Tips and tools for competition dancers from the experts at The ADCC!

Jesse Katen
Dance Competition Judge
2016 Industry Excellence Award Winner
Sophisticated Productions Dance Competitions

Q. What do you look for when you judge a competition?

I—and the other judges I know—are looking for the whole package. We want to see disciplined technique, we want to see choreography that challenges the dancers, and we also want to see the dancers’ presence, personality, and emotions make a powerful impact on the audience.

Q. What do you most love seeing onstage?

Without a doubt, I most love seeing a dancer who makes it clear how much they love what they’re doing–how much they love not only to perform onstage in front of an audience, but how much they must love the intense work it takes rehearsing in the studio or practicing at home. If a dancer loves the art of dance deeply and is able to commit hours and hours to the work it takes to perfect a routine, that love and that effort are going to be apparent onstage. I love to see dancers really come alive and let their personality shine through to the audience through their work.

Jesse presents an award to a young dancer at Sophisticated Productions Nationals in Sturbridge, MA in 2016.

Q. What in particular makes some dance routines stand out?

Having judged thousands and thousands of pieces at this point, the routines that have made a lasting impact on me are the ones that were clearly important and special to those dancers onstage and to the choreographers who created them. I can tell if a piece has particular meaning and purpose and goes deeper than just interpreting the music–that’s an artistic achievement I’ll never forget. That being said, technical flaws or or sloppiness can ruin even the most beautiful of messages, so attention to detail is critically important as well.

Q. Anything that turns you off when you see it onstage?

I think the worse thing that a dancer can do is to enter the stage and give the judges and the audience the impression that they don’t care. We want to see dancers at any level give us their best possible performance. We, as judges, do what we do for hours and hours on end because we care so much about dance and about helping young dancers improve and grow. If we get the impression that a dancer would rather be somewhere else or looks like they’re being forced to perform without their heart and head in it, we’re going to wonder how much our efforts and attention are going to be valued. There’s one thing you can’t teach a young dancer and that’s the desire to be the best that they can be.

Q. What does it take to win a first place award in competition?

First of all, I think that the best dancers dance for themselves, not simply to win first, although I know that’s still what everyone wants! The pieces that win first are the ones that have made an overall impression of excellence: they are clean, difficult, well-rehearsed, and demonstrate a long-term commitment to strong technique. You can’t develop strong technique by rehearsing in the hallway before a competition; it takes long term work. Those dancers and routines that come in first are always the ones who have made a long-term commitment to excellence and who push themselves. And of course, they also let their personalities shine onstage. Judges and audiences alike want to enjoy the performance.

Q. Any special tips you would give to first-time contestants?

First and foremost, don’t go into the world of competitive dance if winning is all you’re concerned about, especially at your first competition. Talk to your teacher about what realistic expectations you should have. If you place or win, that’s great. But if you go into the competition just grateful for the chance to perform on a stage, to receive fresh feedback from professional dance judges, to push the limits of your comfort zone, and to learn from watching other dancers, you will for sure walk away with a valuable prize, no matter how you score. That being said, try to relax and enjoy yourself. After all, we all do what we do because we love dance!