Competition Dance-just some thoughts

The time that I spend on social media, participating in dance teachers’ groups, websites, and blogs, has opened the door to the world of competitive dance. I am finding what I see through that door extremely intriguing. My personal experience with competition dance has been limited. I have never been a regular teacher at a competition school. I have only judged one dance competition and that was more than 20 years ago. I have been learning and reading about this aspect of the dance industry on social media and I recently read two posts that really peaked my interest. Both of these pieces related to “turning” and both of these pieces have got me thinking about what we teach our students, how we choreograph for our students and what our goals are of our students.

The first post was about a competition piece, in which a student uses something called a turn board to execute seven pirouettes. I do not know what a turn board is. I did not google “turn board”… but I’ve got a pretty good idea as to what it is and what it is used for. As I mentioned in my piece about “tricks”, I am not a teacher who hates tricks. In fact I love technical brilliance and pyrotechnical steps…when they are used to enhance the artistic vision of the choreographer, express something in the music, or add to the dramatic narrative of the piece of choreography. I am not interested in “tricks” when they are used as a vulgar display of prowess. One of the comments on this post about the “turn board” suggested that the judges might consider it a prop. I would like to offer as an example a clip from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. In this number, choreographer Michael Kidd uses “props” as well as brilliant virtuoso “tricks” to enhance the story telling, highlight the musical intention and bring  his vision to the screen. (The piece is a good 6 minutes…stay with it, it is really worth it.)

Now granted, Michael Kidd is one of the greatest choreographers of all time. He had at his disposal, dancers with an incredible level of technical ability who were brilliant artists; the kind of dancer we seldom see today. It would be unfair to expect every dance teacher who sends a group to a competition to be able to choreograph and set a piece at this level. However, I do know for a fact, there are some exceedingly talented teachers and choreographers in the competition dance world. And perhaps if we can expose those talented teachers and choreographers to THIS way of working, we might not see “turn combinations” that are shoehorned into pieces merely to display the dancers technical ability. And maybe if the competition dance studios and choreographers embrace other aesthetics, other ways of working, rather than seeing a turn board on the stage, we might see some truly original use of props to enhance technical feats.

The second post that caught my eye questioned whether dancers should be given “turn combinations” in competition pieces that they can not execute perfectly. There was a certain amount of discussion on how judges score pieces, how deductions are made for mistakes and what the technical requirements are for pieces at various levels. All of this was very informative to me, as I have no knowledge as to how competition pieces are constructed and how judges score them.

In the previous clip, we saw dancing that had an incredible level of technical “tricks”. I would like to contrast that with a piece that has no tricks at all (and yes, I reference this piece often.) Bob Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity:

This piece is constructed in a completely different way. It requires a very high level of technique, as well as a very high level of style, nuance and artistic expression. I have danced this piece and it is extremely difficult. Everything is choreographed, including the fingers. Every detail is worked out, planned, and perfected. Style, musicality, phrasing, control, quality of movement…all need to be as close to perfect as is humanly possible for the piece to have the effect that it does in this clip. I have often wondered how something like this might be viewed by competition judges. The piece is one of the most challenging I have ever danced and was very difficult to learn, yet…there are no tricks; no turns, no display.

So, getting back to the question as to whether dancers should be given “turn combinations” in competition pieces that they can not execute perfectly, I think it depends on what we are trying to achieve, what we have set as our goal. If our goal is to win (and that is certainly a valid goal) then the experts in dance competitions will tell us that we should not be presenting tricks that the students cannot perform perfectly, as point deductions will certainly be taken. However, there might be other goals. Perhaps we are trying to create an experience for the students; perhaps we are trying to give them an opportunity to try something new. And creating that opportunity without worrying about winning is also a valid goal. And we also might be teaching our students to take risks. And nothing is more thrilling to an audience than an artist who takes risks… And this, too, is a valid goal. But if we have students who are lovely artists who cannot turn well or do not have high extensions, perhaps we can look toward the work presented in Mr. Fosse’s clip. Perhaps this kind of work could inspire the talented, creative competition teachers and choreographers to create pieces that can enthrall the audience and impress the judges in a new and different way.

So with each visit to a competition school, with each guest teaching engagement, I am trying to bridge the gap. I am trying to bring different ways of working, different approaches, different ideas and different focuses to competition dance. Clearly these teachers and choreographers are not going to abandon their entire training, history, way of working and artistic vision because I show them my point of view; that would be ridiculous, and incredibly ego-maniacal. But maybe, as I present a different way of working, a different way to approach composition, musicality, movement…dancing, I can bring some new ideas. And maybe some of these ideas can blended into the way these artists are already working to bring something different, fresh and exciting to the competition stage. Maybe these artists might be moved to take a risk…and what could be more thrilling?

2 thoughts on “Competition Dance-just some thoughts

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this whole article and the two videos. Thank you! I too try to bridge the gap between “competitive” choreo and a taking a more traditional approach. I also appreciate the part where you say there are different goals. I have parents who put too much emphasis on awards and it’s contagious. I need to see the bigger picture sometimes. Thank you.

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    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I have many colleagues at some of the more serious schools that “roll their eyes” at the prospect of teaching at a competition school. I really do welcome the opportunity to work with all kinds of students at all kinds of schools. I think that the competition dance world has a lot to offer its students. They love what they do and they’re very good at it… so why on earth criticize them and what the are doing. My goal is just to bring them another viewpoint. They may like it, they may embrace it, they may not. And we all have different goals… and I hope to help every student get just a little closer to that goal.

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