Whether you’re new to teaching or have been attending competitions as a teacher for years, we all ask ourselves if we’re doing the right thing for our dancers while we are at a competition. If you’re like me, from the moment I arrive in the parking lot, I’m searching for my dancers, praying no one has forgotten anything, and crossing my fingers that everyone shows up on time and ready to go. I used to be a nervous wreck, jumping from dancer to dancer, or routine to routine micro-managing, fine-tuning and hovering to make sure everything went according to plan. I rarely ever saw a dance from the front, and it was a good day if I had the opportunity to see every piece I’d choreographed from my limited side-view. But guess what… it doesn’t have to be that way! I learned that my tendency towards turning myself into the annoying dance teacher helicopter was putting my students on edge, stepping on the toes of their parents (who are more than capable of doing most of what I was stressing about) and really making me resent the weekends spent at competition away from my own family.
With some careful planning and forethought, your competition weekend can be stress-free and fun, spreading the weight of the responsibility among your team and dance parents, and even to your students.
Clean, Clean, Clean!
The most important part of preparing yourself and your dancers for competition is simple - rehearse. Start all choreography early enough in the season that everyone is comfortable and confident in executing their routine with proper technique and the emotional execution you expect. Clean and perfect every detail so there is no second-guessing, no accidents, no surprises (check out other IDA Podcasts and Blogs for more ideas on cleaning routines!) When the routine is at the place you want it from a performance standpoint, start to rehearse in costume. We’ve all seen it - the strap that falls off, the bow that falls out, or the shoe that comes untied. Things happen with costumes and we need to rehearse in them enough to see if any of these could potentially lead to performance issues. Rehearse entrances, exits, and crossovers if necessary, and even what to do if there is no crossover space at the theater. Rehearse what you expect from your dancers while they are waiting backstage. Do you want them in their lineup? Do you care if they watch the previous dances? Are they allowed to talk to one another or the competition staff? You set the tone here for your expectations. You want your dancers to be able to walk into the venue with no stress about their choreography and presentation.
Pack Your Bags!
Dancers who have organized their dance bags and gear on competition day allow you as their teacher to be stress-free, because you know they have all that they need, and they can easily see that everything is in its designated place. Create a general packing list for your dancers of things each one should have on competition day such as ponytail holders, bobby pins, hairspray or gel, the appropriate makeup, a small sewing kit, band aids, snacks, water, etc. Also create a packing list for each routine including names of each group member, shoes, jewelry, all costume pieces and accessories, specific makeup and hair requirements, props and anything else that specific group of dancers may need to be successful. Go through this list with your students (and parents if they’re very young) and coach them in how to pack their dance bags for competition day. Remind them to label everything, to have a specific place for each piece and to make sure, in the frenzy of the dressing room, each item goes back to its designated spot. This only takes a second, and in the speed of quick changes, and the flurry of activity on group day, you want to make sure every piece is accounted for and nothing gets left behind or picked up by someone else.
An important part of pre-competition preparation is a dress rehearsal. At your dress rehearsal, have your dancers arrive in street clothes and use this initial dressing time to remind them to take note of where each thing came from, and that it will need to go back in this precise place when completed. If the dancers are not old enough to dress without assistance, of course, their mothers or other helpers should aid them with this step. Rehearse doing their hair and makeup and choose a mother or older dancer to be in charge of each group. This Team Mom will check all students in their designated routine to make sure they have everything needed based on the packing list for that group. Your rehearsal is the time to coach your Team Moms on what to look for on competition day. "Does Sally need more lipstick? I see that Adam forgot his socks." And please, please, please, remind them to carry some hairspray and get rid of any fly-aways!!
Once your group is ready to perform, treat one area of your studio as the “theater” and leave the dancers to enter the theater as they will on competition day. If they are young, designate an older dancer to be the person to take them backstage. Give this person guidance on what you expect of them. They should know what you want from backstage behavior, they should know the lineup of these younger dancers, and they should be able to amp everyone up with excitement and meet any nervous questions with confident answers and a strong positive voice. Once the group enters the theater, they take the stage (with no help!) and begin their performance. They exit as they would and return to their designated dressing area, just like they will on competition day. You can meet them in their dressing area and give them any notes on their performance here. This is now when you practice changing costumes or returning to street clothes and putting everything back in its proper place.
A clearly laid-out list of responsibilities for your team on competition day will help keep everyone on track. Think of how a normal competition day goes for your team, and develop a plan.
What does your competition day schedule look like for your students?
Who is going to check in your studio when you arrive at the competition? Probably the Studio Director.
When does each person need to arrive?
Should they arrive in costume and ready to go?
Where should they check-in and with who?
Who is going to see where the dressing area is and communicate that to your team?
Do your parents like to sit together in one area of the theater? Where is that?
Who is going to make sure each student is there? I’d say the Team Mom.
Is someone in charge of food for your team?
Are you planning a group warm-up? Who is going to lead, who do you want to attend, and when and where will it be?
Are you planning to rehearse or mark through the routine before they go on stage?
How will you know when everyone is ready to head to the stage, or how will they know when it's time?
What is your system for getting your dancers on stage for awards, and getting them back to their parents after?
Who is going to go pick up the trophy for each dance?
Do the dancers know who their teacher/choreographer is, just in case (and do they actually know their name? I’ve been called tons of different names that aren’t even close to my actual name by excited dancers when they get called out onstage!)
Who makes sure every dancer gets back to their parents after they perform? (Hello Team Mom!)
Of course, the most important part of this list is to clearly communicate these responsibilities to those individuals who will be executing them!
Congratulations! You’ve made it to competition day and are ready for a stress-free, exciting day of sharing the love of dance with your dance family. Your responsibilities are those you’ve designated to yourself on the responsibilities list. On competition day, I check in with my dancers when they arrive, give big hugs, high fives, show them my excitement and tell them how proud I am of them, how they look amazing, and how they’re going to rock! I oversee their warm-up and offer guidance when necessary. I facilitate a quick walk-through of each routine, offering last-minute suggestions, but not trying to give huge thoughtful feedback at this point. This is my opportunity to amp my team up. To remind them of their purpose, or give them thoughts on what the audience should feel about their piece of choreography. This is not the time to distract them, tire them out, or offer deep critiques they could not possibly fix before they hit the stage. From here, I let the Team Moms take over, leading dancers back to the dressing room, getting them ready for their first routine, and texting those moms when it’s time for the dancers to head backstage. After their performance, if time allows between pieces, I’ll run back to the dressing room with big energy! This is not the time for notes on their technique or the choreography. Save that for your next rehearsal in the studio. This is about letting them know you’re proud of them, but also, be realistic. You may call out other dancers and routines to draw their attention to: did you see this awesome piece? Wow! Look at her extension. That guy’s feet were on fire. Give them the opportunity to see other dancers and feel inspired (big note, this also helps after awards if they didn’t place as high as they had expected, you can say, don’t you remember this!)
So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Trust that you have taught your dancers to be their best, that each one is fully prepared, and that now you can enjoy seeing the product of all that hard work onstage. Trust that your Team Moms know what they are doing, that they are fully capable of taking charge of their group of students, and that they also want the best for your team. Trust that each system you’ve put into place to ensure all dancers get where they need to be is in working order. Trust that you have put enough preparation into this day that you can enjoy yourself, you don’t need to be stressed about every minute detail. This is dance! This is the thing that brings us the most joy in our lives.
I think it’s time we take the stress out of competition and allow our dancers to perform because dancing is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. After endless hours of watching dances, I will always remember the dancers who showed their passion on stage; you can teach technique and even fake emotion, but you can’t teach passion. Passion is hard to display if you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and over-rehearsed and our students deserve the opportunity to explore the excitement of dance, free from the effects of our stressed-out competition nerves. This is what I want my dancers to remember of me: that I gave them space to relax, to enjoy, to relish in the moments they were gifted to perform. I don’t want them to look back on competition weekends or performance and see stress, nerves, and anxiety, but rather the excitement of the stage, the support of their teachers, and the love of the dance family that surrounds them.
This year, a group of the most beautiful dancers will be graduating. These lovely ladies, while dedicated and well-trained dancers, will be remembered for their energetic spirits, desire to be positive role-models and willingness to help wherever necessary. They have inspired me even further into my role as their number 1 fan. I never wanted to break their spirits, but rather build them up and guide them on this journey through dance. Whether they go on to continue dancing or not, I want them to take the lessons they learned through competitions into the world and feel inspired by their experiences on the stage. By keeping all activities surrounding competition in a positive light, guided by the idea that we are family, sharing one passion for dance and performance, and that every opportunity to take the stage is a chance for growth, I have tried to instill in my students the value of planning, preparation, delegation, and trust. Without trust, there can be no team, and without your team, this will certainly be a long and challenging journey. So give it a try! Approach this competition season with excitement and positivity. Leave your stress at the studio and see what a difference it can make if your dancers can see you with excitement and energy at each competition this season. Break a leg! I can’t wait to see your dancers take the stage!!
Christina Yoder is a sought-after teacher and choreographer who resides in Northern Indiana. Christina travels as a guest and convention teacher, choreographer, and competition adjudicator, and thanks to ever-evolving technology, now uses virtual classroom space to check in with students around the country! Favorite performance credits include: The Shelley Oliver Tap Dancers and Vee Corporation’s Sesame Street Live (national and international/Asian tours).