Glitter, hairspray, and...all-out dressing room brawls? The world of reality television has definitely skewed the image of competitive dance in probably some of the worst ways possible. Reality television favourites like The Next Step and Dance Moms have painted the competitive dancer as everything from a spoiled, self-righteous brat to a trophy-hungry, selfish competitor who would throw their friends under the bus at the chance for an overall title. You could argue that regardless of the grim spotlight, these shows have helped put competitive dance “on the map,” so to speak. But dance educators and choreographers regularly involved in the competitive dance world agree it has done more bad than good for our industry.
So what’s the truth about competitive dance? The truth is, it’s a different experience for everyone who enters it. Like anything, a dancer will get out of competitive dance what they put into it. However, it’s not a parade of cut-throat parents thirsty for the triumph of their own child at the expense of other children’s’ losses.
Actually, my own fondest memories of competition involve the countless hours I spent with my teammates - at dinners, exhausted from long days fueled by adrenaline and Starbucks (decaf, of course) - on stage anxiously awaiting to hear how we placed in our category - in a hotel room groggy from a 6am wake-up call attempting to put fake eyelashes on while mentally preparing for our first routine of the day. Competitive dance is the embodiment of teamwork.
Here’s how it truly goes. September starts off like the school year, revisiting and practicing old tricks and techniques learned in the previous years of training. But with the cool fall breeze, the fever of new music choices and the anticipation of fresh choreography begin.
Dancers learn and perfect routines, spending hours with their teachers going over detail after detail of new choreography; changing, editing, scrapping and re-choreographing, for weeks, sometimes months. Dancers learn the importance of practice. But more, dancers learn that if one dancer is struggling, this is a team-focused issue that can only be resolved with teamwork. You can’t move forward if one of you is off beat, because this art will collapse without all pieces of the puzzle perfectly in sync.
After practicing and practicing some more, the anticipation of new choreography transitions into the anticipation of performing on stage. Reality television has falsely advertised the attachment dancers have to competition with the feelings that come along with winning. No, dancers don’t fall in love with hoisting a giant trophy over their heads.
Some dancers might not even experience this at all through their entire competitive career. Competitive dancers fall in love with learning how to push their boundaries and completely freefall when they are on that stage. Knowing that they have one chance to go out and be whoever they choose to be on that stage in front of the judges. They learn not to perform for the participation ribbon, but for the bliss of knowing that the fears and worries they may have felt backstage can completely disintegrate when the first streak of stage lighting hits their pointed foot as they strut, run, walk onto the stage. Their dance teacher peering eagerly from the wings, they have the ability to completely slip away and indulge themselves all at the same time.
Competitive dance is about so much more than the glitz and glam the Abby Lee Millers of the industry have made the population believe it to be. It teaches how to be a responsible teammate. It teaches humility. It teaches gratitude and acceptance. It teaches how to win and how to lose graciously. And most important, it teaches that being part of a competitive dance team brings you into a family you will have for life.