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Are Dance Competitions Broken?

Published on May 8th 2019 by Hillary-Marie

‘Tis the competition season my friends, and I have been saying the same thing over and over: “the dance competition system is broken.” 

So I post it to you as a question...

If a dance studio owner says, “If my business was not dependant upon competition, I’d quit it in a heartbeat! is the system broken? 

If a parent says, “I can not wait for my child to grow out of competition thing. It’s more expensive than college and they’re not getting anything out of it,” is the system broken?

If a student says, “I hate competing. I just do it because there are no other performance opportunities and I just want to be with my friends,” then is the system broken?

I grew up in a studio that held auditions for the chance to be in a small group of dancers that would perform in ALL of the recital shows. It was so exciting! We would formally audition for guest choreographer, another guest choreographer would set the pieces, and we would perform a show every weeknight and 3 shows Saturday and Sunday. Because of this, I learned how to audition and how to perform. I learned what it was like to be a part of a production. As a kid, I felt like a Rockette or a Broadway star. Between that and the New Jersey Tap Ensemble, my thirst to perform was more than quenched and I never really knew that dance competitions were a thing until I started teaching at studios that participated in them.

At that time, competitions didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand how someone could score a piece of art and why you would pay to perform in return for a score and a critique. Aren’t teachers supposed to provide their students with constructive criticism on a regular basis?

My teaching gigs required that I set competition choreography and one of my biggest frustrations was being required to set competition choreography at the beginning of the season and a recital piece at the end, leaving no time for technique. Over time I faded out of these teaching gigs because I realized competition didn’t align with my teaching philosophy. 

After opening Grooves Unlimited Dance Studio, I would teach private lessons for dancers who didn’t live nearby but who needed some clarity in their tap technique. After a couple of years, I had many dancers coming to me specifically for solo cleaning sessions. I did it because there were so many kids taking sloppy solos to the stage and I wanted to help them. I did it because a lot of these dancers had great potential but were being ignored by their studios. I did it because I needed the money, I was good at it, and I could give them good results. One of my teaching strengths is being able to solve a dancer’s problem quickly and easily, and I really did enjoy helping them progress in their journey by watching them gain confidence. 

When they would write me back to tell me their score, I would write back and say, “I don’t care about your score, how did YOU feel about your performance?” I used these cleaning sessions to teach them that scores don’t matter.

To return to our original question:

If you are paying a lot of money for a piece of choreography that you are not capable of doing successfully without outside help, is the system broken?

If a student pays for a piece of tap dance choreography and the studio’s ballet teacher is cleaning it, is the system broken?

If a student enters a piece of tap dance choreography into a competition and is judged and critiqued by professional dancers who do not have adequate tap dance training, is the system broken?

When we rely on the feedback of untrained artists, is the system broken?

If we accept that the system is broken, we have two option as we move forward. 

  1. Demand Change: If you love the competition experience, then give your feedback to the competitions in an eloquent and intelligent manner when it is warranted. Once you’ve shared your feedback, carefully choose where to spend your dollars and bring your dancers in the future.
  2. Stop Participating: For those of you saying, “that will tank my business,” remember, I am a studio owner of a thriving non-competitive studio with a pre-professional dance company that performs more than 10 shows per season and I love every minute of it! I am surrounded by passionate young dancers who are so excited to learn and perform because they recognize it as a cherished opportunity to share their love of the dance with public audiences. No trophy necessary. How lucky am I? This opportunity is also available to you if you choose that path.

There are many performance opportunities outside of competition, including retirement homes, children’s hospitals, dance festivals and other local events. Bring the JOY of dance to your community!

If you are a parent living beyond your means for your child to compete, I encourage you to crunch some numbers. Weekly private lessons with some of the best teachers in the business can cost less than your competition fees and will lead to the exponential growth that your child deserves as a passionate dancer.

If you are a teacher or studio owner who dreads every week that you walk into the studio because your financial model is based on competition, then I encourage you to make a change and build a business that excites you, that you are proud of, and that you wake up in the morning excited about. You may lose some students, and that’s okay! You can’t serve everybody, but you need to make sure that those that you are serving align with your mission and your philosophy. Losing a few students may be the price you have to pay for inspiration, happiness and excitement and as you build your next program, you will bring in new dancers who want to be a part of what you’re doing.

If you’re cool with the way the system is now, then don’t change a thing, but something tells me, this might have struck a nerve...

Comment below or in the iTapOnline Community Facebook group and let me know where you’re at! Did you grow up in dance competitions and find them to be beneficial? What life lessons did you learn or what did you love about it? Are you a dance teacher that is frustrated with the competition model? Are you a studio owner that loves competitions and could share some feedback with the tap dance community on which ones are reliable, providing quality critique and quality teachers. Are you a student who’s thinking you don’t want to compete anymore? Whatever it is, I want to know about it so I can support you!

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