(Photo by Brian Bailey, Courtesy National Dance Showcase)

National Dance Showcase Judges Discuss Diversity in the Competition World—and How NDS is Pushing For a More Inclusive Future

As conversations about racial justice have continued across the country, members of the dance world have focused inwards and reflected on how we can all do better. The close-knit competition and convention community is no different. Dance Spirit had the chance to talk to five judges from National Dance Showcase, as well as one of its founders, Sonia Pennington, about issues they've seen in the comp world—and hear all about how NDS is leading the way to a more inclusive future.


Dance Spirit: What problems relating to issues of diversity and inclusion have you seen in the competition world?

Elizabeth Troxler, NDS judge: There's this idea that dancers must be "technically perfect" to win awards. But when you watch people dancing professionally, you look at the dancer as a whole. We need to do that in the competition world too. We need to be able to say, "I can appreciate you, even if your foot doesn't stretch all the way, because you're bringing such a presence to the movement." The idea that being able to do a triple pirouette is the only thing that makes a good dancer is a lie. It's kind of important, but not really.

Jay Staten, NDS judge: I think that the competition world is built in a way that doesn't necessarily reflect what the dance world really is. You thrive in the competition world by spending more money, so if you don't spend as much, you lose out.

Many competitions judge with similar point criteria, where technique has the heaviest weight in your score. But to have technique, you have to spend money. Musicality, on the other hand, can be natural to a dancer. But someone who doesn't have technique, even if they have musicality, won't win against a super technical performer. I think that's an issue.

Vanessa Baker, NDS judge: It may sound superficial, but it's important to me—costuming. For the longest time, I had to spray-paint costumes, or have dancers dance bare-legged and barefoot. It can be very obvious when there are costumes that have illusions or cutouts and there's a "flesh color" fabric, but that "flesh color" isn't right for all dancers. It can make dancers feel very isolated.

JS: In the same vein of costuming, I will often feel offended by how studios choose to depict dances from different genres. Like, it's a hip-hop dance, and suddenly all the white dancers are wearing cornrows. Or, it's ballet, and they're doing the Chinese dance from The Nutcracker, and suddenly all of the dancers have chopsticks in their hair. Sometimes I will have to say, "I can't judge this, because this is offensive."

DS : How do you think National Dance Showcase has cultivated a more inclusive culture?

(Brian Bailey, Courtesy National Dance Showcase)

Sonia Pennington, NDS co-founder: It's just who we are; how NDS was formed. I think because of my Blackness, inclusivity became an inherent part of the organization. We are a tapestry of "difference," and incorporating a multitude of perspectives leads to inclusion. It also gives voice and sight to those that aren't always seen or heard.

JS: NDS makes their programs accessible. And if you want to include everyone, it needs to be accessible. If you're promoting the culture of dancers flying from state to state, from entry to entry, it clearly is not accessible. So, it depends on what you're here for. If you're here to make money, that's one thing. If you're here to create an inclusive community, that's another thing.

Christopher Jackson, NDS judge: Accommodation is the other part of it. NDS is accessible and accommodating. A lot of competitions are set in their ways—your piece is three minutes long, you stop at three minutes, and if you go over, you get deducted. NDS realizes that at the end of the day, we're not taking out livers and kidneys. It's a dance competition. We're trying to have a good time.

Sue McCarrol, NDS judge: I think NDS does a really good job of keeping perspective. By keeping that perspective, they put a lot of effort into making sure everyone feels recognized. Not in a way where it feels like, "Oh, we tossed this award out to you so everyone feels recognized." But in a real way, a carefully thought about way.

CJ: One of the things I love most that NDS does is the "Backstage Award," which celebrates those dancers who are respectful to other students in dressing rooms, who are respectful to the staff. To me, that award is a big deal, because it's important for students to know that it's not just about how you act onstage, but it's how you act backstage—that's what keeps the job, in the real world.

SP: One of the biggest things we are interested in investing in is representation. Especially when you're trying to be inclusive and diverse, representation is key, so that as a dancer of color, you're going into a competition and seeing judges that look like you.

DS : What do you think it means to dancers of color, to see themselves represented on a judging panel?

JS: It changes their dancing from being something that they like to something that they can spend their life doing. It's completely life changing. I'm from Washington, DC, so all my teachers were Black. But if I hadn't had Black teachers, I probably wouldn't be on this Zoom call right now, because I wouldn't have seen myself in dance. It's the difference between thinking you can walk on water, and knowing you can walk on water, because you saw someone else do it.

ET: On the panel, we honor each other. We learn from each other. I love that we have the opportunity to represent that to younger generations. Because if we, the judges, are having a great time together and honoring each other's work, they see that they can do that within their own communities. I'm honored to be a part of that.

DS : What advice would you give dancers who don’t feel well represented or who feel isolated in the competition and convention world?

VB: Keep going. You have to keep going. You may be the only one, but you can be a trailblazer. And you won't be the only one for very long.

JS: You have to do the research. Just like you're going to look for the company that makes gluten-free cookies, you have to look for the competition that has judges of color. Dance is cultural. And I know at NDS, there will be at least one person who understands what I'm trying to do. I don't think judges are really thinking "You're Black; no points for you." I just think that some things don't translate well if you're from different cultural backgrounds.

Be selective. Dance so strongly affects your psyche, because you have people commenting on what you look like. And you don't want to give everybody that power.

CJ: You have to use the space for what it is. Competitions are performance spaces, really. In your studio, you probably get to perform twice a year—once at the Christmas show and once at the recital in June. But competitions are performance opportunities. If you look at it like that and not just as a trophy, you're getting the best out of it.

SM: Remember that it's just one person's opinion in one moment in time in one place in the world. Look inside yourself and see how you feel about what you put onstage.

DS: Do you have any advice for other competitions working to become more inclusive?

SP: You said it—make changes. In this day and age, to have a staff that looks exactly the same is unacceptable. You cannot say that you are open to inclusion and diversity if you have no representation. And I don't mean you get the token hip-hop judge, or the token tap judge. You find professional ballerinas of color. You find professional modern dancers of color. You show the gamut of what is out there.

Underrepresentation is a problem because you're not giving young dancers the ability to look out and see themselves in 10 years, or 15 years, or 20 years. As a leader of a competition, I think it's so important for the dancers to know that the world is so much bigger than what they look like. You are able to conquer any dream, aspiration, or goal no matter what, especially if you know that you are embraced, supported, accepted and "seen"! As a community of professional artists investing in the next generation that is so beautifully diverse, we must be committed to setting the example for the world to follow.

Latest Posts


Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Simone Biles at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

What the Dance World Can Learn From Simone Biles and Team USA

In the heat of the women's team gymnastics final, a shaken Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic event last week to protect herself and her teammates. Her courageous decision to prioritize her health was met with overwhelming support, including from former U.S. Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, who competed through extreme injury at the 1996 Olympic games and subsequently retired at 18 years old.

And yet, praise for Russian gymnast Artur Dalaloyan's performance in the men's team event highlighted his Achilles surgery in April and questions over whether he was healthy enough to compete.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search