Young dancers build their performance resume mostly by competing in dance competitions. These competitions can range from a low-budget eisteddfod run out of an old hall with five or less competitors per section, to massive international pre-professional and professional scouting recruitments that require multiple rounds of applications and auditions before you can even compete.
The question of ‘should ballet be competitive?’ due to its artistic nature, is an often debated subject. However, not to acknowledge the fact that dancers must be competitive to ‘make it’ in the ballet world is arbitrary. For this reason, it makes sense to allow young dancers a taste of competitiveness and rivalry to better prepare them for what lies ahead in their careers.
But how much is too much when it comes to the idea of motivation by trophies and prizes? To glorify dance by offering extravagant prize money, overseas trips and even sought after scholarships, allows students to believe that they will always be rewarded for their dancing with large prizes, when in fact the pay-off for doing a good job as a professional is far more internal.
Dance is a career that needs to be pursued out of passion, not from desire for fame and money. In this regard, dance competitions should perhaps be providing less in the way of prizes, and more in the guidance and development of skillful and humble dancers.
Larger dance competitions have provided an opportunity for multiple directors and teachers to audition dancers together in the one place, rather than asking dancers to fly to numerous cities to audition for each school or company separately. This is also a fantastic networking opportunity for perspective dancers and dance leaders.
This environment teaches dancers to act professionally and be respectful of one another while competitively vying for sought after positions. However, the requirements of these competitions often place an extremely high level of expectation and difficulty, which can force young students to work above their level and risk their safety and development.
Performing difficult variations for competitions has both advantages and disadvantages for the progression of young dancers. On the one hand, dancers are building valuable knowledge of dance history, characterisation and difficult technical movement – all of which are vital in advancing to a professional career.
But on the other, asking dancers aged between 11-18 to perform choreography that was designed for principal dancers – the most elite dancer in a professional company – places tremendous pressure on them from a physical perspective as their bones and muscles are still very much in the development stage.
But also in a mental capacity, as their cognitive function would not yet be at a level where they are able to dissect the difficulty of the movement and interpret the character they are playing compared to a more experienced dancer. Such expectations are unrealistic for most young dancers.
To provide dance students with the best opportunity to succeed, competitions would be far better to foster a culture that encourages a dancer’s development as an artist.
Offering a first place to the dancer who best tells a story, connects with the audience, displays a high level of dynamic quality and musical interpretation, as well as demonstrating clean and strong technical ability on par with their age, rather than rewarding the dancer who performs the most difficult ‘tricks’, is a step that dance competitions and dance educators need to take.
Dance schools face a difficult decision when allowing their students to participate in large ballet competitions. The priority of providing solid technical foundation training can often be overlooked by the need to rehearse competition repertoire.
While breaking down and perfecting repertoire can develop some skills for dancers, replacing their regular ballet classes with this rehearsal can be detrimental to their progression. However, if dance schools refuse to allow their students to perform in competitions, this threatens the success of the school. Being versatile enough to provide the best of both worlds will prove the most beneficial for ongoing success of studios.
Competitions provide a wonderful platform for dancers to gain performance experience, learn skills in networking and professionalism, build their knowledge of classical repertoire and develop resilience.
The dance industry needs now to take responsibility for the competition culture that has developed into a warfare of one-upping each other’s physical ability and placed emphasis on winning prizes. It is the duty of dance leaders to provide young dancers with the best opportunities to develop and progress into what we truly are as dancers – artists.