by Joan F. Smith
It’s no secret that the technical caliber of competitive dance has skyrocketed over Jackie Del Prete’s three decades of work in the field. Dancers and teachers alike spend hours in the studio training and polishing routines, pushed by the level of talent they face on the competition stage. Pressured by the constant pulse of reality TV and social media, students—and teachers—can find themselves feeling burned out and uninspired.
When studios lighten that one-track focus on technique and training, Jackie Del Prete says, parents and dancers react positively.
Is there a way to combat this trend? Del Prete, DanZa Competition and Intensive national director and National Dance Foundation treasurer, thinks she knows the answer.
“At competitions today, people should smile, laugh, and have a good time,” says Del Prete, who is talking about all attendees: dancers, judges, teachers, parents, audience members, and competition staff. But how? Del Prete shared her thoughts for upping the fun quotient of competition.
Contests. Preparing for competition takes months of hard practice. Studios can break up the monotony and make the process less daunting through friendly contests. Del Prete suggests giving small prizes or sharing pictures on social media for students with the most creative Halloween costume, the most decorated bun, or the wackiest Christmas outfit. When studios lighten that one-track focus on technique and training, Del Prete says, parents and dancers react positively.
Teamwork. Del Prete suggests competitive studios take the time to “perform in the community, without the competitive environment.” This shows dancers that their time and energy is meaningful and well spent, she says, but also gives them an opportunity to enjoy one another’s company—building supportive relationships they will carry with them into competition.
Add humor. Teachers and choreographers, take note: Del Prete finds that with “contemporary being so popular and serious,” it’s refreshing when routines with humor appear on the DanZa stage. “I look over at judges and see them laughing and smiling during funny routines,” Del Prete says.
Check that attitude. It’s natural that things will go wrong at competition—technical difficulties, prop malfunctions, musical errors, injuries, or time delays. How adults act in these moments sets an example for students. Del Prete encourages her competition staff to display “positivity and good humor” even in challenging moments.
Bring in the family. Often, parents sit in the audience at an event all weekend long. Del Prete knows that the key to keeping them entertained is keeping them involved. To that end, DanZa offers a free parent class at lunchtime, plus a Parent Danz-Off competition where parents storm the stage (some in their kids’ borrowed costumes) and display a hilarious “no inhibitions” mix of mini-choreographed routines and fun improv.
Everyone loves a mascot. Nothing takes the stress level down like a giant dog! DanZa’s mascot, Rosco, takes pictures with parents and kids, interacts with the audience, plays pre-awards games, and generally lightens up the atmosphere.
As Del Prete knows, competitions can be stressful, but at the end of the day, kids should feel good about themselves. Regardless of award placement, she says, when studios and families leave a competition feeling good about the time they spent there, they’re more likely to be repeat customers—and provide less drama back at their home studios.
And when competition staffers, faculty, and families interact with good humor during long weekends spent in gymnasiums, theaters, and conference centers, it’s the students who benefit the most. As Del Prete says, “Laughter bonds us and helps us see each other as human beings.”
Published author Joan F. Smith is the lead faculty of creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University and a longtime instructor at Dance Express in South Easton, Massachusetts.