Nightmare at Nationals
At my team’s first regional of the season, I stood backstage with 19 of my teammates, ready to perform a Rockettes-style, tap-kickline routine. The announcer called our number, and we strutted onstage, decked out in our fire-engine red velour, high-cut, rhinestone-embedded costumes. The first beat of our music blasted through the auditorium and we hit each move precisely and with smiles plastered across our faces. We tapped through the first 30 seconds of the routine, building up to our favorite part: the single kickline. We lined up, hooked arms and…the CD skipped. Panic may have replaced the smiles on our faces, but we didn’t miss a beat. We kept kicking, our music kept skipping, and eventually the backstage manager turned the sound off altogether. I kept counting in my head—and so did the rest of my team. When we proudly (and quietly) hit our final pose, the audience jumped to its feet and roared. We got a standing ovation, a handful of high scores and a special award for our professionalism.
I never thought something bad would happen to me at competition. I’d seen girls fall, drop their props or completely forget their routines. “Yikes,” I’d think to myself. “Glad that’s not me out there.” But sometimes—when you least expect it—you can be “that person out there.”
So now that it’s Nationals season, you should be thinking about one thing—blowing the judges away. But no matter how many months you’ve spent sweating in the studio, sometimes things happen that you aren’t prepared for. Whether you’re traveling six hours on a plane or 20 minutes in a car, here are some crises to watch out for and our advice on how to handle them.
Oh no! Your plane lands safely at the airport on the day of your performance, but your luggage—filled with your costumes and shoes—doesn’t.
What to do: If your first performance is a solo, duo/trio or small group, hit up an affordable store like H&M or Target, where you can find cute pieces to make an impromptu costume. If you’ve got a large group number, work with what everyone already has. If you all packed black leotards for class, use those as a base and mix and match the leftover costume pieces. If your luggage is just delayed, ask a studio parent to run to the airport and pick it up when it arrives, or arrange to have it delivered to you.
Avoiding it next year: Always pack your costumes and shoes in your carry-on luggage! Makeup, hair products and other easily replaceable items can go in your checked bags. Try not to fly the same day you’re performing. That way, if a crisis situation does occur, you have more time to get what you need before hitting the stage.
Oh no! Kick then turn...or turn then kick? Your mind goes completely blank onstage.
What to do: You’re in a new venue faced with blinding lights and a row of judges eyeing your every move—no wonder your nerves are getting the best of you! “If you forget your dance, just keep going,” says Gillian Imse, 17, from Concord Dance Academy in Concord, NH. “You know so many dance steps, so just let your body move to the music and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.” Holly Humphreys, a judge for Hollywood Vibe, strongly discourages dancers from fleeing the stage when they mess up. “At most Nationals, they’re not going to let you go back onstage if you mess up and run off. You’ve qualified to get there, so cover up whatever is going on and keep performing. Running off isn’t the way to handle that problem.”
Avoiding it next year: Stay focused before and during your performance. Don’t overthink your routine before you go onstage or you’ll end up psyching yourself out. Take a few deep breaths before you hit the stage. You know the moves, so seize the opportunity to show the audience and the judges just how well you can execute them.
Oh no! All’s going well until you collide with another dancer and drop your prop.
What to do: Pick it up! “As quickly as you can, get that prop,” Humphreys advises. You want the judges to see the routine you’ve perfected, not the tiny mistake you’ve just made. “As a judge, I’m focusing more on the fact that you’ve dropped your prop, and I want to be focusing on your dance,” Humphreys adds. “Pick it up in a fun way and people won’t even think anything—it’s one second out of the routine versus dancing the whole two to three minutes without that prop.” Letting your hat or cane fly out of your hand isn’t a huge deal, but the judges will be super-impressed when you professionally and tactfully grab it off the ground and continue.
Avoiding it next year: Practice makes perfect, so never run your routine without the props that you’ll be using in your performance. Using a substitute hat during rehearsals might make sense (it won’t get dirty, you can throw it around, etc.), but it might weigh less or be shaped differently than your performance hat. To be able to perform with the real thing, you’ve gotta practice with the real thing. And practice your prop tricks full out—whether it’s leaping off the top of a folding chair or twirling a baton while you time step.
Oh no! Your music skips or stops while you’re mid-leap.
What to do: Keep going! If the music skips once, do your best to pick up the routine where it starts up again. If the sound system shuts off entirely, don’t let your brain malfunction like the stereo did! The song may not be playing on the speakers, but by continuing to play it in your head, you’ll be able to count along and keep dancing the routine in sync with your fellow dancers. Use your peripheral vision to stay in formation and, most importantly, don’t panic. The judges will hear the music skip, too, and they know it’s not an easy challenge to face. “We use anti-skip equipment at our events, but invariably these things can happen,” says Shari Tomasiello, national director for Headliners Competition. “When the dancers continue and finish their routine, the judges absolutely love it!”
Avoiding it next year: During rehearsals, ask your teacher to randomly and unexpectedly shut off or hit fast forward on the music. This way, you’ll be prepared should skipping happen at competition. Look into the competition you’re going to because some (like American Dance Awards, Starpower and New York City Dance Alliance) still accept cassette tapes, which won’t skip like CDs.
Oh no! You get your period backstage and don’t have enough time to run to the bathroom before your performance.
What to do: Because you have to be onstage in just a few minutes (or seconds), there’s not a lot you can do. Since your routine is probably only two or three minutes long, don’t fret—not much damage can be done in that short amount of time, so don’t let this be a distraction during your routine. Just go on, give 100 percent and head straight to the bathroom when you get offstage.
Avoiding it next year: Always pack tampons and pads with your competition gear—even if you don’t think it’s that time of month. You never know when you or a teammate might find yourselves in need.
Oh no! You mess up onstage and a not-so-nice word slips from your mouth—and into the ears of the judges.
What to do: There isn’t a good excuse for this, so the best you can do is finish out the routine with a smile. At the next judges’ break, apologize to everyone you might have offended—your teammates, teachers, parents, the competition director and, of course, the judges. But be warned: Swearing will be frowned upon strongly by the judges. “I would look really negatively on that,” says Humphreys. “As an older dancer, you’re a role model to the younger members of your company. Swearing is something that shouldn’t come into your brain ever, onstage or at the studio.” Tomasiello adds, “Everybody makes mistakes, it’s natural. But swearing doesn’t leave a good impression on the judges and that will probably impact your dance.”
Avoiding it next year: You may not think twice about how you react when you mess up in the studio because there are no severe consequences. Start monitoring yourself during practices. If you mess up in front of the mirrors, do you laugh about it or are you able to maintain composure and keep dancing? If you train yourself to shrug off a mistake, your mind and body will know to do the same when you’re faced with bright lights and a row of judges.
A final reminder: No matter how prepared you are, things can always go wrong at Nationals. Just remember to breathe, get through your routine and enjoy yourself—one mistake shouldn’t cancel out all the great things you do get out of competing! “When we go to Nationals, we get to see new dances, styles and dancers that we’ve never seen before, and it gives us fresh perspectives and ideas,” Imse says. “Plus, there is nothing better than staying with your best friends in a hotel, then going onstage the next day as fierce competitors and winning that first-place trophy.”
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Imagine attending American Ballet Theatre's prestigious NYC summer intensive, training among classical ballet legends. Imagine taking the stage at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, competing against some of the country's best contemporary dancers. Now, imagine doing both—at the same time.
Welcome to Madison Brown's world. This summer, she's in her third year as a National Training Scholar with ABT, while also competing for NYCDA's Teen Outstanding Dancer title. (She's already won Outstanding Dancer in the Mini and Junior categories.) The logistics are complicated—ABT's five-week intensive overlaps with the weeklong NYCDA Nationals, which translates to a lot of cabs back and forth across Manhattan—but Maddie is committed to making the most of each opportunity. "I love contemporary and ballet equally," she says. "While I'm able to do both, I want to do as much as I can."
Maddie has an expressive face, endless extensions, and a quiet command of the stage. She dances with remarkable maturity—a trait noted by none other than Jennifer Lopez, one of the judges on NBC's "World of Dance," on which Maddie competed in Season 2. Although Maddie didn't take home the show's top prize, she was proud to be the youngest remaining soloist when she was eliminated, and saw the whole experience as an opportunity to grow. After all, she's just getting started. Oh, that's right—did we mention Maddie's only 14?
There's a story Kate Walker, director of dance at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, TX, loves to tell about Emma Sutherland, who just graduated from the program. "We were watching the students run a really long, challenging piece," Walker recalls. "Several kids couldn't quite make it through. But Emma did make it all the way to the end, which is when she walked up to us faculty and very politely asked, 'May I please go throw up?' "