Changing Our Values Regarding Competition

As a competition judge, giving awards is one of the best and worst parts of the job. Seeing the look on a young dancer’s face when they get the medal they earned is either rewarding or devastating. It seems that there is an expectation that they will take home the highest honors just for showing up. While showing up is a big part of success, what you do in preparation and execution is the final determiner of how successful we really are; or in this case, what award we get. As a teacher, an adjudicator and someone who has made a life of educating young dancers, the last thing I want is to discourage or destroy a young dancer’s confidence in their ability to love and pursue dance as a way of life.  However, quite often, I feel as though they are coming into the situation with an unrealistic expectation of the outcome due to an unrealistic view of their level of ability and mastery.  We build them up to believe they are the best dancer on the floor, and in one brief moment, their world is shattered because they got a bronze instead of a platinum. All of a sudden, they want to be a scientist instead of a dancer. That’s not a bad thing, but we have created a circumstance that has allowed the opinion of a panel of 3 people to determine the remainder of one person’s life. That’s not acceptable. Building confidence doesn’t come from gushing over a child and telling them that they are amazing at everything they do and should go pro. It comes from recognizing weaknesses,helping them to overcome and strengthen them through proper training and guidance, and then celebrating those little victories.

Let’s take an example. If you’ve ever watched American Idol (I tend to watch the auditions and then once they go to L.A. leave it to everyone else) the people you always think of an talk about are the devastated singers that Simon Cowel destroyed with callous and heartless critiques. You can literally see their world shatter on camera in front of millions of people when this man, who is at the top of the food chain, tells them that they should never sing again. Ever. Not even in the shower. But how can this be true? Everyone in their family has told them all their life that they were amazing! They should sign a record contract! They could be famous!  Of course they said that. They love that child and want them to love themselves and believe in all the possibilities within them. But instead of saying to them, “OK. Singing is your dream. I think you’re great, but let’s take you to a professional singing coach and see what they think. It can’t hurt to learn more and be the best you can be.” we simply keep building them up to believe that they are already where they need to be. Then when they get in front of someone who really knows the art form and that belief isn’t verified, their whole life unravels. The future they laid out in their minds disintegrates and they are left with nothing but a giant devastating whole in their soul.  Dramatic right?  But that’s what it feels like to that person.

With this in mind, I am calling on dance teachers and parents everywhere to make a shift in their behavior towards their children in regards to competition. I believe that we can give them a realistic view of where they are in their training and mastery of the art form and use the experience of competition to continue to build upon what they learned before. By doing just a few simple things in the postmortem company meetings, we can continue to grow our dancers with a healthy mindset and build their confidence through thoughtful action.

  1. Honest Self-Evaluation: Ask the following 3 questions
    1. What did I do well? – This gives the students an opportunity to take credit for all of the hard work they’ve put in to date. Recognizing these things also helps them to realize that these habits are strong, and while they shouldn’t be ignored going forward, they don’t need as much focus or attention going forward. They should continue to support them in the future.
    2. What could I have done better? – It is essential that dancers have a realistic understanding of where they are in their training. Stephen Covey said his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  that, “You can’t get anywhere in Chicago with a map of Detroit.”  It is essential to know where you are in order to get where you want to be. It is also important to recognize that we always have room to grow, both as people and as dancers.
    3. What is my goal for my next performance? – This question helps to create a mindful plan as to how to improve upon our weaknesses and put focus on growth, rather than just regurgitating the same performance over and over again and getting the same results.
  2. Listening to the critiques with an open mind and addressing the specifics of the critiques with sincerity and respect when deserving. We all know that sometimes we get a critique and we just can’t believe what we heard. It was unintelligible or seemingly disconnected. But understanding that someone saw that in your performance can inform you as to what is missing from it. There was a disconnect for your audience; and while you will probably never get your point across to everyone, if you hear it more than once, it’s something to look at. Also, making sure your students are open to criticism ensures their ability to grow as an artist and person. Protecting them from it just delays the inevitable and when they come to New York and go to a hundred auditions and don’t get a callback, it will have the Simon Cowel effect. How does that really prepare them for success?
  3. Watching the performances of other students “at our level.” Quite often, students can’t understand why they didn’t place in competition when they gave the best performance of their lives. I don’t ever recommend comparing yourself to other artists. I believe that we can only ever be better than the person we were yesterday. However, seeing what others are doing can inspire and push us to challenge ourselves beyond our current level to reach a greater potential. It’s why sports teams preparing for games watch tape of other teams. It lets them see their strengths and weaknesses and plan for success.

I was not a competition dancer growing up. I only ever went to one competition and luckily enough, I did well. But my confidence grew because I was challenged every class to the point where I cried in frustration when I couldn’t get a step. It grew because I went home and conquered that challenge before I slept that night. It grew because I made sure that I was always expecting more from myself and when I met that expectation, I raised it.  This mindset came as a combination of differing approaches from my parents.  My father always said, “Be the best.” My mother always said, “Do your best.”  So I did my best everyday with the intention of being the best that I could be. There were always going to more talented dancers with more money and opportunities to train, but I was always going to work harder. As a result, I’ve had a pretty wonderful career. The lesson here? We have to stop “objectively” telling kids that they are the most talented person in existence and start giving them the tools and proper perspective to push forward and attain the goals and dreams they have set for themselves. Whether they reach them or not, they’ll know you had their back and supported them as pushed forward toward that dream. That’s what they really want, support. Otherwise, rather them helping them succeed, we are setting them up for a big, BIG fall that most people never get back up from.

Mantra: Your best is only your best today. Do it better tomorrow.

Jason Marquette

Managing and Co-Artistic Director of MPower Dance Workshops

MPower Dance workshops is an in-studio convention designed to show kids how their dance training is preparing them for success in life.  For more information about our workshops and events, email info@mpowerdance.com. Be sure to ask about our NYC Summer Intensive http://www.mpowerdance.com/NYC_Summer_Intensive.html

 

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