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Diary of a Dance Judge: Springfield, MA

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

7:00am

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.

2:00pm

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.

5:20pm

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.

6:54pm

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.

7:39pm

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

11:30pm

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

6:00am

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.

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My friend Sarah and I are ready to start our day as dance judges!

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.

7:45am

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.

8:15am

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.

8:45am

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.

10:50am

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.

12:45pm

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.

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Giving a special award to a group dance. Notice my seat at the judging table in the foreground with a ribbons, a basket, purple pens, and purple goodie bag!

1:15pm

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.

1:45pm

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!

4:30pm

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).

8:00pm

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.

8:45pm

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.

11:00pm

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

6:00am

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.

7:15am

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.

8:00am

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!

9:00am

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!

special awards smile

12:15pm

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!”

4:00pm

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!

7:00pm

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.

9:09pm

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! 

The Life Lessons I Learned From Dance

teaching-nationals

Here I am teaching a technique class at Sophisticated Productions’ Nationals in Sturbridge, MA in July 2015.

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.

teaching-syracuse

Here I am as a guest teacher at a studio in Syracuse, NY. I’m fortunate enough to love what I do.

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,
Jesse

Why Judging Special Awards is a Dream Come True For Me: Maya Angelou and Stepping on the Stage

The following is an article that I wrote but never published on judging special awards at dance competition. The excitement of getting ready to judge at Sophisticated’s Nationals back in July of 2014 inspired me to share my thoughts.  I absolutely love what I do–can you tell? Please feel free to share your thoughts! 

Dancers made a sign for me in Manchester, New Hampshire!

Dancers made a sign for me in Manchester, New Hampshire!

 

It occurred to me to share my thoughts as I get increasingly excited about traveling to Wildwood, NJ next week to judge Sophisticated Productions’ National Dance Competition. The reason why I am so thrilled and can hardly contain my excitement is that this will be my first time judging special awards at the Nationals, although I have judged specials at dozens of competitions before. I have often joked–but still with a lot of seriousness–that my purpose in life is to do special awards at dance competitions. It is, in all honestly, those moments doing my awards that I feel I am fulfilling my highest potential as a human being and I’d love to tell you why.

I have found specials to hold the potential to transform lives and I wanted to take a moment to tell you about their impact on me and about their potential impact on the world of competitive dance.

Sophisticated does its specials a little differently than many competitions. First, there is an entire fourth judge dedicated to the sole purpose of special awards. I don’t score or speak into the microphone to give critiques. My sole purpose is to watch and enjoy every entry that performs and look for what those young dancers do well. I often have no problem finding significant achievements in young dancers that I want to bring attention to and sometimes I will give as many as 25 separate awards during a competition segment of around 60 numbers. During each awards ceremony, the crew knows to give me around 20 minutes just to complete my special awards before moving on to the adjudicated awards and high scores. Despite the jokes among all the competition staff about how much time my awards take, they know that it’s something that holds the audience’s attention and those special moments onstage are more than worth the time it takes. I’d like to explain to you the personal philosophy that makes my awards–as one experienced dance mom once said to me–”unlike anything I have ever seen at a dance competition before.”

While many lament the rise of competitive dance and associate it with increased pressure, hostility, and drama–both in real life and on TV, of course, I believe that Special Awards (especially if done the way I do them) offer a unique and powerful antidote to the negativity that can sometimes prevail in the competitive dance world. I view my job as being charged with the very serious and important task of observing, acknowledging, and encouraging the special personal achievements of the dancers I have the opportunity to judge.

Giving an award for "Little Dancer, Big Personality" in Springfield, MA

Giving an award for “Little Dancer, Big Personality” in Springfield, MA

There is no science to what I do. No formula or quantitative standard dictates what awards I will give or to whom. My awards don’t favor the highest scoring competitors, nor do they favor the lowest, although dancers from both of those categories do receive awards. Rather, I seek to reward what, in my judgment, might be the most special quality or potentiality offered by a particular dancer. Or I might notice what a particular dancer or choreographer might be the most proud of–perhaps their biggest achievement of that dance year. Giving them that acknowledgment and articulating to them on stage what made that piece so powerful to me and everyone else watching is not only a great delight for me, but oftentimes I hear that such a moment was just the kind of encouragement or validation that a certain dancer, teacher, or choreographer needed during whatever challenges they may be facing. This is what I like to think of as the transformative potential of the special award.

I’d love to give some examples of awards I have given. I recall giving an award to a dancer in Philadelphia who had extremely well developed technique and I knew would have a high enough score to probably be in the running for winning an overall title. During my awards, I called her up onstage with a smile and as she stood next to me I told her, “We got the chance to watch three of your solos today, which were all absolutely wonderful and so impressive, but I wanted to talk about about your contemporary piece. You were so committed, so emotionally invested in your movements, that you were able to elicit such strong and complex emotional responses in each of us. I think we all felt touched and enriched by watching you. What made this piece so special for you?” She answered, eyes welling, “it’s the one I choreographed myself.”

Giving an award I called "The Captivation Award" in Springfield

Giving an award I called “The Captivation Award” in Springfield

There are many lighthearted moments as well. What became my signature trademark this season was my vividly colored hair. In Springfield, Massachusetts my hair was dyed pink and on the second day of competition, an 11 year-old-boy came onstage for his solo with his hair temporarily colored pink in an obvious reference to my own. The audience went nuts and my recognizing him up on stage made his day and was surely remembered both by his family and the entire audience.

I also recall once judging in Houston, Texas. A man in cowboy boots stopped me in the hallway after the competition had ended. I will always hear his calm Texan drawl in my memory as I reflect on what he said: “I used to think that a man that didn’t work in the oil industry didn’t have a really important job. But you made my granddaughter feel like a million bucks today. You, sir, are excellent at what you do.” I was moved beyond belief because I knew that this was probably the biggest compliment he could give someone and I was so glad that he took the time to stop and give it to me.

Houston

This year, in Bristol, CT a studio from Sandy Hook, CT gave me perhaps the most humbling gift of all. They gave me a small rubber ducky with the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School and told me how, in the wake of the terrible tragedy that happened in December 2012, students who went to school there will bestow one of the ducks to a special person who made a positive difference in their lives. They told me to take the duck with me on my travels and that I would always be safe. I have taken the duck to every competition with me, where it sits on the judging table and watches the dances with me. I will be taking my Sandy Hook duck to Nationals with me and sending a picture back to the kids in Connecticut.

In another instance, in Springfield this April, I called a girl up on stage and she came up so excited that she was practically jumping up and down. I don’t recall what score she received–it didn’t even matter to me. But her passion for performing and her effervescent personality made me think this kid was absolute dynamite. I said to her, “Wow! You seem so I excited! I love that!” Her response I will remember forever–”I’ve been coming to this competition for four years and this year I said I don’t care what kind of trophy I get at all, I’m just going to try really hard to get a special award from Jesse and now I got one!!” I was so touched, I couldn’t help but simply beam and hold back tears of my own and we gave her mom a chance to take a picture of us together onstage.

I was so touched that I had factored into her competition hopes, but more importantly, her reaction crystallized for me one very important realization: special awards and that unique chance to give a dancer acknowledgment and validation invariably make a bigger, deeper, and more memorable impact on a young person than any silver/gold/platinum/titanium trophy or place in a top ten list ever could.

As I always like to remind the dancers, “someone else doing well takes nothing away from you.”

Excited to give an award in New Hampshire

Excited to give an award in New Hampshire

I believe that special awards offer a unique possibility within the competition world: they remind us all of what dance really is–an artform that is meant to allow us to communicate deep, complex, and beautiful feelings with our audiences, affirming that we are all indeed more similar than different as human beings. And furthermore, the power of special awards also reminds everyone of what our purpose at competition should be: to educate, to strengthen, and to inspire the talents of young people. The skills they learn here and the esteem and self-love that I hope is developed within them will carry them far, regardless of what their dreams might be.

I must admit that I really sought to “hit it out of the park” this year with regard to doing my special awards. Shortly before the competition travel season started, I watched an interview with Maya Angelou in which she offered a piece of her legendary wisdom that I have carried with me since. She said “When I step up on the stage, I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me.” I decided to always take a moment before I am announced to do my awards to think of people who have been kind to me and who would want me to do this job well. I thought of my dance teacher, my own parents, my dancers back at home, the competition owner Melissa Tessier who thought I would be good at this, my late grandmother, all my loving dance teacher friends, even the nice lady at the hotel breakfast that morning. Everyone who ever wished me well, I imagined them coming up there with me and I was able to relax, be so totally myself, to feel so loved, and to share that power and that sheer joy with all those kids sitting up on that stage.

This year I shared that Maya Angelou quote in every city that I traveled to and dared the kids to do the same thing before they performed. I wanted them to imagine all the people who had ever been kind to them and to do what Maya Angelou suggested: offer an invitation to those kind people, “Come with me….I’m going on the stage. Come with me; I need you now.” Don’t think about dancing “against” anyone–imagine the people you are dancing FOR. A few dancers took the time to come up to me and say that this thinking allowed them to give the best performance of their lives. I absolutely beamed. . . and I knew exactly what they meant.

Sadly, after the competition season ended, Maya Angelou passed away right before my recital. In less than a week, I put together a tap solo for myself (it has been years since I actually danced in one of my recitals but I felt it was important this time) to perform in the recital as a tribute to her. It was to a song that she had recorded in 1957 during her career as a singer. On the first page of our programs, I dedicated the performance to Dr Angelou’s memory and included her quote which has become a mantra for me everyday, “When I step up on the stage, I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me.”

Next week at Nationals, I will be using that advice and sharing it every time I step up on that stage. My hope is that at the final awards banquet at the end of the week, when I take the podium for the last time, everyone in the banquet hall will be able to recite that line along with me and take its wisdom with them wherever they go from there.

Thank you for your time in listening to me and allowing me to share with you a little bit about how special awards, especially those done with depth, enthusiasm, and sincerity can change and shape lives. I have had the opportunity to keep in touch with many of the dancers and choreographers to whom I have given awards and have many more stories about the impact that such awards can have.

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* 🙂

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