The Judges’ Lament

Choreography trends that competition judges would love to lose 

By the end of competition season, judges have seen it all—amazing routines, one-of-a-kind props and costumes and many stand-out dancers. But there are some things they wish they’d seen less of. Choreographers, take heed as you create routines for your team: The elements you think are key to that platinum may actually do your dancers more harm than good. If you find yourself doing something solely because you saw it on TV or you think it’s what the judges expect, that could actually be your team’s downfall.

“My biggest piece of advice would be to stop following trends, and do some risk taking,” says Tessandra Chavez of The PULSE on Tour. “Teachers often want to find a formula that will get them first overall, but good dance doesn’t have a formula. If choreographers focus on pushing themselves artistically, their dancers will rise to the challenge and judges will take notice.”

Dance Teacher spoke to Chavez and three other competition judges about five particular choreographic trends they wish would disappear.

This number performed by Erika George of Independence Dance Company of North Hollywood, CA, demonstrates
attention-getting moves that fully enhance the choreography.

Trick Tango

You know them as your dancers’ power moves—the go-to showstoppers that you’re sure will grab the judges’ attention. But judges may not be as wowed as you think they are. “Sometimes a piece is so jam-packed with tricks that I can’t enjoy it,” says NUVO faculty member Kim McSwain. “I would much rather see a focus on quality of movement, dynamics and musicality.”

And she’s not the only one. Tessandra Chavez of The PULSE says there’s one common move in particular she’d prefer to see less of:

à la seconde turns. “Bottom line, I just don’t think the classroom needs to be on the stage,” she says. “I don’t mind it so much for younger dancers. But you wouldn’t see turns in second in a professional company, so you also shouldn’t see them at the senior level.” If your students excel at turning, Chavez recommends getting creative by changing up the arms and transitions to avoid a class-like appearance.

Judges agree that there are few things worse than a poorly placed trick, but a trick that’s done unsafely is one of them. “Especially in contemporary, I often see drops to the floor that look painful and unsafe,” Chavez says. “Dancers don’t need to fall to their knees dramatically and create a loud earthquake sound in order to give an emotional effect. They’re eventually going to hurt their bodies, and there are safer ways to go to the floor that show far more strength and control.”

A good general rule is that before adding an attention-getting move, try to think about what it adds to the piece overall. “A well-placed trick can be surprising and impressive,” says Tony Testa, who judges for New York City Dance Alliance and Monsters of Hip Hop. “But be careful not to cross the line between dance and gymnastics. There needs to be a balance.”

Freakazoid by Hart Academy of Dance in La Habra, CA, is a good example of unique music, well-suited to the movement.

Musical Monotony 

So you think your best option is to choreograph to that song from “So You Think You Can Dance”? Think again. “If a major choreographer on that show uses a song, everyone around the country will then use it,” says Ray Leeper of NUVO. He points out that the NUVO faculty traveled to 27 cities last year, so they heard a lot of musical repeats. “I give Stacey Tookey such a hard time over the song ‘Say Something.’ When she used it on ‘SYTYCD,’ no one knew it, and it was great, but by the time we were in our 15th city, we’d heard that song over and over again.”

That’s not to say that if you feel a connection to a popular song you shouldn’t use it, but you have to use it well. A judge is more likely to get past hearing “Say Something” for the 400th time if the choreography and dancing are impeccable. “The biggest problem comes with choreography that looks like you could swap in any song with the movement and it would work just as well,” says Tony Testa. “It should seem as though the music was written specifically for the movement.”

Isabella Pete from Center Stage Dance Studio in Northfield, OH, demonstrates the value of “less is more.”

Tarnished Technique 

Your choreography may be genius, your costumes and props perfection and your concept crystal-clear, but if your dancers aren’t executing the moves with proper technique, nothing else matters.

“I would rather see a studio come in with 10 pieces of choreography that are flawlessly put together and ready for stage than to see them come onstage every five numbers unprepared,” says Kim McSwain. “If competition time rolls around and what was put on those kids originally is not being executed perfectly, then take it out and simplify.”

Ray Leeper shares the “less is more” sentiment. “Sometimes routines are too busy and over-choreographed, and teachers need to learn how to let choreography breathe a little bit,” he says. “They don’t have to choreograph every single syllable and accent in the music. When that happens, I don’t even know where to look.”

When dancers aren’t rushing from move to move, they’re more likely to pay attention to their transitions. “All I have to do is watch a dancer’s feet as she gets up off the floor, and I’ll have a pretty good idea of her technique level,” says Tony Testa. “Are they sickled? Are her toes crunched? Are the tops of her feet flat on the ground? Are they turned out? That’s one of the most common issues I see.”

Cris Judd’s number for The PULSE dancers is set in a café. The props are natural and fully integrated.

Pretentious Props

Judges appreciate that the creative use of a prop challenges both the choreographer and the dancers. But when poorly used, a prop can seriously bring down an otherwise high score.

“My biggest pet peeve with props is not using them,” Tessandra Chavez says. “Sometimes I see thousand-dollar props that take five minutes to set up while the judges wait. Then they’re used in the very beginning, not touched for three minutes, and then dancers go back to the prop at the end to pose. Not only is that wasted money on the studio’s part, but it’s also a wasted moment to push yourself creatively.”

Ray Leeper agrees. “I’ve seen big props used well, but studio owners and teachers need to be choosy,” he says. “Sometimes props and set pieces can hinder the performance, since it distracts judges from really seeing the kids dance.” Background-design props just to “set the scene” are also a no-no for Leeper. “They very rarely add to the piece,” he says.

Erin’s Danceworks in Spring Hill, FL, keeps it age-apropriate with a “Cat in the Hat” theme.

Trite Themes

It’s nice when choreography tells a story, but be mindful of repeating the same or similar plot lines in every piece you present. For example, Kim McSwain is tired of seeing contemporary pieces where young children force emotion. “Just because the music is slow doesn’t mean the mood of the piece has to be so sad,” says McSwain, who adds that age-appropriateness in a story line also seems to be a struggle. “I can’t relate when a 7- to 10-year-old comes onstage and is dancing about the worst day of her life. For younger children, choose a concept they can understand, like a puppy or a friendship.”

Tony Testa agrees. “I would love for teachers to phase out all choreography that involves booty popping by girls younger than 13,” he says. “Not only does it look out of place, but it doesn’t show off their best abilities. There are so many other ways to be creative with hip hop—you could find humor, for example.”

Stumped about finding a theme your dancers can relate to? Consider ditching a story line altogether. Dancing for dancing’s sake is a concept Tessandra Chavez would like to see more of. “In the past 10 years, especially since dance has been televised so much, I’ve noticed that everyone thinks they need a story behind a routine to do well,” she says. “I love a good story, but if you don’t have one that’s close to your heart, clear and convincing, it’s OK to just feel a piece of music.” DT

Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

Photos (from top) by DGS Photos, courtesy of Adrenaline; DancePix, courtesy of Spotlight Events; by PRO PIX, courtesy of Hollywood Vibe; courtesy of The PULSE; by Dancesnaps (DRC Video Productions), courtesy of Dance Olympus/Dance America

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