And the winner is… a judge’s perspective

Let me first start out by saying that dance competitions at their core are opinions of the people sitting at the table on that day. Because every judge has their individual preferences, it would be impossible for me to give you a tips with 100% success in creating winning routines. 

You might be asking yourself :

Why should I listen to this one perspective then, and to those people I say, maybe this isn’t for you.  Some teachers are very “offended” when it comes to someone else telling them how to do their job. The idea that they are not the “expert” in their own business may create insecurity or fear for those individuals. And for them, this talk may not be for them right now. Or maybe they are getting the results they want with the feedback and critiques they feel are useful and worthwhile. If you find yourself in either situation, then maybe this isn’t for you. But maybe my perspective might help understand the “HOW” of judging.

Before you decide to continue investigating my perspective, let me tell you I have been on BOTH sides of this table. Aside from being a studio owner for over 20 years, I grew my studio from a VERY recreational studio to a national award winning team. In my early years as a studio owner I was very concerned with how others viewed my talents as a teacher and a business owner. The first 5 years of my studio I didn’t even take them to competition because I was afraid that others would base my knowledge and ability as a teacher on how my students performed/placed. 

In years 5-10 as a studio director, we attended competitions and had mild success but not the stellar moments I wanted for them ( and lets be real, for me too). In my early days as a competitive teacher, I would try to put in the hardest things they could “do”, even if the success rate was 50%, cuz 50/50 odds aren’t too bad… Other logic I had was, if I put  hard things in the dances, it validates me and my knowledge as a dancer. I would make the routines as long as the time limit allowed thinking that the more stage time the better.  I would pick music that were “my favorites” regardless of the dancers age/ability because if I had to listen to that song 300,000 times this season, I better damn well like it. Then there was the costuming & props….I would stay up nights trying to be as “creative” as I could dreaming up these extreme props and costumes.   I taught every genre of dance, but you know the saying: jack of all trades, master of none…And well,  let’s just say I could have taken a few lessons myself is some styles. 

Then, year 10 for my studio, I was asked to judge for a few very respected competitions. That was when I had my CTJ, (come to Jesus) moment, a term that I have adopted from the brilliant researcher Brene Brown. As I was sitting there (sometimes for 15 hours) watching dance after dance and looking at these dancers I had never worked with, met, or had an knowledge of their “story”; I was being asked to watch them, give feedback,  and score them based on that one performance. 

I started to watch and  consider HOW I  rated each routine. I begin taking mental notes about the things that would affect my ability to score the routine high. I became aware that when a dancer was struggling with the routine & moves, critiques were basic, because there was just so much to fix that I didn’t know what to focus on to make better. 

My last 10 years , were by far,  my most successful as a competitive studio owner. We began to build a reputation of excellence with dance pieces that were the right fit for the dancers that were cast in that piece. 

Now as I judge, nearly 25 years after first opening my studio, I try to give critiques that can help the dancers /teachers not only tighten up the dance, but suggest exercises to improve on some of the things that need work.

Sometimes giving these type of critiques are difficult because of the routine, not necessarily the dancer. So here are the things that not only myself, but many of my colleagues that judge feel can create a stand out performance:

  1. Keep it Short (2 min for solos, 2:30 for groups). Competition days are long and after watching 100 contemporary solos, we don’t need to see your turn sequence for the 3rd time. Do it once, do it right, and call it day. You should leave the audience wanting more, not checking their program to see what’s next. Which leads me to my second trick of the trade…
  1. Only put in the things that the dancer can do with proficiency 90%of the time. Meaning if they can do an Ariel 9 times out of 10 in a row, and nail it technically then its a keeper. Not only will the dancer feel less anxious about doing it on stage, but it also allows the judges to give helpful feedback. Now I don’t mean that you should hold dancers back from trying that double turn, but practice in class and perform the part of it that you think you are doing well (even if its just a balance in passé). Teachers are asking us to judge the dancer’s skills and provide feedback to improve, but the actual teaching of the technique is the teachers job, not the critic. You don’t get “bonus points” for attempting something way beyond your training. Truth be told, if your dancer practices the basic way often, it will help both you and the judges give pointers on how it might be better. Those small adjustments to the basic move will translate even faster to the more advanced version with repetition. As a judge, if a dancer is doing a triple pirouette and it’s clear they don’t even have the foundation for turns, then giving feedback is overwhelming and the “go to” corrections like point your feet,  are the only definitive things we can say. You are asking us to judge these kids honestly and fairly, so show us their best, not work in progress. In an academic comparison, just because you took Pre Cal does not mean you’re ready for  AP Calculus. And this is why the next tip is so important.
  1. Choreograph to the dancers age & abilities. Although different regions of the country have varying opinions on appropriateness, you never know what region the judges are from. If you even have to ask “is this too much”, then error on the side of caution and go in a different direction. Not only for your dancers, but for your studio’s reputation. If you feel your product is appropriate then go with your gut, but remember you are asking for someone else’s opinion and be willing to hear their perspective and accept the outcome of various opinions.  This is true for costuming and music as well. I am not a conservative by any means, but I have witnessed dances that made me uncomfortable watching. Please edit your music. We all know what the song is saying, but that doesn’t mean EVERYONE does that is in the audience, and your studio’s reputation is on the line when profanity is blatant. 
  1. A clean dance is appreciated over a difficult dance. I understand that choreographers are artists, but if the dancer’s execution is not clean and together, then it is difficult to even focus on the theme or story behind the movement.  When a dancer can execute a routine with confidence, then it becomes a true performance, not just movement. A clean, cohesive, confident performance is generally well received by the judges.

I hope you find my insight a little helpful moving into the next dance season. Winning isn’t everything, so don’t focus on the prize but the progress you can make by entering competitions. Let the judges help you improve your craft by giving them material that shows exactly what you can do and hopefully they can provide tips for taking your student’s dancing to the next level.

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