After a year of tumult, virtual events and constantly moving targets, it's more than reasonable to wonder: What exactly is the state of the competition world?
For months, we didn't see our favorite friends and teachers unless it was through a screen—now, against all odds, programs are rising from the ashes to bring you meaningful training and performance opportunities both in person and online. We asked four prominent competition/convention directors to give you the inside scoop on what to expect from this season (and, yes, that includes Nationals).
First: Things are going to be OK
If you ask leadership from 24Seven, NYCDA, Showstopper or Radix Dance Convention, the trajectory of the dance convention/competition world is on the upswing. "As numbers improve and restrictions are eased, we're ready to kick it into high gear," says Radix director Eddie Strachan.
Programs have returned to their regional tours, tackling unique pandemic hurdles as they strive to create as "normal" an event as possible. "Things are definitely looking up," says 24Seven director Danny Lawn. "For us, an event this past weekend felt as close to normal as it has in a long time."
According to Nikki Cole, director of marketing and media relations for Showstopper, the competition world is an inspirational place to be right now. "The dance community has come together in remarkable ways to bring positivity, hope and light to dance studios by getting kids back onstage," she says.
Right, but what about Nationals?
Good news! Every competition/convention we've spoken with is committed to hosting Nationals this year, one way or another.
COVID willing, Showstopper, Radix and The Dance Awards all hope to hold a normal Nationals (you know, in-person), but it's important to remember that things are always subject to change. "We are ready to hold Nationals as normally as possible, but if we still need to have safety protocols in place during that time, then so be it," Strachan says. "We are just trying to push through each month to see what the next one brings."
Capacity for both the Florida and Las Vegas Dance Awards is still to be determined by the tide of the pandemic, but as of right now, registration is open to those who are interested. Regardless, Lawn says dancers can anticipate something magical. "The directors are so good at shifting plans and making everything special," he says.
For NYCDA, things will look a little different. Rather than hosting one event in NYC, director Joe Lanteri has decided to hold two separate summer events: one in Phoenix, AZ, and one in Orlando, FL. "We are committed to making it feel like a true NYCDA Nationals," Lanteri says. That means it will still include award-winning choreographers, artistic directors and college-scholarship auditions. Safety precautions that have been a staple throughout the year will continue, but the details of how many dancers can attend are still to be determined by the ever-changing state of the pandemic.
Regular temperature checks are required to participate at the majority of events (Evolve Photo & Video, courtesy NYCDA)
Okay, so what does "in-person" actually look like these days?
In order to host as many dancers as possible, and avoid cross-contamination between studios, scheduling at conventions and competitions is a bit different this year.
"If you're only allowed 200 dancers in the venue at a time, that's really limiting for four different age groups," Lanteri says. NYCDA's workaround? In some venues, a split schedule. Morning classes are reserved for mini and junior dancers to take class, and the rest of the day is reserved for teen and senior dancers. "That alone doubles our capacity."
In order to avoid eating and congregating en masse, 24Seven is staggering lunch times, as well as class start and end times.
The takeaway? First, pay close attention to the schedule the competition gives you: It's going to be different from years past.
Second, if you have a younger sibling, your parent or guardian will likely be running back and forth like crazy all weekend, so be sure to tell them how much you appreciate them.
Mask Up, Temperature Check and Complete That Health Survey!
These days, your mask is your golden ticket to any convention or competition. Other than the moments immediately before you walk onstage to compete, and immediately after you finish, your mask will be on your face for the entire weekend. (Some cities even require them onstage.)
"We completely understand that none of us like to wear masks," Strachan says. "But we all like to dance in person, so if that is what it takes, that is what we have to do."
Beyond masks, regular temperature checks are required to participate at the majority of events, as well. And NYCDA teachers and staff are going the extra mile to keep you safe. "We have a partnership with a testing lab, so every week, everyone on the NYCDA team is PCR tested before they get on an airplane," Lanteri says. "The lab sends someone out to the cities with us, and most of us test again while we're there. I personally also test every Monday when I get back to my home base."
NYCDA also requires each of their dancers and attendees to fill out a wellness survey every day along with getting a temperature check. This gives them access to a wristband that shows they're clear to participate.
The takeaway? These competitions and conventions aren't messing around. Nothing is more important to them than your safety.
We can practically promise that celebrating a win will feel just as good in a face mask (courtesy Showstopper)
The current industry standard for conventions is to require six feet of space between each dancer. Events maintain this by taping 6-foot-by-6-foot squares on the ground that the students are asked to dance in. "I love looking out into a sea of clean lines with everyone in their spot," says Lawn. "In that sense, it's kinda fierce."
Most conventions begin the weekend by dividing the participants into combo groups that will be used throughout the weekend. This keeps the dancers from crossing paths as they move on and off the floor, and limits potential exposure between groups as they observe.
In a major shift from years past, dancers may no longer be asked to go onstage next to the teacher to demonstrate, depending on the size of the ballroom. "We keep the stage as clear as possible," Lawn says of 24Seven.
The takeaway? You've practiced perfect spacing your entire life—you were born for this.
In order to avoid contact between studios and keep numbers in the venue low, most competitions currently have schools compete all their numbers, one right after the other during a single block of time.
"Studios A, B and C may compete during a three-hour chunk of time," Strachan says. "Then we clear them out of the ballroom and sanitize the stage and dressing rooms before the next set of studios come in to dance their block." At Radix, security has a list of people in each given block, and checks who they are before they're allowed to enter the ballroom.
At 24Seven, solos follow the same studio-block pattern as group numbers. All mini and junior solos from studio A will go back-to-back, followed by studios B and C, before the room is cleaned for the next block. "We call everyone beforehand to make sure they are comfortable sharing a block with other studios," Lawn says.
The takeaway? You're gonna be pretty tired after running your dances consecutively. Bring a good energy booster to snack on!
Many competitions are spreading out chairs for audience members to encourage social distancing (Evolve Photo & Video, courtesy NYCDA)
Exclusive In-Person Performances, Online Entourages
Just as there is less space for performers at competition these days, there's also less space for audience members. For those who can attend, competitions are spreading chairs out for social-distancing purposes. Showstopper audiences sit at round tables spread out across the room in watch groups.
For those who can't attend in person due to capacity or proximity, the majority of competitions livestream the event.
The takeaway? The fewer people there are, the safer you'll be. But you'll still get virtual hype from loved ones.
Socially Distanced Awards
Most competitions aren't hosting in-person awards, but you can stream them online. At competitions like Radix and NYCDA, all the awards for each studio are placed in a box or a souvenir bag that your studio owner or teacher can pick up later.
For Showstopper, in-person awards are possible, they just have to be done more frequently. "In years past we would have had 3-4 award ceremonies, now we do 10," Cole says. "This means when we finish each category (like Teen Small Groups), we do an award ceremony before moving on to the next one." According to Cole, parents really appreciate this new structure. "They don't have to sit and wait around all day if they don't want to," she says.
The takeaway? You can officially watch the awards ceremony from your bed with zero shame.
Y'all, we get it. Dance is really, really hard. So what's the harm in taking the easy way out on a technical correction? Answer: an increased chance of injury, and a whole slew of new technique problems that could take a loooooooong time to fix.
Lucky for you, Dance Spirit has enlisted the expert help of Dale Lam, artistic director of CCJ Conservatory in South Carolina, and William Zinser, certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in NYC, so you can start leveling up your technique the honest way.
The Cheat: Compensating in your hips and knees to force turnout
The Injuries: "Tilting your pelvis forward to try to get more turnout puts a lot of stress on your lower back," says Zinser. "Which makes for stress fractures in the low back. It also stresses structures in the front of the hip, which encourages labral tears or hip impingement."
That's not even the half of it: Rolling in your feet to force a turned-out position increases the chance of tendonitis on the outside of your ankles. "This position also asks the ligaments in your knee to be out of alignment," Zinser continues. "It's like bumper cars inside your knee—too much friction and irritation."
The Fix: "You don't have to have great turnout," says Lam. "Hold the turnout you do have by strengthening your inner thighs and the backs of the legs with Pilates." And gradually increase your range of motion by focusing on hip-socket and inner-thigh flexibility.
The Cheat: Letting your upper body "help" you jump
The Injuries: Failing to land and take off in an upright position increases the risk that you'll land funny—and potentially injure a lower extremity.
The Fix: "We don't spend enough time on core strengthening, so I see this a lot," says Lam. "Building your abdominal and back strength will help keep your torso upright," while your lower body is busy building its own stamina.
The Cheat: Hiking your hip for higher extensions
The Injuries: Over time, "You could strain the hip flexors or hamstrings," says Zinser. He adds that dancers who hike their hips could disengage their cores while doing so, which allows the pelvis to tilt incorrectly, and therefore run the risk of a low-back injury or psoas syndrome: chronic irritation of the psoas muscle.
The Fix: "This could be because you don't have rotation in your hip flexors, or you're not supporting underneath the working leg in order to lift it," says Lam. She suggests practicing holding your leg out and still—lower than you would be able to while "cheating"—in order to build strength in a correct position.
The Cheat: Not lowering your heels all the way when jumping
The Injuries: "A lot of dancers' stress fractures occur in the metatarsals, which are the bones in your toes and mid- to forefoot," says Zinser. "If we're constantly landing just on the balls of the feet, we increase the risk of forefoot fractures—as well as stressing the Achilles tendon and its surrounding structures."
The Fix: "Most of the people who don't put their feet all the way down have tight Achilles," says Lam. (So if you have a short demi-plié, pay close attention!) "Starting from the takeoff and in every transition step, make sure you're rolling through the entire bottom of your foot."
The Cheat: Winding up before turning
The Injuries: "Dance naturally self-selects for people who are hypermobile," says Zinser, "and one of the most common ways to dislocate a shoulder is to go into extreme external rotation." What's even more common, Zinser notes, is to disengage your core when winding up, which leaves the spine vulnerable to pinched nerves and other issues.
The Fix: "This comes from not using opposition, and a lack of strength in the working side," explains Lam. Especially if you have scoliosis or another bodily asymmetry, Lam says, you need to add strengthening exercises for your weaker side and work on the overall flexibility of your dominant side.
Since the day you pulled on your first leotard, you have no doubt been dreaming of the day you would attend your first pointe shoe fitting. Going on pointe is a rite of passage as a ballet dancer, and the result of years of hard work.
But what happens if you are passed over for the opportunity when it feels like your time? It's totally understandable to be disappointed and frustrated if your teacher doesn't move you on pointe, but don't lose faith in yourself. "I've seen a lot of dancers go on pointe over the years," says Josephine Lee, professional pointe shoe fitter and founder of The Pointe Shop. "I don't think I have ever seen a dancer who was held back from pointework feel like they were behind in the long run."
Ideally, your teacher has laid out clear guidelines for what makes a dancer pointe-ready. But if they haven't, there are some milestones that ballet professionals are looking for to give the green light for your first pair of shoes. Factors like your age, technique level, range of motion and strength all come into play. And the good news is that if going on pointe is a goal for you, there are proactive ways that you can get there.
The "correct" age to begin pointe is a controversial one, and that is largely because being pointe-ready depends on so many different factors of physical and technical development. But there is a growing consensus that you can definitely be too young to dance on pointe safely. In most professional training schools, dancers don't start pointework until age 11 at the earliest. In 2018 the Youth America Grand Prix updated its rules so that competitors should be 12 years old to perform on pointe. Dancers 10 years old and younger are not allowed to compete on pointe, and it is strongly discouraged for 11-year-olds.
For many, one concern for going on pointe too early is that if the student is not done growing, the growth plates in their bones are not fully closed. While this can certainly lead to injury, medical professionals are more concerned with injuries that can result in a student lacking the strength, range of motion and coordination needed to start safely twirling on their toes. Natalie Imrisek, a physical therapist who works with dancers in L.A., adds, "Dancers also need to have the maturity to have an understanding of how to care for their bodies and the hard work that they are doing."
To Keep Improving: Waiting is the hardest thing, but it's the only real remedy here. Trust that your teachers are looking out for your best interest: They just want you to be safe and successful. Going on pointe too early can be frustrating, and even lead to burnout. Focus your attention on the rest of the pointe-ready milestones, and you will be a better dancer for it.
Coordination and Technique
Being developmentally ready for pointework happens for different people at different times. There are so many factors that contribute here—how long have you been seriously taking ballet classes? Maybe you have had a big growth spurt and are regaining the strength to manage your longer limbs. "Being developmentally ready means being able to really multitask with your body," says Jennifer Milner, a Pilates instructor and ballet coach in Dallas. "With pointe shoes, we are adding one more thing you need to think about," she says. "You're learning how to balance differently."
In class Milner looks for control in a student's dancing to determine if they are ready for pointe. She wants to see a dancer who can do a clean single pirouette with a landing without hopping or falling down off of demi-pointe. She will also test a dancer's proprioception (your ability to know where your body is in space) by having them stand in parallel and bring one leg up to a parallel passé. She asks them to hold the position without touching the working foot to their knee and without clasping their hands or putting their hands on their hips. "Can you do it for 30 seconds with your eyes open?" she asks. "Can you do it for 10 seconds with your eyes closed?"
To Keep Improving: Practice, practice, practice. Make sure that your commitment to getting your pointe shoes is matched by your commitment to your overall ballet training. Are you taking multiple ballet classes every week? Are you committing yourself fully to the corrections you are receiving and working hard to improve? Don't focus on pointework as a trophy—it will be a natural continuation of all of your hard work.
Range of Motion
The flexibility of the mid-foot and ankle was cited by Lee, Milner, and Imrisek as a primary challenge for young dancers being pointe-ready. "You need to be able to get your metatarsal in line with your shinbone when you point your foot to get on pointe safely," says Imrisek. Milner will have dancers sit on the floor with their legs straight and point their feet. If you lay a pencil on your ankle pointed down to your toes, it should be pointing straight ahead or down toward the floor. If it is pointing up, you still have a range of motion challenge to overcome. Imrisek says that this flexibility is important because if you can't get over on the box of the pointe shoe, you are likely to compensate with other parts of your body and end up injured. You are also much more likely to roll and sprain your ankle.
On the other side of range of motion is those dancers with very flexible feet and ankles—the banana feet we all want. But Milner warns that with great flexibility comes a greater need for strength in order to avoid injury. While the feet may look great in the shoes, these dancers can be at higher risk of sprained ankles and Achilles tendon problems, which can become recurring injuries. "The biggest predictor of having an ankle sprain is already having had an ankle sprain," says Milner. The ligaments don't go back after they have been overstretched.
To Keep Improving: If you are lacking the range of motion in your ankles and mid-foot, don't go reaching for the foot stretcher! Imrisek warns that doing so can overstretch the ankle, increasing the risk of sprains and causing Achilles and os trigonum issues. Instead, she suggests focusing on opening up the tissue in the mid-foot and the top of the foot. To do this, she suggests dancers get toe spacers like YogaToes, or lace their fingers between their toes to release the tightness. While your toes are spread, massage the top of the foot up toward your shins like you are pulling on a pair of pantyhose. To keep the added flexibility, she says to follow this up with some strength exercises, like piano toes.
Strength and Balance
"Think of pointework as a full-body experience," advises Lee. "Often the dancer incorrectly only focuses on their feet and their ankles. But you have to be strong in every part of your body in order to be successful." Lee is looking to see if a dancer can hold a relevé on demi-pointe without shaking or wobbling, which requires the whole body to be engaged to be done successfully. A lot of this strengthening happens naturally in class, but adding a cross-training routine will make you a stronger dancer all around. Milner suggests that you skip the crunches for core strengthening. "We don't often dance in a crunched position, so we want to learn to strengthen our trunk and maintain it in a neutral position," she says.
To Keep Improving: Most of Milner's students prepare for class every day with the same favorite exercise called "toe taps." Practicing your relevés in both turned-out as well as parallel positions will help with needed calf strength.
Both Milner and Imrisek have seen dancers get injured after being on pointe before the time is right. Sometimes these are immediate injuries, like sprained ankles and stress fractures, but for others, it results in nagging injuries that plague dancers for the rest of their careers. It is hard to wait, but you need to invest in yourself and the long game. If you still feel confused about why you didn't make it on pointe this year, Milner says that it is completely fine to respectfully ask your teacher for a meeting to discuss it at a time that is convenient for them. "You can say, 'I understand that you don't feel that I am ready for pointe, so what can I work on so that I can achieve that goal?'" By working with your teacher to create tangible goals for yourself, you can move forward with support knowing how to get there.