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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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!
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* 🙂