The camaraderie of competition
How going against each other brings people together
My immense disdain for running and my lack of any semblance of hand-eye coordination meant I was never an athlete in high school. Unlike many of my friends, my Saturday morning schedules never included the words “meet,” “game” or “match,” and not once did I call a fellow student my “teammate.”
I danced, but always in a showcase format. There were low stakes — lots of overly enthused parents who would cheer even though I had been doing the wrong step for more than 16 counts and had yet to notice, plenty of friends in the audience holding posters, and a few strangers, who would approach me to take a picture of my ethnic garb because they “loved ‘Jai Ho’” and I “reminded them of Latika.”
Aside from a few formation shifts here and there, my dancing was individually focused. I never felt dependent on the other members of my dance groups for my own success in a performance. In the same way, if I messed up, I never felt a sense of responsibility for ruining someone else’s dancing. For everyone involved, it was always just fun.
Wanting to maintain one of my interests from my former life, I made the decision to audition for a competitive South Asian dance team at the University. Not expecting to make it — and otherwise nervous about the idea of selling my soul and turning my passion into a seemingly cutthroat pastime — I went just to see what it would be like. I was fortunate enough to be offered a place on the team — though I was still unsure the competition aspect was for me.
I joined, not wanting to give up on something which had always been such a large part of my life. Since I had never done this form of dance before, there was a lot to learn. My first semester on the team required repetition of the basics — learning the proper way to do simple things like picking up my legs and dancing on my toes. I found myself shocked by the team’s attention to detail and their emphasis on making these really difficult and taxing movements look simple.
All of this groundwork culminated when I was given the opportunity to represent the team in competitions this semester. The time for the individual emphasis on detail ran out the moment I joined the group of people competing. At this point, it was all about teamwork and how our dancing would be used in the context of eachother.
It was the first time I felt my teammates’ performances were intertwined with mine. If someone lacked energy or forgot a step, it would affect me. It occurred to me early on during that first time that my dancing carried a sense of obligation. Every movement I did was for the team.
I was also shocked by the amount of solidarity between teams at the competitions. My idea of what was to come was drastically different from my actual experience. I definitely expected the teams we were up against to try intimidation — or at the very least, act indifferently toward our team.
What I found, however, was that people were thrilled to have the opportunity to bond with people representing other schools. It took all of 30 seconds for a room of strangers to engage in excited chatter, comparing experiences and bonding over the dance which has become such a big part of everyone’s lives.
Even in getting ready for the competition, members of other teams came to help with the difficult elements of our costumes — double and triple checking everything was fine and just how we wanted it. As we went onstage, members of every team which lined our path to the stage greeted us with words of encouragement and large smiles.
While we performed, I was motivated by the enthusiastic cheering of other teams. I surprised myself by screaming equally loudly for other teams out of genuine excitement for them. They are not the enemy, I realized. They never were. It occurred to me — as my voice cracked cheering “UNC! UNC!” — that “competitor” was just another word for “friend.”
Sumedha’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.