Feature: Past, Present and Future

Q: How have you seen competitions evolve in the last few decades?

“I’ve been competing since I was 7, and I’ve spent more than 40 years being a part of it. When I first danced, we used records! It was just a contest—you went out and the costumes weren’t very elaborate and your dancing was basic. The group dancing was a big thing, but it definitely didn’t have an edge to it. Since I started my own studio, it’s grown immensely. The edge is over the top. I tell my kids, ‘Everything we do for competition, you will never do as a professional dancer.’ No one’s going to ask you do nine pirouettes and then a side aerial.”
—Robin Dawn, director/owner, Robin Dawn Academy of Performing Arts, Cape Coral, FL

“The level of ability and talent has grown so much. When we first started doing competitions, it was a big deal to do a double pirouette, and now that’s kind of like walking. There are just so many competitions, and I’m not sure they carry the same amount of push for kids. It’s just a fact of life; it’s not so special. In my day, after winning a trophy, you’d keep it forever. Now, if these kids kept every trophy they won, they’d have to have a whole separate room for them. And I think that’s a positive builder of self-esteem, but I also think it’s hard to understand when you really accomplish something.”  
—Devin Moss, director/owner, Classic Image Dance,
Chandler, AZ

“The facilities went from being high schools to full auditoriums. We had to travel two to four hours to get to a convention or competition, and there were only one or two events that even came to your town. Now they’re five to 10 minutes down the road. As far as studios go, competition is definitely one of the big selling points. That’s what kids want to be involved in.”  
—Heather Owens, founder/director, Upstate Carolina Dance Center, Easley, SC

 “When I was training, there were no dance competitions. But I’ve seen a huge change. My studio began competing around 1985. That’s when costumes weren’t crazy, everyone was very unique, lyrical wasn’t even a category, hip hop wasn’t a category. There was a lot more togetherness between the studios, and the teachers were getting along better. Then, probably in the early ’90s, some of the stronger studios started coming alive. It really affected the art of dance—there were more tricks, everyone had $200 costumes and dancers were looking the same. Granted, the dancers were amazing, but the creativity was missing. Now I’m very pleased to see that studios are getting more creative; even the bigger studios are stepping out of their comfort zone. I think So You Think You Can Dance has helped a lot. It’s very inspiring, seeing these great choreographers take a song we’ve all heard 100 times and do something completely different with it.”
—Suzi Zeppardo, director, Dancing Images, Moreno Valley, CA

Q: What has happened to style and artistry?

“Some studios have been doing contemporary for a long time, but people weren’t ready for it. Now all of a sudden it’s gotten really big, and I think all of that is the exposure on TV, on So You Think You Can Dance. Mia Michaels and Wade Robson are incredible! The choreographers are really allowed to express themselves a lot more, and I think it’s good to have all facets of that. We’re leaning a lot more toward modern, which there’s never been a lot of exposure to, because there’s always been the basics—tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical. Now it’s a blend of everything. I always tell my kids, ‘If it feels weird, it’s probably right.’ I mean, Bob Fosse turned everything in. A lot of kids may be thinking of joining companies where they might not have ever thought about that before. Pilobolus? Look at them—they do some bizarre stuff that is just out there.”  —Dawn

“Certain studios with a certain look and style go to certain competitions. It’s all about tricks and costumes. And they’re amazing kids, don’t get me wrong. But you’re not seeing creativity in that kind of venue. I think if every competition was like that, it would be sad because the artistic part of dance would be missing.”  —Zeppardo



Q: How much more financially challenging is it to participate in competitions these days?


“It is so expensive! It’s a huge financial undertaking for families, and that’s hard, because a lot of the most talented kids just can’t afford it, and it sort of hinders them from being able to continue. It’s not good enough just for them to take class anymore; they all want the limelight. We’re looking at $10,000 worth of events a year, which most studios probably can’t afford to do.”  —Moss

“All the rhinestones, the design and the time that goes into making costumes different and trying to make your kids stand out more than other kids . . . actually, it comes and goes. Now, you can kind of get away in a lot of the lyrical numbers with fewer rhinestones; you can go to Victoria’s Secret and buy something without spending $200 to $300 on a costume.”  —Owens

Q: If you could change one thing about competitions, what would it be?

“I wish that people would be able to take constructive criticism better, and put weight into the dancers and the training. Sometimes I feel like everybody walks out with a gold, and a lot of the young teachers—and parents are probably the worst—go back thinking, ‘Wow, we did so good.’ I can remember my kids competing in the Hoctor’s Dance Caravan twice a year, because there were no other competitions, and it was first, second, third—that’s all there was. Now there are so many on the weekend, and there are just so many choices. I will say this, though: I think it’s a good thing to compete because it builds good character. It takes someone with a lot more character to be a good loser than to be a good winner. Anybody can win, but in the business they’re going into, they’re going to get a lot more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s’ and they’ve got to be able to handle that.” —Dawn

“It’s difficult that there is so much competition between studios. Instead of really having an appreciation for others, a lot of people are just worried about winning, which takes away from your ability to learn from each other. I take students to competition for the sense of accomplishment and, yeah, it’s great if we win, but it’s also to see what’s out there and to have the educational aspect of it. So I would like to see a little more emphasis on the benefits and the education, and keeping classes that go along with competition. I really admire the events that offer a showcase, things that are a little bit different so you can support each other more and not worry about winning all the time.” —Moss

“Probably the time frame. Pretty much everything’s gone to three-day events now, and as far as scheduling, you’re there from 7 in the morning to 11 at night, and it gets really tough to come in on Monday and start teaching again. You’re just exhausted. It’s because the competitions are growing so much and they’re packing in as much as they can and extending the time they have the auditorium to the last minute.” —Owens

“I would like a universal language for divisions. That gets so confusing! I think it’s great that some events have levels and some don’t—that’s necessary. But if we could all have the same language on what’s a mini, what’s a junior. However, you have to be very careful with that line so you don’t take away the artistry of the pieces.” —Zeppardo

Music
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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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