One of the questions I get asked often is why are we non-competitive? If you get me talking, I could go on for hours about this subject, so I thought it might be best to get my thoughts out in writing. There are many reasons studios choose to compete, and some aspects of competition are great learning tools for dance students, but for Sacred Ground Dance, we are trying desperately to raise honest, drama-free, well-rounded dancers in an increasingly expensive, commercialized & sexualized dance world… which for us means not participating in dance competitions.
MY HISTORY OF COMPETING AND THEN CHOOSING NOT TO
I grew up at a competitive dance studio and started competing when I was 10. By age 12, I was in numerous competition pieces each year, including solos, which was a huge honor at my studio.
At age 14, I was accepted, by audition, to the Gifted & Talented Performing Arts Program our county school offered. I would attend my normal high school for the morning and then at lunch get bussed to the county school for 3 wonderful hours of dancing. Well, not just dancing… we had the typical ballet and jazz, but they also opened my eyes to modern dance (which eventually would be my favorite), nutrition, anatomy, theater tech, costuming, dance history and choreography. Sheila Buttermore, the department director, was unparalleled at helping us see WHY we dance and how dance transcends awards and accolades – it is an art! If you can do a trick or illusion in dance, the dancer and the audience get a brief moment of instant gratification… but the joy you feel and can bring to an audience as you dance a piece with meaning and soul is far beyond that of any stunt.
A few months into my training at my Performing Arts High School, I decided to leave my studio. My eyes had been opened to a whole new world of dance and it made me realize that although I was learning the correct steps, there was no truth and depth in the movement at my competitive studio. It was the best decision I made in all my High School years.
Later, as I decided to major in dance at Hofstra University, my eyes were opened once again. My classmates were varied in their dance experience – some fairly new to the game, others from highly awarded competitive studios, and a few of us who came from Conservatories or Performing Arts High Schools. But this was college, so regardless of past experience, we all were held to the same standard. It was there that I realized my experience in High School was out of this world – my teachers had prepared me for this! I already had a fantastic base in modern dance (something most studios don’t even teach because you don’t compete in modern) and my dancing for the past 4 years had been rooted in solid technique, not tricks to win trophies. Even though I was probably not the “best” dancer in my class, it was because of my well-rounded training that I was able to receive a coveted dance scholarship for my studies at Hofstra.
THE SHIFT IN DANCE
It is baffling to see how the dance world has changed in recent years. You almost can’t find a non-competitive studio now. Dance has had a big shift towards more commercialized, competitive dance and that seems to be all studios are concerned about teaching now. When I first opened, I even had another local studio owner tell me my business would fail because ALL parents want their kids to compete.
“Competition studios are in the majority now, and even studios that simply have a recreational focus (meaning students are not necessarily looking to pursue dance as a livelihood) are focused on dance in the commercial realm. And I do think that is limiting, as there is a whole world of dance that exists outside that realm. Creative exploration and development is a privilege and it is too bad that many students don’t receive that opportunity. I don’t think competition itself is the reason they don’t but, I think it’s possible that this majority shift in focus toward commercial dance has affected the balance in education.” (Dance Advantage website).
Stephan Laurent, Professor of Dance and former director of Des Moines Ballet says, “It’s so commercialized that it has taken the soul out of dance. It’s purely for the entertainment value, sometimes arousing erotic interest, often unskilled, and goes against everything I believe in… True art has depth and communicates and none of that is present in commercial dance.”
There is now a great divide – Commercial Dance (think Hollywood & music videos) vs. Concert Dance (think more artistic, classical dance performed in a theater). Don’t get me wrong, I am glad there is commercial dance – without it we wouldn’t have “So You Think You Can Dance” or even dancing in Broadway shows, but I feel like the best dancers in both those venues also have fabulous, well-rounded educations in dance, which is what I strive to bring to our students.
WHAT DANCE COMPETITIONS REALLY ARE
For those of you who know me, you understand I do not own a dance studio for the money. And competitions, well, they’re ALL about money – dance is a billion dollar industry with over 200 competition companies in the US.
Competitions cost so much money and time – entry fees, travel expenses, hotels, multiple expensive costumes, hair pieces/accessories, team apparel, rehearsal tuition, tons of late night / long Saturday rehearsals, missing school for competitions, etc. It can easily cost thousands of dollars per year to have your child competing. So you might ask, then WHY??? Why would any studio or parent want to compete?
With the shift towards commercialism, almost all dance studios feel a need to compete. For the studio, competing brings in additional income and winning raises the status of the studio and draws more business. For the parents, winning confirms their child is getting a good dance education (whether that is true or not). This becomes cyclical and studios, parents and students become increasingly focused on winning at competitions, which can be detrimental since students are no longer are getting a well rounded dance education, but one focused on tricks and high scores.
There also is a huge amount of unfairness that happens at competitions. This happens through entry categories, entry ages and award classifications. Many competitions now have categories such as “novice” and “elite”. There are rules governing which category your dancers belong in, yet a constant complaint at competitions are dancers who should be competing at a higher level are instead put into the lower level just to win. There also are rules regarding ages, which many studios choose to manipulate by putting a few younger dancers in the back of a piece to bring down the overall age and thus have them compete in a younger bracket. Also, when it comes to awards, there is no standard and many competitions are adapting the “Everyone deserves a trophy” mentality by having multiple “1st place” winners or having the hierarchy of winners be “Overall Platinum Plus, Platinum Plus, Platinum, High Gold, Gold, Silver”… so earning “Gold” is essentially 5th place. With no consistency between competitions, a studio who relies on competition scores driving business could say “We win Gold at Competition” and parents would have no idea what that really means or if the studio is essentially cheating to earn those scores.
Competitions also seem to rely too heavily on synchronization and flashy tricks instead of artistry. According to Derek Reid, Dance Professor and former dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem, “Competition has nothing to do with the true essence of dance, which is communication. Competitions actually neglect that idea; which doesn’t mean their dances can’t have expression, but if it’s not their focus, they won’t necessarily embrace it.” Dance, although very sport-like in discipline, is first and foremost an art form.
Additionally, a trend that has swept the nation in competitive dance is inappropriate music, costumes and choreography. Dance, especially commercial dance, is so over sexualized – and I feel it is ruining the art. There are an overwhelming number of studios who put kids in immodest costumes, dance to racy songs and shake parts they are too young to even have yet. I have sat in audiences and heard parents scream & cheer for those pieces. Experiencing that makes my stomach turn. Lets teach kids the beauty and expression of dance – not the “sex sells” mentality of Hollywood.
There are definitely lessons to be learned from competing, but I feel those positive lessons can also be learned outside of the competitive realm. And although I know of a few studios who do compete with happy, well rounded students, most of the time, that is not the case, even if a studio owner has good intentions. At best, most competitive dancers come away with a love/hate relationship with competing.
WE ARE DRAMA FREE
Perhaps the number one reason why we don’t compete is that I strive to have a “drama-free” studio. Competing can bring out the best and the worst in people. The stress and anxieties of competition can lead to all kinds of drama – including bullying, favoritism, rivalries, physical injuries, crazy parents, financial stress, low self-esteem, and the list goes on (by the way, ALL of those occurred at my childhood studio, yet the majority vanished in a non-competitive setting – this was also a large reason for leaving my studio at age 14). The motivations of competing are typically money and winning – two things that often bring on the drama and also things that I do not care to stress, especially with young, impressionable minds. Additionally, many studios take dancers to competitions to hear unbiased feedback. While some judges are fantastic at giving constructive criticism, sadly, many just tear down. I would never want my students to work for months on a dance and walk away feeling worthless based on what 3 judges have to say – that can be frustrating and destructive. There are other ways to receive unbiased feedback in positive ways, many of which we are looking into for the future. Of course, competition can also teach great sportsmanship and team camaraderie, but that is something we choose to build through our performance group instead of competitions.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO WITH DANCE?
When I was at the 2014 Dance Teacher Summit a few weeks ago, I attended a class called, “What the Judges See” which was a competition panel moderated by Mandy Moore and Anthony Morigerato (both famous dancers/choreographers/judges). At one point, Mandy Moore said, “If you want to train your dancers to be performers in a company, then don’t compete”. If a student wants to continue their dance education in college or dance professionally with a company, there is nothing about competing that will prepare them for that path. Colleges and companies don’t care about competition scores and many studios focused on competitions don’t educate for those wanting to major in dance. Training young artists to only associate winning with success, strips them of the notion that they are creating art.
Competition teaches that the only dance worth pursuing is commercialized dance – that in Hollywood and music videos. For studios that are specifically directing their students to a career in that field, then yes, competing makes sense to a degree. However, there is a huge, beautiful other world of dance. One that I find far more appealing, and one that raises the dancer to a level of artistry not found in competition.
Overall, I hope to offer my students a well-rounded dance education and teach them to embrace this art for all that it is. They will love performing for entertainment as well as have an in-depth understanding of technique and artistry – all without competition.