Thousands of dancers take part in competitions every year. But is too much emphasise placed on winning? Michelle Dursun investigates.

There is much to gain from participating in dance competitions and it isn’t all linked to walking away with a medal. Apart from providing students with an opportunity to do what they love, competitions offer valuable learning opportunities. There is concern, however, among many adjudicators that an increasing focus on “winning at all cost” means students are missing out on these important lessons and risk jeopardising both their continued artistic development and their love of dance.

Teachers and students need to manage their expectations when it comes to dance competitions. Excessive external pressure on students to achieve is often counterproductive and unrealistic expectations can be damaging to a student’s self esteem and growth. Students need to focus less on the competitive aspect by directing their energies into achieving their own very best performance. According to Sue Harvey, dance educator, adjudicator and sponsor of the Brisbane Performing Arts Challenge,
“The competition should be within yourself – you should strive to improve your performance each time. Work for a higher mark, better comments from the adjudicator and work on applying past comments to improve technique and performance.”

What adjudicators are looking for

Adjudicators are looking for a range of qualities in dancers. According to dance adjudicator Tracy-Lee McKinney, “Good basic training is important as is the energy level of the performance.

Dancers should be well groomed and confident and look like they are enjoying the performance.” Cameron Mitchell (artistic director of Brent Street school in Sydney) states, “I always look for a natural unforced quality in dancers. It should look like they are born to do it. Nothing forced or uncomfortable”.

One of the other qualities recognised by Sue Harvey is how a dancer recovers if something goes wrong. She says: “On some occasions you may come across a performer who cleverly covered or needed to improvise for whatever reason. I like to acknowledge this as not always does a performance go according to plan and not always are the dancers able to manage this.”

It seems there is general agreement among adjudicators that they are looking to reward the best performance on the day (with an acknowledgement that this is often a combination of good staging, choreography, costuming, dancer technique and performance ability). “General marks and assessment are given on the performance I see at the time,” Harvey says. “There are usually other awards that can be allocated, such as encouragement, most promising, etc”.

When it comes to eisteddfods or competitions that offer scholarships or bursaries, adjudicators are looking for that little bit extra. According to Cameron Mitchell, “Scholarships are important as they help to further a dancer’s education. I look for the same criteria as I would in a normal section, but with a scholarship you are really looking for long term potential.” Tracy-Lee McKinney adds: “It is important that the award goes to someone who wishes to further their career or future.

You never stop learning

Participation in a dance competition should be viewed as a learning opportunity. Mitchell offers this advice: “Do it as an exercise in growth as a performer – don’t just be in it to win it.” He also recommends that dancers challenge themselves to learn something from every performer they compete against – even if it is what not to do. He points out that dancers should listen carefully to the adjudicator’s comments and apply this constructive criticism to their next performance. Sue Harvey advises dancers to use the opportunity of performing in an eisteddfod to discover more about themselves, build confidence and learn how to deal with the “ups and downs that comes with competitions”.

What not to do

When preparing for eisteddfods, teachers and dancers can make a number of mistakes. Some of the criticisms offered by adjudicators are:

  •     dancers and routines that don’t make full use of the stage
  •     choreography which is beyond a dancer’s capability or exposes their weaknesses
  •     inappropriate costuming
  •     over-dancing
  •     lack of musicality
  •     lack of rehearsal time
  •     an unnatural facial expression.

In addition, for Cameron Mitchell “anything fabricated and artificial is like nails down a blackboard for me”.

Bounce back

Achieving a good result is important to most dance students. But when the outcome isn’t what a dancer had hoped for, they must learn the importance of resilience. “Eisteddfods are a great training tool,” says Sue Harvey, “preparing the dancer for the real world of dance/entertainment. Often there may be numerous great dancers within a section, but only some will receive a placing. There is not always a place for everyone at the time.” As Tracy-Lee McKinney adds: “Eisteddfods are great life-preparation.

Working hard at something you love and enjoy is a privilege; learning that not everything goes the way you want helps you cope with other things in life.

“Everyone is really a winner no matter what, as you come out of it later with an appreciation of the arts, live shows, the preparation involved, understanding of music, good posture and confidence in front of an audience among many other great qualities.”

Share the joy

Any occasion which allows a dancer to share their love of dance and fine-tune their craft should be viewed as an opportunity. Performances should come from a place of truth and be genuine, not contrived. According to Sue Harvey, a performance should communicate a student’s love of dance and dancers should give of themselves to the audience. She adds that dancers should remember the “true dance value” of their performance and show a sense of naturalness in what they are doing.

And there are many other advantages. “Just working with a teacher/choreographer on a one-onone basis is extremely advantageous,” points out Harvey. “Meeting and getting to know others who have the same love as you is another benefit.” She also advises that dance competitions help dancers stay in touch with the dance world and keep up to date with the profession.

It is clear that there are many reasons to take part in a competition. Dancers need to bear in mind that if the trophy alone is their singular focus, they are missing out a wealth of rich learning opportunities.

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