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Tom Alexander Featured in Dance Studio Life Magazine!

Tom teaches Jazz, Tap, Musical Theater and  Lyrical as well as Judges and Choreographs nationwide for Dance Makers Inc., Southern Association of Dance Masters, Chicago Dance Masters, Jazz On Tap Festival and Jazz On Tap on Tour. Dance Studio Life Magazine featured Tom in May/June and September/October 2014 issues in two articles on Judging Dance as well as how dance has changed in the 30 plus years he has been in this business.Read the articles below or use the links above 🙂

Straight Talk

StraightTalkT
10 competition judges offer wisdom and wish lists

Ever wish you could pick the brain of a competition judge? Sure, you pay attention to the critiques, but sometimes those polite comments don’t seem to scratch the surface. What do judges like? Dislike? Admire? Applaud?

We asked 10 experienced competition judges to share with us the following: one piece of advice (sage counsel to help teachers better prepare students), one pet peeve (something teachers miss the boat on), one compliment (something teachers generally do well), and one insider’s tip (something judges look for that teachers might not be aware of).

Participating judges included:

Thomas Alexander, DanceMakers: master teacher for tap festivals and professional teacher organizations; performer, choreographer, and dance trainer for Crystal Cruises
Adam Cates, Dancers Inc.: assistant choreographer for Broadway’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, among others
Bobby Clark, Access Broadway: professional performer with Broadway, national tour, and regional theater credits
Barbie Graham-Meier, International Dance Challenge: judge and master teacher; former studio owner and Colorado Dance Alliance board member
Mary Ann Lamb, Showstopper: performed in the films Rock of Ages and Chicago, and in original Broadway productions of Curtains, Seussical, Fosse, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and others
Tony Mansker, Sheer Talent Ltd.: New York City–based teacher, choreographer, master class instructor, and competition judge
Rolann B. Owens, Headliners: owner of Rolann’s School of the Dance in Florida and co-director of Music Theater Bavaria
Cheryl Priess Dickey, Adrenaline Dance: former studio owner, national adjudicator in the U.S. and Canada for dance and gymnastics competitions, and pageants
Brian Santora, International Dance Challenge: owner of Vibes Dance Center in Massachusetts, professional performer and choreographer
Jean Wenzel, Headliners: longtime Dean College dance faculty member and former studio owner

 

Advice

Thomas Alexander: Prepare students by stressing that the home studio’s rules and guidelines apply at convention workshops or competitions. Hold several dress rehearsals to mitigate any potential issues with costumes or choreography, and to grow confidence. Explain how to acknowledge the judges (do not stare them down), and how to include the audience in the performance.

Adam Cates: The way students rehearse is the way they will perform. If you aren’t pushing students to explore the acting and connections with one another in the studio, you can’t expect to get the performance quality you desire. Direct the pieces you choreograph. Make sure the dancers know what the piece/song is about.

Bobby Clark: A good performance is separated from a great performance by the dancer’s emotional connection to the material. From the moment the routine begins, judges can see if the performer has a reason to be onstage. The teacher or choreographer needs to spend as much time discovering the acting beats of the dance with the dancer as teaching the actual steps. Many times I can tell that the dancer has not been coached on the meaning of the piece; she performs it technically beautifully, but without real knowledge of its spirit. The choreographer can create a story if needed, or use the song’s lyrics. Improvisational techniques can help accomplish this goal.

StraightTalk1Barbie Graham-Meier: Let your students know that we are not “mean creatures” waiting for them to make a mistake so we can rip them apart. I love to be entertained. I’m excited to discover what makes your students unique, to see how much of themselves they put into the presentation in front of me. I want to see them dance from the heart. I want to see a piece that moves me. Will it make me smile, laugh, or bring a tear to my eye? I give helpful critiques based on improvement, but I also praise what makes the piece entertaining and how it capitalized on the dancers’ strong points.

Mary Ann Lamb: Make sure students understand that dance is an art and not a sport. What is important about a dance competition is not who wins or loses, but rather that students learn to perform and work hard in their craft and technique. As a judge, I am looking for students to put their personality into the choreography. I would rather see passion than technique.

Tony Mansker: Never wait for the performance to “turn on the face.” Once the choreography is set and learned, students must then begin to rehearse their facial expressions, presentation, and storytelling, integrating them seamlessly with the choreographed movements. This will lead to more confident and polished performances. Setting up mock competitions prior to competing helps quell pre-performance jitters.

Rolann B. Owens: Performers are not born; they are nurtured, trained, and cared for in a loving manner. Many students perform well at an early age, but the true performer develops over time. No one can rush the development, training, or performance capabilities of a real dancer. And that is what we look for: real dancers, regardless of age, who own their routines. For me, there is nothing better.

Cheryl Priess Dickey: Teachers often believe that if they do not include, for example, a sequence of à la seconde turns, the number will not make the top 10. Not true! As judges, we want to see dancers who love and are dedicated to dance, with strong technique, showmanship, and execution. If the dancers cannot perform those turns properly, then I subtract points from the technique and choreography scores.

Brian Santora: Students should be prepped by teachers on the vision of a piece before they are shown the choreography. If dancers understand the music, lyrics, and choreographer’s vision, they will be better able to create a storyline that the audiences and judges can follow—leading to a better performance.

Jean Wenzel: Going into competition with all of the focus on winning sets up students for a stressful situation. Instead, instill in them the desire to learn and grow as performers and dancers. It is nice to be recognized for hard work, but this does not necessarily come in the form of an award. Praising progress is so much more important. Set a goal and work toward it. Put the emphasis on progression, not only for your students but also for yourself.

 

Pet peeves

Alexander: Transitions, transitions, transitions. When transitions are not performed well or are disjointed, the choreography is broken up. In critiques I constantly ask the choreographer/teachers to make the choreography flow better from one section to the next.

Cates: Rationalizations regarding overt sexuality in costume design and movement for underage dancers, such as “That bra top on our 8-year-olds is cute”; “That bump-and-grind movement is fun for them”; “They see it in music videos”; “It’s what they want to do”; or “It’s just a dance step.” I realize an 8-year-old doesn’t equate sexuality with what she is wearing or doing and that an adult audience projects sexuality onto what they are seeing—but you are setting them up to do just that by the choices you make. There are an infinite number of better, non-sexualized choices you can make for your dancers. If you can’t think of any, then you aren’t very creative!

Clark: A cappella tap routines.

Graham-Meier: Props are a sore point. If a prop or set is needed, it must be used effectively. I feel sorry for parents or studio staff members who haul it to the competition and set it up, only to have the dancer(s) start on it and not make their way back to it until the final pose. Teachers and choreographers: capitalize on creative staging using the power of the prop. Otherwise, it can distract the judges from the performance while we wait for it to be put to good use.

Lamb: Too many “tricks” that take me out of the number and are not appropriate for the style of the piece, and also, when the costumes contradict the music and movement style. For example, in a beautiful contemporary or lyrical piece, dancers should not wear bling chokers, earrings, and sparkle bras. Let your dancers live honestly in the style of the work.

Mansker: The inconsistent use of lip-synching during solo routines. Lip-synching is a skill that is not particularly useful in the professional world; but if used, students should lip-synch the entire number and make the best effort to do it well. Practicing in a mirror can help build better accuracy. One more thing: that silly bench that is used for the first four counts and never used again? Cut it!

Owens: Tricks must be mastered before being placed in a routine. Also, don’t repeat popular tricks (fouettés, multiple pirouettes, grand jetés, etc.) in many routines. For judges, seeing these special tricks once is enough. Dance competitions are meant to be about how well the dancer performs and not how many tricks one can do.

Priess Dickey: Seeing dancers who have not been directed to take the stage as if they own it, and finish that way too. Too many teachers do not understand the importance of entrances and exits, and how they contribute to a solid and finished performance.

Santora: I think a lot of teachers/choreographers are missing the point that competition should be used as a tool to educate dancers. Teachers should tell students in the beginning stages of competing that the experience and critiques will benefit them and help to build their technique and confidence. Even for advanced dancers, it should always be about education.

Wenzel: Musical-theater routines should not be lip-synched. It does not help develop character, which can be achieved through choreography, facial expression, and body language. Lip-synching restricts choreography, is unrealistic, and does not enhance the storyline. In addition, facial expressions in all genres of dance should be genuine. Dancers should not “make faces.” Expression comes from within.

 

Compliments

Alexander: I often witness the kindness of dancers applauding other studios after a performance. Promoting good sportsmanship pays off. Judges do recognize this and can spot this in your students.

Cates: Versatility. I love seeing studios that excel in jazz and contemporary come back onstage with a slamming hip-hop number, only to return later with Broadway-caliber tap skills. And then half the kids tumble, some perform a classic modern piece, and everyone commits to their characters in a musical-theater production number. This well-roundedness will serve your dancers not only as artists but also as creative thinkers.

StraightTalk2Clark: I like it when teachers give their students opportunities to perform other than the once-a-year recital. Teachers tell me how important it is to attend dance conventions, which allow their students another chance to perform and to take class with seasoned professionals.

Graham-Meier: I appreciate that so many teachers and choreographers are mindful about age-appropriate material/costuming, and about keeping tricks out of numbers where they don’t belong. In the past, mature material was set on performers without taking into account that grandparents, siblings, and entire families come to competitions. Also, I’ve noted quality tap over the last few years, with great sounds, speed, and rhythms, in performances that are connected and flow nicely without the disruption of a set of fouettés thrown in.

Lamb: The dedication that teachers give their students is amazing—not just teaching them how to dance and perform but also life skills like discipline, confidence, and work ethic. These students will become great leaders in whatever they do, and they have learned to work together as a community in their dance schools. And every weekend these students support others in the competition. That is a beautiful thing.

Mansker: I see artistic, innovative, and beautiful choreography from studios all over the U.S. I love it when a piece leaves me in tears and sends chills up my spine. I applaud the teachers and choreographers who are pushing the boundaries, continuing their evolution as artists, and sharing this artistry with their students and audiences.

Owens: Dancers are more ambitious, studying harder, and reaching for the stars. I see dancers performing better than ever—congratulations, teachers! It is clear that teachers are improving in their teaching methods and choreography.

Priess Dickey: For the most part, teachers do a nice job costuming dancers in an appropriate manner, sometimes with only limited funds available.

Santora: Teachers/choreographers who take creativity to another level. It’s great to see routines that make a well-thought-out connection between costumes, props, music, movement, and vision. More and more choreographers are stretching the boundaries of style and choreography. Keep thinking outside the box!

Wenzel: I believe competition has been the primary motivator for the highly skilled dancers we see today. It has been my pleasure to watch the art of dance evolve through the exposure and motivation of competition and the higher education of our teachers.

 

Insiders’ tips

Alexander: Surprise us. Challenge yourself as a choreographer to incorporate some element of surprise—which doesn’t necessarily have to be a trick. Whatever you incorporate into a routine to “wow” us, keep in mind that your students need to pull it off. Also, if you can find music that is a bit obscure, rather than using what’s hot today, it will make the routine stand out.

StraightTalk3Cates: Some studio owners see a studio that made use of multiple tricks walk away with the big trophy and think the tricks were the answer. Next time, watch how they are done. Technique is the answer. If you want to incorporate tricks, that’s great—but it’s more important to have the technique with which to do them. That is what the judges are looking at.

Clark: Coming from a musical-theater background, I look at the total performance, starting with whether the teacher or choreographer has picked the correct material for the dancer(s). In professional theater, I have worked with many choreographers who tailor numbers to a dancer’s individual strengths and personality. If a step doesn’t fit or is too difficult, change it.

Graham-Meier: Many of my colleagues talk about “dark” music being used. In my opinion, it is not healthy to have a sad and depressing piece of music drilled into a young person. I have been moved to tears by beautiful tributes inspired by a sad situation but in honor of an event or person. To see young performers portraying something hopeful—for example, to a lovely rendition of “Over the Rainbow”—is so moving. My tears need to come from that. Better yet, I love to laugh, so keep that in mind when choosing music. It might be advisable to present choices to the students to see which music inspires them. Do whatever it takes to get the best out of them.

Lamb: Don’t make the number too long, especially solos, and particularly for younger students. A long piece asks too much of the dancers’ focus and energy, and they don’t always have the technique to support it. A shorter piece doesn’t expose that [weakness].

Mansker: A clean and confident routine that’s less difficult will always score higher than a sloppy routine with challenging elements that are done poorly. Adding elements that are beyond a student’s ability only leads to a shaky performance and low scores. Remember: as judges, we do not know your students or their history of growth in dance; we only have the piece onstage to work from. Practice challenging elements until they are solid before adding them to competition choreography.

Owens: Watch how children react to music on the first hearing, before any choreography is given—they will reveal what the music is saying to them. To me, their emotional response to the music is as important as choreography. Is the music age appropriate? If so, it is easier for the students to understand. Know your music well and whether it suits the dancer.

Priess Dickey: Keep music short and under the time limit. Many dancers do not have the stamina to finish long numbers. Also, set a protocol for your dancers during awards ceremonies. Judges often see inappropriate behavior toward other dancers or teams. Don’t allow dancers to bring cell phones onstage. Take the time to teach respect and theater etiquette.

Santora: Don’t forget the movement between the jumps, turns, and other tricks. Work the transitions and connections and you will create a smoother-looking piece of choreography. Look at the choreography as a whole, not as sections.

Wenzel: Expose your studio to the best dancers possible; this will inspire them to work harder. Do not feel threatened. Have a positive, adventurous attitude. Enter or just observe a competition that you know attracts the best. Dancers often have an unrealistic view of their accomplishments. They must first know their strengths and weaknesses in order to improve. Seeing excellence is often what students need to motivate them to be their best.


 

September 2014 | The Competition Scene

Bobby Clark, a judge for Access Broadway for 17 years, got into judging because he noticed that many studio teachers “hadn’t had a performing career. I felt it would be valuable for me to share some of that. Performing – that was my background.” Photo courtesy Access BroadwayBobby Clark, a judge for Access Broadway for 17 years, got into judging because he noticed that many studio teachers “hadn’t had a performing career. I felt it would be valuable for me to share some of that. Performing – that was my background.” Photo courtesy Access Broadway

 

 How it’s changed and what it offers, through the eyes of three judges

By Karen White

“The times they are a-changin’,” sang Bob Dylan, and though he didn’t have dance competitions in mind, the sentiment fits. Anyone who has brought students to these exhilarating yet often exasperating dance contests has probably noted what’s new (technology), what’s better (technique), what’s worse (trophy-chasing), and what’s missing (tights).

Who better to chat about some of these changes than judges—those arbiters of high-gold art who have witnessed the creeping terror that is the “crotch-ment” from their seats in the front row. Three veteran judges—Bobby Clark, 17 years; Jean Wenzel, 32 years; and Tom Alexander, 34 years—offer their take on developments within the industry, and how these changes have impacted judges, students, and teachers.

Memories

All three were nudged into the field by friends. As owner of Dance World Incorporated in Brockton, Massachusetts, Wenzel took her students to compete at industry pioneer Terpsichore Awards in the late 1970s. In the early ’80s she was invited to judge a small Lions Club competition by veteran teacher Bill Fowler, who thereafter served as her mentor, showing her how to judge effectively and introducing her to competition directors.

She used that new knowledge to run two small competitions—Compass Dance Tournament and New England Dance Invitationaland served as advisor when DMA New England Chapter 5 expanded its title competition into a full-blown performing-arts event.

Wenzel, who danced professionally in the regional dinner-theater circuit, closed her studio in 1982 after 13 years to join the dance department faculty at Dean College. She has judged for several companies but today works almost exclusively with Headliners.

“I’ve been on all sides—I can understand all angles. I’ve been the parent with my own kids competing. I’ve been an organizer, judge, teacher, studio owner,” she says. “Judging is an art.”

Clark, a Broadway and national tour tapper in shows like Crazy for You and 42nd Street, would listen as a roommate and fellow performer, Ron DeVito, shared stories of his judging experiences. When DeVito started his own competition in 1997, he offered a judging and teaching job to Clark.

“I’ve been with Access Broadway since that first year,” Clark says. “I was pretty green. But what appealed to me was my feeling that there was a huge difference between the dance studio and the stage, and that a lot of times, studio teachers hadn’t had a performing career. I felt it would be valuable for me to share some of that. Performing—that was my background.”

Alexander won top place for a solo at a Showstoppers event at age 17 in 1979, at his first competition. During the next couple of years, his teacher, Ray Hollingsworth (who owned Dance Troupe Inc.), occasionally called on him to judge or teach a competition workshop class. Over the next two decades Alexander judged sporadically as he pursued a performing career; it wasn’t until 1996 that judging became his full-time job. Today he judges for DanceMakers as well as for clubs and organizations such as Chicago National Association of Dance Masters and Southern Association of Dance Masters.

“I see the little ones looking up to the older ones, and to the judges and teachers at the workshops, with stars in their eyes. That’s what’s kept me in there,” he says. “I know at some point over the weekend I’m going to be able to say something to those children that will help them in some way.”

Technology

From paper and pencils to headsets and computers—advances in technology have allowed judges to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. Once upon a time, judges couldn’t keep their eyes on the stage—they had to scribble comments and scores during the performance and in the scant seconds between dances. Wenzel and Alexander remember lucky days when a competition provided a “writer” who sat with them and transcribed their whispers.

Between numbers, judges would “pass the papers down”—and, like school kids, occasionally sneak a peek at each other’s “answers,” Wenzel says. A tabulator figured out placements manually—sometimes by spreading a hundred score sheets on the floor.

What keeps Tom Alexander (here with students at DanceMakers) motivated as a judge, he says, is knowing that “I’m going to be able to say something to those children that will help them in some way. Photo courtesy DanceMakersWhat keeps Tom Alexander (here with students at DanceMakers) motivated as a judge, he says, is knowing that “I’m going to be able to say something to those children that will help them in some way. Photo courtesy DanceMakers

Tape recorders and microphones came along—an improvement, but judges had to remember to turn the “record” button on and off and keep track of multiple tapes for multiple studios—often while trying to determine if the last performer deserved the “Ann Miller Special Tapper Award” for that day.

One competition company required one tape per dance, and Wenzel remembers spending her break time filling out the corresponding labels. “If you tried to do it while the number was being danced, you would get accused [by teachers] of looking down,” she says. “Some teachers would walk out of there with 100 tapes.”

Back at the studio, teachers had to fast-forward through tapes to hear the comments—often nothing but a “Thank you, studio code letter C. Nice job,” at the end.

Today judges can keep both eyes on the stage as they comment into recording headsets or tabletop microphones. Scores are tapped instantly into laptops and calculated by computer. “You can be calmer and not so frenzied about getting everything done, and you can concentrate on the stage so much better,” Wenzel says.

Recorded tapes have given way to DVD systems such as Video Judge, which superimposes each judge’s spoken comments over a video of the dance. “It’s a great learning tool,” Wenzel says. “Students can look at themselves dancing and hear the comments at the same time. You can say, ‘Your shoulders are up’ a thousand times, but with Video Judge, they can see it.”

With each dance captured on video and a computer at his fingertips, Alexander can review performances he saw hours earlier to help him decide on placements. Instead of a bag of cassette tapes, studio owners go home with a flash drive. “It’s been a massive improvement,” says Alexander, who remembers the days when competitors danced to vinyl records. “As a judge you are free to sit back and home in on each performance.”

Sportsmanship

Young teachers who are familiar with today’s festive award ceremonies—upbeat music, students dancing joyously, and applause for all—might be shocked to hear that way back when, scores were posted on the wall outside the auditorium. Only teachers were supposed to look at the sheet, but “everyone would go and compare, and that would start the bickering,” Wenzel says. “It was brutal. ‘Oh, Sally got one more point than I did.’ That went on for years.”

Teachers and studio owners would copy down the scores, and if they found errors in placements, tempers would flare. Ugly actions were common, Wenzel says, such as rival studios trading barbs between dances or costumes being flushed down toilets. Attitudes began to ease once competition officials decided to forgo the public posts and, instead, presented studio owners with their team’s scores in sealed envelopes.

Today, things are healthier, Wenzel says. Sportsmanship is encouraged by many competitions. Rather than fights, she hears congratulations being offered among studios. At each award ceremony, before Wenzel announces her special awards, she asks a general question: “Did you make a new friend today?” Competitions “are trying to promote all of that,” she says. “Let’s have it be about sharing and being a community for dance, rather than just winning.”

Technique and tricks

When it comes to technique, top competitive dancers are leaps and bounds above their counterparts of a few years ago. Clark has noticed a major improvement in the overall athleticism of the dancers, many of whom have mastered advanced acro moves and demonstrate extreme flexibility.

What has been lost, he says, is an understanding of subtle stylistic details. In addition, choreography is not always constructed properly, with a distinct and well-thought out beginning, middle, and end.

Longtime judge Jean Wenzel presents college scholarships to dancers at a Headliners nationals competition. “I’ve been on all sides, she says.”… I’ve been the parent with my own kids competing. I’ve been an organizer, judge, teacher, studio owner.” Photo courtesy HeadlinersLongtime judge Jean Wenzel presents college scholarships to dancers at a Headliners nationals competition. “I’ve been on all sides, she says.”… I’ve been the parent with my own kids competing. I’ve been an organizer, judge, teacher, studio owner.” Photo courtesy Headliners

“You’ll see the same dancers in 8 or 10 numbers of different styles, and they’ll look the same in all,” he says. “And every eight counts they throw in something impressive.”

As students’ technical prowess has evolved, the number of “tricks” has grown exponentially. Years ago, moves like aerials and backflips were only seen in the acro category—and only on stages covered with mats.

Wenzel decries today’s excessive cross-pollination of tricks—when a musical-theater soloist breaks out in a set of never-seen-on-Broadway fouetté turns, for example. Some competitions now limit the number of tricks or acro moves that can be included in jazz, lyrical, or musical-theater routines. Wenzel applies gentle pressure of her own, with comments such as “Does that move really belong in this routine?” or “You’ve done that move six times.” She is careful, though, that her choreography critiques don’t come at the expense of the student.

Students weren’t whipping out eight pirouettes when she began judging, Wenzel says. “There was a simplicity, a purity, that was really nice,” she says. “It’s been taken over the top.”

As a tapper, Clark is amazed by the “lighting-fast” shuffles and other tap steps that competitive dancers as young as 5 or 6 display today, but he says he misses the rhythmic dynamic of the “three 8s and a break” routines popular in the past.

Alexander agrees that numbers overstocked with advanced elements often suffer from a lack of style and fluid transitions. Yet he’s often “blown away” by the technical ability he sees from competitors, even the youngest ones. “Kids are also hungrier than I’ve ever seen before,” he says. “Many kids go through hunger periods when they want more from their choreography, from their teachers. We used to have to wait a week to get back to our teacher and class. Today they can go home and watch that ABT prima ballerina on YouTube and study the placement of her foot.”

Production values

Production numbers have evolved into showcases that are 10 minutes or longer, with sophisticated staging, storylines, and involved props. Some have upward of 50 performers—a much larger ensemble than you’d see today on a Broadway stage, Clark says.

Alexander says teachers have come a long way in learning how to use production elements like staging and props. “Back in the day, you rarely saw a prop. Maybe a gymnastics girl with a box, or a performer with a hat or a cane,” he says.

Some teachers and choreographers are pushing the envelope in both directions. Thirty years ago, Wenzel says, costuming, music, and moves were always “family-friendly.” No longer. She takes particular issue with kicks and other moves that are angled toward the audience in a way that embarrasses the male judges, and musical-theater numbers presented without character shoes.

Clark doesn’t remember when booty shorts first appeared, but he remembers the studio teacher who justified them to judges as “the latest West Coast trend.” She was right, Clark says, but Wenzel doesn’t buy that excuse. “Some of the teachers’ decisions are not the best ones for the dancers,” she says.

Alexander says MTV and music videos have brought dance moves that were previously seen predominantly in Las Vegas “into everybody’s homes,” and today many teachers (and even a segment of the audience) “has blinders on” as to what is age appropriate. In his comments he challenges the teacher/choreographers to “find a better song that’s not so suggestive.”

Awards

Who remembers the days of first, second, third, and honorable mention? Wenzel does, and she says competitions will never return to that simplistic scoring system because—despite public protests to the contrary—many teachers, students, and parents like the new system better. “Owners can advertise that they got 14 gold medals, put it in the program, and everybody is a winner,” Wenzel says. “Awards are very confusing.”

Alexander agrees, stating that he sees lots of “creativity” in medal verbiage. “Some people are trying to find their self-worth in these medals,” he says. “You should be proud of what you presented onstage, and that should be enough.”

In the past, some studios competed year after year without a win. Today many competitions employ divisions so that students compete against their peers in experience and training levels, which allows the not-so-strong dancers a chance to come in first. Headliners uses three categories: Broadway, for experienced dancers; Hollywood, for recreational students or first-timers; and Pro-Am, for teachers and professionals. Access Broadway has Debut and Diva divisions. Clark likes divisions—he says they allow beginning students to “score well and feel good about themselves.”

More and more, studios are on the hunt for a particular trophy, Alexander says. With so many events today—Wenzel says one photographer told her he has 250 competitions on his contact list—studios can jump from competition to competition until they find the score they are looking for. Those studios “are not helping the child,” Alexander says. “You learn so much more if you don’t get the high score every time you step onstage.”

A judge’s job

Judges today are often advised by the competition directors who hire them to be careful about comments. Some even have established rules regarding appropriate comments. It wasn’t always that way, Wenzel says. She remembers, years ago, a judge’s condescending reaction to her student’s homemade bird-themed costume: “I can’t believe you put her in those feathers! What were you thinking?”

From her days organizing competitions, Wenzel remembers several professional ballet dancers she hired as judges. “They creamed the students,” she says, by holding them to impossibly high standards. She did not hire them again.

Today, many judges come from teaching backgrounds and, like Wenzel, consider competition an educational experience. Talent levels vary greatly, sometimes even from city to city, and an experienced judge can quickly determine an event’s “median” and score up or down from there. “These are not professionals, they are students, and you have to judge them as such. You have to find the best in their world,” Wenzel says.

The popularity of TV dance shows like So You Think You Can Dance has spawned another type of judge—the celebrity. Young and often new to teaching, these celebrity judges nonetheless are a huge draw for starstruck students. They can provide valuable advice on breaking into the business today, Wenzel says.

The first thing Clark learned as a judge—and something that will never change—is “the immediacy of judging. It’s a fast and furious three minutes to figure out what’s needed to help this dancer,” he says. “I don’t know why this kid is at this competition—is she working to be a pro, is it for the social life, for an extracurricular activity? It’s tricky. My feeling is: keep it positive. Keep it encouraging.”


 

DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.

 

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