Forgo those fouettés and focus on artistry for competition choreography that sizzles
By Diane Gudat
As a judge, I have witnessed thousands of competition performances. Many have stood out as examples of how the right song, the perfect costume, a great story, and intelligent choreography can come together to enhance young dancers’ technical performance. Unfortunately, the pressure placed on teachers to excel and to produce impossibly huge amounts of choreography has undercut the quality of what we see weekend after weekend on the competition trail.
Many judges also are teachers, and they understand the struggle to please students, pacify parents, and meet unrelenting deadlines. More and more students want solos. As studios grow, more dancers want to be involved in performance opportunities. Although every dance might not be a competition winner, it’s important not to give up on the goal that each should become a piece of living art.
As we prepare for another season, allow me to offer some insight into what judges hope for and how you might better prepare for the experience.
Artistry trumps tricks
Judges have seen millions of fouetté turns, billions of pirouettes, and every jump in the book (and then some). Although these skills can lend athleticism and excitement to the choreography, they rarely impress the judges. And more often than not, they interrupt the artistic flow.
These steps put undue pressure on the dancers to flawlessly execute advanced technique, often at the expense of emotional interpretation. I have heard many judges express disappointment in what would have been a moving performance had it not been interrupted by a combination of unnecessarily difficult turns.
Instead, judges prefer an honest attempt at artistry and the development of a story line. They would like to be affected in some way by the performance or learn something about the dancers and their story.
Intent and nuance
Dancers should show the intent behind the movement. The audience should discover shapes and patterns, see the use of weight, and notice involvement of the entire body. Regardless of the type of dance, it should have breath and phrasing and allow audiences a glimpse into the dancer’s personality and soul.
Begin by making intelligent musical choices. Try forming a union with other dance teachers to share good music. The perfect opportunity for this type of alliance comes from networking at teacher-training schools, workshops, and conventions. Come to these events armed with several copies of your recital music or programs and offer them in trade for someone else’s. You will be surprised at the response and the wide variety of pre-tested music you will inherit.
Other ways to find music include emailing your peers with your recital theme or ideas and asking them for suggestions, and making a note of songs you thought worked well for others while attending competitions.
You must strive to make the lyrics and messages of the songs you choose appropriate for children to listen to repeatedly. The argument that children are used to hearing questionable lyrics on the radio (and have become desensitized to them) does not dismiss our responsibility to take a higher moral ground. Are the lyrics something they would feel comfortable singing to their grandmothers? Does the subject matter fit with the life experiences of the child?
Sometimes you might want to make a social comment with your work; if so, is it age appropriate for all of the students participating? Will it be family entertainment and acceptable to all who will attend your performances? Inappropriate lyrics and themes can make the judges uncomfortable and detract from the performance.
Pay attention to the musical nuances, the high and low points of the music’s structure. Map the structure on paper, finding the accent points, where the music builds and where it softens.
Check each competition’s guidelines for song length and decide how to best cut the music to the appropriate length. Make sure edits are smooth and as unnoticeable as possible. Volume levels should be consistent from one section to another.
Fitting the piece to the music
Are your pieces too long? Try to narrow the topic and eliminate repetition. The choreography should build in the same places as the music; when it does not, it should be an intentional attempt to go against the natural flow. If the music represents a certain era, do research to decide what kind of steps and costuming might be appropriate for that period.
There is no list of skills that impress a judge or win a dancer “points.” In each performance, the dancers have an opportunity to present their own personal excellence. A compassionate judge allows each dancer to begin with a perfect score.
Although every dance might not be a competition winner, it’s important not to give up on the goal that each should become a piece of living art.
First impressions count. How your dancers take the stage and their early commitment to the piece give the judges important clues about what they might expect from the rest of the performance. In the same way, the ending pose or exit is the punctuation at the end of the dance sentence. Did they leave us wanting to see more? Does the story continue? Was the dancers’ last impression a shaky one?
Although each competition has its own methods of scoring, most judges appreciate being able to separate the dancers’ technical and artistic performance from the choreographic and costuming choices. Check the costuming and choreography scores from last season; those numbers might cause you to rethink your process or give you confidence for the upcoming season. Because judges are aware that most students never see those scores, they are more apt to give their honest opinions in those categories.
Before presenting the choreography onstage, check for the human elements that draw the eye and keep the audience interested. Do the dancers appear to make eye contact with their audience? Have they invited them to invest emotionally in the piece, or do they allow audiences to sit passively and watch the movement? Do the dancers appear to be running toward or away from something, or are they simply changing position onstage?
Dancers who are interacting with each other should exchange honest expressions, develop eye contact, and work well within their traffic patterns. Facial expressions should be varied and appear honest and sincere.
Encourage your dancers to use full energy, dance “dangerously,” and learn more about themselves as artists every time they take the stage.
In a group piece, all dancers should share the workload. Does the group consistently drop to the floor to feature one strong dancer or a lone male? Is the same dancer always in the front? Have the dancers taken personal responsibility for remembering the steps, or do they consistently watch those around them? The choreography should reflect and complement the talents of the entire group rather than hide weak dancers.
The choreography should be a positive step for your dancers on their long path to technical excellence. It should reflect their strengths without being overly difficult or so easy that they don’t have to invest physically to accomplish it. It should build on their technical foundation so that they get stronger by learning, rehearsing, and performing the piece.
Costuming is one of the biggest topics of conversation among judges in their down time.
Does the costume you have chosen help to develop the theme or story line of the dance? Will it make the dancers feel proud and teach them to respect and protect their bodies? Are the male judges and fathers in the audience going to be comfortable with your choices?
The current trend toward extremely low-cut pants and skirts, bootie shorts without tights, and dangerously small tops causes judges a lot of stress. Clothing, or lack of it, can divert attention from the dancer and choreography. Whether the judges can find a delicate way to comment on this problem or decide not to mention it (on behalf of the children who might listen to the critiques), they are distracted and often more than uncomfortable. Err on the side of caution and choose costumes that will look good on the dancer with the fullest figure in your group.
Another prominent problem is performance overexposure—overuse of similar steps, shapes, and patterns. Before you enter all the dances you have choreographed for the year into the same weekend of competition, examine them carefully. Is there enough variety? Did you overuse a combination or a particular leap or turn? Did you overexpose one dancer or group of dancers?
In competition, rarely can you decide the order of appearance for your entries without manipulating the rules. The order of performances is often decided by a set schedule along with computer placement that allows for costume changes. Numerous small dances of the same flavor can greatly diminish the impact of your larger pieces.
Your major concern as a teacher, choreographer, or studio owner might well be the judges. Try to choose competitions that seat judges who have a wide variety of dance education, represent a wide age range, and most important, have had classroom experience working with children of all levels and talents.
Look for competition directors and staff who seem to reflect your morals and values as they relate to your students and their families. Visit a few competitions before attending with your students, or use your teacher network to find out how people with similar interest in their students felt about a particular competition experience.
Ask questions, make your feelings known, and communicate after the event if it did not meet your quality standards.
Should you compete?
Participation in the competition circuit is not a good choice for every studio. Not every student has the talent or personality to support solo work. Done well, competition can enhance your program and inspire your dancers to reach their potential. It can expose them to a wider dance community and allow them to find their place within that structure. Done poorly, it can serve as a cancer within your studio, causing division, jealousy, and disappointment.
Reevaluate why you are choosing to compete and which competitions will best serve your needs. Perhaps some of the money expended for competition fees can be filtered back into your studio through additional learning experiences such as master classes and in-house workshops. Perhaps a guest artist could assist with some of your competition choreography load.
Art, not sport
Remember that a teacher’s first job is to educate children, and with that comes the responsibility of teaching students that dance is an art form, not a sport to win or lose. Learning to perform from the heart, regardless of the outcome, is one of the most important lessons you can give to your students.
Judges want you and your students to succeed. They learn from what you present and are more than willing to reward honest effort and performances. They sit for many long hours and do their best to stay upbeat and offer positive critiques. Most respect you as a choreographer and look forward to the opportunity to see your work.
Judges expect diversity on the competition stage and love to see the courage of new dancers as well as the strength of seasoned competitors. Although fouettés are fabulous and layouts can be lovely, stay true to the artist within and your competition scores will reflect the effort.