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Correctly Categorizing Your Dances

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Author: Christina Belinsky

These days, the lines between each genre of dance are becoming more and more fluid. Hip hop is taking cues from lyrical, contemporary is infused with acrobatics, and musical theater is incorporating all styles of movement. It can be confusing to properly place your competitive dance routine into the correct category. I am here to give you some guidance by breaking down each category to help you better classify your dance routines so you are properly judged in the correct category. As well all know, dance, as any other art form, is subjective, but I hope this will give you some clarification and better understanding the next time you turn in your competition entry forms.


A piece of modern choreography should be inspired by and based upon a specific technique and pedagogy of modern dance, utilizing and properly executing the elements of that technique. Some examples include Horton, Graham, Limon, Release, Dunham, and Humphrey. It should be clear to the judges what form of modern dance the piece is inspired by and that the choreographer and/or teacher has invested time in educating the dancers on the basics of the chosen technique. For example, in Horton we should see laterals, stags, tables, etc. In a piece inspired by Graham, we should see dynamic contractions, tension in the dancer's movement and the utilization of spirals. A common misconception is when something is "abstract, weird, or strange", it should be put in the modern category. This is where differentiating between contemporary, modern, and lyrical can be hazy and quite confusing, but your modern routine should always showcase elements of a modern dance technique no matter if the choreographer has incorporated a storyline, a theme, or movement study.


Contemporary ultimately comes from contemporary ballet. In the age of "So You Think You Can Dance", the definition between contemporary and lyrical have become somewhat inseparable and difficult to differentiate to the general audience's eye. In my opinion, in contemporary, a storyline is not always necessary. It can be a study of musicality or a visual performance inspired by creating shapes both with the body and choreographed formations. It can be a piece strictly inspired by an idea, concept or theme, or an abstraction of ballet technique. Although contemporary can be void of a story or character, lyrical, its close cousin, is driven by storytelling.


Inspired by jazz and utilizing ballet technique, lyrical expresses the lyrics and the story of a song through movement. The piece should demonstrate the dancer’s range of emotions while telling a story. A lyrical piece works best when there is an arch to the story- a beginning, middle, and an end- a progression of the dancer's character; their struggles and triumphs. Unlike contemporary, lyrical focuses on the dancer's journey through their movement, musicality, dynamics, and phrasing.

Musical Theater

I am jumping to musical theater while we are on the subject of storytelling. A musical theater piece should be choreographed to a song from a musical or movie musical. The dancer or dancers should portray a character or characters from the show or movie. A musical theater piece is a wonderful opportunity for a dancer to dig into growing as a performer, and captivating an audience by creating a character that tells a story. Musical theater should showcase a dancer's style, musicality, personality, and ability to use her or his movement to move a story forward. There is the never ending debate about whether or not to lip sync in the musical theater category. In my opinion, the dancer should not rely on lip syncing to tell the story but rather express their character through their movement, body language, and emphasis on style and facial expressions. I believe it is important for dancers, especially in this phase of learning, to explore and gain these useful skills. If a dancer were to show up to a musical theater class or audition, they would not be expected to lip sync. Instead, they would be expected to perform the choreography given to them and in the case of an audition, sing separately. If a choreographer feels lip syncing is necessary, it is important that the dancer should lip sync consistently and articulately throughout the routine and avoid relying on lip syncing to portray a character. If you have a routine that tells a story and is portraying a specific character that is not in a musical, the routine should be entered into the Character category.


Jazz is an opportunity for dancers to showcase their musicality and strength. Although classical jazz routines are becoming more rare in the dance competition world, it is always refreshing to see a young dancer demonstrate style and grace in the likes of Bob Fosse, Jack Cole, or Luigi while showcasing her/his strength and flexibility. Jazz, if not a classical piece, should be upbeat with sharp, precise movements. The beat of the music should drive the dancer's movement. It is a chance for dancers to take command of the stage and attack their choreography and steps while also being in control. Common elements include grand battements, various leaps, use of parallel positions, forced arch, and turns. Jazz gives dancers the freedom to let go, show their personality, and have fun while sharing their energy with the audience.


Acro should blend gymnastics with jazz movements. Many competitions require entries with more than 3 acrobatic tricks to be entered into the acro category or points will be deducted. Acro should showcase a dancer’s agility, flexibility, and strength while demonstrating proper technique with pointed feet, lengthened lines, and control. However, there are always exceptions when it is a clear stylistic choice, for example, a flexed foot or bent leg.


Open is the perfect category for a creative piece that is undefinable or blends multiple genres of dance. Do you have a piece with hip-hop on pointe? A lyrical piece performed by a contortionist? Tap and jazz combined in a group? The open category is a great home for all of these! I often suggest entering a contemporary piece with a few too many tricks in the open category to avoid deduction of points while maintaining the integrity of the choreography.

Tap, Pointe, Ballet, Hip Hop, Ethnic or Cultural:

I have left these out because I feel they are self explanatory and there is little controversy over how to separate or categorize them. No matter what the genre, the dancer should always demonstrate proper technique, musicality, style, personality and stage presence.

It is my hope that these breakdowns are helpful and will be something that may be in the back of your mind the next time you submit an entry form for your next competition. In the end, we must remember dance competitions are wonderful opportunities for a dancer to grow into a confident and captivating performing artist. Competitions give young dancers a chance to explore and hone their craft in various genres of dance. The more well rounded and knowledgeable they are as performers, the better chance they have at succeeding in pursuing a career as a dancer or dance educator leading future generations.


*Christina Belinsky is an IDA Judge, Teacher and Professional Performer. She is currently traveling the country on the National Tour of the Broadway Musical "Finding Neverland".*

#categories #dance #genres #jazz #contemporary #ballet #lyrical #open #acro #modern #musicaltheater #tap

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