What Dance Competitions Taught Me
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“Back in my day, we tap danced on concrete, in the snow, uphill both ways! And we never complained!” How many times have we heard something similar from our seasoned teachers? While conditions for dance training may have changed for the better, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from our teachers who grew up dancing in a different time. Since their inception in the 1970s, dance competitions as we know them have changed and evolved into the million dollar industry we take part in every weekend from January through June. Teachers, IDA judges and former competition dancers Michelle Tolson and Christina Yoder reflect on what dance competitions have taught them and how their evolution has shaped their careers.
Over the years, competitions have come and gone, but the general idea has stayed the same. Dancers from various studios come together to perform their routines for a panel of qualified judges, and are adjudicated according to style and age. Michelle Tolson, former Miss New Hampshire and teacher in New York, remembers, “My first competition experience was with American Dance Spectrum (now called American Dance Awards) run by the Gold family. When I started competing they only gave out Gold, Silver and Bronze - and they actually gave out all three. I did receive Golds for my pieces and was excited to be recognized with a special award.” Written adjudications were the standard, and not everyone that attended won an award. Michelle continues, ”I found competition at that time to be an amazing place to learn and grow as dancer and choreographer. The days weren’t as long as they are now, and we always, at the end of the competition, went up and thanked the judges for their time.” Since competitions were not as ubiquitous in the beginning of the industry, winning even a Bronze award felt special!
Christina Young, co-owner of the tap-only convention Resonance Tap and dance teacher from Ohio, says, “My first dance competition was when I was in second grade. My twin sister and I performed a tap duet to “Mexican Corn” wearing adorable black sequin leotards with fringe. I'm sure it involved shiny tights and a curly ponytail because, well, it was the early 90's. I can no longer remember how the song goes or what the choreography entailed, but I remember the feeling of performing and knowing that we would be judged for that performance. I remember knowing for certain that my future would be on a stage. I remember the nervous excitement before my first entrance and again at awards. I remember the camaraderie among the dancers, not just from my studio, but from all of the dancers at the competition. Waiting for awards to be announced was equally exciting and terrifying, and in those days, you were awarded first, second, third, honorable mention, or nothing! We placed, both in our category and overall, and that was the beginning of our "Tappin' Twin" identity, which continues to this day.”
Since their competition days, both Michelle and Christina have gone on to have exciting careers in the performing arts world - Michelle as a former Miss New Hampshire, Radio City Rockette and sought-after dance teacher and competition adjudicator in the NYC tri-state area, and Christina as the co-director of Resonance Tap Experience, founder of Northeast Tap Collaborative, and master tap teacher in Ohio and around the country. Both dancers credit their experience in the dance competition world as a defining factor in their decisions to pursue dance as a career. Christina explains, “I have always loved learning and seek opportunities to further myself as a dancer and artist. I traveled great distances to take classes with teachers who could offer things my home studio could not. Knowing that a dance competition was in the future pushed me to work even harder - it inspired me to set new goals for myself. My teammates challenged one another to be our best. I attended every master class and convention I knew of and practiced for endless hours at home in the makeshift dance studio my parents had constructed in their basement. I worked, and worked hard, to earn my place on that stage, not for the trophy or praise, but for the feel of the lights, the nervous excitement of the entrance, losing myself in a piece of choreography I had worked hard to perfect and commit to muscle memory to the point that it no longer required thought.” When it comes down to it, dance competitions are another opportunity to perform and do what you love - the added bonus is the trophy. Michelle adds, “My experiences at competition made me want to be a better choreographer and become a judge. I was given great, positive feedback and felt I placed where I should. I was honored to be recognized by judges that were at the top of their field and any comments made on the score sheets were positive and constructive. Because of these positive experiences, I have chosen to have my students compete throughout the country.”
In our current dance competition climate, there are varying opinions about how beneficial competitions are for dancers. Multiple levels of competition have allowed for beginners through advanced dancers to compete to receive awards, which, while a wonderful idea in theory, can become confusing for everyone involved - and potentially devalue the importance of an award. So often on the dance teacher forums, we hear teachers lamenting about the amount of “High Gold” awards being given. Michelle says, “The days of hearing a Bronze or Silver at a competition are gone, and that saddens me. At the Olympics they only give Gold, Silver and Bronze, so why do we now have Platinum and Diamond?” She continues, “Dance culture and competition culture have changed dramatically from 20 years ago. With the advent of reality tv shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance”, dancers and many teachers think that what they see on TV needs to be what their students do now. I feel as if the artistry has been lost. Lyrical dance no longer tells a story. Musical Theater has become a lip sync challenge, and tappers only want to “hoof” or tap fast. At the same time, we are seeing more dancers try their hand at student choreography and improvisation, and that is refreshing to see. Young dancers will be our future choreographers, and dance competitions provide a safe environment for them to share their vision and create their style and brand.”
Even with the changing times, competition can still be beneficial to young dancers. Christina explains, “Having been a competition dancer made me a hard worker, a dreamer, and someone who sets goals that are achievable and real. It also taught me about disappointment, perceived failure and rejection. This is the not so glamorous side of competition dance, but a very real part of the performing industry. I learned quickly how to use disappointment as inspiration to get back to the studio and really apply what the judges were telling me. Now, I teach my students how to move through rejection and use that to set new goals, to focus a light on what areas of their technique or performance need additional attention. No one ever gets every job they apply to both in the dance world and in the "regular" world, and competition dance teaches children and young adults how to handle that experience (hopefully) with grace and a new feeling of productive attack.”
There is no doubt that despite the ever-evolving nature of dance competitions, they continue to be valuable performance opportunities for dancers around the country. The ability to work hard under pressure, to be dedicated to a long term goal, and to accept any outcome with a positive attitude are all enormously beneficial skills that dancers learn through competing that can be translated into any aspect of life. The best thing studio owners can do to continue to help their students benefit from competitions is choose competitions with educated, well-trained and well-versed judges. Impact Dance Adjudicators exists to provide competitions with skilled judges - please visit www.impactdanceadjudicators.com to find out which events use IDA!