July 2017 | Competition Zone

In the groove with Daniel De Franco

by Karen White

As if Rutgers University wasn’t tough enough, marketing and economics student Daniel DeFranco complicated his senior year schedule by founding a dance competition. Six years later, as Groove Dance Competition and Convention CEO, DeFranco’s still crazy busy.

“This job—it’s never boring. It’s exciting, emotional, rewarding,” he says. “Competition directors are as passionate about our jobs as studio directors.”

During competition season, DeFranco’s work week never really ends. On non-event days he’ll ensconce himself at Groove’s New Jersey office from about 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., meeting with vendors, clients, or his team as he creates and manages the operational systems that keep Groove pumping through 40-plus events a year.

When there are regionals in cities such as Houston, Minneapolis, or Washington, DC—or maybe all three cities on the same weekend—DeFranco will fly into one of the host cities on Thursday, close to midnight. By mid-morning Friday he and his crew are at the venue, preparing for the first dancer to roll up with her Vera Bradley duffel at 3 p.m. Then it’s off to the races—two or two and a half nonstop days of music and applause, medals and hopeful performers, and occasional tears.

DeFranco answers questions, makes sure the judges are happy and fed, hangs out with dancers, and takes photos for social media. Generally he steps back and lets the approximately 17 crew members—judges, photographers, sales managers, assistant directors, tabulators, and backstage managers—do their jobs. His heavy lifting happened back in the office.

It’s grueling—mentally and physically—but it’s fun. Everyone’s in it together, and it bonds us as a team.” —Daniel DeFranco

Even with careful preparation, DeFranco and crew will face situations that are both uncontrollable—such as bad weather—and unpredictable, such as finding a homeless man sleeping in the theater. (Groove staffers offered the man food and a sweatshirt before escorting him out.) “That’s the thrill of live events,” he says.

At Sunday’s close, with an empty awards table and tired competitors heading home, DeFranco and staff will spend another hour and a half breaking down and cleaning up. Each staffer has put in 30 to 40 hours of work over the long weekend. “You learn to pace yourself. If you use up all your energy Friday night, you’ll be exhausted by Sunday,” DeFranco says. “It’s grueling—mentally and physically—but it’s fun. Everyone’s in it together, and it bonds us as a team.”

Mondays back in the office, staffers upload 15,000 video critiques and even higher numbers of still photos. Phones ring with schedule requests and last-minute registrations. On Tuesdays executive team members recap each event in a meeting that’s part logistic necessity, part therapy session. Everyone shares their thoughts about the hotel, travel, and venue; the judges and crew; and studios and systems.

After a few days in the office, it all begins again—in 2017 Groove ran events on 14 consecutive weekends (sans one) from February through late May. Off-season weeks are shorter—four weekdays, fewer weekends—but DeFranco stays busy planning for the coming season, considering a range of questions: Does demand warrant a fifth New England regionals? What awards will be given out in the new intermediate level? What can Groove do better?

Despite the pace, DeFranco—a former competitive dancer—truly enjoys his job. “I’ve had some of the best feelings I’ve ever felt doing this job,” DeFranco says. “When I see a 7-year-old run offstage, and her teacher gives her a high five, and her proud dad is waiting with flowers, I think, ‘Yes. We’re giving a really good experience to kids, and I had a hand in creating that experience.’ That’s a really rewarding feeling.”

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.