How to Run an Ambidancestrous Dance Contest [UPDATE: Now with video!]

One vein of our recent conversations on Jack & Jill contests was the observation that lots more dancers are learning both roles in the dance. "Ambidancetrous" is the term for social dancers who both lead and follow. 

In February, the dance weekend Swingin at the Savoy held their first ambidancetrous dance competition. Organizer Cari Westbrook shares with us how it went and some lessons learned. 

[UPDATE 12:15pm : now with video from the competition at the end of the post!]

At Swingin’ at the Savoy, our competitions tend to be pretty low-key, with an emphasis on fun and community. With the number of ambidancetrous dancers in the Bay Area, the organizing team decided 2017 would be a great year to introduce an Ambidancetrous Jack & Jill.* Specifically, that meant that competitors would be paired with a random dance partner, and they would switch lead & follow while dancing. It was, by far and away, one of the most fun & inspiring competitions I’ve ever run.

The Competition Format

Because Swingin’ at the Savoy only has competitions at Late Nights, there was no time for prelims. It was important to find the balance between two major concerns: first, giving our competitors and judges enough time to compete fairly; and second, keeping the competition as short as possible.

I used a mixed competition format to simulate prelims:

  • Round 1: Tap “out” the bottom third of competitors by judge consensus.
  • Round 2: Select “Yes’s” and “Maybes.” This allowed each judge to have an equal voice of who would end up in the finals round, which helped us be fair to competitors.

At this point, our amazing Emcee (Nathan Diaz) stalled for time while the judges determined the finalists. The six finalists choose from a set of numbers (1-6), and the associated pairs danced together (1&2, etc.). The competition continued as follows:

  • A 1.5 minute mid-tempo spotlight so dancers could showcase their ambidancing.
  • A slightly-faster all-skate to round things out.

I then used relative placement to score the competitors.

Things That Didn’t Work

There were a few things that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.

  • Not Enough Time: The key take-away is that there wasn’t enough time to do this competition. The competition ended up taking about 40 mins, which is 10 minutes too long.
  • Not Enough Space: I capped the competition at 20 competitors, but there were easily 30+ want to sign up — which would have been awesome.

Our Successes

The finalists

The finalists

This competition came together because so many people rallied to make it happen. The support was overwhelming and inspiring! 

As our Emcee, Nathan Diaz kept the audience entertained while we determined finalists; since we went straight to finals, it was important to keep people entertained in this short break. As the Competition DJ, Gary Sharpe made sure that the music was high-energy but mid-tempo. And the Judges were excited about supporting these dancers who have honed a skill that dancers don’t always get to showcase.

The audience was beyond enthused. I have rarely seen an audience so wholly invested in and supportive of a regional and laid-back competition. It’s an atmosphere I’ve only occasionally experienced at the best comps at ILHC.

And the competitors? They threw down. Many of them are quite dedicated to ambidancing, and it was incredible to watch them shine. I loved all of the beautiful, surprising, inspiring moments where the lead & follow switched between the dance partners. And I was beyond inspired by the quality of ambidancing I saw amongst our competitors.


Applying my Learnings to The Switch

One especially exciting outcome is that I get to dive in and apply what I’ve learned to The Switch Workshop, which is coming up in July. The Switch will have two Ambidancetrous competitions — a Jess & Jo** and a Strictly. The Ambidancetrous J&J will be formatted as follows:


  • 3 songs per heat, with small heats so judges can look at every dancer
  • Everyone will follow 1 song and lead 1 song (obviously, not at the same time)
  • The last song, everyone will switch roles throughout the song


  • 1 warmup song
  • Spotlights of 1.5 minutes to showcase ambidancetrous skills
  • 1 all-skate to close

In case you’re curious, the Ambidancetrous Strictly will have regular prelims (where everyone’s required to switch), and the finals will be the same as the J&J finals.

A Final Note

I feel honored and grateful to have been a part of this competition. It was heartening to see how the community came together to make this competition successful. This was easily one of the most fun, exciting, and easy-to-run competitions I’ve managed — and I’ve run quite a few comps over recent years. I look forward to seeing more ambidancetrous competitions in the near future — because why not celebrate quality dancing in both roles?


*This competition was named long before recent internet discussions. We plan to host an Ambidancetrous J&J-type comp next year under a different name.

**The Switch is paying attention to the community discussion as it continues, and we’re open to changing the name if needed.