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Inside the Mind of a Judge

Author: IDA Judge Ashley

This morning, I woke up at 3:00am.

After a punishingly early taxi ride to the airport and a long wait at my gate, I was seated next to a gentleman who snored like a chainsaw and refused to share the armrest. I spent the majority of my flight trying to push the man’s arm back to his side of the partition. No such luck.

But now here I am, in your city, and despite my hectic morning, I am really happy to be here.

Honestly, I love judging dance competitions.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I was a competition kid once, and I still remember that heady mix of nerves, confidence and adrenaline that made competing so exhilarating. Like it was yesterday, I recall seeing the judges from the stage, watching their mouths move in the soft glow of the lamps that lit their scoresheets. They were otherworldly to me: professionals, giants, gods. I wanted them to notice me, to like me, to tell me I had potential. Perhaps one day, I thought, could be a god, too.

You can imagine, then, how privileged I feel to be on the other side. Granted, the myth of the judge has faded somewhat (my plane-coiffed hair and gummy eyes don't exactly scream “deity”), but nonetheless, I still heartily respect the position I hold, and the dreams that the position represents. I try not to take it for granted.

Because I know what it's like to be you, I am already rooting for you. As I wait for you to enter the stage I send you some telepathic good-luck messages:

“You got this! Deep breath. Don't let anything hold you back. Be brave. Show me subtlety! Take chances. Enjoy yourself!”

And here you come! Entry #1!

I click “record” on my computer screen and we’re off to the races.

As you walk onstage, I already start to analyze. It's amazing how much you can tell about a dancer by the way they enter the stage. I can instantly gauge your confidence level and, based on the way your muscles extend and contract, I can get a pretty good read of the technical level you’re at. Sometimes I am surprised, but usually my guess is pretty good.

I comment on your costume: great choice. Most importantly, it flatters YOUR body, and it's age appropriate (thank you for being classy). The costume is unique, plus I feel better knowing that you probably spent $30 at H&M and not $500 at some custom creation boutique. No need to waste your pennies when that bargain special looks so good on you!

Your song is great as well: the concept is one that you, at your age, can grasp and express with confidence. I haven't heard the song before and make a mental note to add it to my Spotify playlist.

From here on out, I fall into a stream-of-consciousness style critique, talking about the things I see (good or not-so-good) and offering advice as to how you can improve. If I alight on a complex concept, I focus on it for a while, making sure I'm clear so that you understand my meaning when you listen later. As I give you a technical note, I can hear the judge sitting next to me giving the opposite advice. It's always interesting when this happens and I wonder what my colleague has seen that I haven't. I resolve to ask them about it on our next bathroom break.

You are directing your performance to the balcony. Excellent. This makes you look super confident, not to mention that I can now watch and critique in peace. I must admit, it’s a little distracting when a performer holds a judge’s gaze. If you lock eyes with me, I don't want to be rude, so I won't look away, but then I start thinking about my own expression. Is my concentration face super mean looking? I don't want you to think I'm mean! So then I start to smile at you. But then I begin to wonder if me constantly smiling looks creepy. Am I being creepy? Meanwhile, you’re doing awesome dancing and I'm critiquing none of it because I'm worried about my face.

Needless to say, I'm glad you’re looking up.

I look down to add some points to your score and suddenly the whole crowd erupts into cheers behind me. I look up quickly, hoping to catch the tail end of what you did, but you have already moved on. Rats - I missed it. Ah well. To err is human.

And then, you fall.

It's not a big fall, but it's enough to shake you a bit. To you, I know, it probably seems like the end of the world, but for me, it all depends on what happens next. Do you become so disoriented that you forget your choreography and, in a flush of embarrassment, run offstage? Or do you chuckle internally and improvise your way back into your dance? If it’s the former, I am disappointed. I feel cheated that I didn't get you see you redeem yourself. I will probably take points off. If it’s the latter, you will probably hear me clap for you. Honestly - falls happen! It probably means you were taking a fantastic risk. I can't tell you how many times I've fallen (on my literal derrière, in front of hundreds of people) on a professional stage. C’est la vie! The important part is to keep going. Kinda like life.

[Disclaimer: If your pointe shoe ribbon has come untied or you start to feel physically ill - PLEASE LEAVE THE STAGE! We care way too much about your safety to let you try and stick it out. It's nerve-wracking to watch and I spend more time worrying about your health than I do critiquing. So, the rule of thumb is, “Ego in danger, please be brave! Body in danger, leave the stage!” I give you full permission to put this on a poster with an inspirational sunset in the background. By all means, hang it on the wall at your studio.]

But you keep on dancing. Hooray! I add some points for your professionalism.

You play up the humor in your song and I sigh with relief. It's super refreshing to see something comedic once in awhile. In an entire day of competition, I will see maybe 3 numbers that make me laugh. Most other dances concern serious subject matter, and the ones that don't are usually populated with dancers taking themselves very seriously, worrying more about their technique than their own enjoyment.

Well, here’s a little judge’s secret: WE LIKE TO HAVE FUN, TOO!

If you enjoy yourself, I enjoy myself. If I enjoy myself, you get more points. It's a pretty simple equation, actually. Trust that your technique is there, and have more fun! The world is full of so many things that aren't fun. Dancing should not be one of those things.

But you are having fun. I’m so relieved! I thank you for this and add a few more points to your score.

Truly, anything that makes you stand out from the crowd is a good thing. As a young competition dancer, I remember worrying that I was different. My solo lacked the popular tricks and turn sequences that all the “cool kids” had, and I assumed that the judges thought I was an amateur.

Here’s what I didn't understand at the time.

By the time you enter the stage, the judges have already seen a hundred ariels, a thousand tilts and a million turns in second. Believe you me, if I never see another turn in second in my entire life, it will be too soon. We’ve seen all the tricks already, and guess what? We’re pretty bored of them.

So, how do you stand out?

Number one: give us clean technique. You’d be surprised how infrequently judges witness this. I would rather see a perfectly executed double pirouette than 20 mediocre fouettés. I would rather listen to a flawlessly clean cramproll than a fast sequence of wings and toe stands where the sounds and rhythms are unclear. Good technique never goes out of style.

Number two: Think about it. What is the one thing you have that is completely unique to you?

Why, YOUR PERSONALITY, of course!

I have seen a lot of dancing in my life, but I've never seen YOU dance. Bring your own, individual personality (complete with its quirks, flaws and weakness) to your performance because that is what makes you stand out! Be unapologetic about who you are because we want to see how YOU interpret the movement. I’ve never met you before and I'm infinitely curious.

And then, as suddenly as it started, your performance is over. You bow and walk offstage.

I score you as fairly as I can. Based on my training and my experiences, I give you the numbers that I think you deserve right now. Please note: this is not a judgement on your entire life, nor is it a judgement on the person you will be a year from now. I give you the score that I saw today, in the hopes that you will take my critiques and apply them to your training so that you can be better tomorrow.

As you retreat into the darkness of the wings, I wish you love, luck and strength for your journey. I hope you understand that I believe in you, even if I've only known you for three minutes.

Next up, entry #2!

Only 700 more to go.

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