Thinking about dance as a product, and packaging it like one

One odd egg among white eggs

What is a product?

A product is a service or an item, whether physical or digital, that solves a want or a need. Our phone is a product. Our coats are products, too. The carton of eggs in our fridge is a product, as is the fridge itself. In the tech industry that I work in, products tend to be more digital: Facebook is a product, Snapchat is a product, and so is Venmo. Most of my parallels will be coming from digital products like apps.

Competition dancing is like a product, too. The judges and the audience are the users of that product, and they want our dance product to deliver quality technique and an overall positive experience.

The finished product

When we use an app, the opinion we form isn’t based solely on its functionality. It’s also based on how the colors make us feel, whether or not it’s easy to find what we need, how fun it is or how secure it is, how good the customer support is, among other factors. Similarly, when we walk on the floor with our partners to wait for the music and dance each dance, we’re not judged on just the dancing. We get judged on the combination of everything we put forth, from our movement and footwork to our hair and smile. It’s easy to believe that the only thing that matters is the level of technique, but when judges only have a handful of seconds to make a decision, it’s really the delivered and perceived quality that they base their decision on, and while technique forms a majority of that delivered and perceived quality, lots of factors much shallower than technique go into it as well.

One judge once said that they marked a couple higher than another simply because the first had an overall more professional appearance, even though the second had slightly better technique than the first.

So it’s not just the technique, but rather, a combination of everything. It’s like a product being put to market. If several apps had the same functionality and the same price, we would likely choose the one that gave us the most pleasant experience overall. Discovery and packaging: getting noticed

We and our partners out on the floor is like a product in the market, competing against other products with similar functionalities. No matter how great it is, if our users don’t know about it, they won’t use it.

Physical products on shelves use packaging techniques to get noticed. Apps design their app icons in a way that stands out on the home screen. When dancing in crowded preliminary rounds, it’s important to make ourselves seen by the judges as well. The things that can make a difference include the way the routine covers the floor, the way we set up and start, the colors of our dress, etc.—anything to help draw positive attention to us as a couple while dancing. What’s important is making the attention grabber something that complements our strengths and weaknesses as a couple. For example, if we’re a short couple, focusing on shapes and lines might not draw as much attention as a tall couple’s lines would. Getting noticed is the first step to getting recalled.

Interaction design: emotions and smiles

When it comes to digital products, a well-designed product usually comes with a lot of thinking about what the interface does when a user interacts with it. What changes when a user taps or pushes and swipes? How does it change? What animates and how long is that animation?

Interaction is often neglected in standard dancing. When someone watches us, they’re engaging with our movement, and interacting with the dancing we produce. Are they rewarded with something interesting in our presentation, perhaps a change in facial expression, or are they neglected? If we are looking at the floor or staring into the distance all the time, it’s almost like an interface where there is a button asking to be pressed but then fails to do anything.

Interaction design also affects the feeling that a user gets when they see something move. A product can have perfectly thought-out interactions that follow all the rules but is just simply bland, like a smile that’s held. Their users might still use it for what functionality it has but they might prefer something that gives them an overall more delightful experience. The same goes for dancing. A judge (different from the one before) once said that she looks for couples that inspire her with their dancing and that make her want to stop judging to join them on the floor. What happens when someone watches and engages with our dancing? What do we make them feel? Is it robotic and boring or does it draw on something inside them?

Visual design: costumes, makeup, and hair

Visual design is probably one of the first things anyone encounters and forms an opinion on for any product, and one of the most important things. To some, a misaligned piece of text or an unbalanced amount of spacing in a product can be so cringingly distracting that they have to look for alternatives. On the other hand, well-designed visuals help enhance the overall experience of using the product.

The look that we put together works the same way. We have to let it enhance our dancing: we wear well-fitted tail suits and dresses that showcase our strengths and hide our weaknesses. I’ve seen plenty of dancers at collegiate competitions who looked better dancing in practice wear than in their costumes. I’ve also seen too many people misunderstand hair and makeup: it’s not just a requirement; it’s a way to make us look neat, organized, and more attractive. It’s also to make sure that our faces can be clearly seen under the harsh lights of the competition floor. We have to gel hair back and wear makeup tastefully. We have to let the visual polish be a positive addition to the product that we’re putting on the floor.

All that being said,

Functionality of the product is still the most important—as to be said of dance technique. That’s the part that should be constantly worked on. However, functionality is only the inside of the product; it’s not whole until the outside is complete too. It’s about what’s perceived, and being able to deliver more to the perception. An app with robust functionality might not be perceived as a great one because it doesn’t offer the user an easy, pleasant experience. The app doesn’t deliver a level of experience to the potential that its functionality has created, and the user opts for an alternative. Similarly, our dancing may have great technique but might fail to deliver at that level because it lacks the visuals, interactions, and packaging.

We can think of it as a product as a whole. The quality of the product inside and out is what will help in its success.

/ Zhuoshi Xie

Josie is a standard dancer. She competes locally and internationally, and teaches in New York City. Get in touch via email. (click to copy)