Top competition judges tell DT what they love to see in competition—and what studios should avoid.


-Pick appropriate music.

“Music should be something a dancer relates to. Seeing an 11-year-old emote to a song about reflection upon life or true love does not make sense. How are they expected to honestly relate to that?”—Adam Cates

-Take the time to cut your music properly.

“The biggest problem I see in music is sloppy editing. There are many music editing software programs available today that aren’t very expensive. With a good quality stereo system, music editing is quite simple.”—Angie Gallis

-Choose appropriate costumes.

“Make sure your shoes are appropriate for the number. I saw a group do a Fosse-type number with jazz sneakers and it just didn’t work.”—Joey Zarzecki

“There was one group I remember who came out with push-up bras and lace panties. They were wearing men’s white shirts over them with jewels dripping down their chests. We disqualified the number because we felt the costumes were so inappropriate.”—Jim Keith

-Be creative in your choreography.

“I would say that 95 percent of the routines I judge all look the same—same over-used songs, same moves and no suggestion of a particular choreographer’s individual style. Choreograph around your strengths and then concentrate on style and originality for the rest.”—Gallis

“Dance is an artistic form of communication; choreographers should know what feelings they are trying to communicate and/or what story they are trying to tell. The most interesting pieces are those where the choreography is music-specific, meaning the choreography makes use of the accents, lyrics and instrumentation that make that song unique.”—Cates

-Expand your technique.

“You need to teach technique outside of the competition routine. I teach master classes at competitions where girls who were doing turns in second onstage can’t even do a simple plié chainé in class.”—Keith

“Dancers need to show both sides. So much choreography is geared toward the right side. It makes me wonder if the dancers can even do the left.”—Zarzecki

-Apply proper stage makeup.

“Eyelashes are a must! They really open up your face for us sitting in the back.”—Zarzecki

“One mistake I see is the assumption that stage makeup is the same as street makeup, only thicker. Because of stage lighting and the distance between the performer and the audience, highlight and shadow techniques differ from what you would use every day. I recommend consulting a makeup designer from a local theater company who can give each dancer tips as to how to best accentuate his or her features onstage.”—Cates

-Use your props.

“The best way to utilize a prop is to use it as much as possible in the choreography. Also, be creative! Challenge yourself to see how many things you can do with that prop, then incorporate as many of those ideas as possible into your choreography.”—Gallis

-Take care of your dancers.

“I think curfews are important at overnight competitions in order to have your dancers at their peak. Make sure they get at least eight hours of sleep and bring food from home so they can stay nourished. When dancers are in multiple performances, they will get tired by the end of the day and it will show in their dancing.”—Zarzecki

“Do an actual dance class warm-up to prepare your dancers. Having them run their routine in alleys or hallways on concrete is only going to hurt them.”—Keith


-Use songs just because they’re popular.

“Beware of using the same music that everyone else uses. Even though Christina Aguilera’s ‘Car Wash’ and ‘Roxie’ from Chicago are great songs, judges and audiences get tired of hearing them over and over. With iTunes, Napster and internet search programs, the vast music world is at your fingertips. Find unique music that will make your number stand out.”—Cates

-Borrow from cheerleading.

“Do not use cheer music remixes for a dance routine.  I love a high-paced jazz number, but not with all the cheer sound effects.”—Keith

“I want to see a real, genuine smile rather than all the oohs and ahhs. The cuteness and forced emotion only take the dancers so far.”—Zarzecki

-Use props to distract from rough technique.

“There was one group that built a big bridge and it looked really cool with the girls on cables doing splits, but then I looked down at the dancers who were representing the water and it was all sloppy.”—Keith

-Focus on tricks.

“So many competitors today think that more tricks mean higher points. Not so in my opinion. I always score higher a routine with less difficulty, but with clean technique, where you can see the choreographer’s vision and style.”—Gallis

“When numbers are just a series of tricks, the tricks lose their luster and mean nothing. Pick a few tricks that you do well, incorporate them artistically into the choreography and they will stand out.”—Cates

-Tolerate sloppy technique.

“Having a dancer do difficult technique before she is ready will only hurt her body and her dancing in the long run. I would rather see a girl do a single and hold it. That shows more technique than someone spinning around three times.”—Keith

“Dancers should execute movement that makes them look good. If a dancer’s fouetté turns or illusions are not impeccable, then she should definitely continue working on them in class. These tricks should not be put into her solo.”—Cates

-Be risqué.

“I was judging a large teen hip-hop number. It started out great, but then the dancers did a move where they pulled down their oversized pants and exposed that they were wearing skimpy red thong-ish underwear while doing hip thrusts. It was vulgar and unnecessary for a dance competition full of children.”—Cates

-Forget your competition etiquette!

“Do not stand in the wings and coach or count for your competitors. They either know the dance or they don’t.”—Zarzecki

“Be 100 percent ready at the time you are supposed to compete. Although most companies will still let you go on if you are not ready, it is unprofessional.”—Zarzecki

“There have been a couple of instances where a whole studio’s negative attitude was so horrible throughout the entire competition that I requested not to judge that particular city again if that studio was going to compete there.”—Gallis  DT

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