By Heidi Williams / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance(Performing Arts)
In this article dance teacher and Dance Parent 101 writer Heidi recalls and takes us on a competition day journey, where we get to experience the day just as she does – but from the comfort of a cozy chair!
5:55 AM – ARRIVE AT COMPETITION VENUE
“Remind me again, why is there a 6 am call time lol?” I send a text to the team director as I wait outside the competition venue, a high school auditorium, which is currently locked at 5:55 am.
“Because they tried to make it 5:30 am and the custodial staff refused to unlock the building that early lol,” she replies.
I’m definitely on their side. I don’t have to wait long, because soon the auditorium is opened, and an army of dancers, dance moms, sparkles, and rolling racks file through the doors and disperse in various directions towards the backstage area. I approach the registration table and give the competition staff member our team’s name. She hands me our studio packet, as well as several competition programs, and gives me our dressing room assignment: the choir room. Yes! The choir rooms and band rooms are always the largest ones. I sent a text to the director with the info so she can spread the word via What’sApp to the rest of the team moms.
6:30 AM – ROUNDING UP THE TEAM
About the time I locate the choir room, my dancers and their moms start to show up and file in with their rolling suitcases, racks, and duffle bags. Some of them have already had a rough morning, and they give me the look that says so. I’ve always said, dance moms are the real superheroes. No one can convince me otherwise. They each greet me in their own unique ways as they pass by into the room.
“Ugh. I can’t believe we made it on time.”
“Why the heck isn’t Starbucks open?”
“Is it too early for a Mimosa?”
“Tread lightly, my daughter has already had three meltdowns this morning –thankfully before we put her eye makeup on.”
I respond to each with smiles, waves, and laughs. I love our dance moms.
The choir room is soon in a flurry of activity as more of the team arrives, and soloists warm-up, stretch, and rehearse to music played on the Bluetooth speaker we brought.
7 AM – COMPETITION BEGINS
It’s not long before it’s time to take the first soloists from our team towards the backstage area. I volunteer to accompany them to the backstage area, and teachers, moms, and fellow teammates go out to the auditorium to watch from the audience. I have 5 little soloists with me who are in the Petite category, meaning they’re 8 years old or younger. Their excitement is palpable, to the point where their walks to the backstage area have become something closer to micro bunny hops. Backstage we’re greeted by the stage tech, and I check them in by their solo song titles, and the number they are listed as in the program. They are huddled together near the wings, helping the first soloist in our group prepare by fluffing her skirt, checking her zippers, fanning her cheeks, and smoothing her hair. This is another thing I love about our team: they are each other’s biggest fans.
As soloists from other studios prepare to go on stage they wish each other good luck, and as they exit the stage we tell them great job. Each of our petite solos performs, and they are all pumped up as we head back to the dressing room to change costumes. In the dressing rooms, the moms congratulate them with high fives and hugs, and then it’s back to business as they help them into their next costumes.
8:30 AM CALMING THE DANCERS NERVES
I have gathered a small group of my petite dancers who are getting ready to go backstage for their first group dance of the day. For many of them this is their first competition ever, and they are practically euphoric with excitement. I start to get them in their correct line order before we venture backstage when one of them panics.
“Wait! I can’t remember which side of the stage I started on!
I start to answer her, “It’s okay, be calm. You—“
Another student said, “You start on the same side as me.”
Yet another student, “No you guys are both wrong, we’re all switched around—“
Suddenly, chaos erupts around me, and before I’m able to get a word in, I have the whole group of them talking at once and scuttling around me like a flock of seagulls. You remember that scene from Pirates of the Caribbean III when Lord Beckette is about to die and he serenely walks down the ship stairs as the whole ship explodes around him? That’s the first thing that comes to my mind at this moment. After I’ve finally managed to calm them down, and remind them that they all start on stage in the center, we manage to tip toe and whisper our way backstage. The rest of the morning proceeds like this (minus the erupting chaos), and by noon we have solved several dramatic dilemmas: a missing shoe, a forgotten hat, a ripped pair of tights, and a tearful case of jitters.
1 PM – WAITING IN THE WINGS
Later in the afternoon, I am backstage with one of the other teachers, as a team from another studio is performing a piece on stage. They have great technique, and they’re executing perfect fouetteˊ turns in synchronization, following up by stepping into an aerial cartwheel. My coworker looks back and forth between me and the stage, and she’s giving me that pointed look. She leans in to whisper discreetly in my ear.
“You know they’re listed in the novice category, right?” Her one eyebrow has lifted towards her hairline.
“No, that can’t be right. Really?” My expression is skeptical as I look back to the girls on stage who are now doing a switch a la seconde leap. I recognize some of the girls from this studio, as I choreographed a competition routine for them five years prior. “Is it a typo in the program?”
“No,” she says. “Their teacher just confirmed to me in conversation that they’re in the novice category.”
I sigh. “You’re kidding, right?” She shakes her head no.
“Do you think they’ll get away with it?” The competition director and the judges have the power to move the routine up to the next competitive level.
“They got away with it last year. AND the year before, so I doubt it,” she proclaims with an eye roll.
Geez. I hate it when this happens. Also, I’m well aware that it happens every year, unchecked.
Our students who are getting ready to go on stage in a couple of numbers approach us, their eyes also fixed on the stage. “Are they in our category?!?” One girl says, gesturing to the stage, and looking a little panicked.
I share a knowing look with my coworker, then turn to my student (for purposes of anonymity, I’ll call her Jessica), looking her earnestly in the eyes. “Whether they are or not…it doesn’t matter. You know why?” Jessica shakes her head no. I point towards her heart and say, “Because they aren’t you. There’s only one you, and no one else can be you, Jessica. Even if they tried, they couldn’t be exactly you. They don’t have your heart, soul, or experience. Only you have that. So, your only job, and the only thing you have to do is to go out there and be the best version of Jessica that you can be. You’re going to give the best performance you’re capable of giving, and you’re going to command the attention of the audience by showing the real, genuine, confident you. Let it all hang out, and don’t hold back.” She looks at me with her heart in her eyes, salutes, and says, “You got it, coach!” Before smiling, and walking to line up with her teammates.
I look at my coworker, who is suddenly all smiles.
“Heck, even I’m inspired by that pep talk!” She says as she gives me a high five.
The girls go on stage and do the best I’ve ever seen them do that routine. I’m proud of them, no matter what when I know they did their best.
9:30 PM – AWARDS
Later on, there are awards for each age division and competitive level within those divisions. We get some Diamond, some Platinum, and some Gold –and yes, the studios that blatantly cheated rack in the highest-scoring routine awards, as well as first place in category awards. My lack of surprise is as irrelevant as their trophies in this case.
To be clear, I don’t hold anything against the dancers who receive awards for categories that are beneath their skill and experience level, but rather, my heart goes out to them. They are capable of SO MUCH more. I feel bad that their coaches have given them an easy win that they didn’t have to really try hard for. I feel bad that their coaches and directors put their own reputation and notoriety above what’s in the best interest of their students. Not only that, but what type of example are they setting for their students in the long run? That cutting corners is legit as long as you take home the biggest trophy? How will that help them in their future dance careers? What real-world experience are they being prepared for, besides potential disappointments?
10:15 PM – THAT’S A WRAP
After a long day of competing, we’re finally filing out of the auditorium to the tune of jangling rolling racks, humming suitcase wheels, and giggles about everything. I laugh with my coworkers about how it’s only Saturday, and I’m already losing my voice from talking and yelling over the music in rehearsals. The other teachers and I hug, congratulate and wave to the girls, reminding them we’ll see them in a few short hours. It all starts again tomorrow morning when I will be back for our seniors at 5:55 AM.
11:47 PM – FINAL REFLECTION
I finally arrive home, and pretty much fall face-first into my pillow. Heaven. I get ready for bed, and set my alarm for 4 AM (darn those call times), and finally, shut my eyes. The echo of giggles, music, the announcer, is still bouncing around in my head. I think of the quote that I shared with my students before we left the auditorium. It is the most relevant quote I have ever heard in regards to the dance competition experience. I first heard this quote at a Dance America competition. In fact, at each regional and national competition, a Dance America/Dance Olympus/Danza staff member would read this infamous quote by the late Richard DiSarno before any awards were announced.
“A dance competition is the way a certain set of judges view a certain set of dancers on a certain day. If we had done this competition yesterday, or if one of the judges had been someone else, chances are the results would in some way be different. It is good that we compete as dancers because we compete every day in life. Competitions help to show us where we have been, where we are now, and where we have to aim to go in the future. But it is important to remember that the true worth of anyone, as a dancer or person, will never be measured by a trophy or cash prize.”– Richard DiSarno
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