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LEVELS: A Judge's Perspective

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Back in the Dark Ages of dance competitions, everyone competed against everyone, there were three awards, and a few honorable mentions. As the competition industry evolved, multiple levels emerged as a way to recognize the still-talented but less experienced dancers, and give helpful feedback attuned to the proper skills and technique that are expected from each level. Unfortunately, there is no universal expectation for each level - each competition has their own rubric for specific steps, skills, and technical achievements that are suggested for the Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels.

Today, we hear from IDA judge and dance company director Jessica, who gives us a judge’s perspective on what she generally expects to see in each level of competition.

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning…

Beginning level dances are often exciting for a judge! “I get so energized when a Beginner routine takes the stage, as I know how excited they are to be in costume and show their routine!” says Jessica. Presentation can go a long way for Beginners. Be sure to costume your dancers economically, but uniformly, keeping hair, shoes, and tights the same. Give your team these basic tools to help them feel confident in their presentation. Energy, expression, age appropriate music and choreography are all expected and easily deliverable from a Beginner level routine.

Technically speaking, Jessica expects that “the dancers [...] have an understanding of the fundamentals of dance, their body lines, and how to execute the skills given. They should have body awareness and be working on their flexibility to give them a stronger foundation in their movement.” Basic movement steps like grapevines, three step turns, pivot turns, single pirouettes, chassés, grand jetés, and walking patterns are examples of what a beginner jazz dance might contain. “My rule of thumb is if they cannot deliver [a skill] on a consistent basis in classes/rehearsals (4 times out of 5), then remove [the skill] from the routine,” suggests Jessica. Competition is a place to show the judges the steps that the dancers have mastered, not necessarily a place to try out something that is still in progress. Most IDA judges agree with Jessica when she says, “I’d prefer a CLEAN single pirouette any day over an out-of-control double.” Showcasing your team’s strengths and camouflaging their weaknesses are marks of a smart choreographer.

Experiment with simple spacing and staging ideas, being sure to use the whole stage in your choreography. Challenge your dancers by not repeating a step within the routine. If you do choose to repeat a phrase, make other changes such as direction, timing, or levels to vary the choreography. Most importantly, encourage your Beginner level dancers to have fun, show their personalities, and be proud that they are starting their journey as dancers! Today’s Beginner’s are tomorrow’s Advanced dancers!

Bridging the Gap - The Intermediate Level

The Intermediate level can be tricky, as every studio has a different idea of where their Intermediate level falls. Intermediate level dancers should, in general, have 2-5 years of competition experience and understand what to expect at competition. As with the Beginner level, the basic fundamentals of presentation should be adhered to - a uniform look, from head to toe (unless a clear concept demands unique costumes for individual dancers), energy and excitement to perform, age appropriate music and movements,. In regards to music, Jessica reminds choreographers that “if you don’t want YOUR 5 year old to hear it, neither does someone sitting in the audience.” Be mindful of the subject matter and lyrics of your music, and seek out second opinions if you have any reservations.

Technically, Intermediate dancers should understand the basics of beginning advanced skills (think double pirouettes, short sequences of multiple turns, more advanced walking patterns using plié and weight changes, basic side and front grand jetés, quick direction changes). In regards to turns, dancers should “always make sure [to] clarify whether the turn is parallel or a turned out,” reminds Jessica. “Dancers should have a definite understanding of their body lines and positions. They [should] understand the value of their center and [be able to] deliver their positions,” she adds. “An Intermediate routine should be CLEAN with clear counts/ timing, musicality, great emotion and/or expression and good technique. The dancers should understand their concept and be able to deliver it clearly.” A clear concept goes a long way with IDA judges, and oftentimes the Intermediate level can lack creative concepts. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box with your Intermediate dancers - by telling a strong story with your routine, you are pushing your students to develop the skills that will take them to the Advanced level. Jessica stresses, “If you hear a judge say on their tape [the dancers] should compete in the advanced level, take their advice and go for it!”

Top Dogs - The Advanced Level

The Advanced level. These dancers are graceful athletes who take dancing seriously, continue their training over the summers, and immerse themselves in dance year round. Advanced level dancers have many years of competition experience, take 4-6 technique classes a week in all genres, and challenge themselves by taking classes from many different instructors. Presentation at the Advanced level should be pristine - from the moment these dancers step on stage, judges expect uniformity, poise, confidence, and calm. An advanced dancer can capture the audience with just a look. Music and content can be more mature in nature, but again, be mindful of the audience and seek a second opinion if you have to think twice about any of your choices. These dancers, no matter how technically sound, are still young and impressionable and above all else, choreographers should provide them with appropriate material.

Dancers at the Advanced level should have “full body awareness and finish in their body lines [...], length behind their knees in extensions and pirouettes, high relevés on turns, a clear focus in each position, strong port de bras and unmistakable knowledge of all the technical elements in their routine.” Jessica expects Advanced dancers to “execute advanced turn combinations which may include changing spots,and jumps and/or extensions during the sequences. Include turning jumps such as calypsos or Russians and/or sissones.” However, she cautions against choreographers feeling pressured to include too many tricks in Advanced routines. “The best routines are the ones that tell a story, [and] stay true to their concept; every story does not need a pirouette or grande battement in second to get the concept across. The best routines are the ones that sweep me away into [another] world. Choreography should be creative and challenging and should reflect the concept and music. Do not go with the trend; go with your instinct on what the music is telling you.” Finally, keep in mind that the judges are scoring the dancers on what they are given. “If it doesn’t look good on them, take it out,” warns Jessica.

By implementing levels, the competition industry has made it possible for dancers of all levels to be fairly and accurately scored and awarded, as well as given appropriate critiques and advice for their abilities. Double check any information the competition provides regarding levels and expectations when choosing placement for your dancers, and be honest with your choices - judges can spot a mis-leveled routine a mile away!

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