Category Archives: Performances

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…

The Gift of the Ballet: My Visit to NYCB’s The Nutcracker

The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Chevalier in NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Chevalier in NYCB’s George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

Yesterday, I had a dream come true as I traveled with my mom into New York City to meet up with my sister Katrina, who, as a fantastically thoughtful Christmas gift, treated us to a performance of New York City Ballet performing George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at NYCB’s permanent home–The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The Nutcracker, as a ballet, has always meant so much to me ever since I was cast simply as a boy at the party in Act I when my dance studio staged the ballet when I was eight years old. The next year I was thrilled to have graduated to the role of Fritz, as well as a soldier, and then as a clown in Act II. Once I had opened my own studio, I also founded a nonprofit performance company and we staged the ballet in Deposit, NY in December of 2010. All of these experiences culminated in The Nutcracker always invoking in me a sense of warmth, joy, and deeply affirming nostalgia.

Seeing The Nutcracker performed by New York City Ballet was even more significant, as NYCB is my favorite company on this planet. The famed company’s co-founder and first Ballet Master, George Balanchine, is a god in the history of dance, and he is arguably credited as the founder of the phenomenon that is American ballet. His technique is that which I grew up learning and studied more seriously academically as I grew up. His brilliant choreography is characteristically expressive, ethereal, and energetic. His work possesses deep classical roots, ever so perfectly spiced by the import of modern aesthetic sensibilities–a sacred regard for the textbook that somehow still forgives deviance as long as it’s for the sake of exquisite beauty and touching human expression. It’s that fusion of deep tradition to an ever-so-slight experimentation with technical transgression–a serious art form that allows itself a half of a dip into the “bad-ass”–that makes Balanchine’s artistic identity so distinctly American. Which, after all, was his inspired vision.

The Nutcracker I saw yesterday was impressive and entertaining. I love to see The Nutcracker performed with so many children as their inclusion helps remind the viewer that this is indeed a children’s ballet, both in the sense that it was intended to entertain all ages as well as to provide the chance for young ballet students to be given important performance opportunities. I say “Bravi” to the young dancers for showing such discipline and professionalism. I hope they had the time of their lives up on stage.

I do have to admit that my favorite act of the ballet was the second, in which there was less pantomime and more technique. Truth be told, for me the second act was comprised of surreal moment after surreal moment, eliciting wave after wave of goosebumps and tempting me multiple times to let the tears of inspiration roll down my cheeks no matter how much I might get ridiculed for it!

Some highlights for me were:
The pas de deux danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Chevalier. Balanchine was particularly gifted at arranging and choreographing complex pas de deux sequences that appeared effortless, seamless, and rendered the female dancer with a lighter-than-air ethereal quality. I could watch his pas de deux work all day long.

Pas de deux

Pas de deux

The Arabian dancer provided an exotic interlude, which I believe to be Mr. Balanchine’s nod to The Nutcracker’s historically “orientalist” preoccupation. Completely breaking with tradition, the Arabian displays her midriff, slides down to the floor, and meddles in contortion. In contrast to the ballet’s overwhelmingly family-friendly atmosphere, she momentarily conjures an aura of mystic sensuality from which the viewer must “snap out” following her exit.

The Arabian dancer

The Arabian dancer

One aspect of this particular performance of NYCB’s The Nutcracker that left me a bit disturbed was the behavior of the audience. I realize that far from most of the audience members were dance professionals or had any degree of dance education, but I did experience just a twinge of dismay when, during the first act, we witnessed a triple pirouette gorgeously executed by the candy cane that seemed to remain unacknowledged by the audience. Also ignored was the Sugar Plum Fairy’s fouetté turn. This same audience then erupted with astonished applause when they watched the mechanical marvel of the Christmas tree’s growth from twelve feet to forty feet. Of course the company’s technical crew and engineers deserve recognition for their work, but I wanted to ask “Really?! This is what the audience is applauding? An inanimate object that doesn’t even know whether it’s acknowledged or not?”

The tree magically growing from 12 to 40 feet

The tree magically growing from 12 to 40 feet

I felt similarly toward the end of the entire ballet when I was once again brought to new heights of artistic inspiration by the final coda, feeling so humbled and yet so alive to be in the presence of so many immensely talented and brilliant dancers. I wanted to applaud them and never stop. The rest of the audience applauded loudly, though, when the sleigh took flight above the stage. I don’t mean to take anything away from the mechanical triumphs of the performance, but I just wish the audience had had the education or the elevated taste to be so dramatically moved by the artistic and technical achievements of the dancers–who, by the way, are some of the very best in world!

The sleigh takes flight at the conclusion of The Nutcracker

The sleigh takes flight at the conclusion of The Nutcracker

I will be thinking about this ballet for a long time as I left feeling inspired, alive, and newly re-dedicated to this brilliant art form. *sigh* 🙂

My Most Common Critiques at Competition (Part 2)

These days, almost all dance competitions provide competing studios with detailed judges’ critiques in various media including on audio CD, video DVD, or on a flashdrive. What is so helpful about these critiques is that the teachers, choreographers, and dancers can listen to or watch their performances and listen to each judge’s voice, giving them a thorough critique throughout the entire duration of the performance. What’s especially great about the voice critiques is that listeners are able to hear the judges’ comments during the exact moment that is being commented on. This new practice of providing critiques is an incredible educational tool compared to the previous system of scrawling quick written notes on a score sheet. Furthermore, detailed critiques also help to explain and justify why you received the numerical scores that you did.

As a competition judge, I find myself quite often saying the same basic critiques over and over again. Here are numbers six through ten!

6. I’m Not Sure What That Was Supposed To Be!

Quite often, I have heard myself say during my critiques, “I’m not sure what that was supposed to be . . .”  I don’t say it in a cruel or frustrated tone, but rather one that is simply straightforward. What I mean when I say this is that I’m left totally uncertain with what that particular piece of choreography was supposed to be. I’m completely fine with experimental choreography, especially in the contemporary or open categories, but in most of those instances, I can tell that a certain maneuver or gesture was intended to be the way it was performed by the dancer. However when I see choreographic ambiguity or awkwardness that is indicated by a lack of clarity of movement on the part of the dancer, I will make a comment stating that I simply don’t know what was intended. This mostly occurs when, for instance, in a ballet or lyrical piece, I can’t tell if a turn was intended to be a pirouette in passé or in coupé because the dancer the position in which the dancer had placed the leg lacked definition and precision. The solution to this problem: be clear, specific, and explicit in both choreography and in execution to avoid a “muddled” performance.

7. Look at Us!

I cannot understate the importance of maintaining eye contact with the judges while you are onstage. When you look the judges in the eye (try to make contact with each one of them throughout your performance), you are creating a human connection with them that draws them more into your dance. This is an extraordinarily easy way to distinguish yourself from other contestants and to make the emotional charge of your piece all the more blatant. Also, since a big chunk of your score is likely to be based upon stage presence or personality, judges are much more likely to score you favorably if you demonstrate the confidence and presence that comes with being bold enough to look them in their eyes and express whatever your piece is intended to.

8. Don’t Let Mistakes Show In Your Face!

We are all human and we all make mistakes, including when we are dancing. Judges understand this. But, if something goes wrong in your dance, the best thing you can do is to just keep going and never let on that it ever happened. Try not to grimace or look upset, but rather maintain the stage face that was intended to be held during the piece. Making sure that your mistake never shows in your face and that you never break character accomplishes two things for you: first, you can minimize your mistake by not drawing any more attention to it at all, and two, you can demonstrate your show-biz professionalism by proving that you can keep it all together and that you have mastered that “show must go on” mentality. Turn your mistake into an opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism!

9. Stay Together!

Whenever you are dealing with more than one person in a dance, togetherness and timing must become high priorities. The only way to master these is the choreographer’s insistence of precise timing during rehearsal and the dancers listening to their music every moment and every time the dance is rehearsed and performed so that the necessary degree of precision becomes second nature. This is particularly essential in tap numbers where the judges are able to not only notice a lack of togetherness with their eyes, but it is reinforced by what they hear with their ears. Hours of drilling the number and correcting timing variances, as well as the dancers constantly using their ears while performing, will help maintain that impressive togetherness.

10. Don’t Look Nervous!

I find myself saying this often with younger dancers, but when a dancer of any age appears nervous or doubtful on stage, it evokes feelings of nervousness and apprehension in the audience and among the judges. We want to feel reassured by your facial expressions and your demeanor onstage. If you appear that you know exactly what you’re doing, most likely, anyone watching you will assume that you do. For the younger dancers, we want to see them having an absolute blast on stage, absorbing all the fabulous attention the audience pours on them for looking so cute! We don’t want to see a dancer onstage who looks like they’re being tortured! So stress with your youngest students to keep up that smile! A huge, exaggerated smile is so much better than the “deer in headlights” look!

There you have it–my ten most common critiques at competition! As always, I wish you the best of luck and look forward to hearing from any interested readers! And send me topic ideas!

Coming up next: Perfect Pirouettes!

My 10 Most Common Critiques at Competition (Part 1)

These days, almost all dance competitions provide competing studios with detailed judges’ critiques in various media including on audio CD, video DVD, or on a flashdrive. What is so helpful about these critiques is that the teachers, choreographers, and dancers can listen to or watch their performances and listen to each judge’s voice, giving them a thorough critique throughout the entire duration of the performance. What’s especially great about the voice critiques is that listeners are able to hear the judges’ comments during the exact moment that is being commented on. This new practice of providing critiques is an incredible educational tool compared to the previous system of scrawling quick written notes on a score sheet. Furthermore, detailed critiques also help to explain and justify why you received the numerical scores that you did.

As a competition judge, I find myself quite often saying the same basic critiques over and over again. In this two-part blog entry, I will share with you ten of the most common thoughts I find myself voicing into the microphone at competitions all over the United States.

1. Sickled Feet

This is probably the most common dance technical error of all time. It’s so easy to relax that foot and let it turn in, making the shape of a sickle. Even on very advanced and accomplished dancers, I catch sickled feet, usually in B+ or during pirouettes. Having consistently sickled feet can be detrimental to your technique score. Try to fix it in the classroom before you ever enter the stage. See my previous blog on Fixing Sickled Feet for some strategies to be rid of this particular mistake.

2. Straight Supporting Leg

I often joke that I should have a button on the laptop at competitions to say this phrase for me since I use it so often during critiques. Probably the biggest impediment to a smooth and flawless turn (pirouettes, attitude, pencil turns, and even fouettés and tours à la seconde) is a bent supporting leg. When you are balancing en relevé in your turn, unless the choreography is expressly contrary, your supporting leg should be absolutely straight with the knee locked. I think the reason that dancers often neglect to ensure the knee is straight is because of the basic human instinct to sink into the floor with bent knees when one feels unbalanced. When balancing in a turn, however, you’ll want to find that instinct, remain lifted and keep the knee locked! Especially in turns that are virtually endless (such as fouettés and tours à la seconde), when you pop back up from the plié portion of the rotation, make sure you straighten that supporting leg! Not straightening that leg all the way will not only throw off your balance, but will actually work against you. Only plié the supporting leg when you intend to smoothly land the turn. If you ever hear me cry “straighten the supporting leg!” into the micrphone, you’ll know what I mean now!

3. Place Weight on the Supporting Leg in Preparation for a Turn

Whenever a dancer prepares for a single-leg turn, especially from the lunge position, they should be placing most (at least 90%) of their weight on the leg that is going to serve as the supporting leg. Since this is the leg that will ultimately be carrying all of your weight, you will have a more stable and effortless lift out of the preparation if most of your weight is already placed on that leg in the first place. I should note that this is a matter of style and personal preference and I do know some teachers who encourage their students to prepare in a fourth position plié (bending both legs). I have found students to have greater success, however, by placing all their weight on the supporting leg (usually the front leg depending upon the preparation) before they lift to begin the turn. Go from a deep plié and pop up onto a straight supporting leg en relevé

4. Don’t Turn on the Heel!

I will usually tell competition dancers in my critiques that it is better to land a smooth, clean single turn rather than to complete a double or triple by dropping back onto the heel. It’s very obvious to the judges and makes your turn much less impressive. Also, you will lose points on your technique score for turning on the heel! It demonstrates to the judges that you haven’t maintained your weight at a point where you can balance all the way around or that you rushed or or were careless in your preparation or execution. If you feel unbalanced, it will be more professional and impressive to cut your losses and land the turn in a smooth and controlled manner before we catch you dropping back onto your heel. It’s a lot to think about all in that one moment, but if you can at all help it, remember, that the judges will be impressed with a perfect single rather than a sloppy, hoppy, double turn spun on your heel.

5. Support Your Arms from Underneath!

Poorly placed or droopy arms are becoming more and more common, it seems. I’m talking about probably the simplest and most common arm position there is: the first position. Arms should be held out away from you and almost straight, with just enough bend to give them that round shape. The tips of your middle fingers should be about two inches apart and directly forward from the belly button and hands should not droop downward. I will tell my students not to have “zombie hands!” The shoulders should be pressed down and back, but the elbows should be lifted, pressing up! Your arms will retain a beautiful shape if you are sure to accomplish these two seemingly contradictory things: the shoulders pressed down, but elbows pressing up. You will feel the tension and effort in your arms, but that’s a good thing! Dance isn’t supposed to be easy! If you can memorize what this tension feels like, your first position arms will be perfect every time. Most importantly, don’t let the elbows sag. One of my most common critiques is “droopy elbows!”

Thanks for bearing with me through these first five of my most most common competition critiques! Stay tuned for the next five!

As always, I adore comments and suggestions for future topics!

Break a leg, dancers!

Age-Appropriate Technical Choreography

This topic was suggested by Kristen DeFrancisco Miller, a teacher at the highly respected Donna Frech School of Dance in Norwich, NY. Thanks, Kristen!

I could write an entire series of blogs on the concept of “age-appropriateness.” Since this is a topic that remains relevant relevant and is constantly debated, I have decided to tackle it one aspect at a time.

Kristen, a teacher I have known for ten years now, suggested I write about appropriateness of choreography. For example, is it appropriate to put a billion unsuccessful fouetté turns into a nine year old’s lyrical solo?

I have come up with one steadfast rule regarding how to negotiate that delicate balance between wanting to challenge your students with more advanced technical choreography and also wanting them to appear confident and their dancing to appear effortless.

Here it is: If it doesn’t look GOOD, don’t put it on stage.

All audiences, whether professional competition judges, the dancer’s parents, or simply interested strangers, are hoping to see the same thing: dancing that looks good. The job of the dance teacher is to make his or her students both look good, and also strive to be even better. Obviously, students need to be challenged, but certainly not in a way that is going to make them look awkward or foolish on stage.

I recall at one competition I was judging, a fellow judge commented during a lunch break that she couldn’t believe how many times she saw young dancers attempting to perform a heel stretch, but were unable to straighten the leg all the way or to get their leg higher than the hip. We agreed that if the leg can’t be straightened or the heel is no higher than at least the shoulder, it should just be left out of the dance!

Although I can certainly understand a teacher’s desire to push a student to perfect a choreographic element, such as a heel stretch, placing it in the student’s routine and taking it to competition serves no purpose other than to highlight and broadcast the student’s technical deficiency, and risks the student suffering undue embarassment or loss of self-confidence. Who would want to do that to an aspiring young dancer?

My advice, then, is a more balanced approach. Privately, in the studio, always push a student to more and more difficult elements of dance. Once that single pirouette is landed smoothly, celebrate for a few seconds, and then ask for the double. Once a student can nicely execute four fouettés, give them a high five and ask for six. But, do not formally place any element in the choreography for a student’s routine until it is perfected.

The audience is looking for what the student does WELL, so use the choreography to show off what the student does WELL. Elements with which the student is struggling or those which they aspire to accomplish in the near future should be worked out in the studio, not onstage. Remember, you want to highlight what the dancer does well, not what they don’t. You want to set the student up to feel successful and encouraged, not deflated and thoroughly disparaged.

Hope you found this helpful! I’m always looking for new blog ideas and I love comments!

Best of luck, dancers!

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