One of the most satisfying experiences of participating in sport kite events is being able to compete with a routine of your own design. Andy Wardley, the great UK flier once wrote: “…I want the world to see what I’ve done and like it (or even hate it, as long as they feel something). Then it becomes art and this artist becomes happy.” For many individual fliers this shared sense of joy becomes the most clear while flying the Individual Ballet. The following tips are intended to help the flier for whom this experience is still new.
Before we begin, there are a few fundamental skills you must have so that you can establish a sound base upon which to build your routine. For all the tricks that a strong Individual Ballet routine usually includes, the bulk of the routine is still based on being able to fly straight lines, and execute ninety degree turns. Surprisingly, many pilots, including those that compete at a high level, cannot fly a straight, fixed path. Their kites move unevenly and seem unable to settle on a line. Sometimes this is caused by unconscious and unnecessary adjustment. To see if your hands are busier than they ought to be, try flying a series of very low ground passes, maybe a half a wing span off the ground and carefully note how your kite flies. Then, for the next series of ground passes, fly your ground pass as usual, except that once you have set the horizontal line, clamp your hands together, against each other. This will prevent any further adjustment to flight. If you set the horizontal line correctly, no further adjustment will be necessary. You may even swing your hands side to side, and as long as they stay locked together, the kite will fly straight. Observe your kite. If it now looks much more stable then it did on your first series of ground passes, it is quite likely that you are over steering when trying to get your kite to fly a straight line. To improve your skill at flying a clean line, you may want to consider adopting a technique whereby you fly with your hands closer together, and in some cases, actually touching each other to reduce oversteering.
The best type of turn for competitive flying is the push turn. This technique involves, for example, pushing your right hand forward to make the kite turn left and pulling the right hand back to return the kite to straight flight. Similarly with the left hand. If you can think of turning in terms of line tension, then it may make sense to you why the push turn produces the sharpest turn. When you push one hand forward, you’re reducing line tension, and therefore, speed, allowing the kite to turn more closely around the pivot hand. When you complete the turn, the kite returns to line cleaner because when you pull back to return your hand to neutral you are adding tension to the line, and therefore increasing control.
There are two things to consider when executing a turn. First, the maximum speed of the turn depends upon the strength of the wind. You cannot execute a clean turn faster than the prevailing wind speed. So, for fast turns, adjust your stroke for the wind conditions. It is not uncommon for a competitor, in the excitement of the competition, to forget about this and to hit his turns too hard, which produces turns that jerk and flop the kite throughout the routine.
Second, focus on hitting the angle that you are turning to in one stroke, as accurately as you can, and with a speed that produces a minimum of hunting with the nose of the kite to prevent it from wiggle wobbling back onto the line. Most of your turns will be turning to a horizontal or vertical plane. It is critical that you learn to turn to a steady and true horizontal and true vertical line. Well, maybe with this exception: if you try to fly a true vertical while on the extreme edge of the window, the wind there has a tendency to try and push the kite toward the center of the window. For just one kite, you would probably ignore this and just fly your kite so that the spine is always straight up and down, regardless of what path your kite took. For pairs or team flying, however, if a horizontal line of kites where flanking up, the outside kite near the edge of the window would actually have to point the nose of that kite out to adjust for the inward pushing effect in order to maintain even spacing with the other kites.
SELECTING YOUR MUSIC
Balance is key to a good ballet. Generally, you should attempt to write a ballet that displays the full capabilities of the kite, and takes advantage of the full wind window. You want the routine to have vertical movement, horizontal movement, ground work, mid-routine landings, loops, linear figures, slack line tricks, speed control, stalls and whatever else you can do with your kite. You should consider this when selecting your music. New fliers will often choose a favorite song to fly to. Okay, but… a routine that uses just a single song that is either a ballad, or pop rock, will be harder to make interesting for four minutes because the music will have a tendency to be too constant and one dimensional. Contrast improves impact. So, you may want to consider combining music from a few different sources to give you changes in mood and tempo. Movie soundtracks have a dramatic sound. Broadway tunes have a theatrical sense to them and will often have a natural variety in the score already. Classical music has a universal appeal and a very wide variety to choose from. It’s good to fly to music you love, but try to stay with music that lends itself to kite flying, and will provide a base from which a balance and variety of maneuvers can be easily interpreted.
DEVELOPING YOUR ROUTINE, AVOIDING COMMON WEAKNESSES
Be careful how you show variety and range when stringing maneuvers together. Know the difference between technical variety, and perceived variety. For example, in your routine you might execute a series of tricks which could include: a left-handed flat axel, a right-handed flat axel, a left-handed spin axel, a right-handed spin axel, a left-handed double axel and a right-handed double axel. Now, although those tricks are all technically different, it is quite likely that, executed in that order, they will be perceived as repetitious. The same applies to figures. Wrapping and unwrapping lines around the same figure, although technically different, will,in all likelihood, be perceived as repetitious. So, whenever you are using a series of related maneuvers, or patterns, be aware that variations on a theme run the risk of being interpreted as repetitive and that you need to see the routine from the audience’s point of view.
Even when the logic is clear as to why a sequence is repeated, the overall effect, in my opinion, diminishes impact. For example, I have seen several routines that repeat sequences to match repeating musical phrases, or choruses. Some judges will not mark down for it either because they missed it, or that they think it’s okay. In any case, it’s not advised. If the sequence is so forgettable that they don’t notice it, then you have two dead spots in your routine instead of one. If you have a great trick, and the judges remember it, then, repetition diminishes its impact. It’s like the first one is ‘oh wow’, and the second one is ‘oh hum’. I don’t think that repeating a sequence ever earns extra points.
Possible exception. If the routine was a ballet with a theme, then a return to theme might be judged to be clever. Generally, with most kites, this isn’t very effective because kites aren’t so expressive that it’s possible to figure out exactly what the flier had in mind and what the kite is supposed to be. I did see one routine, however, in Hawaii, many years ago, where three fish kites were being chased by a shark kite and in that case the theme was clear, clever and very entertaining. They used light music for the fishes, and the theme from ‘Jaws’ for the shark. On the other hand, if I were to try and make my kite represent Little John and used music from Robin Hood, with just a “normal” looking kite, and without a huge amount of explanation, the ballet would probably be pretty ineffective, theme wise, because my ideas would be so poorly understood. Have I ever attempted this? I’m not saying. At any rate, if you are flying a routine that needs a great deal of explanation in order to be understood, then my opinion is that in itself is evidence enough that the routine is vulnerable because it is unable to stand on its flying performance alone.
Try to match your tricks with how the music feels. Use your routine to interpret the music, and not just to fly around with noise in the background. For example, there is a difference between axeling appropriately on a floating section of music and just axeling on the beat. Tip stabbing on a strong beat that is followed by a short silence, is more dramatic than tip stabbing on the beat in the middle of a musical phrase. Do you understand the difference? Generally, you should sync the speed of your turns with the tempo in the music. It is possible to sync the speed of the turn with the emotion of the music, but this is pretty hard to communicate successfully and until you are more experienced in the ballet, I would suggest to not attempt it for now.
There’s more to it than just moving your kite around in time with the music. Listen to your music and try to plan your movement so that it connects logically to the music.Turn up on a rise in volume or pitch, and descend on a decrease in volume or pitch. Stall on the breaks. Slide on extended notes. Tail wiggle or zig-zag on a bouncy part of the song, or shake a line in a tip stand to accompany a drum roll. Use your imagination.
Choreograph all your turns. For example, if you’re executing a series of turns in time with the music, make sure you leave room to complete the phrase. In other words, if you’re turning on the beat, but due to poor planning you turn up when you’re already high in the window, then instead of flying a line and creating a little tension for the next turn, your kite will simply hang there. For all to see. Not very effective.
Be cognizant of abrupt changes in the music and take advantage of every change in tempo or mood. Flying blithely and serenely through a lively part of the music is sometimes referred to as a missed opportunity, and considered weak choreography.
Pack your routine. Get as many tricks into your routine as you can without sacrificing variety. You only have one kite, and there’s a limit as to how interesting you can make just slow flying your kite.
Know what your big tricks are and work especially hard to match them up with the best parts of your music. These pairings, done correctly, will give your routine impact. You may want to try experimenting with writing the last part of the routine first. The last part of the routine is what the judges see last (how logical) so it’s important that it be strong. A lot of routines start off powerfully, but fizzle near the end because the pilot ran out of ideas which means the last thing the judges see, is something weak. Not a good strategy to have if you want to score a lot of points.
Divide your routine into blocks. This way, as you continuously review your routine, you can pull the weaker blocks out and splice in stronger sequences more easily. Always, always look for ways to improve your routine and do not hesitate to dump a weak one. Attempt to choreograph at least two or three routines a season. You will find that you will improve with each new routine and will become a candidate for the Masters class sooner.
Field test your ideas in all wind conditions, and especially, in heavy wind so that you know which tricks will or will not work, depending upon wind conditions. Plan to have alternate maneuvers.
If you are a well prepared competitor, you will have low wind and high wind equipment, and you need to be comfortable with the capabilities of all your kites. Know your equipment. For example, let’s say your routine flies best in medium wind. Then, in light wind you may want to consider using a light wind kite, with lighter line so it will stay airborne. Also, you may want to consider using shorter lines so that you can still give the impression of speed when you need it. In heavy wind, focus more on controlling the SPEED of the kite rather than the PULL. Experiment with a vented kite with and without screens.You may want to use heavier lines to also help slow the kite down.You should consider using longer lines to improve your timing for having the kite move so quickly, and also to make the window look bigger (screens and vents compress window size). As far as the pull goes, I would say, just learn to deal with it. This takes time. However, flying your ballet when your kite is significantly off speed gives you no chance to showcase your routine. Aim high. To become successful in the Masters class, you will have to learn how to fly in all wind conditions, anyway.
Okay, here are some basic high wind tips. First of all, really, really work your kite. The higher line tension is going to slow your hand speed down a lot if you don’t attack your hard turns, and slack line maneuvers. Be prepared to run. You will have to run, not walk, forward for all your stalls, slides and slack line maneuvers. Learn to be mobile. You don’t have to be a world class sprinter, but you must move. Manage your ground position. Whenever you can, try to back yourself up to the field’s back line. This is so you will have room to move forward without going out of bounds. In strong winds, you may have to just hold when your kite’s in center window, but whenever it’s on the edge, and tension is reduced, back up. If you know your routine well, you will also know where in the routine there are opportunities to regain ground gracefully. Sometimes this means that you don’t have to force your way back immediately if the routine provides an opportunity to do this later on. It’s like you’re working the routine with your upper body, while your legs work the ground recovery. The main thing is to be aggressive with your kite flying, and manage your ground position. If you should crash, never give up. You never know, lots of people crash in high wind, and if you can minimize your down time, you may still score well enough to place high.
Show difficulty and speed. Routines comprised entirely of simple tricks are boring. Risk builds interest and anticipation in the audience. Flying a high speed ground pass one foot off the ground creates tension. Flying a low speed ground pass 30 feet off the ground creates a tension headache. I think that routines that are trick filled but do not show any relationship to the music have misled some fliers to the false idea that tricks are bad. Maneuvers with no choreography are bad. But choreography with no maneuvers is also bad. You need both. Technical difficulty plays a large part of whether or not the flier can induce a sense of risk, surprise and wonderment in the audience.
Execute your maneuvers with full amplitude. A snap stall that just locks the kite to the sky has way more impact than one that just slithers its way through a sideways position. A slide that is not tippy and ends with a snap back into flight is more effective than one where the kite sort of falls out of the slide and wiggle wobbles back into flight. It’s tough but a trick done with poor execution, even if it’s a tough trick, may not get any credit on the score. And, if you miss the trick, it will probably get a deduction. However, if you’re still learning to fly the ballet, leave your hard stuff in but always practice on improving your execution. Another thing to do is to practice flying through errors. Practice your recoveries and see if it is possible to have alternate moves, or an out for an error. In competition, instruct your ground crew where you may have trouble, and how you would like them to assist you.
Videotape your practices. The video camera is the closest thing to what judges see. It is the best source of feedback. I have yet to find a flier that thought the videotape of their routine was better than they thought it was. It’s always the other way. If you cannot recognize your mistakes, guess what? You can’t fix them. Get an extra wide angle attachment for your camcorder to make taping easier. You can practice your routine with a Walkman, but for video, you will need a boom box.
Learn to judge as soon as possible. If they allow it at a competition, request to shadow judge the Masters (you get a really good view, too). It’s a mind expanding experience that will have a definite positive effect upon your own performances. Ask the judges to explain their reasoning for their scores. Unfortunately, this sport doesn’t really have any fixed standards for execution, so we rely on the experience of our judges. You need to learn to judge, not only to help support the sport, but to assist your own progress. There’s no book for this that is better than experience.
There aren’t a lot Master fliers available, but if there is such a person in your area, seek out their advice and criticism. You don’t have to, but it’s sort of a question of whether you want to get good fast, or get good slowly. They’ve been there, and done that. This can save you hours and hours of practice and maybe make the few comps that you do enter, more significant to your own progress. Most of them are more than happy to assist and, as often as not, you can use their experience to shorten the learning curve of your own progress. This is good up until you reach mid Experienced level. After that, my feeling is that you’re better off with videotape. By the time you reach this stage, you should be fundamentally sound, and be spending more effort on really developing your own personal style. That is, if you get this far… everything we’ve talked about up to this point is just basics.
BEING PREPARED MENTALLY
The mental game. Two things. First, learn your routine in terms of positional keys and where you need to be rather than just the sequence of tricks. In other words, when you memorize your routine your thought process should not just be: “Make a left turn. Stall. Inward axel. Turn up. Roll down… etc.” Look ahead and plan your timing and position as you fly your routine with your music. Think of it as flying to a spot, perhaps to be in the right position near the edge to do a slack line trick, or timing yourself on a ground pass so that you can turn and accelerate up in the center on a burst of music. Fly to a target. Second, focus only on this. A lot of poor flying under competition conditions is caused by mental errors. Think of your attention as a limited quantity, because it is. If you are 100% focused on upon your routine, the odds of making a mental error are then small. That’s what happens in practice. I think what occurs in competition is that new competitors are aware of the crowd behind them. So, ten percent of their attention is on crowd awareness. Then, the new competitor becomes aware of the sound system, and focuses
on the unusual volume. There goes another ten percent. The new competitor now notices that they are nervous and waste another ten percent of their attention focusing on their shaking hands, sweat or whatever. Pretty soon, they are flying their routine with only, let’s say, seventy percent of their focus on the routine. Not good. It takes a little time, but learn to keep your eyes on the kite and your ears on your music. Nothing else.
Another way to think of this, is to imagine that you HAD to:
1. approximate the size of the crowd by the noise it was making behind you,
2. be able to tell if the sound system was balanced equally for the field position you were in,
3. identify the type of plane that was currently flying overhead,
4. say your ABC’s backwards and 5. fly your routine.
Or, you could:
1. fly your routine, and
2. do nothing else.
Stay with the short list. If you do this, a side benefit is that you won’t be as nervous, although you should understand that some sense of excitement is good. This is the whole point of all those hours of practice and planning. The next four minutes is why you studied and practiced the Ballet in the first place. Enjoy it.
Practice before the competition. You’re not going to get any better in the two hours before you compete so it’s really too late to cram in a lot practice now. Kite flying isn’t like football or running track where a big adrenaline rush is helpful. It’s a sport of control. You will not fly better on the competition field than you ever have in practice. A reasonable expectation is that your competition performance will be one consistent with one of your better ones in practice.
Arrive early and try to fly a little bit on the field you will be competing on. Get used to the background and the footing. Note the wind conditions, boundaries, dead spots in the window, and any other field peculiarities. Being aware of the field and your field position is part of performing your routine.
Check your equipment. If you pop spreaders or whiskers in practice, then, tape them in for competition. Have competition lines and practice line sets. If your kites use pultruded graphite sticks in the leading edges, you may want to think about putting new ones in for the competition if your kites have old sticks. Wrapped graphite rods don’t seem to be as susceptible to fatigue as the pultruded ones. Get your equipment ready before the competition. Most equipment failures that I’ve seen and experienced were avoidable.
Eat and drink sensibly, and take timely restroom breaks before your comp time comes up.
Most fliers don’t do it, but it was a great confidence builder for me if I could “stick” my routine (with a stick kite) with my Walkman shortly before it was time for me to go out onto the field. If you use this technique, be sure remember to move your stick kite just as you would imagine your real kite to move.
In summary, competing in sport kiting is always a dicey proposition. You have no control over the wind or flight order. So, you do your best to control the things that you can, namely:
1. Know your routine in extreme detail.
2. Don’t compete with improperly prepared equipment.
3. Learn to judge.
And if you can do all of this you will:
4. Have a good time.