The Tipping Point

On any given day competition judges may see dozens—even hundreds—of dance teams. So what does it take to make a lasting impression in the face of fierce competition? According to longtime judge Christopher Smith, bringing your “A”-game across the board might be the only way to succeed in an increasingly competitive circuit.

“Judges nowadays are looking for the total package,” says Smith, who has judged for Hoctor’s Dance Caravan, Dance Masters of America and Triple Threat, among others. “We’ve seen a lot of teams that can do all the tricks but lack entertainment value, and we’ve seen the opposite with all personality and no technical skills. So winning teams will have to combine stage presence, technique and difficulty level.”

To further pinpoint the factors that can make or break your success at competitions, DT spoke with veteran judges to get their hard-earned insights.

Go against the grain.
Following current trends—and doing it well—is a solid strategy, but blazing new trails is a surefire way to stand out. Try exploring genres that don’t get much stage play. For Smith, the current deluge of contemporary routines has him craving something out of the ordinary. “After seeing a big push toward this style for the past two years, I’d like to see things become a bit more diverse—funky jazz, lyrical, musical theater, rockin’ jazz,” he says. “I enjoy contemporary, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.”

Robin Dawn Ryan, owner of her namesake studio in Cape Coral, Florida, says that daring choices can also be an attention-getter, no matter the genre. “You want to be the studio that everyone is talking about as they walk out of the competition, so you might want to make your routines edgier,” says Ryan. “But you have to be careful of age and appropriateness. You don’t want people talking about your studio in a way that’s distasteful.” Ryan recommends finding original music for your routines rather than Top 40 hits or songs heard on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Minimize distractions.
Every point counts, so often-overlooked factors like appearance can really affect competition outcomes. As a judge for Showbiz, Starpower and Hall of Fame, Ryan always keeps a watchful eye out for uniformity. “When there are so many good groups, you start picking at stuff, and appearance is where it begins,” she says. “Onstage everyone should have the exact same hair, makeup and jewelry. Otherwise, it pulls the judges’ focus.” Some of Ryan’s specific pet peeves are: belly rings, various shades of lipstick, tights worn inconsistently among team members and colored nail polish.

At one recent competition Ryan judged, a team’s look was the deciding factor between two top contenders. “One group took such command when they walked onstage. Nothing was out of place; the grooming was impeccable,” she recalls. “The other group was stronger technically, but they didn’t have the presentation.”

Don’t force your overall impact.
In presenting your team as the total package, it’s necessary to cultivate a balanced blend of choreography, execution and charisma. Smith, the national director of Hollywood Vibe, says that he considers the competition’s “Overall Impression” category to be the most important on the score sheet. “It encompasses the feeling of the choreography, the dancers’ technique and their ability to connect with the audience.”

While the level of difficulty is a weighty factor, many judges frown upon choreography heavy on tricks and light on substance. “I dislike routines that are all about the ‘Ta-da!’” says Smith. “It’s about telling a story with meaning, not ‘I can put my leg way up here.’”

Think outside the box.
Creativity and innovation can also tip the scales in your team’s favor. Robert Lee, who has judged for 5678 Showtime, Tremaine and Hollywood Vibe, among others, loves to see teams “explore artistic and creative movement while keeping strong technique as a base.” In one standout hip-hop routine, one dancer acted as the conductor to groups of dancers who moved in correlation to various instrumental sections. “It was brilliant; the kids did such a great job and had the intention and the passion,” says Lee, who recently opened Elevation Studios in Signal Hill, California. “Creativity is a huge factor in what I love to see, but it also needs to have technique behind it.”

While there isn’t an exact science to taking home the trophy, knowing how judges think can make a big difference. Yet even when all judging criteria are taken into consideration, teams will still win some and lose some—it’s the experience that ultimately counts. “The bar has been raised so high, and the turns and technique have improved so much,” says Ryan. “But it’s really about discipline, having a kick-butt attitude and the confidence where everyone comes together as a team.”  DT

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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