How many is too many?
We appreciate we’re not the first to raise this topic – and nor will we be the last - but it’s an important issue and so it’s good to keep the conversation going via many voices.
Having witnessed many times over, the immense talent of young Australian dancers and of the hugely supportive dance community that generations of committed dancers and supporters have built in the area is inspiring and uplifting.
And yet, serious questions also emerge. With some young competitors often performing in up to 30+ sections over the 6 days of any given eisteddfod - you can’t help but wonder … how many competitions might be too many?
Considering the cost of entering each solo section, the money spent on choreography, costumes, travel, possibly accommodation, private lessons etc. would more of that investment in time, money and energy be better spent on developing a stronger foundation in the craft, which is more likely to provide young dancers with the solid grounding necessary for their long-term dance engagement, or simply reduce injuries, both current and into the future?
Considering that many dance related physiotherapists are reporting seeing injuries in young dancers that were once only ever seen in professionals, is there a point at which doing so much competitive work, so young is counter-productive and might lead to stunted growth, chronic injuries and/or early burn out?
The argument is sometimes made that it’s important to have as much performance experience as possible as preparation for talented young dancers to transition into the professional sphere. Yet this argument struggles under scrutiny. Except in the rarest of cases, no dancer is likely to move into the professional realm and be thrown straight into Soloist or Principal roles. Whether it’s a professional contemporary or classical company, the commercial or Musical Theatre worlds, a dancer is most likely to spend considerable time paying their dues in the corps de ballet or ensemble, there proving themselves and earning their place before being offered the chance to shine.
With so much passion and commitment on either side of these arguments, to better understand the issue, we’ve reached out to three authorities on dancer training for their thoughts and suggestions. Below are their thoughts.
MAINA GIELGUD – former Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet and is currently in demand internationally to stage ballets and as a guest teacher and coach. She is also the Artistic Advisor at the Hungarian National Ballet and Anton Dolin Foundation.
KAREN MALEK – currently the Director of Education at Transit Dance in Melbourne and the most recent past President of ATOD (2007 – 2017), of which she is an examiner and life time member.
ADAM BLANCH – former Soloist with The Queensland Ballet, and dancer with Sydney Dance Company and Australian Dance Theatre. Adam is currently in demand as a teacher, coach and choreographer, is on the faculty of Tanya Pearson’s Classical Coaching Academy and is the Director of Progressing Ballet Technique Contemporary.
I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.
What, if anything, are the benefits of dance competitions?
I think developing a student's presentation skills and confidence is a real benefit of competitions. I saw it in my own students on many occasions and this was the catalyst for me participating in competitions after initially vowing as a young, new teacher that I wouldn't be going down that pathway.
The other benefit is honing teamwork - developing peripheral vision and utilising it, caring and thinking about others, developing a great work ethic ......
Another benefit is the personal development for the individual on their journey to being a better dancer. Appreciation of the arts and others' talent/s can be a real benefit and more importantly, acknowledging that talent.
1. Learning, rehearsing and performing ballets in different styles (hopefully well coached), including classical and more contemporary.
2. Having performance opportunities – invaluable.
3. Having the opportunity of seeing students from different schools in class, rehearsal and performances.
4. Depending on the type of competition; being coached by experts in the field.
5. Seeing in others the diversity of ability at different ages, both technically and artistically.
6. Having the opportunity to talk to students from other schools/countries and compare notes.
7. Having the opportunity of being seen from an early age by company directors/staff, school directors/staff.
8. Having a performance goal to work towards.
9. Being exposed to unfairness, in others and to oneself possibly. A good lesson for the future.
10. The opportunity to work in less than ideal circumstances in the run up to actual competition; rehearsals minimal and at all hours, in the heat or cold, stage perhaps not sprung, smaller or larger then used to etc. It’s wonderful for learning to cope, as has so often to be done in a professional company.
11. Good schools can be recognised internationally or nationally, as can less good ones!
For me, the obvious answer here is that performance experience is the opportunity to set and work towards a goal, and the goal being to improve as an artist and technician.
I always try to stress to my students that you cannot control the outcome of competitions and that personal development is what is vital. How far and what have you achieved during the preparation?
On a personal note, many of my closest friends have been people I’ve met at dance competitions. When I look back on my time competing, I honestly couldn’t tell you what I won or lost, but I can tell you the exact moment I met my best friends. Under the stage at the Science Theatre at Sydney Eisteddfod about 25 years ago.
I never lose… either I win or I learn.
What, if anything, might be the potential negatives of dance competitions?
1. If the student is only focused on winning. As above, there are hundreds of benefits, of which winning is perhaps the most unlikely and not necessarily leading further. It’s nice however if it happens, but it needs to be unexpected and a nice surprise.
2. Some dancers/students are not naturally competitive, in personality and repertoire choices that suit them.
3. The right understanding of the benefits of competition - as above - if a student is intelligent it should avoid it being a negative experience.
There is nothing in the coaching for a competition, if well done, that is not beneficial to the dancers technique, development, musicality and artistry.
I’ve seen in the past that many young dancers who thrive on competitions put a lot of self-worth in winning prizes. Then once they move on to institutions that do not support competition, they seem to have less connection to dancing itself. What’s the point of dancing if there are no prizes?
I think too many competitions gives young dancers the idea that dance is a sport and not an art form where opinions are subjective.
I do believe that burn-out for some can be an issue. I have seen some students never smile on stage (it came to pass that they were frightened of the parent who was pushing them - this is a real story). I think if the competition becomes the be all and end all of one's existence, either from the student themselves, the teacher/s or parent/s then this is a little sad.
Do competitions for the 'right' reasons; to help you improve, to hopefully receive feedback that is beneficial and can assist in your improvement. A place is a bonus, but subject to one person's opinion on a given day and in a given circumstance. The very next day may yield a different result even with the same students and the same adjudicator because every performance is different.
I think pushing a child to practise, practise, practise to the detriment of having a childhood and experiencing all that life has to offer is a huge negative. For children to develop artistry and to have emotion and life experiences to tap into they should have time to play outside, to create, to go to the zoo, the beach, the park, to family events etc. We want well rounded artists, not children devoid of feeling and creativity.
Whilst being well meaning, parents sometimes live their lives vicariously through their children. Allow the child to find their pathway and their journey all by themselves with their teachers' guidance and with your support and encouragement.
The harder you work for something, the greater you’ll feel when you achieve it.
How many, if any, are too many?
As with most things, I guess it depends on the dancer. It’s important to remember that not every individual strives for a career in dance and if the dancer is getting exercise, travelling the world, making friends and enjoying themselves then I ultimately support what they do.
If someone is truly serious about a dance career however and they find themselves unable to attend classes to focus on technique because they’re too consumed with competitions then I think there’s a reason for concern and they should revaluate their priorities.
I think there is not a 'one size fits all' to this question. My own children did two competitions a year as did my school. If the parents wanted their children (my students) to attend additional competitions they were welcome to but understood that I would not be in attendance. It was important for me to be there for my husband and children as much as possible and dance did take me away on many occasions. This was my own brake that I applied to ensure that we also had a home life.
I have friends that do at least 6 comps a year and they are generally on weekends and not in school holidays - they seem to work well for their schools.
I think this is a personal decision to be made by families who know and understand how their children thrive and move forward. I would hope that they can recognise when a child needs some down time (and themselves) and when I child needs additional motivation. This additional motivation could be a visit to a show and not an additional comp.
Competitions have a place, within reason and with a modicum of common sense attached ......
It is totally impossible to put a number on this! It depends on personality, age, physique, standard, quality of technique, quality of artistry, speed of development, number of years of training, number of hours of training per week (note: competition coaching should never be a substitute for daily class).
It is also depends on the particular opportunities in the upcoming competitions (jury members etc).
Finally, I believe strongly in horses for courses, and that there should not be generalisations about this subject.
If the competitions are not interesting and fun for the student, then forget it!
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”