Some of the best moments of my life have been on stage at dance competitions, giving special awards to talented young dancers. In the world of competitive dance, many competitions offer special awards, which are determined by one or several judges to acknowledge the special achievements or unique talents and abilities of dancers. The awards are entirely separate from the adjudicated awards and overall high scores, thus offering a chance to acknowledge unique qualities that simply can’t be articulated through a numeric score.
I have certainly been blessed to have judged more than 70 dance competitions around the country and my specialty is certainly special awards. I look forward to my travels and I am reminded of how much I love what I do every single day at every single competition. I’m also grateful that the competition I work for values special awards and their meaningful impact on young dancers so much that there is a fourth judge (usually me!) whose sole purpose at the competition is to judge the contestants, looking for things that dancers do uniquely well that can be acknowledged with special awards.
So many people have expressed interest in my travels and what I do that I have decided to share it in a series on my blog I’m going to call “Diary of a Dance Judge.” I hope you enjoy my stories and learn something about the world of competitive dance.
Here’s the diary from my weekend March 31-April 2 when I traveled to Springfield, MA to judge special awards.
Day 1: Friday, March 31, 2017
I wake up (having had the chance to sleep in a little more than usual) and pack for the upcoming weekend. The plan for the day is that I will do work for my other jobs (I have my own dance studio in Windsor, NY and I also teach English at a local college, so there is always work to catch up on!). Then, I plan to take a nap because I know I will not be arriving at the hotel until probably midnight tonight.
I have managed to get enough work done to feel productive and like I can leave town for a few days without worrying about what could go wrong while I’m gone. I try to relax a little bit and lie down to take a nap, careful to set two alarms to make sure I am awake by 4pm to double check my packing checklist and get ready to leave the house by 5:15pm.
I leave the house with my suitcase and head to Syracuse, NY where I will be meeting one of my best friends in the whole world, Sarah. Sarah is an amazing dance teacher who is incredibly knowledgeable about dance, especially technique. She will be judging this weekend as well and since I hate driving any more than I have to, the plan is to drive from my home in Windsor, NY to Syracuse to meet up with her and then I will ride with her the rest of the four-hour trip to Springfield, MA. I am so excited and looking forward to it because a long car ride with a best friend who loves dance as much as I do is always an adventure.
As I head out, I find myself feeling sentimental, recalling that day back in 2010 when the competition director called me up and said “Jesse, I need a special awards judge this weekend because someone just canceled on me. I think you would be great at it. Could you be in Springfield on Friday?” Saying yes that day was the beginning of a career doing something that I absolutely love. That weekend was great and the competition director declared me a “lifetime employee!” I find myself looking forward even more to this weekend ahead, although I’m a little nervous because I hope that I can live up to the expectation.
I stop to grab something to eat at a Burger King (for lack of other options) in Tully, NY since I haven’t eaten since 11:30am and Sarah and I probably won’t want to stop for food later.
I arrive at the studio near Syracuse where Sarah teaches, which will be our point of departure as soon as she is done teaching her lessons. Sarah introduces me to the young dancer she just finished working with and the dancer and her mom are so friendly and happy to meet me. I also meet Sarah’s boss and it’s clear that Sarah has mentioned me to everyone. Everyone says to drive carefully and to enjoy our weekend. I move my suitcase to Sarah’s car and we are off!
Once we are on the road, I call the hotel to make sure they know we are arriving late this evening and we don’t want them to give our room away. I also call the competition director to let her know where we are and what time we’ll arrive. She tells us to meet the other judges in the hotel lobby at 8:15 the next morning and one of the judges will drive all of us to the high school where the competition is being held.
During our road trip, we talk animatedly the entire time. Sarah and I love dance and we love what we do and we are close friends so the conversation ranges wildly. Here are some of the topics we covered during our four hours in the car:
- Our preferences with shoes, tights, and costumes
- How we are loved by our students but are also demanding and sarcastic–just carrying on the great tradition of dance teachers, we say!
- We talk about how we love the world of competitive dance but it’s important to remember that the purpose of dance is to perform and to transform audiences, not just to win trophies
- Now that we’re older, we don’t feel the desire to perform as much as we once did but we still love showing off at our studios to our own students
- It’s mentioned how we get super close to our other dance judge friends because we spend so much time together in our travels and we’re around other people who do what we do and so there are instant and deep bonds
- We also have a lengthy discussion about the frustrations we feel when people expect us to be good dancers in clubs or when people ask us to choreograph for their wedding. That’s simply not what we do.
- How our conversations are so fun we should have our own reality TV show and people would love it
- Our conversation turns to the weather as we cross the border into Massachusetts and snow/sleet/rain seems to be falling. The last hour of our journey is going very slow because of the messy roads
We arrive at our hotel in Westfield, MA and the girl at the front desk seems confused because we are traveling for business. Finally she realizes someone had already checked us in because we called ahead.
We grab snacks from the vending machine and try to get to sleep early. We both find it hard to fall asleep quickly in hotels and the pressure of telling yourself “You have to fall asleep right now to get a full five hours or six hours.”
Day 2: Saturday, April 1, 2017
My obnoxious alarm goes off and I remind myself of the rule I put in place when I first started traveling and judging: “NO snoozes on competition days!” I force myself to sit up, turn the light on, and grab a Starbucks Double Shot espresso can, which I always take with me to help me become as alert as possible. Despite the groggy haze, I am really excited to get to this competition.
Sarah and I go to breakfast, which is provided in the hotel lobby. We are notorious worriers and we show up every place super early so we don’t feel rushed. I have a breakfast of a little omelette and a cinnamon roll and lots of coffee.
The other judges come into the breakfast room. We know Kathleen from a competition we judged together a year ago and we meet the other new judge, also named Sarah. We all give hugs and talk about dance and our studios.
“Aren’t you guys going to eat anything?” Kathleen asks. “We already did,” Sarah replies, “we get nervous and are always too early.” We all laugh.
Kathleen has agreed to drive us all in her car to the competition venue. We get nervous because it is snowing and the roads are a mess and the trip takes longer than Google Maps said it would. Sarah and I are quietly freaking out as we always are.
We arrive at the school, which is a huge and beautiful brand new school. The parking lot is absolutely packed with vehicles covered in dance bumper stickers and good luck messages written with window chalk. We see dancers and dance parents carting bags and suitcases and costumes into the school. This is the moment where nerves kick in (if they haven’t already) and we realize, “You have an important job to do today in front of a lot of people.”
We go into the school, crowded with dancers practicing and stretching. A competition staff member at the merchandise table points out the staff room, where we go and take off our coats and set down our bags. I check to make sure I have my special purple pens and post-it notes I need to do my job as special awards judge.
The competition director greets us and asks how our trips were and how we slept. She then starts the judges’ meeting talking about how the scoring works and what the schedule of the day will be. She also lets us know if there are any schedule or order changes we need to be aware of. She instructs on how to use “Video Judge” which is how the studios receive the judges’ critiques.
You see, at the competition, a company video records each performance and the judges speak into a microphone, offering critiques, which are then recorded. After the competition, the dance studios are given access online so that they can watch the video of their dances and choose to listen to the critiques of Judge 1, 2, or 3. That way, the dancers can watch themselves perform and see exactly what the judge is talking about if on the critique, the judge says, “stretch your foot here,” or “don’t turn on your heel on that pirouette.”
While in the staff room, we are given a menu from a local Italian restaurant and we write down our lunch orders. The food will be delivered or picked up by a staff member and will be ready for us during the judges’ lunch break.
I make one last bathroom visit and then we all head down to the judging table set up at the front of the beautiful auditorium. There is a little purple “goodie” bag at each of our seats that contains bottles of water and a variety of candy.
I make sure I have everything I need: my purple pens, lots of post-it notes, special award ribbons, performance team invitations, paper clips, and the competition program. The competition director asks if we have everything we need and when we say we do, the show is a go.
9:00am – Segment 1 begins
The competition director welcomes the audience of several hundred people, makes some introductory announcements, and then the emcee calls the first number. It’s a jazz category and the dancers are energetic, enthusiastic and well-prepared. I decide right away that I want to give it a special award.
The morning continues as I look for things that dancers, whether in solos, duo/trios, groups, or line productions, do well and I create special awards that I will then give to them onstage during the awards ceremony.
There is no list of awards I give, nor is anything prescribed. I simply look for dancers and routines that have something special about them that deserves public recognition. I love this part of my job because I can be creative and it is my job to be positive and encouraging, which is my natural personality anyway.
We have been judging dances non-stop for almost two hours. I’m having a really great time, but all that coffee from this morning has caught up with me! We are scheduled to end the first segment at 12:45 and I know I won’t want to wait that long for a bathroom break. Plus, I need to feel centered and focused to do my job well, so I write on a post-it note, “Bathroom Break please” with a smiley face. I give it to the tallier, who sits at the table next to me, and she passes it to the emcee.
After the next category of dances ends, the emcee announces “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going to take a five minute break.” I jump up from the table and head to the bathroom. There are always a few giggles from the audience because they know the competition has come to a brief stop just so the judges can use the bathroom. When I return, I see the other judges have also taken advantage.
When we have all returned to the table, the emcee looks over to ask if we are ready. Once he gets a thumbs-up from each of the judges, he announces that we are starting and calls the next number to the stage.
The last number of the morning segment is called to the stage and when they conclude, the segment is over. A staff member wheels a podium to the stage and all the dancers who performed that morning come onto the stage wearing their studio jackets and they sit together to await their awards. The emcee gets everyone excited and throws stuffed animals and other little gifts to kids in the audience.
I stand just offstage, nervously waiting for the emcee to finish the fun stuff and introduce me. This is the moment when I am the most nervous, right before I go on stage. Finally, he says “let’s hear it for your special awards judge–JESSE!” The audience and the dancers onstage cheer loudly because many of them remember me from previous years. My face turns bright red, the emcee hands me the microphone, and I carry my little basket of special awards to the podium.
Once I start talking, I’m no longer nervous and I start to enjoy myself. I invite dancers up, tell them what I loved about their piece, and then I give them the ribbon. I notice some of the dancers pin the special awards ribbon to their jackets and carry them around all day. I invite up little age 4-6 year old dancers and ask them how old they are and they tell me in the microphone. Since they had such big smiles on stage, I ask them to turn around and smile big at the audience. The audience cheers.
One of the dances was to the song “We Go Together” and it was three pairs of little dancers, with one dressed in a yellow mustard dress and the other in a red ketchup dress and both with matching tap shoes! It was adorable and their whole studio cheered when I said I had never seen anything like it! I gave them the “Perfectly Complementary Condiments Award” and they looked so excited!
During one special award, I was very genuinely moved telling a dancer how beautiful her piece was and how sincere her emotions were on stage. I notice the huge grin on her face and how her eyes have welled up with tears. These are the moments where I am beyond grateful that I get to do something I love so much.
After I have finished my special awards, the competition director comes onstage for the adjudicated awards and the students find out how they scored and who received the high scores for the morning.
After the awards ceremony, the competition takes a lunch break. The judges go to the staff room where our lunch orders are laid out on a table for us. I had ordered a honey mustard chicken wrap and I grab a soda from the concession stand. After lunch, the judges have a chance to go to the bathroom and see if they missed anything on their phones. You see, when judging a competition, there is zero down time. Judges are occupied from the moment a segment begins until it ends, with only seconds between dances. It’s intense, but working constantly also makes the time fly by.
The judges head back to the judging table and we begin the second segment of the day. During the lunch break, we decided that since we had just eaten, we wouldn’t be ready for a big dinner in just a few hours. The competition director tells us we have the option of skipping the dinner break and just taking a short 15-minute break for the purpose of getting ahead of schedule and getting done early, after which we could get dinner. She asks each of us individually if that is fine and we all say yes we are too full to have a meal in a few hours and we would rather finish the day ahead of schedule and eat later.
When the emcee makes the announcement that the judges have decided to forego their dinner break to stay ahead of schedule, the audience cheers!
He calls the first number and the second segment begins! We get through this segment without having to take a bathroom break!
We end the second segment running ahead of schedule. Waiting to be announced, I get nervous again, but I’m more excited than nervous because I’ve already done one set of special awards. The kids and the audience know me now and I get cheered even louder this time when I give my special awards.
One of the awards I give at every segment is the “Outstanding Choreography” award, which is given not to a dancer, but to the choreographer of a piece that I thought was particularly brilliantly choreographed. I ask for the choreographer of a piece I loved to come up on stage. She comes up with tears in her eyes, clearly moved by what I had said about her work, and she says, “Thank you! Thank you!” and gives me a hug. Her students cheer from onstage and the dance parents cheer from the audience, so proud of their teacher.
After awards, the judges take a short break to clear their minds and get ready for the third segment of the day (we are now on hour 9 and only two-thirds of the way through).
The third segment ends. These kids are slightly older and so we are seeing interesting and challenging things on stage. I have also noticed during this segment that for many genres of dance, dancers tend to be barefoot. Since the judges sit so close to the stage, we can the dancers’ feet showing scars from blisters and friction burns. I marvel to myself at the dedication and sacrifices these young people make to become such accomplished competitive dancers. I am excited to reward that hard work through my awards–the third set of the day.
The judges leave the competition venue (thankfully our skipping our dinner break got us way ahead of schedule) and we head to the hotel to change out of our professional clothes and to just breathe for a minute. Kathleen uses her phone to find a nearby restaurant that looks nice for dinner. We head to the Westwood Restaurant in Westfield and we have a fun and sassy waiter named John. He can tell we are a fun group and makes suggestions to us on what to order depending on mood. He brings us bread with an amazing wasabi salad dressing. The song “Summer of ’69” comes on and I look across the table at Sarah and I just feel so happy! We had a great day! We just ordered some great food (I ordered the traditional carbonara–which reminded me of my friend Alissa, another judge with whom I had amazing carbonara while judging in Boston) and we are celebrating what was an intense but incredibly rewarding day. Most of dinner is spent talking about dance and the interesting things we saw that day!
When judges leave a competition, we usually feel physically exhausted and mentally drained from concentrating so long, but certainly not sleepy. Being around other dance teachers and dance professionals is so stimulating that we talk and talk and talk, mostly about dance, but sometimes about our personal lives as well. We become close friends quickly.
We ask for separate checks and save our receipts to turn in for reimbursement from the competition.
It is time for bed! Despite being tired from the day, it’s hard to drift away to sleep. I force myself to drink a bottle of water because it is easy to get dehydrated during dance competitions. I set my alarm for 6am again and try to sleep.
Day 3: Sunday, April 2, 2017
The obnoxious alarm goes off again and this time, it takes a lot of effort to remind myself “No snoozing!” I get myself ready after having my Starbucks. Sarah and I know we have to head out earlier than yesterday to get gas.
Sarah and I go to breakfast, but the breakfast room is packed with young gymnasts who have a competition of their own today. We finally snag a table and can’t help but be amused by the kids walking around barefoot in pajamas, stepping on scrambled eggs someone had dropped on the floor. It’s way too early to be in such a crowd, but I figure with enough caffeine, I’ll be my positive self again.
We check out of the hotel because we plan to head home after the competition that day. The competition director had offered us the choice to stay the night at the hotel if we wanted or to head out after the competition ended. We decided we’d rather head out and be home late but at least we’d be in our own beds that night.
We get gas near the hotel and save the receipt (we are professionals at this point!). Since Sarah is driving, I figure the least I can do it is pump it.
We head to the competition venue for another day of judging!
Sitting at the judging table and ready to begin, the competition director announces all of the judges by name. When she says mine, I hear the crowd erupt with applause, and I hear even more coming from behind the curtain, where the dancers, ready to go onstage, were cheering for me. I wave and blow kisses and turn bright red. The competition starts and the first dancer has such amazing stage presence that I just have to acknowledge it in a special award. Later on that day, she asks for a picture with me!
The dancers onstage go “Awwww….” from disappointment when I announce that this is my next-to-last set of special awards. I have a great time onstage interviewing the dancers as I give them special awards. One young dancer in the 13-15 division could do virtually endless pirouettes. I ask her how many times she can go around and she said she has never counted! I asked for her autograph!
I entered the staff room for lunch a few minutes after the other judges and I announced “I’m sorry I was delayed! So many people want to take my picture!” The judges and staff members jokingly roll their eyes at me and make fun of me for my popularity at dance competitions. I think they’re all jealous 😉
Today I had ordered a BBQ Chicken wrap and a salad.
On the way back down to the judging table, a dance teacher comes up to me and introduces herself as the choreographer of a piece I had given an award to. She was very excited and said that she had told the dancers before they performed that she didn’t care how they did or how they scored or where they ranked with their dance, she was just hoping that Jesse would “get” it and give it a special award! I replied “Yay! I did get it and I loved it!” She said “thank you, Jesse! You made our weekend!”
The last segment of the competition is all age 16-18 solos and duo/trios. These pieces tend to be shorter than group dances and so we end way ahead of schedule. This set of special awards is particularly emotional because the solos mean the world to these older kids and some of them are graduating seniors for whom this is their last year of competition. I can tell that my words make an impact, especially when I congratulate them on an accomplishment that was particularly meaningful to them.
When the competition director takes the stage and thanks each of the judges, the crowd roars when she mentions me and yet again, I turn red!
After the competition ends, I change into more comfortable clothes for travel and Sarah and I hit the road with another chatty road trip!
After arriving at my car, I dread the two additional hours it will take to drive home, but I’m not nearly as tired as I thought I would be. I spend the drive thinking about how grateful I am that this is my life. What an incredible thing to be able to think so often! I know how blessed I am.
I get home and partially unpack my suitcase. I check my phone to get caught up on Facebook, and see I have dozens of notifications–friend requests and pictures and mentions. I notice one dance mom posted a picture of me giving an award and she writes “Getting a special award from the amazing Jesse Katen! It meant the world to these girls!”
I sit down to just relax–as much fun as these weekends are, dance competitions always have some degree of stress because they are busy events and they matter to so many people. And I always get nervous.
I find a message from a friend who recently moved to Houston and she wrote to say simply “I knew the first time I met you that you were something special and I love seeing the impact you have wherever you go.” I teared up a little.
I thought about getting some hot chocolate, but I never made it that far before falling asleep in the chair and dreaming about dance competitions…
Next week, Youngstown, Ohio!
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it! If you do, feel free to comment and I might continue my Diary of a Dance Judge!
Whether you are a dance teacher, a professional dancer, or a dance student, you are likely–at one point or another–to wonder if what you do is important. Despite the seriousness with which we take ourselves and our chosen art, we can’t help but wonder if what we do matters. After all, we are not performing surgery to save lives, or rescuing people from burning buildings, or negotiating world peace. It doesn’t help either that as dancers, we are hopelessly prone to self-doubt and insecurity. We constantly question ourselves and the quality of our work, so it’s no wonder that we are likely to perpetually feel the need to justify what we do and who we are to the people in our lives and to the world as a whole.
Certainly, our work is less urgent than some others. Our problems and challenges are not matters of life and death–although they may feel like it at times. But our work and our achievements do not have to be urgent to be important. We are in the business of pursuing excellence, of incessantly aspiring to reach our next goal, of attempting desperately to move, touch, and hopefully transform our students and our audiences. I believe that we inspire and motivate–we remind the world of its own beauty. And we remind ourselves of ours. We explore what it means to be human. We make life a richer, more fulfilling experience for both ourselves and for others. And that is something certainly worth doing.
We don’t study dance simply because we love the act of dancing, although the joy we get from it may be reason enough. We study dance because of the deep wealth of experience, wisdom, and humanity that it gives us. I’d like to share with you some of the powerful and transformative lessons that dance has taught me and that I hope I somehow impart to my students.
Aspiration: Always reaching for new heights
Dance is a gateway art form. When a young person begins studying dance, they are immediately exposed to the brilliant and scintillating world of not only the arts, but all of human achievement. Dance is the perfect point of departure for limitless discovery. I owe my lifelong affinity for French language and culture to my first exposure to the French terminology used in my dance classes. The dance world is only a step away from drama, music, musical theatre, opera, and every form of performance imaginable. Dance can provide access to cultural exploration, broadening horizons and contributing to the development of a young person’s vision and perspective. Young people who grow up in the dance world tend to be comfortable around those who are different and maintain a worldly and open view of the world.
Discipline: Mastering oneself
I tell my students that they are so lucky to have the nicest dance teacher in the world! While they don’t believe it’s true, my point is that dance teachers are notoriously demanding and no-nonsense educators. They tend to be serious and driven perfectionists who are as hard on their students as they are on themselves. Dance teachers are a special breed who don’t mess around and command respect without ever having to ask for it. As a result, dance students grow up with a sense of respect–both for their teachers and themselves. This respect and unique brand of classroom decorum translates into young dancers who are disciplined, mature, and eager to learn. I learned from my teacher to always view class as a special opportunity to learn and that we should eagerly march to the front of the room and take full advantage of what the teacher can offer us. This active and grateful approach to learning is one of the fundamentally unique aspects of dance education. Dancers grow to be active learners, which can only be beneficial in their educational futures.
Commitment: Achieving growth over the long term
Everyone agrees that the demand for instant gratification has become a hallmark of life in the twenty-first century. Today’s young people have grown up with media on-demand. Television, movies, music, games, information, and communication are available consistently and instantaneously. Dancers, however, learn the value of seeing one’s own growth and progress over the course of the long term. Since there is no such instant gratification available in mastering fouetté turns or executing a flawless grand jeté, dance students learn the value of patience, persistence, and dedication. Dancers spend months in class and rehearsal to develop their skills and polish their routines to spend a mere few minutes on the stage. It is those few minutes on stage, however, that make the tedious and repetitive drills and rehearsals worthwhile. Dancers learn this lesson early on and understand the value of committing to a goal even if the resulting accomplishment is months or years away.
Confidence: Dealing with doubt and being your best
We so often think of being nervous as a bad thing–something unpleasant that we should talk ourselves out of. Dancers learn from a young age to embrace their nerves and their fears. If you are nervous, if you are afraid of not performing well, then that means you truly care–you desire deeply to be at your best because the experience of performance and the act of sharing your talent with others is such an important achievement. When you’re a dancer, you know that those nerves will remain with you throughout your life . In fact, you actually HOPE that they do because once the nerves are gone, it may be because you no longer care about doing your best. Anyone who knows me knows I spend a lot of time being nervous. I get nervous about speaking on stage, I get nervous for my dancers, I get nervous before important meetings, and I get nervous when I travel. In fact, I even get nervous if I’m NOT nervous. It’s unpleasant at times, but those nerves remind me that what I’m being asked to do really matters and it’s important to me to do it well. I’m grateful that I know what I do is important enough that I feel that pressure.
Passion: Loving what you do
I have never met a dancer or dance professional who wasn’t madly in love with what they do. Ours is not a profession people unhappily fall into on the way to something else. The amount of work, discipline, and skill that are required to survive, yet alone thrive, in our world preclude anyone from success except those who are driven by what I consider to be the greatest gift of all: a profound love for what you do. Passion for our art is the motivator that makes the discipline and hard work a joy rather than a chore. This is not to say that dance is without sacrifice, exhaustion, frustration, discouragement, or other unpleasantness. But it is our passionate love for what we do that sustains us through the difficult times. To many of us, giving up is simply not an option; it is a preposterous absurdity. Dancers tend to be wholly invested: mind, body, and soul. We work because we must. And that work gives us everything. As a result, dancers tend to demand that joy from everything else they might encounter in life. We know what it is to perform a labor of love and we know that that is us at our best.
As always, please feel free to comment or write to me! I’d appreciate your thoughts, questions, and dance topic ideas!
With much dance love,