Colleen Leonard is a freelance writer based in Rye Brook, NY.
Every year, competition teams face a difficult task: creating and performing numbers that have that extra something to wow the judges and propel them to a trophy win. Some craft extravagant, custom-made costumes or employ intricate props and sets; others aim to showcase ever-higher standards of technical mastery or hire the hottest commercial choreographers.
Still other teams take a different approach altogether: tackling a serious theme. Take St. Paul, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio, which opted to perform a “Via Dolorosa” number that depicted the crucifixion of Christ at 2006 Nationals. Or the numerous studios that have created 9/11 tributes over the last few years. Dancing about war, history, religion, illness or death has certainly helped these teams stand out from the crowd—but is it always in a good way? Where is the line between sending a thought-provoking message and an offensive one?
Done right, some numbers can be poignant and stirring. Yet taking a risk with unconventional subject matter sometimes backfires. Before stepping into dicey territory, check out these guidelines and suggestions from veteran judges, coaches and choreographers.
Plan Ahead and Communicate
According to Sara Jo Fazio, a choreographer and frequent judge for Dance Olympus & Dance America, Dance Masters of America, Inc., International Dance Challenge and Masquerade Dance, communicating with your choreographers, whether they are in-house or guest artists, before they set a work on your students is key. It’s your job as the studio owner, competition team director or teacher to speak up when a routine veers from your school’s style. “The more a choreographer knows about your program, style and dancers, the better,” says Fazio. “If something is too risqué or far-fetched, nip it in the bud immediately. You are paying for a usable product, and teachers have the right and ability to say, ‘We don’t do [routines] or moves like that.’”
Be sure to keep parents in the loop as well. Explain what you’d like to achieve in a particular number, and if multiple parents complain about a specific move or section, consider reworking it or toning it down. However, relay that at the end of the day, decisions about routines are left up to teachers and choreographers, not the parents. “Even though I always acknowledge the parents’ concerns, they know that it’s the coach’s responsibility to do the choreography,” says Kristy Neuman, owner of Fire All Star Cheerleading and Dance in Johnsburg, Illinois. “Then, it’s the parents’ job to support their children and the coaches.” Of course, if students or parents balk on account of religious or political beliefs, respect those beliefs and give students the freedom to opt out of the number.
Tread Lightly and Stay Positive
If you do decide to go for an unusual, possibly controversial theme, make sure that the resulting work communicates itself clearly. “Some choreographers [and teachers] are unable to coordinate the components of the routine to tell a story,” says Debbie Kohler of Columbus, Ohio, a judge for Kids Artistic Revue and Star Systems National Talent Competition. “When all of these components are missing, the judges and the audience walk away confused.”
Even more importantly, don’t be ham-handed in delivering your message. Starbound judge Dani Rubin recalls judging numerous routines based on 9/11 soon after the event and says that, while some teams did the tragedy justice, others went tastelessly overboard on effects. “A few teams used real voiceovers from national news coverage as the towers were falling,” she says. “I felt it was wildly inappropriate and not respectful whatsoever. When you perform a routine like that, you have no idea what history lies within the audience and who was affected. I also think some of it was just too much for the kids to comprehend.”
Another time, Rubin was put off by a team that used fake blood on their faces to send a message about the war in Iraq. “There’s a fine line between paying tribute and putting the judges and spectators through emotional distress,” she explains.
For Fazio, one number that crossed the line was a solo lyrical piece about child abuse that was performed by a 9-year-old dancer. “She wore a nightgown and used a battered doll as a prop,” she recalls. “I judged on technical skills, of course, but it was extremely hard to watch.” Not only was the dancer too young to convey the emotional complexities of the subject matter, but the overriding negativity of the choreography was troubling as well: “The routine didn’t give hope; it was just sad,” she says, adding that the movements were “heavy, with a lot of falling down and getting back up.”
In contrast, Steve Wedge, owner of COA Cheer & Dance, remembers a dance team that performed a breast cancer tribute several seasons back that touched judges, staffers and spectators alike—precisely because it took a hopeful, positive tone. “It was extremely moving and brought awareness to breast cancer, which was wonderful,” he says. “The routine was based on survival. The fact that the team was talented and the subject was close to their hearts was very inspiring.”
Gauge Emotional Maturity
With controversial topics, it’s crucial to carefully consider your students’ ages and emotional maturity levels before moving forward with a number. Kohler contends that while young dancers addressing a topic like rape can make a judge uncomfortable, allowing them to explore adult subject matter needn’t be off-limits—as long as they are old enough and you discuss how to express the appropriate emotions. “I really think our lyrical category has evolved to [include] very graphic subject matter,” she says. “But teachers [need to] explain these graphic situations to help the children convey the right feel for the music, with appropriate emotions and facial expressions.”
Gregg Russell, a longtime judge for such companies as Dance Olympus, L.A. DanceForce and Co. Dance, says that numbers like “Me and a Gun,” by Tori Amos (a song about rape), have made him sweat in the past. “If you feel uncomfortable saying the [routine’s name or theme] out loud to [the dancers], then consider it not appropriate,” he advises. “As a judge and audience member, I feel awkward seeing a young dancer . . . [performing] a dance about abortion or suicide.”
Find a Balance
If pushing the envelope is really what you’re after, by all means, proceed. Just be forewarned that carefully considering audience reaction to your choreography and theme—and making sure the emphasis is on your students’ technique and artistry—can go a long way. “I would never dock a dancer or team for an inappropriate routine, because the routine is the teacher’s choice, not theirs,” says Fazio. “But I do believe if you’re creative enough to come up with a unique idea, you don’t have to force-feed me your message. Just perform the number and I’ll feel what I feel.”