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Tips & Tricks for Competition Cleaning

Check out our recent Podcast Episode inspired by this Blog Article!


It's that time of year again - choreography has been brewing in your brain for months, ideas swirling in your head, countless hours of searching for the right song, and now it’s time to get to work! Some studios set choreography over the summer to get it out of the way. Others take it week by week, doling out little sections of the routine. Regardless of how you put it on its feet, the common denominator for all choreographers and teachers is cleaning! Cleaning choreography can almost be more daunting than creating it – cleaning can be tedious, boring, frustrating (to both student and teacher). This week, IDA judges tackle the process of cleaning during competition rehearsal, and are here to share their tried and true methods for turning a “hot mess” into a success!

Opinions were varied when it comes to cleaning as you go as opposed to cleaning once the routine is complete. Maddie Kurtz, IDA judge and MFA candidate at SUNY Brockport, is a big advocate of teaching quickly and then cleaning. She says,

“I find that getting all of the material out in a short period of time and then cleaning, as opposed to cleaning as I teach, makes a world of difference. This strategy is critical for numerous reasons. First, it teaches dancers to pick up choreography quickly, which is an important skill for auditions, company work, and for taking class effectively. Beyond the studio, this method forces young dancers to pinpoint their learning style, which is hugely helpful in their lives in the studio, at school, and beyond. Once dancers define whether they are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, their capacity to learn and retain choreography and corrections increases tremendously!”

Miranda Zimmerman, IDA judge and dance teacher from Buffalo, has a different, but also valid, opinion.


“I have found that cleaning as you go works best! If you have the opportunity to work on a piece for an extended period of time, cleaning each section you choreograph before moving on to the next section, makes retaining the choreography and changes easier. I will make sure that I am very specific from the beginning about arm placement, directions, and formation changes, instead of just "throwing out the choreography", that way the dancers can get an idea of what it is supposed to be exactly. I also find out that if you wait until much later to start cleaning the routine, then the dancers may develop bad habits or be practicing something wrong for weeks/months before it gets addressed, which leads to a harder time fixing the mistake.” Regardless of when you clean, specificity is key and clear communication will help ensure that your dancers work to the best of their abilities.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and a common frustration among choreographers is how difficult it can be to engage first time competition dancers. It takes a great amount of discipline and focus to learn a competition routine, and that focus must also be learned – kids don’t just come in with the ability to stay on task for that long. Christina Yoder, IDA judge and co-founder of the Northeast Tap Collective, has some advice for teachers struggling to keep everyone in line: “In the classroom as I'm teaching choreography, I try to make sure every dancer has something to work on. This may mean teaching choreography out of order a bit, but I'll start with a big group section, then move on to something with a smaller group or soloist while the others continue to work, remember, and perfect in another part of the room. This gives the dancers some amount of ownership over their choreography, gives them more time to put the new choreography into muscle memory, and keeps them occupied so they are less likely to continually ask when they get a "special part!"” Thinking outside the box in terms of how you structure a rehearsal can be helpful when working with first time competitors!

Lianne Solina, IDA judge and dance teacher from Raleigh, NC, says, “One size doesn't fit all with helping students make the choreography their own, which is why I like to switch it up often to keep it engaging and exciting for them. One of my favorite tricks, especially with the younger ones, is to play, "Red light, green light, 1, 2, 3" with their choreography formations. They have a blast learning the choreography sequence and placement that way!”

Another idea that is fun and effective is from Jessica Ice, IDA judge and professional dancer and dance teacher from NYC: “A tactic that I borrowed from my teachers growing up is a star chart! I make a poster/chart with each of the dancer’s name in the routine and the 8 count that has been cleaned. When the student does the 8 count clean and performance ready, they get a star. This is a great way for the dancers to stay accountable, for the teacher to monitor if a student missed a cleaning rehearsal, and who might need some extra attention in the next rehearsal.” Finding ways to make cleaning more fun benefits both teacher and student alike!

Several judges mentioned how effective videotaping choreography can be when cleaning competition routines. Max Vasapoli, IDA judge and assistant to the director at University of the Arts, says, “While the mirror is a great tool, I recommend taking videos of rehearsals to catch mistakes and incongruences. It's important to look at specific details like the angle of arms, the depth of a plié, and the angle of the head. This goes beyond just knowing the counts and, instead, understanding the picture the choreographer created. Videos also help benchmark your progress because you can see improvement or changes from week to week.”

Ashley Marinelli, IDA judge and professional dancer and dance teacher from NYC, agrees, “I'm a huge fan of taping the dances I am rehearsing and letting the dancers see for themselves what is going well/going wrong. Once I have recorded the dance, I usually have a little viewing party, where I break down what I am seeing, just the way a competition judge might. When we watch the dance a second time, I let the dancers be "guest judges", who then give their opinions on what could be cleaner, more motivated, etc. I find that involving the dancers in the process of cleaning not only gives them ownership over the piece, but also motivates them to implement the corrections (as the video allows them to see the bigger picture of the dance). Cleaning then becomes a concerted group effort to make the dance better, rather than a "picky teacher yelling for no reason". Not to mention it's a fantastic team bonding exercise.” Another wonderful option is to video the routines, and post them into an unlisted or private Youtube or Vimeo playlist for the dancers to access on their own.

For older dancers who can handle a more strenuous approach to cleaning, Christina Yoder offers this tip: “I start the music, and stop with each mistake (technical, musical, timing, unison, etc). We then start over again at the beginning. Sometimes we only make it 15 seconds into the piece by the end of rehearsal. But because we spend so long on that 15 second section, those critiques and fixes will stay in the dancer's minds and physicality so you can move on to the next 15 the following rehearsal.” This approach can be tedious but it is definitely effective with students who are focused.

Jesse Miller, IDA judge and choreographer from Baltimore, approaches cleaning with older students from an acting perspective. “If the piece is lyrical or musical theater, I like students to print out the lyrics and I facilitate a discussion about theme, story arc, and what is happening in the piece. Especially for these two genres, I like to approach one rehearsal like an acting class. We establish the moment before and figure out why we are dancing - we even do the lyrics as monologues or as scenes so we actually understand what we are doing/saying!” The acting approach can be a game changer for dancers who want to take their performance to the next level.

One suggestion from many of the judges we spoke with was to have dancers write down the choreography. This won’t be as effective with younger dancers, since it will likely take them much longer to write, but with older dancers, the physical act of writing can be tremendously helpful for remembering choreography and changes from week to week. This is also a good way to begin teaching correct spelling and terminology, and give the dancers a much needed rest. Lianne Solina recognizes that sometimes on long dance days, her approach needs to change. “I have them take a "body break" where they lay on the floor with their eyes closed and are only allowed to move their hands and feet to help visualize and mark the choreography with music. It can also be made into a freeze dance game where you pause the music and have them explain what they're doing, feeling, and progressing to.” Be sure that everyone stays on task without zoning out or napping! Using more academic and mindful approaches to cleaning will result in more conscientious and thoughtful dancers.

As you tackle your cleaning process for the 2018 competition season, we at Impact Dance Adjudicators hope these tips have been helpful and sparked some new ideas for helping your team be the best they can be. Did any of these tips work for you? Do you have any methods for cleaning that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

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