I spend quite a bit of time online, reading various threads and posts about dance; both teaching and performing. There is a theme that keeps coming up over and over again in posts from teachers working in the competition setting and it has spurred me to write this article.
As a preface, I would like to say that I think that dance competitions have a lot to offer. I think that they teach young people about team work, about commitment, about goals. Competitions teach kids to be good losers as well as gracious winners (hopefully). And competitions help instill a good solid work ethic in our dancers, something that sadly seems to be disappearing with each successive generation. I should also say that I am not directly connected to the world of competition dance. The majority of my regular teaching is in the pre-professional/conservatory and professional setting (Joffrey, Broadway Dance Center, NY Film Academy, CAP21, Marymount Manhattan College, Molloy College). I’ve never competed myself. I’ve never choreographed specifically for a dance competition. And the last competition that I judged was in 1990 (competitions were very different then). I do, however, travel the country extensively as a guest teacher for numerous competition studios that are looking to bring something different/unique to the way their dancers work. So,that being said…I am offering my OPINION as a dance educator and choreographer; as someone who has spent his entire life bucking convention, and not as an expert in competition dance.
The posts to which I am referring usually begin something like this:
“How do judges feel about…”
And the question is usually about something like: dancing with no tights, inserting various tricks into a piece of choreography of particular genre, wearing a particular kind of costume, using a particular type of music or editing music in a particular way, and the ever popular “dancing with one shoe”.
And so I read these questions and I read the answers. And sometimes I have an opinion and sometimes I don’t. And sometimes I sit back and follow the thread and sometimes I contribute. But there is a question that is always in the back of my mind:
“What are you trying to present on that stage? Why are you competing? What is the goal?”
I would hope that what the teacher and what the dancers are trying to present on that stage is a piece of art with a vision. I would think that a choreographer would want to take those few minutes of stage time to present a piece of choreography that they were INSPIRED to create. Perhaps there was a piece of music that spoke to the choreographer and so the piece was created to bring that music to life in a new way. Perhaps there is a story to tell. Perhaps there is a mood to be set. Perhaps the piece is a commentary on something deeply important to its creator…the reasons for, and purposes of art are LIMITLESS. And, in my opinion, the choreography, the music, the costumes, should all serve the vision. I have written extensively about the use of tricks in choreography; so to be brief here, tricks can be fantastically exciting and thrilling but they should, in my opinion, serve the vision. Tricks can enhance the piece in a very profound way, if they are used to highlight a point in your story-telling, or to underline a moment in the music or to express an emotion or mood. But when tricks are used to demonstrate that a group of dancers can cleanly (or not so cleanly) execute a complicated series of turns or jumps- then that trick, which could have been used to create a moment of excitement- has devolved into a vulgar display of technical prowess with no meaning or connection to the work.
I would think that once this piece of choreography has been created, taught and polished, it would then be presented for the judges approval. In this way our dancers are learning about the creative process. They are learning how a choreographer takes music, costumes, dancers and the limitless powers of their imagination and creates something truly wonderful. They are learning how art is made. They become part of our tradition, our history of dance. And as dancers have done, since the beginning of the art-form, they PERFORM the piece. And then they will be judged. And perhaps the judges will love the piece. And perhaps they won’t. And maybe they will win, and maybe they won’t. But I would think that our GOAL should be to teach our dancers about the creative process and about the making of art.
If we set out from the start to cobble together a piece that is CALCULATED to win, where is the value in the lesson that we are teaching our students? What is the real value in that trophy? But if we have a vision, and if we, with the greatest of integrity, bring that vision to the stage, I would hope that the judges would see that vision, that honesty, that integrity, and reward it. But if they don’t, perhaps there is something to be learned there as well.
So if your artistic vision includes dancing with one shoe (and perhaps there is brilliant way to create a piece about a dancer who looses a shoe) I say Bravo! But let’s try to use the competition stage to continue to educate our dancers and prepare them for their futures. Trophies can be bought, but a lifetime spent in artistic pursuit is truly a gift.