Dance Isn't Always Meant to Be a Competition


Whether it's recital time or competition season, students do not look at the world through the eyes of children. They look at the world through the eyes of performers, picturing themselves onstage with energy and abandon, just as skilled and confident as their supportive parents had hoped and known they could be. That's the best case scenario, anyway.

However, there are always the exceptions.

I recently met another sort of parent altogether. She was not as boisterous as a reality-TV "Dance Mom," but she was as blatant.

I was in the middle of a rehearsal when a woman opened the door a crack to ask if she and her daughter, maybe 6 years old, could watch. She said they were from Beijing. Together they were smaller than I am—both possessing such delicate carriage.

We talked about classes for her daughter. Then, in front of her perfect in-every-visible-way child she said, "I don't think my daughter has pretty hands and feet. I don't think she is pretty enough to be a dancer."

I decided not to pay any mind to what she said, not to call more attention to her ridiculous remarks. I knelt down, looked directly into her daughter's tiny brown eyes and said, "You have the loveliest hands and feet I have ever seen. You will be a wonderful, smart, beautiful dancer."

After a brief moment, the mother shook her head "no."

I challenged her. I nodded a hard, "yes!"

By the hand, she then led her daughter out of my studio.

Why on earth had they come?

Maybe I had gone too far, over the top with my American-style positive thinking. Still, I think setting young girls up for failure is the same in any culture.

I did a little research. Apparently, there is an old Chinese custom that teaches girls to reject all compliments, but to heck with that.

If the girl could just believe what I said was true, and in so doing believe in herself a little more, my work was done.

It is always my hope that my voice, not the voice of criticism, will be the voice students will hear whenever they enter a studio. The positive charge that comes from a connection with another dancer. I'd like to think a positive voice will be the spark this little girl from China will hear whenever she hears something else that makes her feel unworthy, or whenever she is afraid to go after what she wants. I want to make sure, from where she stands at the barre, or in the world, that what she will be able to see is self-confidence taking shape.

At least I wanted to try.

Mostly, I wanted her to know that dance was never meant to be a competition, no matter how many television shows enforce the damaging idea over and over that there always needs to be a winner and loser.

Because I have tried to live my life authentically even in the face of a culture that values football over dance, sports over art, with a very limited idea of what "winning" really means.

This was the voice that rose to the surface, the one that wants to express to every young person that "winning" is a private dance with only two steps: First, choose what makes you happy. And second, go after it! No matter what anyone says. Especially about your body.

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Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

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Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

Christy Funsch's teaching career has taken her from New York City to the Bay Area to Portugal, with a stint in a punk band in between. But this fall—fresh off a Fulbright in Portugal at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, School of Dance (ESD), teaching and researching empathetic embodiment through somatic dance training—Funsch's teaching has taken her to an entirely new location: Zoom. A visiting professor at Slippery Rock University for the 2020–21 academic year, Funsch is adapting her eclectic, boundary-pushing approach to her virtual classes.

Originally from central New York State, Funsch spent 20 years performing in the Bay Area, where she also started her own company, Funsch Dance Experience. "My choreographic work from that time is in the dance-theater experiential, fantasy realm of performance," she says. "I also started blending genres and a lot of urban styles found their way into my choreography."

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Movement was more than a metaphor for the fight for women's suffrage—dancers played a real role, most notably Florence Fleming Noyes, who performed her riveting solo Dance of Freedom in 1914 to embody the struggle for women's rights.

This fall, Middle Tennessee State University director of dance Meg Brooker is reconstructing Dance of Freedom on 11 of her students. A Noyes Rhythm teacher and an Isadora Duncan scholar, Brooker is passionate about bringing historic dance practices into a contemporary context.

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