Competitive dance is a popular, widespread activity in which competitors perform dances in any of several permitted dance styles—such as acro, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, lyrical, modern, and tap—before a common group of judges. This is in contrast with other activities that involve competition among dancers based on purpose, or specific dance style, such as pom squad and dancesport.
The competitive dance industry largely consists of competition production companies—also sometimes called dance competition companies—that conduct regional competitions at stops along their annual, nationwide tours. Dancers who compete at these regional competitions are usually dance students ranging in age from about six to eighteen years old. Dance schools typically arrange for their classes to compete as groups. Advanced dance students often compete solo or in small groups (e.g., duo, trio, quad) in addition to competing with their dance class groups.
Competitive dancers must be physically fit because even short dances can be physically demanding. Also, dancers must continuously train to maintain and improve their technique, balance skills, strength and flexibility. Competitive dancing requires dedication as many months may be spent practicing dance and developing dance routines.
A routine is the dance that is performed by a dancer or group of dancers at a competition. Each routine is required to be entered into an appropriate category at every competition. A number of factors determine the category into which a routine should be entered:
- Dance style. All dance competitions include categories for specific dance styles such as acro, ballet, contemporary, jazz, hip-hop, lyrical, pointe and tap. In addition, most competitions include an open category for dance styles outside the scope of the specific categories. Also, some competitions define categories that are altogether outside the scope of dance styles. For example, categories such as musical theater and photogenic are not based on dance style and in some cases may not require a performer to dance at all.
- Average age of dancers. Age divisions vary among competitions. Typical age divisions include petite (5-8), junior (9-12), teen (13-15), senior (16-19), and adult (20+).
- Number of dancers. Typically there are separate categories such as solo, duos/trio, small group, large group, line, and production, which are based on the number of dancers in a routine. The numbers of dancers constituting the various groups, as well as the group categories themselves, may differ at different competitions.
- Experience. Some competitions have divisions based on the number of years of dance education.
- Recreational vs. competitive dancers, based on the number of hours of dance instruction per week.
The music used in competitive dance routines is typically adapted from commercially available songs created by professional recording artists. Dance routines are subject to time limits at most dance competitions, and consequently the original, commercial music is usually edited to conform to such time limits.
At some competitions, the dance competition music is adjudicated in terms of its appropriateness for the ages of the performers as well as the character of the dance routine. The quality of the music, however, is not explicitly judged. Even so, dance competition music is an integral part of a dancer's performance, so dancers will sometimes employ professional music editing services in order to obtain high quality music—and thus a competitive edge—for their dance routines.
Dance routines may be performed without accompanying music. Although rare, this approach is most commonly employed in tap routines in order to feature the sound and rhythm of the dancer's tap shoes.
A routine must comply with the rules of the overall competition, which may vary considerably from one competition to another. Also, a routine must comply with all rules that apply specifically to its category. Violations may cause point deductions or, in some cases, disqualification. For example:
- An upper time limit is usually imposed on a routine based on its number of dancers.
- Ballet routines may not include acrobatic elements.
- Soloists are usually allowed to compete more than one solo at a competition, although most competitions do not allow a soloist to compete in the same style twice. For example, it is not permissible for a dancer to compete two lyrical solos at a competition. Style definitions will sometimes overlap at a competition, thus providing an opportunity for a dancer to compete two dances that might otherwise be considered to have the same style. For example, a soloist might be permitted to compete two acro routines by entering one as acro and the other as open.
In general, similar sized groups compete against each other. Solos compete against solos, duos and trios against each other, small groups against each other, large groups against each other, and lines against each other. Typically, placement awards are given out for each group size.
In addition to the established routines that constitute the main part of a competition, competitions will sometimes include special categories and events in which pre-established routines are not allowed. For example:
- Improv, in which contestants dance to random selections of music and must improvise.
- Dance-off or dance-down. A group of contestants is taught a short routine while on stage, over a period of just a few minutes. The contestants must then perform the routine in groups while observed by judges. The pool of contestants is reduced by the judges through a process of elimination until only one dancer—the winner—remains.
The judges at a dance competition are typically professional dancers. They usually sit at the front of the audience, facing the stage, and observe all of the dances. Each judge completes a scoresheet for each routine by awarding points for various categories. Judges may also write comments on their scoresheets or, in some cases, record audio comments for the benefit of dancers and their choreographers. When audio comments are recorded, they are typically given to dancers on CD or DVD media to allow review of a performance while listening to real-time judge commentary.
Adjudication categories vary at different competitions, but commonly judged categories cover aspects such as showmanship, technique (i.e., proper form, execution of movements, transitions), difficulty of the routine, costume, and choreography. At some competitions, points may be deducted if the costume or music is deemed inappropriate for the age of the dancers. Also, judges may disqualify a routine if it violates any rules of the competition.
The points issued by each judge are totaled to compute the judge's score. Typically, a maximum of 100 points can be awarded by an individual judge (i.e., a perfect score). All of the judges' scores are then added together to produce a final score. At some competitions the lowest and highest judges' scores are discarded before computing the final score. For example, a competition might employ five judges, each of whom may award up to 100 points; when the low and high scores have been discarded, the resulting final score will have a maximum possible value of 300 points.
There is no industry-wide standard for scoring. The maximum number of points issued by each judge, as well as the maximum possible final score, varies among competition production companies. Although it is common for judges to issue a maximum of 100 points each, at least one company implements a system in which judges may issue up to 200 points, based on the rationale that such a scoring system is similar to that employed in public schools.
A dance routine may receive an individual award based on its final score, or based on its ranking in a particular category, depending on the competition. Some competitions issue individual awards for every routine while others present awards only for the highest overall scoring routines at a competition. Top scoring routines are sometimes awarded prize money and/or scholarships for dance education. These routines may also be eligible to advance to a higher level (e.g., national) competition.
Awards are usually issued in the form of trophies and plaques or, less frequently, as medals. Awards nomenclature varies considerably among competitions, although most awards systems have a value theme involving precious metals or gemstones. For example, at some competitions a routine might receive a bronze, silver, gold or platinum award, while at another competition one might receive an emerald, ruby or diamond award. In addition to variations in nomenclature, there are differences insofar as the number of points required for each award. For example, a gold award might require 270 points at one competition and 280 at another.
Some competitions also present judges' choice or other special awards. These awards are usually given without regard to final score. The topics of these awards (e.g., Best Costume, Best Choreography, Most Original) are often determined by the judge who issues them, although some competitions have fixed, standard topics for special awards.
Dance competitions often bestow titles upon select dancers. Depending on the competition, titles may be automatically assigned to the highest scoring dancer in each age category, or an additional pageant may be conducted to determine the title winner. Individual titles are usually given to male and female contestants. When a pageant is conducted, contestants are typically required to perform a solo routine, model their costumes, introduce themselves to the audience, give a short speech, be interviewed, or some combination of these. Titles are typically applicable for one year.
Competitive Dance Industry
Dance competitions are organized and conducted by independent competition production companies. There are approximately 200 such companies operating in the United States and Canada alone. Competition production companies move from one metropolitan area to another, stopping for a few days in each area to conduct a regional competition. By touring in this manner, these companies are able to generate profits while at the same time enabling significant numbers of dancers to attend local competitions. Some companies also conduct one or more national competitions after their regional tours have ended.
The competitive dance industry has no oversight body or standards organization, although at least one effort is underway to establish a limited set of competition rules and safety standards in the industry. Competition production companies seldom coordinate their tours with each other. Tour start and end dates, as well as cities visited, vary from one company to another. Most companies conduct regional tours from approximately January through May, while National competitions generally run from June through August. It is not uncommon for two regional tours to be visiting the same metropolitan area at the same time.
Regional competitions are held at high school auditoriums or other performance venues that include a stage and space for judges and audience. Such venues are typically rented for periods ranging from one to four consecutive days, depending on the number of dancers scheduled to compete. Competitions often start very early in the morning and last until late at night so as to minimize rental cost and other expenses.
National competitions typically take place in major metropolitan areas in large, rented spaces such as hotel conference rooms or convention centers, with portable stages, sound and lighting systems installed just for the competition event. National competitions often last for a full week. In addition to the competition itself, these events sometimes include:
- Dance classes and workshops. At some competitions, these classes are adjudicated to produce partial scores for title contenders.
- A dance-off or dance-down.
- Choreography workshop for title contenders.
- End-of-the-week banquet. If the title contenders participated in a choreography workshop, they typically perform the dance at this banquet.
The duration of a competition event is dictated by the number, and types, of dance routines that are scheduled to compete. In addition to the time needed for dance performances—which represents the majority of the total event time—additional time is allotted for judging, score tabulation and awards ceremonies.
Due to late entries and scratches, competition schedules are often subject to change until just a few days before the competition. Because of this, the final schedule is often published, and made available to competitors, shortly before the competition begins.
Dancers are required to be at the competition venue during their performances and, in most cases, at the associated awards ceremonies as well. In addition, dance schools require their dancers to arrive no later than a specified time (i.e., the call time). Dancer call times are generally well before their scheduled performance times because:
- A competition may run ahead of its published schedule.
- Dancing is an athletic endeavor, and thus requires sufficient warm-up to avoid injuries.
- Many studios encourage idle dancers to watch and learn from other dancers and also serve as supportive audience for other dancers.
Videography and Photography
The choreography of a dance routine—which is the design of movement and flow of steps in the routine—is copyrightable. Consequently, video recording is often prohibited at dance competitions in order to steer clear of copyright infringement issues. Some competition production companies employ professional videographers to capture and sell video recordings of competitive performances with the restriction that video recordings may only be sold to the subject performers or members of their studios, thus avoiding infringement. When no professional videographer is available, competition production companies will sometimes permit each attending dance school to designate a videographer to record performances of students from that school.
Unlike videography, still photography does not infringe copyrighted choreography. Because of this, many competition production companies permit photography at their competitions. Virtually all competitions prohibit flash photography, however, both for the safety of performers and to prevent undesirable distractions. Some competition production companies employ professional photographers to capture and sell photographs of dance performances. In such cases, photography by audience members is typically prohibited so as to provide an exclusive market for the official photographers.
Dance conventions are regional educational events hosted by professional dancers. They are held on weekends in large cities nationwide—typically in hotel ballrooms—with a stage for instructors to teach from. Many conventions also hold competitions so that attendees can have their routines critiqued by dance professionals.
Instructors at dance conventions are usually experts in the field of dance and are either currently working in the industry (e.g., music videos, films, commercials, industrials, concerts, Broadway) or have in the past. These professionals sometimes teach at well-known dance studios in Los Angeles or New York, such as The Edge, The Millennium, Broadway Dance Center, and Steps on Broadway.
Dance schools participate in dance conventions to learn from the professional dancers who host them. Conventions are a means for dance teachers and students to learn new technique, and styles of dance from New York City and Los Angeles, without incurring the expense of traveling to distant cities.
Spirit of competition
Although the highest scoring dancers are ranked according to their overall scores, dance schools and competition production companies emphasize that dancers are primarily competing against themselves, and thus competitive dance is not so much about competing, but rather is an opportunity to:
- Receive valuable critiques from dance professionals. Competition companies provide original judges' scoresheets and critiques and, in some cases, audio recordings of judges' comments to dancers, to help them improve their technique and routines.
- Watch and learn from other dancers. Dance schools often instruct their dancer to spend their free time watching other routines.
Dancers are expected to conform to proper etiquette at competitions. They are expected to be courteous to each other, to applaud other routines, to not enter or exit the auditorium during a performance, etc. Aside from these standard rules of etiquette, many competition companies impose additional rules. For example, American Dance Awards requires all dancers to say "thank-you" when presented with an award.
Many dance schools attend competitions and so dancers from different schools may see each other many times during the competition season. This creates a sense of community as well as valuable connections should a student decide to become a professional dancer.
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