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The judges weigh in: what they look for, what they reward.

When Gerri Michelle Caruncho first took students from her dance studio to a competition, she was overwhelmed. "It was a whirlwind," she remembers. "I was dumbfounded about costumes, makeup...." But within a few years she and her students had made it to the nationals in New York City--another daunting experience at first. "There I saw schools that just dazzled. I saw how dances were supposed to be."

In each case, Caruncho felt like an amateur at a professionals' party. But luckily she chose to be inspired rather than discouraged by the experience. "I soaked up everything," she says. And the approach worked. She now has years of successful competitions to look back on. She serves as a judge for Headliners, the International Dance Organization, and others.

Judges agree that it takes that kind of desire to improve and a thirst for knowledge to get ahead in the competition world. Everyone wants to win, but if you enter for that reason alone, you're not likely to go as far. "Competitions are a place to broaden your experience and refine the tools it takes to become a performer," says Caruncho. "If your only goal is to get an award, your performances will get stale."

Your choreography may suffer, too. Judges say some teachers, in an effort to score high, string together tricks without any consideration for composition, musicality, or worst of all, technical ability. "We often see fouette turns that come out of nowhere," says Scott Jovovich, who judges for New York City Dance Alliance. "In a serious or sad dance, they're out of place."

And often, the dancers attempting such difficult steps aren't advanced enough to do them. A simple piece with meaningful choreography that your dancers can perform well is better than a flashy number that's beyond their abilities. "Make pieces that your students can accomplish," advises Jean Wenzel who judges for Headliners, American Dance Awards, the International Dance Organization, and others. "Otherwise, they'll never learn to be good dancers."

Mugging is another hazard of prize-oriented performing. Too much out-of-place smiling and flirting can detract from the performance--and your score. "You can't sell the piece in an insincere way," says Jovovich. "Facial expressions have to be natural and emerge from the movement. You can't just paste them on."

Another thing judges view negatively is movement, music, or costumes that don't take a dancer's youth into account. "If it's a solo, I won't take points off for something that's age inappropriate since it's not the dancer's fault. But I will always mention that, for my taste, the material is too mature," says Rhonda Miller, a judge for NYCDA and artistic director of another competition called Encore Performing Arts Showcase.

Not all judges are that generous. "When it comes to age appropriateness, I am really opinionated," says Shely Pack-Manning, who has judged for Dance Masters of America and other competitions. "At DMA we have a standard. It's part of the rules: if the costumes are not age-appropriate or there is offensive language in the music, we reflect it in the scores. If we don't, the teachers don't take it seriously."

"Most competitors are teens at best," says Jovovich, who also subtracts points for inappropriateness. "They have no business dancing to songs about sex and using steps that say 'look at my groin.'"

Wenzel agrees. "The music has to reflect the realm of the dancer's experience," she says. "A seven-year-old dancing about love doesn't work. Judges get tired of hearing the popular song of the day anyway," she adds. "You're better off choosing something else."

So kvetching aside, what do judges like to see? Well, ballet--or at least strong technique rooted in ballet training. "Learn to love ballet," advises Miller. "Even hip hop dancers must have that ballet control."

If you're a teacher whose expertise is not ballet, hire someone to teach it, advises Wenzel. It's that essential. "I've taught at studios that pull kids out of technique classes to rehearse their competition routines," adds Caruncho. "Polishing your piece is important but you should never sacrifice training for it."

In addition to technique, judges look for good execution (pointed feet, clear taps, finished lines) and stage presence. But most say these elements come with good training. "Technique and performance qualities go hand-in-hand," says Jovovich. "A commanding presence is only possible if you are confident about what you're doing. Technique gives you that self-assurance."

Caruncho looks for technique and presence but also stresses the importance of details like neatly pulled-back hair, shoes and tights that all match exactly in ensemble pieces, and professional quality performance tapes that don't crackle or end abruptly. "I look for the total package," she says, "and details like those complete the picture." Sometimes in her critique she'll include the name of an accessible and affordable sound editing computer program or instructions on how to make a proper bun.

Though prizes aren't everything, most judges say it's important to distinguish dancers who do really well. "Everyone should get adjudicated and critiqued," says Miller. "That's what you came for and that's how you improve." At Encore, each dancer receives a pin just for participating. But there are also top prizes. "Inclusiveness is important but so are goals. Recognizing dancers with top awards gives everyone something to go for," says Miller.

Caruncho notes that some competitions score in ways that muddy the waters. "Some give awards above gold," she says. "But that means dancers who score 85 go home with a gold medal. That's just unfair. Kids get a score that's not deserved. Then, when they go to another competition and don't get gold, they are disappointed."

Competition judges see a lot of pieces--as many as 1,000 at some big finals. But they are very committed to giving each dance equal and focused attention and providing feedback that is, above all, educational. "You have to work to keep your eyes fresh so you can fairly and helpfully evaluate each one," says Jovovich.

Though judging can be grueling at times, Caruncho says she always enjoys it. "It let's me see what's out there, what new things people are trying." Even as a judge, she's still using competitions to learn and grow.

Janet Weeks is a freelance writer and a former editor at Dance Magazine.
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Author:Weeks, Janet
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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