It's 9:08am. My first coffee was downed hours ago, and I'm gently sipping my second, trying to keep my energy up for the long day ahead. Sequin-clad dancers scurry on stage and strike a pose.
“Good morning and welcome to the stage, act number 32, 'Hollywood'! This is Judge number 3, Katie McGinnis, good luck!”
Over the next two to three minutes, my eyes are darting back and forth. I'm entering and adjusting scores, doing my best to fairly judge performance quality, technique, and execution of the steps, all while giving as much detailed feedback as possible. They hit a final pose as I tweak my last score and hit 'submit'. "Thank you dancers, great work!"
Judges replay this same scenario at least a hundred times per day, sometimes two hundred or more. So what am I looking for in the few minutes I have with your dancers? What catches my eye? What makes me remember you at the end of the day?
Connection: In the first few seconds of your dance, whether it's a solo or a full-company production, I'm seeking connection. I want to feel the energy radiating off the dancer(s), see them project to their audience, and take ownership of the steps. Eye contact plays a huge part in how we interpret connection as judges. Your dancer doesn't have to (and really shouldn't) stare us down the whole time, but they should always have a clear intention and focus through the eyes all the way to the back of the house, to help support and carry the story they are telling. I tell dancers, "When you look down at the floor, it's like you were telling me this amazing story and then lost your train of thought. We have to start all over again, and every time this happens the story loses some of its power."
Fresh Choreography Choices: Drawing inspiration from one another is great, and it's a natural part of what we do as choreographers. Keep in mind though, if you tend to work and choreograph in the same circle (the wonderful world of competitive dance), it's easy to fall into the habit of recycling what's popular. Draw new inspiration from Broadway or concert dance. If you always choreograph in a certain order, such as finding a song first, then creating movement, try it the other way around.
Fresh Music Choices: I do my absolute best to judge every piece with an unbiased perspective. However, if a certain popular song comes on for the 5th time before the day is even half done, it becomes tough to forget all the performances that have come before it and not compare. Set yourself and your dancers up for success by taking the extra time to find a truly unique song we haven't heard before, or find a fresh take on a classic or popular song through a cover by a lesser-known artist, or someone with a different interpretation or style.
Attention to Detail: Nothing makes me happier than seeing a group of dancers with the exact same stylized hand or bevel in a jazz number, or dancers taking a group exhale to accentuate movement in a contemporary number. These subtleties draw us in and take the number from good to professional status.
Showcasing Your Strengths: The studio is a wonderful place to push your dancers outside their comfort zone and ask them to try new things. On stage, however, we want to see what you as the choreographer, and they as the dancer, can execute well, and most importantly, can execute consistently. We have to judge exactly what is presented before us, so if your dancer falls out of that turn sequence, I have to judge that, even though I know in the back of my mind she probably hit those turns beautifully in the studio. Remember, the studio and stage can be very different experiences for dancers. Have a showcase for family and friends before you hit the competition stage, and re-evaluate steps as needed.
Cut the Clutter: I'm talking about the full-length mirror your dancer looks into dramatically once at the beginning and once at the end of their solo, the costume that comes with gloves, a hat, shoe covers and a scrunchie, the chair your dancer sits on twice and does one cartwheel over...you get the picture. I'm not asking you not to utilize these elements at all, but to utilize them wisely and on occasion. A larger-than-life costume or well-utilized prop definitely can have its place, but ask yourself, "Is this supporting or distracting from my vision?", "Does this help my dancer shine or does it out-shine my dancer?"
Cleanliness: I feel a number isn't truly clean until each dancer could carry it as a solo. Dancers shouldn't be relying on the strongest ones in the bunch for musical cues or counts. Everyone should move together, with confidence. Ways to clean and tighten up numbers in-studio include: running it in smaller groups, and having dancers count their way through the whole thing while dancing. Try breaking down tricky movement and timing by specifying where the movement comes from, i.e., you initiate the movement with your shoulder on count one and follow through with your arm finishing on count three.
Polished Performers: A great compliment to a clean number is making sure your dancers understand how to quickly enter and exit, how to get to their spots without fidgeting, and how to nail that ending pose. Make sure they are polished physically, too. Uniform hair, makeup, and well-fitting costumes do wonders. I never take points off for a hair tie on the wrist or a ripped pair of tights, but I'll note it on your critiques, and let you know that it distracts from all the other great things happening up there!
An Element of Surprise: Keep us on our toes. I often find myself starting a critique and assuming what's going to come next, for example I'll say, "As you prep for that calypso, make sure you step toe-ball-heel." I don't actually know it's a calypso yet, but by the time I say it, and they execute the step, 95% of the time, I'm right. Try to work technical elements into your choreography seamlessly. Make the preparation and landing a part of the dance so that the extension, turn, or acro moment are a true surprise. When your choreography is finished, look back through your dances and make note of how many times certain technical elements are repeated. Go back in and mix it up - keep us guessing!
Joy: This one is hard to nail down in words. Sometimes, even when key points above are lacking, the love of dance shines through so brightly that I have to hand it to them: they could do the number in a burlap sack, wearing no makeup, doing choreography I've definitely seen before, and I would still be entertained. Every kid is not going to be able to magically embody this. It's a rare and tricky thing. Start planting the seed now by getting your students excited about competition. Remind them why they compete: to share, inspire, grow, become better dancers. Tell your stories of growing up on the competitive stage and share how this process is preparing them for a professional career. The more they understand that competition is a privilege, an honor, and a learning experience, the more they will bring their authentic joyful selves to the stage.
I leave you with these thoughts and sincerely hope they've helped as you prepare for a wonderful season of dance ahead. I can't tell you how excited I am to see what you create and bring to the stage this year! I'll be ready, coffee in hand. Cheers!
Katie McGinnis is a Chicago-based dancer, teacher, choreographer and fitness instructor. She's worked with Norwegian Cruise Lines, Empire on FOX and Disneyland Hong Kong. She loves judging and is looking forward to her first season with Impact Dance Adjudicators!