The toxicity in the competitive dance world
By Felicia Roehm
I began dancing competitively at 13, and was one of the most terrifying and fun experiences I have ever had. I competed in jazz and contemporary, and each competition was different, but they all had flashy lights and three judges sitting next to the announcer right in front of the stage. Everyone is given a number, and often, more than 500 are assigned. The competitions were hosted at high schools and auditoriums where every dancer had a similar look. We wore lots of make-up with dark eyeshadow, a red lip and a look of fear that didn’t go away until the competition was over.
I danced for 30 hours a week, and although I love to dance, I learned quickly that there is a different level of pressure when it comes to competing. I was pushed further than ever, and while it made me a better dancer, I don’t think my teacher realized the constant negativity didn’t help me or anyone else on the team improve. She would get frustrated and yell or slam the wall to try and get us to focus at almost every rehearsal. This only made me annoyed.
During my third year of competing after the second competition of the season, I realized I did better than I previously had. I was proud of myself and thought I did well; however, when my team and I stepped into class the next day, our teacher was displeased with our performance. She began to compare us to each other, and I was confused at first.
The teammate she compared us to fell on stage but still had a higher score than most of us. I remember her saying, “You guys are all upset because you didn’t get the scores you wanted, but look, she fell on stage and still got a better score than the rest of you!” Once I got home I cried and thought I wasn’t good enough. My dance teacher never changed over the years and continued to be tough. However, there is a difference between being tough and pushing students to do their best, and being so tough that students feel they could never reach their full potential.
The dance competitions were always scary, and they were just as terrifying my senior year and my fifth year of competing. I did enjoy a lot of aspects of being a competitive dancer. I adored dancing with my friends, being able to perform, the pretty costumes and the support I received from friends and family. Most of the judges were nice, and I got great feedback. They recorded critiques for each performance while the dancer was on stage. It was usually helpful constructive criticism.
However, a teammate received some criticism not just for her dance, but also her body. Hearing a judge say something about one of the dancer’s bodies was so infuriating. My teammate was upset about this, but my dance teacher called the company and complained. Apparently, this was not the first time that the judge had something about a dancer’s body, and he ended up not being there the following year.
There were toxic parts to dance competitions, but I did value the experience and I wouldn’t change those five years at all. I think I learned a lot about myself, and my technique did improve. I made lasting friendships, and I still love to dance. I am now dancing in college as a dance minor and am a choreographer in the Rider Dance Ensemble.
I know now that I am enough for myself even if my teacher thought differently. Some dance teachers need to learn how to critique their students without making them feel bad about themselves. Judges and teachers should never comment on anyone’s body — ever — and never compare dancers to their teammates, especially when we are all working together. Dance competitions can only improve if their perception of perfection changes.
No one is perfect, and dance is a form of expression. We are all human, and dancers portray their feelings through movement. Changing the perception of dance competitions to see not just technique but also passion in the dancer can create a positive change in the dance industry.