How to Keep Dance Competitions from Ruining Your Friendships

Ellie Wagner (center) at Hall of Fame Dance Challenge's 2018 Nationals (photo by Hall of Fame, courtesy Wagner)

Each competition season comes with a range of emotions—emotions that tend to test even our strongest dance friendships. We spoke with comp-world veterans about how to deal with five common friendship-ruining competition scenarios, so you can keep the "forever" in "BFF."


Your bestie was chosen to be highlighted in your routine, and you're instantly envious.

It's natural to feel that way when other dancers get opportunities that you want. Of course you're happy for them, but it's hard to not take it personally.

When faced with this situation, Abigail Werner from Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, UT, recommends channeling your envy into something more constructive. "When I get jealous, I just tell myself to work harder, and make sure I congratulate the person who got what I wanted," she says. "They earned it, and that's how I would want to be treated, too."

Ellie Wagner, a dancer from Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood, MN, says she tries to look at the bigger picture in times like these. "You'll dance with these people at least until you graduate high school," she says. "Cheer your friend on, because your team should feel like family."

The same dancers win every solo comp, and it's souring your friendships.

Joanne Chapman, owner of Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Brampton, ON, Canada, says competition should move you forward, not pull you down. "It doesn't matter if your friend always gets first overall with a triple-titanium-platinum and you don't. Judge yourself through your own eyes. If you've made progress from the last time you performed, you've succeeded."

After years of dancing together, Werner's team members have learned to deal with serial winners by remembering that individual successes benefit the team as a whole. "We're all one big family, and we want each other to do well," she says. "There've been times where we've each wanted to win the competition and someone else has beat us, but over time we've learned that we have our own abilities that work together to make something beautiful."

You're the dancer who's always favored, and your team's annoyed.

Chapman says dancers can salvage their friendships by being gracious and humble when things go well for them. "In my 45 years in the business, I've never seen a dancer who was the whole package," she says. "Never forget everyone has something to work on."

That said, Werner recommends keeping your head up if you suspect people are belittling you behind your back. "You've worked hard to get to where you are, and the people talking badly about you are probably just jealous," she says.

Abigail Werner and partner Matthew Bezzant representing the USA at the Backpool Dance Festival in England (photo by Blackpool Dance Festival, courtesy Werner)

As someone who's experienced a few negative comments herself, Wagner also feels the best thing to do is be kind. "Hear them out when they're frustrated, and then kill them with kindness. If they say you're getting opportunities you haven't earned and you know that isn't true, continue working hard and encourage them to do their best, too."

You're starting to think politics are involved at competition, and are tempted to gossip about your suspicions.

While politics have been known to play a role in competition, think before you attribute someone's successes to favoritism. "Don't waste time sitting in the audience talking about how someone might not have earned their win," Wagner says. "Those feelings are natural, but it's what we do about them that'll decide how our friendships turn out. Learn from what others did well. Turn something negative into a positive."

You just won, and your teammate is obviously upset about losing.

Werner experienced this last summer while attending Radix's Nationals. "I got into the Top 4, and I could tell one of my teammates was really discouraged," she says. "She seemed less confident in class, so I made sure to cheer her on and congratulated her when she got noticed. She's an amazing dancer, and just needed to be reminded. I had the power to boost her up, so I did." Focus on being a good person—and friend!—first, and a good dancer second.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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