Choosing the "elite"

Recently, I was asked to form an elite team at my studio. First of all, I take issue with the term “elite” right out of the gates. The definition of elite is “a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.” Being asked to select a part of a group that is superior to the rest is enough to put any dance instructor in to an immediate cold sweat. However, I’ve decided to rise to the occasion and form my elite group today with no apologies! So, here goes… Molly is on my elite team, because she has the most superior smile of any of my dancers. When I walk in, she greets me with a glow and it makes my day better.

Hailee is a no brainer – because she remembers the choreography every single week and for those days I am too busy to review – I can count on her superior memory to pull us through.

Sydney has a way of making the people around her try harder – she gives high fives to each dancer as they finish their across the floor sequences and when she cheers them on, you can tell she really means it. That’s a quality that few possess and we need her uplifting spirit.

Isabelle is the hardest worker I have in class. She tries a skill over and over and over, no matter how much she is struggling with it. She doesn’t give up or walk away; she attacks a challenge with a superior resolve.

Natalie makes the team because she is dynamic. She has a power and energy to her movement that energizes a room and you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on stage. Even if she is in the back corner of the formation, her spunk catches your attention. She is a superior performer.

I know, I know…I haven’t mentioned the height of their extensions, or the number of turns they can cleanly execute, or which splits they have – and that’s all important too. Dance is a discipline and there is technique. I can objectively select which dancers are stronger technically and clearly I want each of my dancers to execute their skills correctly and to the best of their abilities. But each dancer has their own set of assets, and every one of them brings something superior to the group – their kindness, their spunk, their work ethic, their support, their quick wit. So, I guess if you’re asking me to select "part of a group that’s superior to the rest," you’ll just have to be a little more specific.

"Honest & Genuine" - music to my ears

Last night a guest teacher came in to work with our Jazz III class. To be perfectly honest, bringing in a new teacher is a little nerve-wracking. This teacher has his undergrad from U of Alabama, danced in NYC, worked for Celebrity Cruise Lines, was faculty for the ABT summer intensives, and is now pursuing his master's degree in Dance at the University of Oregon. In other words, he knows his stuff. Which leads to the thoughts of, how are my dancers going to stack up? Is he going to walk in and expect to teach "those dancers" - you know, the ones who have their own agent by the age of ten and touch their toes to their nose while doing triple pirouettes. So I watch the class and I see my dancers working hard, listening intently, smiling at each other when things go well -- and when they don't go well. I see them crack a sideways grin when they crash in to each other trying a new move, then adjust and get it right the next time....and I think to myself, I wouldn't trade these dancers for anything! So after the class is over and the studio is quiet, I give the new teacher feedback on his sequences, the pace of the class, the overall material -- and then I ask him, what did he think? He says, "your girls are genuine and honest. They work hard and you can tell they love what they are doing. They are real. That's not often the case when I go in and teach."

Wow! What a great compliment. Not only do our dancers work their butts off, but they do it in a way that is "genuine and honest." I'll take that over the triple pirouette toes to the nose any day. So to all of my dancers, you should be proud of yourselves and your work, I know I am.

There's no "fair" in dance competition

Dance competitions are a tricky thing. Now between you and me, I have a dirty little secret. I don't love competitions. I know that as a tried and true dance teacher, and coming from an award-winning studio, I should sing their praises. And don't get me wrong, I can tell you a lot of great things that happen at competition. Life lessons are learned, dancers have the opportunity to be exposed to other dancers, they get professional feedback about dancing - there are plenty of reasons to compete. My dancers do grow from competition experience and I believe that there are benefits to competing. But ultimately, a competition is ranking dancers. Against each other. That is the bottom-line. And there's no way to make it fair. Now I'm all for the competitive spirit, and in athletics it is pretty straight forward. You play a game, there are set rules, someone wins and someone loses. Now in the interests of full-disclosure, I should admit that I was the mom sitting on the sidelines as my son's football team went up 42-0 thinking, "can't they just let the other team get one touchdown?" The few times I muttered such a thought out loud, I got the evil eye from the die-hard sports fans who equated giving up a goal to a mortal sin. So, I guess I don't have that out-for-blood mentality. That said, I understand the concept of winning and losing in sports. Sure, you can argue a call, or think a team played dirty, but for the most part, it's pretty clear cut when someone wins and someone loses. Everyone shakes hands and walks away knowing that this is how the game is played. Not so at a dance competition.

While there is certainly a scoring system in dance, there is just no true way to declare a "winner" in dance. And there's one good reason why - because dance is an art, not a sport. I have seen the same dance, with the same costume, same music, and same dancers "win it all" at one competition and then not place as well at another competition. This is because there are too many incontrollable factors at a dance competition. A judge could feel a connection to one piece of music and not another. Another judge may love tap routines. Another judge may think a song is inappropriate, while a fellow judge has no problem with the content. It is all subjective. It is all out of our control.

Now admittedly, good dancing is good dancing. Judges do their absolute best to be as objective as possible and for the most part, competitions are able to reward great talent. But we've all sat in the audience at one point or another and gone "huh?" when a top routine is announced. This doesn't mean they made a mistake, it doesn't mean that they chose the wrong routine. It means the judges connected to a piece of art in a different way than we did. It would be no different than hanging a set of three paintings on the wall and asking which was the best. Ask 100 different people and you might get a wide range of answers.

At a dance competition, dancers, parents, and instructors can often spend hours replaying every moment of each dance trying to determine why it won, or why it didn't. But the reality is, we may never know. And we don't need to. The idea behind dance is to create a moment on stage that moves people. If we become too consumed by "winning" a competition, then we as instructors begin choreographing to win. This is a mistake for many reasons. First of all, we lose the authenticity of our work. Choreography should come from within, from the hope to express a message that comes authentically from us as artists. If we start guessing what the judges want to see, we are no longer listening to our own voice. Secondly, we can't predict a win. We can create a visually appealing, innovative, creative piece of dance - but we can't guarantee it will win. Our work is not better when you put a diamond, gold, or platinum label on it. The work is the work. If people appreciate it, we succeeded. If the judges are some of those people that appreciate it, so much the better. Third, when dance becomes about winning, we do a disservice to our dancers. They need to know that they are not defined by a trophy. They are not suddenly a better or worse dancer depending on where they are standing in a top ten line up. If they allow outside forces to determine their self-worth, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. Because you can't always win. And life, like dance, isn't fair.