Best-selling author Greg Anderson once famously said, “Focus on the journey, not the destination.” In an ideal world, dancers would always apply this mantra in the competition setting, putting less focus on the outcome and more on the experience.
Yet in such a high-stress environment, dancers often base their self-worth on whether they nab a coveted trophy or ribbon. How can dance teachers better prepare their students for possible disappointment? DT posed the question to several seasoned educators, who weighed in with their experiences and insights.
Choose competitions that are in line with your studio’s philosophy.
From the regional to national level, each competition and convention has its own distinct personality. Doing research ahead of time can help you find the event that best suits the abilities and goals of your team—and provides an environment that both challenges and nurtures them.
For Laura Decheine, co-owner of Helmer Dance Studio in Beldenville and Hudson, Wisconsin, the ideal competition falls in the middle of the spectrum. “We want to attend competitions in which we’re not winning everything, but we’re not getting slaughtered either,” she says. “If I have a trio that is brand new, I don’t want them getting the same score as my awesome senior trio. It’s important for us to go somewhere that is competitive, but not too competitive.”
Don’t apply pressure to live up to your own legacy.
While winning streaks can be an amazing feather in your studio’s cap, they can also add the weight of too-high expectations. Whether your team is defending a national title or coming off a first-place finish, it’s important to remind dancers that every competition is a clean slate.
With 13 Universal Dance Association national titles, the students on the dance team at Lafayette, Louisiana–based St. Thomas More Catholic High School know this situation all too well. How do they rise above the pressure? Says head coach Stephanie Manuel, “We treat every year differently. Even though we may have done well in the past, a different team dynamic is in place.”
To maximize their potential each year, Manuel works with her dancers to assess their biggest strengths—from leaps to turns to showmanship—and showcase them in the choreography. “We just have to do the best we can with what we’ve got—that’s the only thing in our control,” adds Manuel, who also owns the Dance Warehouse studio in Lafayette, LA.
Encourage outside involvement.
If you start to find your dancers placing undue emphasis on winning, consider how your own approach to competition may be influencing their attitudes. At Center Stage Dance Academy in Canfield, Ohio, owner Tina Kaminski encourages students to balance their competition endeavors with extracurricular activities, adding that she doesn’t want the kids living in the dance studio. “I want them to be able to do things like cheerleading and school plays alongside dance,” she says.
Befriend your (gasp!) competitors.
Losing to another team can be a lot easier to swallow if your dancers are truly happy for the winners. Many events have friend exchanges and opportunities to socialize with the other teams—take advantage of them! According to Manuel, St. Thomas More has forged a lasting friendship with fellow perennial powers Eden Prairie High School, making competition less stressful and a lot more fun for the dancers.
Instilling strong sportsmanship values can also decrease feelings of loss and despair. Rather than cultivating a “first place is best” mentality, encourage your dancers to be appreciative and accept their award graciously. At Helmer Dance Studio, Decheine has instituted a rule that her teams must applaud all of the award winners. In the long run, spreading good will is bound to lift your team’s own spirits!
Be honest about your team’s prospects.
When dancers come off the floor at competition, many of them seek reassurance and feedback from their teacher or coach. Though it’s important to be encouraging, fostering unrealistic expectations may lead to disappointment.
According to Manuel, striking the right balance between optimism and objectiveness is the best approach. When her teams from St. Thomas More or the Dance Warehouse finish performing, she chooses her words and actions carefully. “The minute they exit the stage, they already know how they did; they can feel it from each other or from the expression on my face,” she says. “They already sense the vibe, so they might be thinking, ‘We might not go to finals,’ or ‘Our scores might not be so great.’ My girls want the honest truth about how they did and what to improve on; it lights that fire to go out and try harder the next time.”
Look on the bright side.
When the dancers at Helmer Dance Studio feel upset after a loss, Decheine provides a much-needed reality check. She recalls one particular competition in which her girls became extremely down on themselves after placing eighth out of 16 teams: “They took it really hard, and I had to remind them that many others would be appreciative of a high gold. It’s important for them to remember that they get to showcase their work in front of professional dancers, perform in beautiful costumes and be onstage in places like downtown Minneapolis. The awards should just be icing.”
Kaminski frames her students’ participation in competition more as a performance opportunity than a contest. “We really don’t stress that winning is a consideration, though it’s great if we win or do really well,” she says. “We go to have fun and because it’s another outlet besides recital season for the kids to perform onstage.” Adopt this mindset, and the journey through competition season is sure to be a long and memorable one—possibly with a winning destination.