How To Put On A Showstoppin' Performance With Advice From Showstopper's Judges

Showstopper sees all types of different dancers from across the world at their dance competitions. Sometimes it can be hard to know how to stand out among the 100s of dancers that perform on their stages.


With some of the most experienced and knowledgable judges in the industry, Showstopper asked its judges for their best advice on how to put on a showstoppin' performance. Here's what they said…

on being MEMORABLE…

"The originality of the routine. How many times have I heard the song you're dancing to that day? Is your choreography unique? Originality compared with strong technique and showmanship are what always impress me!" - Melanie Buckley

"I think the most memorable dances are the ones that take a piece of me, the ones that move me to a different place and tell me a story that I can see unfold onstage. Each piece of choreography is a reflection of the teacher that taught the dance so it's also a peek into their innermost thoughts." - Dena Rizzo

"The most memorable routines, for me, are the performances that evoke an emotional response within me as an audience member. I love to be moved by a story. Dance is art and dancers are artists. Whether it's a story of love, loss, courage or fear, performers have the amazing ability to communicate every emotion." - Kristin Marie Johnson

"I will always remember the routines that are not like everything else. Creativity. Routines that push the envelope so to speak." - Debbie DiBiase-Wood

"A memorable routine is one that leaves me wanting to see it again and again and again. It could be outstanding lifts, unforgettable turns, out of this world flexibility, the energy and excitement of movement, or the surprise of 'how did they do that?'. There are performances I still remember from 15-20 years ago that are etched imprints into my psychic." - Kelly King

"A unique element is always good, but I really love pieces that take me on a ride. They bring me to another world. That could be an emotional journey, a spectacular display, or a more abstract picturesque piece." - Michelle Hammar

"I love to see how the dancer connects with the audience and judges. Make eye contact, be super confident, and OWN that stage! This is their moment to shine, and if the dancer is truly confident, their passion will shine through the emotion and choreography." - Kara Lozanovski

on CHOREOGRAPHY…

"I advise teachers to 'think outside the box' when it comes to finding a concept. Try to create powerful images and strong emotions. Think about unique formations and props, and try to be precise with lines, shapes and sounds." - Eileen Grace

"Rely on your dancers' technique but focus on cleaning up your choreography! I am always a happy judge when I see a clean double turn, rather than a not so clean triple turn in choreography." - Julie Pentz

"I absolutely love to see style that suits the performer or performers. I would much rather see a dancer's sense of style versus the same turns, jumps, and tumbling that the we have seen time and time again. I am, of course, in awe of the amazing tricks that dancers are capable of, however, it is thrilling to see a fresh style and emotionally connected performance." - Kristin Marie Johnson

"Advice to teachers when it comes to choreography, always remember students strengths and weaknesses. Clean combinations, smooth transitions, creative movements, staging, exits and entrances, all create a formula that should be pleasing to the eye and make a statement." - Kelly King

"Find music that has an arc and then choreograph to the nuances of that music. Less is more! Meaning, do something longer to let the audience fully drink it in. More subtle moves help draw the audience into your little world on the stage. Also, don't be afraid to HOLD a pose. It will keep your viewers guessing ;)" - Michelle Hammar

"Start with a strong point of view. What do you want the piece to 'say'? What you do you want the audience to take away from the piece?" - Jennifer Hemphill

#1 THING JUDGES LOOK FOR…

"It's a tie between originality and technique!" - Melanie Buckley

"Of course, I always look for strong technique. Also important is the commitment to the routine as well as the clean timing and precision." - Debbie DiBiase-Wood

"To say what the number one thing to look for is difficult. Of course, technique and training would be the most obvious answer. However, I love passion and story telling. A routine that captures emotion. Nothing compares to being swept away by a dancer who lives in the moment of his or her performance. I've seen many dancers with exquisite technique, but no heart. Amazing technique plus amazing feeling equals Crystal." - Kelly King

"It is hard to name just one thing I look for! Feeling the excitement, enthusiasm and energy from the dancers is very important. Are they fully invested? If I have to sum that up in one word, it would be energy." - Michelle Hammar

"The number one thing I look for while judging is EMOTION. I love to see how the dancer connects to the choreography emotionally by breathing through the movement and living in the moment, like poetry in motion! Finish every movement to the fullest capacity and let your technique shine through. This is YOUR moment. I also love to see their personalities explode through the story line of the choreography. :) This truly connects the dancer to the choreography in an artistic way, too. Push your limits and be the beautiful dancer that you are!!!" - Kara Lozanovski

"Connection. That the dancer is consistently connecting her or his technique with her or his artistic sense." - Caitlin Abraham

GET READY TO TAKE THE STAGE | Showstopper's 2019 Regionals Competition Season www.youtube.com

Join the Showstopper stages this 2019 season. At competitions, you will receive full reports and live video with voice feedback from the judges on each of your performances. For 2019 tour dates and to register head to www.goshowstopper.com.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending
Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.


Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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