Flying Taps & Ninja Temples
How to Survive Competition Catastrophes
Students of The Dance Studio of Fresno will never be caught walking from the dressing room to the stage without their flip-flops, and for good reason. This year, one of them stepped on an open safety pin just three minutes before curtain. It penetrated her metatarsal. “Blood was everywhere,” says studio owner Sue Sampson-Dalena. Luckily, the dancer’s mom, an ER physician, managed to stop the bleeding and the routine went on as planned. “I don’t know how she managed to do it,” says Sampson-Dalena. That was the last time that any of her dancers walked barefoot backstage.
Whether your first competition trip or your 50th, it’s best to go into an event prepared to think on your feet. From unfamiliar backstage conditions and missing dancers to a problematic set, anything can happen—and has. In the face of disaster, how do you soldier on and make sure your dancers return home with their trophies and self-esteem intact? DT asked five studio directors who have decades of competition experience to share their harrowing tales of things gone wrong and how they righted them.
The Dance Studio of Fresno
Just mention set pieces and you are bound to get a smile out of Sampson-Dalena. One year her winning number at Nationals involved a ninja temple. During the competition, her team carried the temple to the stage through the audience. They were thrilled when the number won and they were invited to perform in the gala—until they learned they would not be allowed to carry the temple through the audience. It did not fit through the stairs, so it was impossible to get the piece in place from backstage. The temple had to be completely dismantled and put together onstage in exactly one minute. The dancers pulled through, but not without some good lessons learned. After that, Sampson-Dalena needed a good long break from complicated set pieces. But while some studios have eliminated props completely, she hasn’t gone that far. “Good set pieces can really augment the choreography,” she says, “so I haven’t stopped using them, but I do pay more attention to dimensions.”
Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee
KJ Dance Designs
When Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee was still teaching for her mom’s studio, her team showed up at a competition only to discover they would need to lift their set three feet onto a raised stage in the hotel ballroom. “My dancers had heels on, and they could not lift a bar with three bar stools,” she says. She solved the problem by enlisting the aid of a couple of the dads. The dancers sailed through the number, yet the judges put down their papers halfway through. The team was disqualified because the rules clearly stated that parents cannot help. “It was a hard lesson to learn and an expensive mistake on my part,” she says. “If I’d had the paperwork with me at the time, I would have known it wasn’t allowed. Now, I always re-read the rules and regulations, even if I have been to the competition before.”
Today, Ulmer Blakeslee brings some 80 numbers to Nationals every year, including 30 solos and 50 group numbers. She tries to have the students as prepared as possible, setting call times two hours in advance of curtain. Four years ago, on a trip to New York City, a few dancers were nowhere to be found at call time. The missing students were discovered posting photos of themselves in Central Park on Facebook. “They got back in time, but did not perform up to their usual standards,” she says. “We know New York can be distracting, so now we schedule sightseeing time during our trip.”
Steppin’ Out—The Studio
Lee’s Summit, MO
Ever since a dancer forgot the white trunks that matched the flowing dress for her lyrical solo, Phyllis Balagna has lugged a crate full of extra costume pieces to Nationals. Luckily, that dancer was able to borrow a pair of trunks at the final moment, but Balagna won’t take that chance again. Her crate is stuffed with trunks of every color in size adult small, which fits anyone from a child to a teen, along with other items that tend to go missing. “Teens are the most likely to forget a piece of a costume, while parents pack for the little ones,” she adds.
After 23 years of competing, Balagna can offer some sage advice about attending Nationals that take place in vacation destinations. “I nipped that one in the rumpus a while back, after some parents kept their children at Disney World too long,” she says. “Communication is key. I tell my parents to think of Nationals as a business trip for the dancers; we are there to dance.” Three days before they leave, she hosts a banquet where she gives out studio achievement (and improvement) awards and distributes a detailed schedule of where dancers are to be and when.
Joanne Chapman School of Dance
Some catastrophes are outside the control of even the most organized studio director, like when an ice storm caused a power outage at a regional competition. “We were supposed to get started at 8 am, and we ended up starting at 7 pm,” says Joanne Chapman about one fateful weekend. To make up the time, the daily schedule was changed to run through meal breaks and begin one hour earlier than planned, leaving the students and judges exhausted at the end of a very long day. “We had some dancing at 6 am and others at 11 pm.”
“We asked the directors to call in a relief team of judges to help with the exhaustion issue, and they refused,” she says. As a result, the judging seemed arbitrary and at times senseless. Now, she knows to pay close attention to the leadership of a competition company before signing up. “Poorly run competitions are a huge concern for me,” she says. “I put feelers out into the industry to hear directly about the experience.” Length of time in business is not a reliable indicator of a well-organized operation, she warns. “Gather firsthand information from your peers,” she says.
The Dance Zone
There’s nothing like discovering that all the props you shipped to Nationals are tightly screwed into a crate, to teach you that it’s a good idea to have a cordless screwdriver on hand. Kaydee Francis’ special “MacGyver” bag includes everything from a box cutter to swatches of Lycra that match the costumes. Her students are expected to have their own bobby pins, safety pins and sewing kits.
Once, three of her students slid off the stage when the back panels of the stage collapsed. “They were there, and then they were gone, just like that,” Francis says. No one was injured, but the experience was a good warning to be aware of the surroundings before a performance. The show went on, just as it did the time when taps fell off the shoes of six 10-year-olds while they were dancing. “They flew off their feet like bullets, one at a time, with one loose tap landing near a judge’s head,” she recalls. “I still chuckle when I think about that.” It seems an eager parent had arranged to screw on the taps. These days, Francis personally orders all the shoes, and keeps parents out of the equation. “I insist students dance three times in any new shoes,” she says.
When preparing for a competition, Francis takes the time to check out the layout of the performance area, from the crossover to the edges of the stage. If the information is not in the registration materials, she calls to get the exact layout. She also reduces possible trouble by having frequent meetings with teachers, students and parents.
“We need to toe that line between excitement and expectations,” she says. Yet, no matter how prepared you are, a costume might end up hidden right when a dancer needs it. “My secret is to remember that this is a dance competition. We are not saving the world,” she says. “If a dancer has to go onstage with the wrong costume, tomorrow is still going to come.” DT
Based in Houston, Nancy Wozny is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher, Pointe and Dance Magazine.
Photos from top: ©iStockphoto.com; courtesy of Dance Studio of Fresno; courtesy of KJ Dance Designs; courtesy of Joanne Chapman School of Dance; courtesy of The Dance Zone