Why I Love Judging Special Awards at Dance Competitions

Dancers onstage at the awards ceremony in New Hampshire when I was doing special awards.

Dancers onstage at the awards ceremony in New Hampshire when I was doing special awards.

In the dance competition world, I’m what’s called a “Special Awards” Judge. There are usually at least three judges at competitions who give their critiques of dancers’ performances and issue numeric scores and sometimes I’m assigned to do that, but usually I am the fourth judge who is tasked with the job of watching the dancers for something special that deserves an award of its own. I am so proud that I have been a special awards judge for five years now at Sophisticated Productions, a competition which places unique emphasis on special awards to encourage young dancers and also happened to have seen enough potential in me to think I might be good at giving special awards.

Once all the dancers during a particular segment of a competition have performed, I am called onstage to give the special awards before the adjudicated and title awards are announced. The Emcee (Master of Ceremonies) introduces me and hands me the microphone as I approach the podium with a basket of the awards I have decided to give for that segment. The awards are ribbons that hang from a card on which I have written the name of the entry, the title of the award, and the time and place I gave it.

On a typical competition day that may last around fifteen hours, there may be as many as three segments (each about 60 entries long–solos, duets, trios, groups, line productions, etc.) and I find myself giving about 20-30 special awards per segment. No one tells me what awards I have to give or to whom they should go; it is entirely up to me. So I set one simple rule for myself–enjoy yourself that day watching all those amazing dancers and when something just strikes you in a particularly good way, give it an award and acknowledge it onstage.

Here are three examples of awards that I have given while onstage:

Jesse: Could I please meet Sarah who performed number 173, “Brave”? [Sarah comes up to the podium] You look so nervous! Am I that scary?
Sarah: No, I just don’t know what you’re going to say!
Jesse: Well, no worries, because I LOVED your dance! You entered the stage with so much confidence that I sat up a little straighter because I wanted to see what you were going to do. You were so expressive, you poured your heart out on that stage, you held my attention and never let me go and even when you were done, I didn’t want you to leave us. Beautiful expression. Gorgeous fouettés and I gasped out loud when you opened that fouetté up into an illusion–beautiful! I’m giving you an award called “BEAUTIFUL” because there’s no more perfect word to express what I thought of your dance. I got goosebumps and I was reminded of why I love teaching this art form. I feel so lucky I had the chance to see you dance today. Thank you so much for that!
Sarah: [with tears in eyes] Thank you so much!
Jesse: You’re welcome; you inspired me!
Jesse: Could I see those two little divas who did “Baby” up here??? You guys were awesome! How old are you?
Girl: Four
Boy: Four and a half
Jesse: I LOVED LOVED LOVED your dance! And ya know what?! This audience out here just LOVED your dance, didn’t they?! [audience applauds] But what I want to know is if you guys always get along when you’re working in dance class!!
Girl: Yes
Boy: No!!
Jesse: Do you guys fight with each other??
Both: Yes!
Jesse: Well, let me tell ya, I ALWAYS fought with my sister when we were dancing and she blamed me for everything that went wrong! [audience laughs] But watching your dance, I would never ever know that you didn’t get along in rehearsal. It was so adorable, you were so cute, the audience loved you, you guys are getting the “Oh 2 Cute Award” for your duet! Congratulations!
Jesse: I want to see the little boy who did “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy!” … You were amazing! Did you hear how loud that audience was when they were cheering for you!?
Boy: Yes.
Jesse: I have NEVER in my life seen a boy do an arabesque on a John Deere tractor onstage. Or anyone, actually! That was great! Did that take a lot of work?
Boy: No.
Jesse: Oh, it was easy? You certainly made it look easy! Do you love dance?
Boy: Yeah, a lot!
Jesse: I can tell–in fact, this whole audience could tell! We LOVED watching your dance and ya know what?! I think that you’re gonna be famous if you keep doing what you love doing! Do you promise me you’ll always work really hard at what you want to do?
Boy: Ok, I promise.
Jesse: Aww, well, then I’m going to give you the John Deere Daring Dancer Award for what you did today. I thought it was great!!
Boy: Thank you!
Jesse: You’re welcome!

Those were a few examples of actual awards I have given. I feel so fortunate to, first of all, have the chance to sit at the judging table and watch dance after dance in some city and whenever I see something beyond the ordinary for whatever reason, I get to bring those dancers up on stage and talk to them and tell them what I thought.

I feel like I’m fulfilling my highest potential when I’m doing special awards because I get to watch and dissect dances, think about them, and then tell the whole audience what I thought or felt or was inspired by.

And the most beautiful part is that I really mean it. I did get those goosebumps. I was moved to tears. I was inspired to go home and work to put my own reaction into words, into movements, into choreography. I find myself also so humbled when I see work that is performed by dancers with so much more talent than I was given, or when I see work choreographed by minds so much smarter than mine. I see it, I notice it, I’m awed by it, and I just have to tell you and everyone else how much I love it. The moments when that happens are the moments when I feel like that excellence has in turn elicited the utmost excellence from me.

I remember, one moment in particular, when I had judged special awards in Houston, Texas in 2010. The competition was over and I was walking across the convention center lobby when a group of people stopped me. “Sir?” a man in a cowboy hat asked to get my attention.

“Hi,” I said, uncertain.

“I just wanted to shake your hand and tell you that most of my life, I thought that if a man didn’t work for the oil industry, he didn’t have a real job, but you, sir, you are amazing at what you do. You gave an award to my granddaughter and she and her mother are just beside themselves and taking pictures. We’re all so proud. You certainly made our day. It’s New York you come from?”

“Yes, upstate.”

“Well, I can’t thank you enough. You made us all very happy today.”

“Thank you so much; I’m glad. She really deserved it. She’s a beautiful dancer.”

And I’ll never forget his parting words, “It was a pleasure, son. Have a safe trip back.”

“Thank you, very much.” That was the moment I decided that I wanted to do this forever. I wanted to watch dancers and tell them what particular things made them so beautiful. I like to think, somehow, that my special awards help somehow to inspire dancers to keep working and to keep being themselves.

Actually, I wish the whole world took the time to point out and acknowledge what it is that we all do well. Sometimes it’s just knowing that someone noticed that makes all the difference…

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About Jesse Katen

Jesse Katen is a professor, dance studio owner, and competition judge who lives in Binghamton, New York. He opened his studio, The Jesse Katen School of Dance in 2004, which is currently in Windsor, NY. He travels extensively throughout the United States as a guest teacher and professional competition judge. In 2016, he was awarded the Industry Dance Award for Outstanding Judge by the Association of Dance Conventions & Competitions at their annual gala in Las Vegas. He is the coordinator of the Honors Program at SUNY Broome Community College, where he also teaches in the English department. Jesse's professional and volunteer work focuses on education, dance, literacy, and the arts. Check out the WBNG-TV news feature on Jesse: http://www.wbng.com/story/32879982/tales-from-the-tiers-jesse-katen This blog by Jesse Katen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Posted on January 18, 2014, in Dance, Dance technique, Inspiration, Performances, Teaching Dance and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I love reading positive competition stories like this one. Hope you update the blog soon!

    Like

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