I didn’t win the solo blues competition at Rose City Blues and that’s eating at me. But it shouldn’t because I’m used to not winning. Winning has only been a recent development in my life. In the past, when I didn’t win, but wanted to, I asked the judges for feedback. This time I didn’t. Because how can you get feedback from other people on your internal state?
Winning in subjectively judged competitions isn’t about skill, talent, or ability. It’s about those things plus something else… bravado, super-human awareness and denial. When you convince a judge to vote for you in an art, you’re exercising some other talent that no one teaches in school or dance-class, and that talent is controlling people’s minds. I’ve done it and this time I didn’t do it, for lots of reasons that I can’t quite delineate.
The problem with winning is that it makes it easy to forget to keep learning. It makes you feel like you are the best and it inflates your sense of self. I know the winners of this recent comp pretty well and I don’t think they’ll fall prey too easily to these shortcomings, but I know it can happen to me. James Watson said, “Never be the brightest person in the room, or you can’t learn anything.” For me, remembering that I’m not the most skilled person in the room means that I get to keep learning.
The other thing about competing is that if you start to value yourself and your talent based on whether or not a panel of judges votes for you, you’ll never value yourself, because 99% of people who compete don’t win. Winning is incidental; it’s extra. It’s what happens when you combine excellence and talent with a spark. Judges see that spark in that moment and that’s how they pick the winner. It’s because the winner communicates to them more clearly than anyone else that they ARE the best because they have enough self-denial to believe that. Anyone who tells you that denial is a bad thing has never won anything. Usually they’re in therapy over something they haven’t overcome. At some point, if you want to move on, excel, and reach the top, you have to turn on the denial, because the human condition is too full of self-doubt.
I had the experience over and over again during this comp that felt vaguely like an experience I had when I was 15 and standing behind the counter of a French Pastry store, smiling at customers and waiting for them to pick a pastry. It was my job to smile even though I didn’t feel smiley. It was my job to describe the pastries and make them sound delicious even though some of them had been back in the freezer for weeks and were probably freezer burnt. At some point, standing there behind the counter, I felt like a whore. I thought, “I could make more money, feeling the same way if I was just selling my own body.” I wondered, during the comp, if the audience and judges would see my moments of insincerity, my whorishness. Maybe that’s what’s bothering me.
Years ago, when I lost a competition and couldn’t keep myself together over it, a judge said to me, “Never dance for the Judges, Ruby. Dance for yourself.” It’s hard to do that when you’re under the lens. But the moments of spontaneous authenticity are the ones that make me feel like I win at life. Someone at the event who usually comes across as very soft-spoken and who never swears, said to me after they announced the winners, “I thought you won. You fucking killed it.” There was the win, right there. All you can do is get out there and show what you’ve got. That one person had that experience of me, and that’s the prize I take home.