Artistry With Cathy Roe
by Karen White
Stereotypes feed the general public’s perception of dance competitions as overloud events with underwhelming dance. But those of us who spend the majority of our spring weekends staring at one competition stage or another know that when we least expect it, art happens.
It can be a breathtaking piece about loss, a humorous analysis of dating, a daring work on bullying. It can be choreography so creative we gasp or so simple that we sigh. It may not take home first place overall, but we will remember those three minutes for years.
Competition director Cathy Roe founded Cathy Roe’s Ultimate Dance in 2004 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In those days, she says, many studios were trying to figure out what competition was all about. Choreographers and teachers dissected winning pieces and used the elements they found to create high-scoring dances of their own. An unspoken checklist of must-have moves (heel stretches, multiple turns, etc.) appeared. “Dances started to look very much alike,” she says. “Costuming and music choices were becoming clichéd and predictable.”
I can now recognize the work of choreographers who bring their students to my competition, because they have created their own style.” —Cathy Roe
A studio owner herself, Roe understood what was going on. “Trophies in your studio window translated to more business,” she says. But after overhearing a teacher at competition say, “I never choreograph like this, except for competition,” Roe was determined to work against this creeping homogenization by recognizing and rewarding studio teachers who created innovative and imaginative competition dances.
“The great thing about dance is that it is an art,” she says. “It is an extension of yourself and of your thoughts, your life, and your experience. It comes from your own unique soul.”
As she has traveled across the country with her competition, Roe has witnessed a turnaround. Studio dancemakers—bolstered by experience, growing confidence, and dancers whose technical levels continue to rise—have found new ways to win without the checklist. Roe believes online music services such as iTunes and Spotify have made it easy and affordable for studio teachers and choreographers to search for new music. Instead of bringing “just a bunch of dances” to competition, Roe says, teachers now strive to present pieces that represent their personal philosophy and teaching.
Artistry isn’t exclusively the territory of the top technicians, either. She’s seen plenty of profound or stunningly innovative pieces presented by students with still-developing technique. One she still remembers was “Bring on the Wonder,” a circle-of-life piece presented by a younger dancer and a teen—both novices—clad in a single skirt. Its choreographer, Illinois’ Dance and Music Academy owner Krissie Odegard Geye, has gone on to present pieces in major festivals such as Dance Chicago.
“I can now recognize the work of choreographers who bring their students to my competition, because they have created their own style,” Roe says. “That’s pretty great.”
Artists and educators like Geye, Roe says, take their academic knowledge of dance—staging; formations; texture; manipulation of space, time, and energy; and technical proficiency—and apply vision. Often, the vision is the hard part. “It’s impossible to not have vision, because it lives in each of us. But it can’t be forced out. It has to be let out,” she says.
Roe’s method is to find a piece of music that she says “sets my imagination on fire.” She’ll lie back, close her eyes, listen, and see what plays out in her mind. “I’ll watch this ‘eyelid theater’ until I get up and just start moving and experimenting with my dancers,” she says.
And no matter their technical challenges, student dancers will get involved in a choreographer’s vision if they’re given the chance. “Students can totally understand innovation and self-expression,” Roe says. “If we let them in and train them in the process, our students will be on their way to becoming artistic visionaries themselves.”
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.