The Tipping Point

On any given day competition judges may see dozens—even hundreds—of dance teams. So what does it take to make a lasting impression in the face of fierce competition? According to longtime judge Christopher Smith, bringing your “A”-game across the board might be the only way to succeed in an increasingly competitive circuit.

“Judges nowadays are looking for the total package,” says Smith, who has judged for Hoctor’s Dance Caravan, Dance Masters of America and Triple Threat, among others. “We’ve seen a lot of teams that can do all the tricks but lack entertainment value, and we’ve seen the opposite with all personality and no technical skills. So winning teams will have to combine stage presence, technique and difficulty level.”

To further pinpoint the factors that can make or break your success at competitions, DT spoke with veteran judges to get their hard-earned insights.

Go against the grain.
Following current trends—and doing it well—is a solid strategy, but blazing new trails is a surefire way to stand out. Try exploring genres that don’t get much stage play. For Smith, the current deluge of contemporary routines has him craving something out of the ordinary. “After seeing a big push toward this style for the past two years, I’d like to see things become a bit more diverse—funky jazz, lyrical, musical theater, rockin’ jazz,” he says. “I enjoy contemporary, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.”

Robin Dawn Ryan, owner of her namesake studio in Cape Coral, Florida, says that daring choices can also be an attention-getter, no matter the genre. “You want to be the studio that everyone is talking about as they walk out of the competition, so you might want to make your routines edgier,” says Ryan. “But you have to be careful of age and appropriateness. You don’t want people talking about your studio in a way that’s distasteful.” Ryan recommends finding original music for your routines rather than Top 40 hits or songs heard on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Minimize distractions.
Every point counts, so often-overlooked factors like appearance can really affect competition outcomes. As a judge for Showbiz, Starpower and Hall of Fame, Ryan always keeps a watchful eye out for uniformity. “When there are so many good groups, you start picking at stuff, and appearance is where it begins,” she says. “Onstage everyone should have the exact same hair, makeup and jewelry. Otherwise, it pulls the judges’ focus.” Some of Ryan’s specific pet peeves are: belly rings, various shades of lipstick, tights worn inconsistently among team members and colored nail polish.

At one recent competition Ryan judged, a team’s look was the deciding factor between two top contenders. “One group took such command when they walked onstage. Nothing was out of place; the grooming was impeccable,” she recalls. “The other group was stronger technically, but they didn’t have the presentation.”

Don’t force your overall impact.
In presenting your team as the total package, it’s necessary to cultivate a balanced blend of choreography, execution and charisma. Smith, the national director of Hollywood Vibe, says that he considers the competition’s “Overall Impression” category to be the most important on the score sheet. “It encompasses the feeling of the choreography, the dancers’ technique and their ability to connect with the audience.”

While the level of difficulty is a weighty factor, many judges frown upon choreography heavy on tricks and light on substance. “I dislike routines that are all about the ‘Ta-da!’” says Smith. “It’s about telling a story with meaning, not ‘I can put my leg way up here.’”

Think outside the box.
Creativity and innovation can also tip the scales in your team’s favor. Robert Lee, who has judged for 5678 Showtime, Tremaine and Hollywood Vibe, among others, loves to see teams “explore artistic and creative movement while keeping strong technique as a base.” In one standout hip-hop routine, one dancer acted as the conductor to groups of dancers who moved in correlation to various instrumental sections. “It was brilliant; the kids did such a great job and had the intention and the passion,” says Lee, who recently opened Elevation Studios in Signal Hill, California. “Creativity is a huge factor in what I love to see, but it also needs to have technique behind it.”

While there isn’t an exact science to taking home the trophy, knowing how judges think can make a big difference. Yet even when all judging criteria are taken into consideration, teams will still win some and lose some—it’s the experience that ultimately counts. “The bar has been raised so high, and the turns and technique have improved so much,” says Ryan. “But it’s really about discipline, having a kick-butt attitude and the confidence where everyone comes together as a team.”  DT

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles.

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