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We’ve all see the child prodigies on YouTube - the young dancers who somehow pull off the most advanced turn sequences and the highest leaps, with the emotional execution of a dancer well past their age. We sit in awe of those children, wondering what must be in the water at that studio! The reality is, however, that those students are precious anomalie. The majority of children in dance class will not excel at everything all at once, and many will struggle with concepts like musicality, creating shapes, flexibility, and retention. The competition stage is a great place to showcase the concepts and steps that each age knows, and judges have certain expectations for each age group. IDA judges Michelle Tolson, Joey Ortolani and Dione Hamza have years of teaching experience in all ages and levels, and share their expectations for all ages.
With competitions accepting entries from dancers as young as 3 years old, and with the evolution of levels at competitions, it is important to understand the expectations of judges for all ages and levels. For the 6 and under crowd, Joey Ortolani, teacher from New York, says, “My expectations are relatively low because they are so young. If a child that young can get through an entire routine, happily, without forgetting, and without crying, I think they've scored a High Gold (on a scale with Platinum as the highest). If they execute a clean pirouette, a properly placed split, or a well balanced heel stretch without wobbling and it's turned out and showing a nice picture, I give it a Platinum.” Dione Hamza, teacher from Michigan, adds, “A routine for the Minis should show the dancer's ability to hold a good posture and body alignment. It should show that the dancer can keep the correct timing with the beat of the music. Last, it should show that the dancer can connect with the music and concept.” Always consider the content of the music so that the dancer can relate to the song. Routines for this age can be short and sweet, and repetition is encouraged for retention.
As we move up to the Petite age group (7-9 years old), this is when we start to see the major differences between dancers who train multiple days of the week and more recreational level dancers. It’s important to remember that an advanced level 7 year old will have a different skill set than a recreational level 7 year old, and rightly so. At many competitions, the scoring scale is different between levels, so that it is easier for a novice dancer to win a higher award based on the fact that their skill set contains fewer steps. Keep that in mind when listening to adjudications - it can be frustrating to hear “High Gold” over and over again, but many times, you are hearing Recreational and Competitive level awards mixed together, and the awards, while named the same things, have different number values. Michelle Tolson, teacher from New York, explains, “As a teacher and choreographer, I understand the difficulty of setting a piece for children under 9 that have limited years of dance experience. When I am watching a recreational routine in that age range, I expect and hope to see the basics of whatever genre they are performing. I am not looking for tricks or lots of flash, I am looking for solid dance training and steps set to the beat of the music with music that is age appropriate.” As we start considering the more advanced level dancer in this age group, Joey says, “At ages 7-9, I’m looking for a clean single pirouette, demonstrating basic knowledge of leaps and kicks for a High Gold. Clean doubles, good flexibility, and strong leaps would be a Platinum along with some emotional execution.”
The Junior age group (10-12) can be challenging to teach and to judge, as many students this age are going through growth spurts that can completely change the way their bodies have learned to move. Dione explains, “This is the age when dancers are growing a ton, which can lead to what I like to call "Bambi on ice" syndrome. To explain it better, a lot of kids are growing so much they don't know how to properly keep their body alignment together. One week they are 3 feet 2 inches tall, and the next week they are 3 feet 6 inches! It is extremely hard to have to keep relearning how to move a body that is continuously growing. A strong emphasis on being fully aware of how to carry their weight should be stressed at this level. It is also a good time to introduce steps that incorporate more weight transfer, and direction change.” Pas de bourrée turns in jaz z are a great example of both weight transfer and direction change that can be taught and utilized in choreography for this age.
Finally, in the Teen and Senior levels, dancers should have a solid understanding of the foundations of dance and be able to add emotion and style to any genre of dance. Dione says, “For the this age group, teachers can start to expand concept ideas with their students. At this level, body placement and alignment should be well understood. I like seeing more technical elements and dimensions in their dancing. For example, with tap there should be more use of shading and accenting. Musicality should be strong enough to understand the feeling behind the music, not just with the lyrics, but with how the beats make a person feel. Each movement should have a clear picture and intention behind it.” Joey agrees, “Anyone considered an advanced 13+ dancer should be executing clean triples or more, full splits in any leap, strong stretched feet, lengthened knees, strong transitions, and emotional execution. The incorporation of style becomes ever more important as they get older.” Especially in the competitive world, strong technique will not necessarily get you the highest award - adherence to a clear style, showing genuine emotion, as well as engaging storytelling are the elements that will bump your score up to the top.
Routines at dance competitions should show polished skills that the dancers have worked to hone all season. Often as judges, we see skills that are still in the “workshop” phase - still needing lots of attention and practice. Michelle stresses that, “a clean double will always win over a sloppy triple. Clean times steps will always win over messy, fast footwork. Introducing an advanced step too early can also lead to injuries to dancers that are not trained or strong enough to execute these steps properly. We see it a lot at competition and find that the dancers are just muscling through the steps, but don’t really understand how the step is properly done. This leads to knee, back and hip injuries way too young.” It can be detrimental to dancers to introduce skills that are too advanced, too early. Clear examples of these that we see often are fouettés and à la seconde turns, wings, toe stands, knee drops, and toe rises. With some of these steps, introducing them too early may not necessarily lead to injury, but will surely create bad habits that are hard to break. Dione says, “It is like taking a kid that just learned how to do addition in math and then expecting them to understand calculus. If you skip all the middle stuff, you will never fully understand the final product.” Many teachers complain that they only add more difficulty because judges say they want more difficulty - but there are other ways to add difficulty to basic steps that will also not be detrimental. Instead of a fouetté sequence that a dancer is not ready for, consider a piqué and chaîné turn sequence. Instead of wings that are not articulated or toe stands with sickled ankles, consider a series of clean walking riffs, or a maxi ford with a graboff to show that the dancer is being challenged in other ways. Think outside the box to find new ways to challenge students with steps that aren’t going to potentially injure them, or create bad habits that are hard to break. Remember - the judges want dancers to succeed!