Music at Competition: The Do's and Dont's!
Let’s face it: competition weekends are long! A full weekend usually consists of 16 hour days for dancers, teachers, studio owners, parents, and the judges who decide your fate. As judges, we sit, watch, and speak continuously for hours on end, and though we adore what we do, we are full of opinions, especially when it comes to your musical selections. Have you ever wondered what the judges think about your song choices? Maybe you took a risk and made a tap dance to a more lyrical song, or edited together multiple songs for your teen hip-hop routine, in an attempt to innovate. But do the judges appreciate these efforts? We polled IDA judges across the country to find out their biggest pet peeves, suggestions for finding music, and, even the most overplayed songs that we are absolutely sick of hearing over those long weekends behind the judges’ table.
Many judges agree that it is imperative to do your research and choose songs to showcase the dancers with whom you are working. Of course, it’s important that as a choreographer, you feel inspired to create, but at the end of the day, it’s about the dancers on stage. IDA Judge and teacher, Christina Young, explains that she often sees dancers performing to music that is “too dark, too mature, not appropriate, [and] too big to give the dancer room to shine.” Further, she emphasizes the importance of understanding the meaning of the music and its lyrics prior to committing to setting the routine to a particular song. NYC-based choreographer, Jacqueline Baligian, agrees and explains, “If you are setting choreography on a 10-year-old, I don’t know that using a song about heartbreak or losing the love of your life, is appropriate.” It’s critical to consider multiple factors, including age, maturity level, technical ability, and life experience.
Further, multiple judges voiced the importance of using songs with appropriate lyrics, and stressed the necessity of editing song lyrics or taking the time to find clean versions online. Let’s not forget that competitions are family-friendly events! To ensure age- appropriateness, Philadelphia-based judge and teacher, Max Vasapoli, suggests that choreographers print out song lyrics and ask the dancers to read them out loud. As a rule of thumb, “If [the lyrics] make your dancers or their parents blush, the song is inappropriate for competition.”
Similarly, judge Joey Ortolani highlights the importance of translating lyrics that are in other languages before choosing to use a song. He cites Lady Marmalade as a popular example of a song that choreographers might not recognize as inappropriate because of the French lyrics. He does, however, note that certain mature themes can absolutely be explored at competition, but that they belong in the senior age level, executed with care and thoughtfulness. But we often forget that age-appropriateness goes both ways! Joey cautions, “Don’t cheapen your 13 and ups by making them dance to Disney music.” Choreographers need to know the age and maturity level of their dancers and use this information to determine which songs are best suited to a particular dancer or group of dancers.
Appropriateness goes beyond age and thematic content, however. Over the past few years, a trend has evolved wherein choreographers utilize what might be considered music suited to a different genre of dance. The most notable example is tap dances to lyrical songs or ballads. While exciting and innovative in 2014, this choice has now evolved to be a norm and many judges are bored and frustrated. Joey explains that he no longer finds it innovative or interesting, and Jacqueline echoes these sentiments, explaining, “I’ve never been a huge fan of tapping to lyrical music. Tap is all about rhythm and it’s somewhat difficult to really work all the dynamics that tap requires, when tapping to lyrical. It also takes a very sophisticated ear to be able to work those nuances and we don’t always find that at the competitive level.” Similarly, NYC-based dancer and teacher, Kelly DiConzo, warns, “This trend can work for some advanced tappers who have an extensive knowledge of music theory and a trained ear for rhythm; however, to set your dancers up for success, find a song with some percussion so they can work with the existing sounds and use them as a guide for timing and rhythms.”
While tap dances to ballads are a major pet peeve, another trend that judges can’t stand is choppy music editing, especially for hip-hop routines. First, consider the length of the routine; in a three-minute piece, there is no need to incorporate eight songs. Multiple judges note that there is nothing worse than a bad cut. Judge Chellie Fig passionately explains, “I LOATHE a bad music edit, especially in hip hop music,” and advises, “If you can't cleanly edit the music yourself, pay someone who can!” Joey agrees, “If you're mixing songs, the transition should make sense and match, rather than sounding like a playlist that skipped. In 2018, it's so easy to edit music properly or pay someone a small fee.” Max suggests reaching out to a DJ if you need help. Use your resources to ensure that your music cuts are smooth and seamless!
Another genre-specific pet peeve relates to Musical Theater. Judges, many of whom are veterans of well-known musicals, are sick of hearing the same songs over and over. There are so many music sources out there, and judge Colin Shea Denniston emphasizes the importance of doing research, especially to find kid-friendly musical theater songs. He reminds us that we don’t have to “rely on Tangled and Bathing Beauties for every petite number.” Joey agrees and suggests that choreographers shy away from songs that are known to be iconic dance numbers because these songs create expectations in terms of vocabulary, performance, and style. He finishes by encouraging choreographers to “listen to music and pick songs from musicals that are NOT DANCE SHOWS. Innovate! Don't regurgitate what another choreographer already did.” It’s okay—in fact, welcomed—to use songs from new or lesser-known musicals. Find an off-Broadway show, or go old school and find something that we haven’t heard in a while. As dancers and Bob Fosse groupies, we all love Chicago, but please don’t make us watch another Cell Block Tango large group or Roxie solo!
Despite our strong opinions about what not to do, we do recognize the time, energy, and passion that goes into choosing music and choreographing routines for competition, so we are here to help! The majority of judges are also choreographers and have great suggestions for finding new music. Many judges note tools like YouTube, Spotify, and Shazam. Christina recommends that choreographers, “Go down the rabbit hole! Find the ‘similar to’ button and keep going until you've found something that truly inspires you!” She further explains, “Any piece of music can be made new, so just because you have heard it a million times doesn't mean you CAN'T use it, but beware, the judges have also heard it a million times! Find a way to make yours stand out so the judges remember it for being innovative or new, and not for being another dance to THAT song.”
So, what is “that song”?
After polling IDA judges from across the country, we first have
the honorable mentions:
Castle, Bottom of the River, Not About Angels, River, Better When I’m Dancing, Dear Future Husband, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.
AND THE TOP FIVE MOST OVERUSED SONGS AT COMPETITION ARE:
#5. My New Philosophy
#4. Rise Up
#3. Rotten to the Core
#2. Everybody Wants to Rule the World
#1. Body Love
There you have it! The overwhelming majority of judges agreed on which songs continue to be the most overplayed at competitions. These judges span the country, from the Northeast to the West Coast, South, and Midwest, so the trends continue across the board. We encourage you to be inspired by music and continue to push boundaries. Find something new and see where it takes you. We can’t wait to see what you create this season, but until then, happy Spotify-ing!
Bottom Photo: Diva Dance Competition