Many dancers participate in the convention and competition circuit at varying points in their adolescence. Some love and praise dance competitions while others admonish and scorn them for varying reasons. I entered the convention and competition circuit when I was ten years old, and have eight years of experience and dozens of competitions under my belt. After coming to SMU, I have become more aware of relative short term disadvantages and long term advantages this participation has on dancers.
As with most activities, dance conventions and competitions possess a fair number of significant potential disadvantages that can dissuade or hinder emerging dancers. Many conventions include classes and categories for children starting at age six or seven. A number of these children get tired and burn out as teenagers, particularly if they fail to excel at the rate they would like or excel so quickly that they belief they have mastered the art and have no where else to go with it. Even dancers who start later can and do burn out as a result of time spent in conventions and competitions, usually as a result of the politics behind performance, judging, and awards. These events are laden with extreme stage mothers and aggressive studio owners who place a high value on winning overall titles. From these sources, glitter body spray, false eyelashes, and heavy stage make-up become the norm. Although young performers learn to apply stage make-up at an early age, many often resemble drag queens or hookers. This image is further heightened behind the politics of costuming. Over my years in the competition circuit, I observed and learned that dancers who wear smaller, skimpier, and more revealing costumes often receive higher scores. Although I have no direct causal evidence to support this observation, a correlation is definitely apparent. Many studios, parents, and dancers have picked up on this, and young girls are performing dances with suggestive themes that grossly exceed their maturity level. I’ve seen fathers and brothers wheel poles onstage for their young daughters to perform pole dances, fourteen and fifteen year olds dance in bras and mesh pants with bright orange thongs showing through, young adolescents wearing straight jackets with booty shorts, and a group of teenage girls with heavy makeup and teased hair rip off orange prison jumpsuits to reveal white underwear, to name a few. Sometimes it’s unclear what kind of stage we are training our dancers to perform on—that of a nightclub or a theater.
Another significant disadvantage attributed to dance conventions and competitions is the susceptibility to injuries. Conventions are almost always held in large ballrooms in hotels, and classes take place on carpet and parquet floors that do not provide the spring or support for dancing. In addition, the rooms are not always large enough to hold all of the dancers in attendance. This congestion makes it difficult to perform some dance steps and combinations, increasing the likelihood of collisions between dancers and resultant injuries. In addition, many of the instructors love to challenge the dancers to try complicated jumps, turns, and abstract floor work. Unfortunately, the limited space and large attendance often makes it tricky to receive both clear, thorough instruction and the ability to correctly and safely learn the movement. Dancers in my company alone suffered sprained ankles and wrists, dislocated ribs, tendonitis, shin-splints, strained muscles, broken ankles, and other such bumps and bruises at conventions. Although these disadvantages tend to be relatively short term, they are significant and have potentially lasting effects on emerging dancers’ personality, beliefs, and physical well-being.
Despite the shortcomings of dance conventions and competitions, they also provide a number of advantages that help shape and prepare emerging artists for a successful performing career. Dance conventions are customarily marked by two long days of five or six one to one and a half hour long classes. Each class is taught by a different instructor in a different discipline or style of the technique. Classes I participated in fell under the following titles: ballet, jazz, theatrical dance, musical theatre, lyrical, tap, jazz funk, contemporary jazz, hip-hop, African dance, etc. This exposure to a wide variety of styles and instruction from a number of esteemed teachers with diverse performance backgrounds helps to build versatile, well-rounded performers. The exposure to new, diverse choreographic ideas also fosters openness, curiosity, and creativity among dancers and future choreographers. Furthermore, participants in conventions must learn to pick up choreography quickly. The instructors teach at a rapid pace to ensure that the dancers learn a large portion of their choreography and get the opportunity to perform it multiple times in small groups. Yet, they still stress attention to stylistic and musical details, encouraging and rewarding those who can learn and perform their movement with speed, clarity, and correctness. Conventions and competitions are also valuable for the number of performance opportunities they provide dancers. Although politics and personal biases do sway judging, the feedback provided by judges can be beneficial in helping young dancers to grow both technically and artistically. Scholarship auditions provide adolescents with opportunities to engage in the audition process, test their skills at picking up choreography and performing it quickly, explore improvisation techniques, find and showcase their strengths, and to recognize and build connections with other emerging artists. These opportunities are invaluable if they are recognized and utilized by dancers in the circuit.
Clearly, the convention and competition circuit is an imperfect system. A number of disadvantages and advantages surround the system, exuding both short and long term effects on dancers. However, if dancers take advantage of all of the benefits conventions and competitions can offer while successfully surpassing the politics and potential downfalls, then the long term pros greatly outweigh the relatively short term cons, becoming sharp, versatile performers.