Originally published for the Impact Dance Adjudicators Blog, 2017.
I recently visited my mom's house. I had been judging a dance competition in the area and took the opportunity to visit family and to reminisce a bit. The house in question is one that my parents built when I was in high school. I lived there my junior and senior year before moving away to go to college, and, as you might expect, the house is packed full of memorabilia from that era of my life.
As I walk into my old bedroom, I am immediately thrown back in time. The walls are covered with pictures: me and my prom dates, me in a graduation robe, me in my first professional show. The closet is full of clothes I wore in high school (some of which are now back in style), and the bed is covered with an embarrassing number of fluffy stuffed animals.
The floor, however, is entirely taken over by the trophies from my own dance competition days. Big ones and small ones, plastic and marble, some announcing a low score and others proclaiming me a "Grand Champion". The one thing they have in common is that they are all a bit dusty, and chipping at the edges. I chuckle as I wipe some grime off of a plaque.
When I was seventeen, these trophies seemed so important to me. I agonized over them (pacing the blue carpet), assuming that the scores they announced would tell me how successful I would be in my professional career. If I looked hard enough, I thought, I could almost see my future in their gleaming surfaces. Now, with more than a decade of a professional career under my belt, I know that these trophies and the scores they announce hold almost no importance at all. In the grand scheme of things, no one cares that I was "Miss National Grand Fantastic Super Elite Platinum Soloist, 2006". I have never once been asked where I placed at Nationals.
Nonetheless, I don't regret participating in dance competitions. Quite the contrary: what I know now, in hindsight, is that dance competitions WERE important to my professional development, only it has nothing to do with the trophies now collecting dust in my teenage bedroom. Here are the three things dance competitions gave me that were not trophies.
1) A Training Ground:On average, young dancers who train at studios perform live once a year, twice if they are lucky. However, by participating in dance competitions, students receive additional opportunities to perform live, and to hone the craft of live performance. No one is born knowing how to command a stage - it takes time and practice. By performing live again and again at dance competitions, I learned to improvise when I forgot choreography. I learned how deal with annoying costume pieces that swayed my balance. I learned how to find a solid spotting point among the faces in the crowd [hint: the trick is to find the red EXIT sign in the back of the house]. I learned how to apply makeup efficiently and to quick change in under 1 minute. I learned how to be part of an ensemble, and to communicate with my teammates without using words. Most importantly, I learned how to captivate an audience. How to appear confident by focusing to the balcony. How to radiate fearlessness by taking up as much stage space as possible. How to take risks (and how to deal with the falls that might result), and how to commune with the people watching me, by taking my gut emotions and translating them through body language. In my professional life, I use all these skills daily. Because I had some wonderful teachers who encouraged us to choreograph our own dances, I was also exposed to the world of choreography through dance competitions. Admittedly, my first few pieces were cringeworthy, but through trial and error, I was able to clarify sloppy ideas and to weed out unnecessary movement. In short, dance competitions allowed me to experience what worked and what didn't, with very few consequences. It is a gift I will always be grateful for, and it has helped me develop a choreographic foundation that I draw from, even today.
2) Knowledge of How to Take (and to Apply) Professional CriticismReceiving notes (or corrections from a choreographer/director) is an inextricable part of any performer's career, and knowing how to take and apply them professionally is a skill that is not necessarily innate. I have witnessed many performers arguing against a note they have received, or, once they have received it, fail to apply it. I suspect that this is, at least in part, due to the fact that notes sometimes feel like a personal attack. For example, when a choreographer says, "You have to remember to straighten your arm completely!" it is hard not to hear, "Why can't you remember to straighten your arm?! You are subpar and I wish I had never hired you!" Because I received constructive criticism every time I competed (and usually from three different judges), receiving notes became par for the course, rather than something to take offense to. I learned that once I drilled my corrections until they became muscle memory, my dancing became better and my scores got higher. Subsequently, the little voice in my head that once whispered, "You are terrible! The choreographer hates you!" has quieted down a bit, and I now see notes as a way to better myself and my company. Now when I receive a note, I do my best to say, "Thank you," and work until I can do the movement correctly. Dance competitions gave me that.
3) ConnectionsThe most valuable thing I ever received from dance competitions were connections. I think students often forget that their judges are professional performers who not only have a lot of knowledge and clout in their field, but also have the ability to award scholarships! I was given scholarships to fantastic professional institutions and summer programs that not only helped me grow, but also put me in touch with MORE professional people who helped me to continue on my journey. Through this process, I left the competition world with a whole network of connections, many of which later resulted in professional jobs! However, the connections I made were not limited to the faculty only; they also included the people I was competing against! Believe it or not, I now work for a great many people I shared the stage with back in my high school days. In a nutshell: never underestimate the effect your fellow dancers might have on your life! Whether you are in L.A. or New York or Belgium, the dance world is a well-connected one, and if you choose to dance professionally, I can guarantee that you will be working alongside your competing peers. Some of them might even hire you! So, be polite, be friendly, and be professional! You never know where those connections might lead.
It has been fun reminiscing, but can't linger at my mom's house any longer - I have to get back to the city for rehearsal. Before I go though, I take one more look at the photographs (why did no one tell me that haircut looked so dorky?), I retrieve a pair of pants from the closet (they still fit me, and I forgot how cute they were) and I make sure to give all my stuffed animals a parting cuddle before I shut the door.
But, I'll admit, the trophies don't get a second glance.
*Ashley Marinelli is a Professional Dancer, Teacher, Adjudicator and Choreographer based in New York City. She is currently working in Utah at Tuacahn Center for the Arts where she is the Assistant Choreographer and performing in the regional productions of "Newsies", "Shrek" and "Mamma Mia" this summer.