While competitive dancing is not something I’d ever recommend for our most promising students who aim to dance professionally, I recognize that the elitist attitude many ballet schools’ have towards competition programs is no longer (probably never was) serving the ballet world, nor the youngsters interested in dance.
I’ve since had many eye-opening years of performing, teaching, and working with competitive dancers and with this refreshed perspective, want to again explore the pros & cons. After all, different dancers have different needs and it’s high time to take a second look at recreational, competitive, and professional-track dance training: where they differ, who they serve, and where they overlap.
1. Competition motivates students to work hard and provides them with a standard of progress they know they need to work up to. Seeing what’s out there opens students and their families up to at least a wider world of dance than what they see at their local studio.
Although, attending/ushering/volunteering at professional performances, auditions, summer programs, internships, and apprenticeships are just a few examples of how professional-track dancers can attain the same experiences in a way that builds their resume and real world experience. Most professional dance companies offer outreach and educational programs that achieve this very exposure. Many times they are free and can even lead to future work. Just sayin’
2. Competition does require accountability and gives students a healthy understanding of winning and losing. Students involved in competition have to prepare for real criticisms of their capabilities via judge’s tapes and award placement.
Although, everyone wins at dance competitions. I have been in the competition circuit long enough to see that even the least deserving students and studios were awarded with enormous trophies. It may only read ‘honorable mention’ but you stick that bad boy in a window somewhere and boom: winner. I stopped staying for the award ceremonies when I learned that ‘gold’ was the lowest offered award… Yeah, that’s a true story. Gold was the lowest. …And not at just the one competition – at all of them. I also stopped having my students review the judge’s tapes when I realized the judges said the same exact thing on every tape, for every dance: The student needs more ballet. Um, yeah, I could have told you that. Just sayin’
3. As I mentioned, competitions are a huge motivational tool for youngsters. It enables studios to enforce minimum class requirements of ballet, stretch classes, leaps and turns, etc., which we know are in the best interest of the student. It helps schools set a differentiating standard between kids that want (and should be able to) study dance for fun in a weekly recreational class, and those that want to be really good (ie. ‘win’).
Although, competition offers no real measure of a student’s success as a dancer. Their ability to dance in sync with their team is often amazing, but there is little room for growth as an artist, individually or within the chemistry of the group.
Their ability to pick up complex choreography quickly is wonderful, but they lack the ability to embrace the discipline necessary to perfect their tendu with constant repetition. The retention of a repertoire of hundreds of ballets is also out of the question, as memorization and fluency are two different things.
In the music-driven, costume-driven, prop-driven, choreography-driven excitement of a two minute routine, an audience is riveted, but when you look at the individual dancers on stage, you see tight hip flexors, bent knees, slouched collar bones, stiff fingers and no epaulement. This may also be true of ballerinas-in-training, however competition dancers are often unaware of what’s missing, whereas a ballerina-in-training is riveted to the barre working on these details.
The dancers impress audiences with stunning formations, high kicks and gargantuan leaps, but they lack the ability (and desire) to capture an audience with a simple, beautiful port de bras. Just sayin’
4. The time spent in class/rehearsal for competition team does prepare a dancer well for a career in the performing arts and even as a degree-candidate in college. Much like competition rehearsals, dancers do spend 6-8 hours per day dancing/performing and days off will include a ballet barre and a yoga class.
Although, if that same time, money and energy were spent on regimented technique classes, intensives, auditions and internships, they’d get a lot more bang for their buck. Their bodies would be well conditioned for a career spanning several decades instead of injury-prone and arthritic by 30. Their minds and spirits would be disciplined enough to handle the ongoing rejection and criticism that comes with their craft. Their training will have provided them with fluency in the language of ballet so that choreographers find them easy to work with. They’d have earned the right to be one of Einstein’s “athletes of Gd”.
There is simply not enough time in a week for academics, sufficient technique classes AND competitive and performance rehearsals. And forget extracurricular activities necessary to get into college. Something’s gotta give.
I realize I am generalizing here. And the truth is that there are many right ways to train a dancer. Many quality teachers involved in competition-land strive to educate dancers on all of the above, walking that fine line of technique verse performance with enormous effort, deliberation and planning in order to educate their dancers to the best of their ability in all aspects.
Bravo to those teachers. I know many of them, and I know the amount of effort that they put in to balancing the authenticity of classical training, the accountability and pizazz of competition dancing, and the approach-ability of recreational dance so that everyone can participate in their birthright of dance.