Competition Zone | One Judge’s Symbiotic Spirit

by Karen White

Nuala DeGeorge understands the paradox her fellow dance teachers face when they’re preparing students for competition. “You grapple with staying passionate and serious when you are teaching them, but in the next breath saying, ‘It doesn’t matter if you win,’ ” she says. “Where is the integrity in that?”

As a competition judge tasked with assigning a numerical value to elements such as performance quality or creativity, DeGeorge’s struggle runs even deeper. “Is competition scoring an opinion or an absolute?” she asks. “It’s insane taking an art form and reducing it to numbers. It’s so hard. But 90 percent of the time it all falls out the way it’s supposed to.”

DeGeorge, an event manager and judge for Spirit of Dance Awards and a teacher at Stage Door School of Dance in East Patchogue, New York, has been teaching and judging since her early 20s. With a BA in Theatre-Dance from Queens College, City University of New York, professional TV and stage performance credits, plus several years as a competitive Latin ballroom dancer, DeGeorge’s dance experience checks all the requisite boxes.

“As a judge, you see the bigger picture of how diversity of music and costuming, plus execution and technique, all matter.” —Nuala DeGeorge

She believes her teacher knowledge makes her a better judge; for example, she knows that the oh-so-cute 7-year-olds bobbing their heads and fluttering their legs are capable of more challenging technique. The reverse is true as well: DeGeorge’s studio students benefit from what she sees and learns each week as a competition judge. Such as:

Big fish, little pond: As a teacher, DeGeorge didn’t anticipate just how much dance judges see. “In your own little studio world, if you find the most clever song, people will say, ‘Oh she’s so creative—she’s our best teacher.’ But when you are a judge, you realize that any one dance is one of thousands, just a drop in the ocean,” she says. “As a judge, you see the bigger picture of how diversity of music and costuming, plus execution and technique, all matter.”

Self-evaluation: Judges scrutinize competition dances and must be able to point to legitimate justifications for their high or low scores. The more she judged, the more DeGeorge looked anew at her own choreography. “My perspective as a judge made me think, ‘Oh boy, I need more level changes and better spacing,’ ” she says. “Or sometimes, it allowed me to pat myself on the back.”

Life lessons: Some students who are disappointed or upset at their scores let it show by not making eye contact or thanking the judges or competition staffers who hand them their trophies, ribbons, or pins. “As I judge, I thought, ‘If I was the teacher, I’d make that kid apologize; then I remember going, ‘Oh goodness, let me check myself,’ ” DeGeorge says, wondering what message about winning she was sending to her own dancers.

Objectivity: Despite the difficulties of evaluating art, judges strive to consider each entry objectively—something almost impossible for a teacher who has witnessed her students’ struggles first hand, and whose choreography is being judged. “You love those kids, and you wouldn’t have brought them to the competition if you didn’t think that number would win,” she says.

Moving on: The job of judge is just that—a job, DeGeorge says. Judges work hard, fulfill their commitment, and then move on. That 9-to-5 attitude differs greatly from what dance teachers at the same events go through. “If your dance came in second overall, you agonize over that. Teachers will talk about a competition for weeks,” she says. “When I’m done judging at a competition, I don’t think about it anymore.”

Heart is art: “I see throughout the nation these beautiful technical dancers, but with no heart,” she says. As a judge, “I look to see if kids are truly living in the moment. That is the ultimate goal.”


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.