should have staccato movements, etc. Your choreography and movements should reflect the dance (ex: rise in Bolero, romantic gestures in open International Rumba, etc.).  The characteristics of the dance should be reflected in all three of the judged categories. 

  • At lower levels, this is usually about making sure your movements are characteristic of the dance. For example, Waltz has rise and fall, but Tango does not. In rhythm/latin this is usually about not doing weird things that you think are hip actions.  In terms of emotions, this means that you are smiling and look like you’re having fun – even tango.
  • At higher levels, this begins to include things like swing, sway, body flight in the smooth/standard dances. In rhythm/latin, there is an expectation that you demonstrate the proper hip/leg mechanics.  In terms of emotions, there is an expectation of romantic expressions, gestures, and movements in dances like rumba/bolero. In foxtrot, we might expect to see jazz movements and a mix of show-dance/Fred-and-Ginger.
  • Pro tips: 
    • ask a fellow dancer to look at the video of your dancing with the sound turned off. If they can’t tell what dance you are dancing, then that is a sign that you are not displaying the characteristics of the dance.
    • Don’t believe us about smiling?  Tell another couple or dancer to dance but not smile. Then tell them to dance with a smile.  See which one you like better. You can do this over zoom if you cannot do so socially distanced.

Thought we forgot about connection?  Not quite.  The judges have been instructed to weigh this factor as both an element of technique and an element of overall performance as appropriate.  The technical aspects of connection (ex: towards vs away) are part of technique. The performance aspects (‘do these dancers look like they are dancing with each other or just on the same floor at the same time’) are judged as part of the performance. In solo proficiency, expectations are lowered when it comes to connections. Though ideally it would look like you are perfectly connected to an imaginary partner, we understand the challenge involved.  Dancing your entire routines with solo-arm styling is acceptable. You may also dance them entirely in closed hold or in open hold, or switch freely between all three.  Note that in Standard, only arms in 2nd position or closed hold is acceptable.

  • At lower levels, this is usually about moving as one unit and not ripping your partner’s arms out of their sockets – imaginary or otherwise. Arms should neither look like ‘dead-fish’ in response to movements nor should it look like someone is leading/being led as if they are dancing with a dog and leash. In a closed position, there should not be an appearance of arm wrestling or that one person is dragging around their (imaginary or otherwise) partner. When one partner does an action, the other partner should be doing something in response – usually the same thing at lower levels.
  • At higher levels, we expect to see usage of connection to create complementary movements – understanding of connection to generate speed and clarity, risk positions, and balance.  We also expect to see the performance quality of connection become apparent – it should be clear even when dancing apart that you are dancing with your partner, not just alongside your partner.
  • Pro tips: 
    • Remember that your arms are there to communicate what your body and your center are doing – not to execute the choreography. Leading in particular is more of a suggestion than a command.
    • For non-closed partner work, try dancing with a wall or a pole. If you release the connection and you fall forward, you are pushing too far with the connection. If your hands fall away from the wall, you are not putting enough energy into the connection. This also works with a coat stand or other object, though you have to be even more careful to avoid knocking it over.

Tips for Video Submission:

  • Before you take your video:
    • Make sure where you’ll be putting your camera/phone is stable. It should also be in landscape mode.
    • Make sure where you’ll be dancing when you record is not too far or too close from the camera. You want it so the judge can clearly see you, but you aren’t so close as to make judging your movements difficult.  Be at least as far away from the camera as you would be from judges at a competition.
    • If you are using a phone, make sure that it is on silent while you are recording. Your ringtone is not on the approved music list.
    • If you wish, you are free to pan and zoom, or ask a buddy to do so for you. Please make sure to stay safe and socially distanced if you ask a buddy to help.
  • Watch your video before you upload it. Check to see that:
    • You were smiling!
    • There were no obvious mistakes you want to make another recording to eliminate. The judges do not need the version of your routine with the spectacular wipeout, only your friends do.
    • The music is clear enough that a judge is going to be able to hear it.
      • Make sure there isn’t a video/audio sync problem, or a judge will think you are off time!
    • You didn’t wander off camera. Ghosts get 0 points, sorry.
    • You didn’t take 45 seconds to start dancing. We know you’ll probably need to hit record and get into position, but you don’t need to hit record and answer a text before you start.
  • After you’ve uploaded, check to see that:
    • You’ve labeled your video and no oddities (loss of sound, etc.) have come up.
    • That the link you submit in the form is the link to the video you want us to send.

Final Thoughts:

  • Remember that if you’re having fun, you’ve already won.
  • Judges do not mark you one way or another because they hate you or your dancing.  It is because they love you and they love dance that they don’t wish to cheat you and deprive you of learning. Once we acknowledge where we are, we can move forward – whether that is refining skills or advancing to another level.
  • The world champions couldn’t do the basics at one point in their lives either.
  • Every open/pro dancer you look up to has wiped out on the competition floor at least once. At least in a virtual competition, you can choose to not share these inglorious moments with the judges!