Dance Competitions 201: From the Mouths of Judges—Tips for a Winning Competition Routine

Pink-Ribbon-GraphicBy: Terri Gustafson, Relationship Manager

With competition season in full swing, talented dancers from across the country are coming together for the love of dance with the hope of walking away with a renewed sense of confidence and some hardware to show off back at the studio.

Last week, I met with a few friends of mine who regularly serve as judges in regional and national dance competitions to get the inside scoop on how they judge competition routines. As you prep for and fine tune your dances, keep in mind the following elements that judges will surely prioritize when determining a score for your performances:

For Choreographers

Spacing is key. For group numbers, spacing must be top notch. Dancers should be evenly spaced and formation changes should happen seamlessly and neatly.

During practice, keep in mind that it can be tricky for dancers to accurately assess the space between themselves and others. To help, consider giving them visual clues that reflect the spacing needs of individual pieces of choreography. For example, you might tell dancers for a specific sequence there should be a “full arm’s length” between themselves and the dancer next to them.

Bottom line is that sloppy spacing is distracting to judges, making it more difficult to focus on dancers’ technique.

Keep in mind your students’ capabilities and strengths. While routines that include advanced sequences may be more fun to choreograph, be sure you are thinking critically about what tricks and movements your dancers can realistically pull off during show time.

For example, if your students are unable to regularly complete a fouette sequence without falling off center or maintaining proper technique, do not include it in your choreography. It is always better to have your dancers excel with simple choreography than struggle with advanced movements they have yet to master.

Consider your dancers’ ages. Nothing is more off-putting to judges than young students performing very provocative choreography (or mature dancers performing a very juvenile routine). Consider your dancers’ ages and maturity levels when choreographing and selecting costumes. The judges and your dancers’ parents will thank you.

Diversify choreography. Every choreographer has a unique style. George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Bob Fosse, for example, have particular styles that helped make them renowned choreographers.

However, while you may have a certain style or set of go-to moves, be sure that there is diversity in choreography across routines, and especially, across genres. It shouldn’t be immediately obvious that two dances are from the same studio.

For Dancers

Technique. Technique. Technique! Platinum performances are won in the studio. No matter how animated you are on stage, or how in sync your team is, if the technique is not there, the dance will not stand out as one of the best. Listen to your instructors’ feedback and implement it. Stretch regularly to increase flexibility and turn out. The more you practice the right way to execute your choreography, the more naturally it will come to you on stage.

Maintain your “performance face.” How frequently has your instructor yelled “smile!” to you during practice? I’m willing to bet more than once! Dance is a difficult art because it requires that you make some incredibly difficult and complex movements look effortless. Part of this is ensuring you don’t drop character on stage, even before a challenging move or after a mistake. Whatever emotion you are supposed to be displaying—happiness, sadness, fear—make sure you are in character from start to finish.

Handle judges’ critique with poise. Competitions are opportunities to learn and grow as a performer and artist. As such, embrace the judges’ feedback and try not to take it personally. Their critique is meant to help you improve, not to hurt your feelings!

Just keep dancing. Mistakes happen. Every dancer has fallen victim to blanking out on stage. When this happens, don’t panic! Remember that the judges do not know what choreography you have been practicing. In fact, I worked with a young dancer several years ago who, after completely blanking on stage, carried on with choreography that she made up on the spot. When it was time for the award ceremony, guess who was recognized for best choreography? She was! (And her choreographer let her keep the award, of course).

As cheesy as it may sound, having fun is the most important part of the competition experience—and this goes for performers, choreographers, studio owners and parents. The opportunity to gather with hundreds of people who share a passion for dance is exciting and invigorating.

From all of us at Curtain Call, enjoy competition season!

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