Monday, February 22, 2010

And The WInner Is......

With all the hoopla surrounding the Olympics, everyone all over the world has been practically glued to their television sets lately! It's exciting and inspirational to watch, and it seems that everyone gets caught up in the drama...who will win, who will lose, and how the competitors perform.

While the Olympics were taking up a lot of air-time on TV, I was participating in a Belly Dance Olympics of sorts- recently I was a judge on numerous panels of the Belly Dancer of The Universe Competition, and it got me thinking about the similarities of the two events. I have judged many competitions in the past, and judging is never easy, no matter what the category. Oriental dancing is an art, not a sport, but belly dance competitions do offer some of the same drama that the Olympics does: it's enteraining, educational, there's stiff competition, and it's riveting to watch.

Belly dance competitions are popular the world over. There are dozens of major, international competitions and quite a few regional ones, too. Some contests offer a multitude of specific categories; others are more focused on one type of belly dance, but with different divisions for age or experience. Competitions can function both as stand-alone events as well as contests that are at featured at dance festivals, alongside with workshops, professional performances, open-floor dancing and student shows.

Spectators flock to watch these competitions for many reasons. They are belly dance fans and aficionados; they want to support contestants that are friends, family, students or peers. Contests are also a good place to see new talent, to look at the latest cutting-edge trends in oriental dance, and because contests usually offer lots of entertainment value at a lower price than many restaurants, night clubs or theatrical shows featuring belly dancing.

Performers enter competitions for reasons that are as unique or diverse as the belly dance community itself, but it seems the majority of dancers enter into competitions hoping to get noticed. Belly dance competitions are a great way of gaining exposure: along with a trophy and prizes that can range from cash to costumes, jewelry, gift certificates, etc., title-holders can pretty much expect good publicity and national or international name recognition, plus lucrative offers ranging from coveted spots in theatrical shows to contracts to teach workshops, and even appearances in performance videos or on instructional DVDs. Of course, depending on whose in the crowd, or where the contest is being held, even if a contestant doesn’t place, recognition and lucrative offers can happen as well-contest are a way of putting yourself out there as a dancer.

The very nature of contests calls attention to promising unknown performers as well as “unsung heroes”- talented dancers that the public might otherwise not be aware of. It’s a terrific way for someone from a small, regional studio to get the national or international attention they deserve, and it’s not uncommon for contestants to travel from far-flung locations - many of which may not have a thriving dance scene- to compete, and hopefully take their career to “ the next level”.

Some performers enter belly dance competitions for the sole purpose of setting personal dance-goals, because they want to challenge themselves. For these contestants, many of who are great dancers who have no desire to go professional, winning or losing isn’t the main objective, it’s the whole process that counts. They may be hobbyists, or in love with the dance but committed to a job or raising a family, and competing is more about accomplishing something they set out to do rather than jump-starting a career.
And there are also dancers who compete as a lark, or because they were urged to enter by a teacher, mentor, friends or family.

As someone who has judged a fair amount of competitions, from experience, I can tell you that judging is NOT an easy task. Personally, I believe that anyone who enters a competition should be given kudos, no matter what-it takes guts to put yourself out there, to believe in yourself and your talents and to compete with your peers! I myself am pretty much a lenient judge, and even though the criteria sheets for judges are (most of the time) anonymous, I try to scribble a few lines of encouragement to the contestant, or at least explain the reason why I added or subtracted points in a certain category.

Sometimes, I find the judging process itself completely surreal. Many times, a category I’m judging is so full of great dancers who have wonderful stage presence and dazzling technique, wearing costumes I’d give my right hip for, it’s really difficult to pick a winner. But there are always a few contestants who, sadly, don’t have a clue… and unfortunately, this aberration applies not only to my own personal taste, but also to everyone on the judging panel, as well as the audience!

Even though belly dance competitions are not the Olympics, some of the “Things That Make You Go Hmmm” that performers put out onstage during competitions are downright confounding- and I’m not talking about a dancer accidentally tripping on a veil or having a minor technical issue with her music. I’m talking about stuff like a weird, badly-costumed, un-choreographed “interpretive dance” that couldn’t even be classified as “fusion” entered into the Egyptian category; or someone whose performance is a total train wreck: like a dancer in a cheap, toy store/ Halloween Headquarters costume that doesn’t fit and has underwear showing; wearing cymbals but not playing them, or being severely off-beat; no stage presence, no technique and badly-done music editing…all at the same time! Ask anyone who has judged a competition and they will tell you that this is actually not un-common!

Once I was judging a kid’s competition, ages 5-13. The contest organizers told us not to get too dazzled by the overall cuteness of the contestants, and believe me, most of them were adorable- not to mention extremely well trained! At one point, I was impressed with the level of presentation, I wondered to myself why I was a judge- any of the uber-talented kiddies on stage could’ve literally danced circles around me…and then the age thing had me stumped too: how the hell was I supposed to be judging a category where some contestants had been dancing for years longer than others had been alive? And by the middle of the children’s category, I found myself thinking, “ I don’t care about plastic surgery, I just want a tendon-transplant from a flexible 9-year-old whose vocabulary doesn’t include the words “ Ibuprophen” or “Icy Hot”!

Also, in my opinion, I am not sure why nationally or internationally-known professional belly dancers (some even with instructional DVD’s on the market) enter contests, since it seems to me that they already have recognition and a good career… but I guess that’s just my own thoughts on the matter!

But back to judging: most of the time, competition judges are given sheets with a strict point rating system for the categories they are observing, and sometimes, there is a space left on that sheet for additional comments.

These criteria can range from points for costuming, stage presence, lyrical and rhythmic interpretations, choreography, improv, transitions, and prop use. Often, points may be subtracted for performances or costumes that for the category being judged, songs or routines that run over the allotted time or even if the contestant’s age or experience isn’t suitable for the category the competitor entered.

Many contests offer a “People’s Choice” category (usually with a trophy or prize) where the audience themselves vote on their favorite performer. The actual contest winner or someone who took second or third place may or may not win this award; sometimes another contestant that didn’t even make semi-finals wins it. This is up to the crowd alone, who are not given any sort of scoring or point sheet; they just vote for whomever they liked.

Sometimes, competitions seem to take a surprising turn, with an un-expected, “dark horse” winner taking first place, and an audience favorite not even placing as a semi-finalist. This is sometimes due to the judge’s personal taste in appropriate scoring, and also because when determining a winner, all points given by judges are taken into account and tallied up for a total, overall score.

As a judge, I look for a “whole package” in a contestant, and it’s my guess that is what the other judges do as well.

I can’t tell you exactly how to win a competition, but I can tell you things that might help you to prepare.

Practice, practice, and practice some more!
There is no such thing as “over rehearsing” for a competition…unless, of course, you injure yourself in the process. Know your routine (whether choreographed or improvised) and know it well. Some contestants practice for hours a day, for months. Just make sure that in this intense rehearsal period you are getting proper nutrition, and enough sleep to let your muscles –and your brain-repair! Many dancers add on private lessons, or work with coaches when prepping for competition- it’s something to think about, and worth doing if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it, try to seek out a dance mentor who can watch your performance and offer helpful tips. Videotape yourself and your routine and view it to determine your strong points and weaknesses.

Make sure you have everything you will need in your dance bag, including all costume pieces, needle and thread, pins, feminine protection, hair spray, back-up copies of music, a cover-up, etc. You can never be “too prepared”, and you never know what will come up! Know the directions for getting yourself to the contest itself, make travel reservations and confirm them well in advance, pack some light snacks and water with you on the day of the contest, and get some rest- you will need it!

Presentation is everything
To become a winner, you must “have it all”: Technique, a hot routine that uses the full stage, stage presence and appropriate emotions that translate beyond the footlights, professionally edited music, a costume that fits well and looks beautiful on you… and you also need to stick to the time limits- don’t go even a second over your allotted time.

Categorize yourself
Pick the appropriate category (or categories) for your dancing… for example, if you are a strong fusion style dancer, do not enter the Egyptian category, you will only be throwing your contest fee away on something you won’t stand a chance of wining. Also, determine whether or not you are entering into a competition category that is suitable for your age range or skill-level, and make sure you know exactly what certain category criteria is.

I have seen contestants get points taken off for a variety of things, but one major blunder is not sticking to the criteria for the category entered. For example: I recently judged a “Specialty Props” category, where many contestants did veil work… and not that much of it…with a single veil. Though I didn’t check with the other judges, I believe we were all on the same page: a veil isn’t a specialty prop: along with finger cymbals, it’s a belly dance “standard” item. Specialty props are things like cane, fans, shamadan, hula-hoops, trays, jugs, swords, Isis Wings, and double veils. And if you are using a prop that entails use of fire, please check whether or not open flames are allowed in the contest-because many times, the contest and the venue itself, will not allow open flames!

Costume yourself appropriately
You are not going to win a contest through your appearance alone, but you can and will get points taken off if your costume is not appropriate. It doesn’t matter if your costume is home made or a high couture creation- but it should fit appropriately, flatter you, and be suitable for the category you are entering. Use fashion-tape and safety pins even if you think you don’t need them, wear shoes to protect your feet (there may be beads on the stage from other dancers) make sure all straps, snaps, hooks and zippers are in tip-top shape, hem your veils and skirts, spray your hair, and for Pete’s sake wear enough make-up!

Kick stress to the curb
If you have practiced and planned enough to be comfortable in your performance and know exactly what you are planning on doing, try to alleviate stage fright and performance adrenalin by taking a few even, deep breathes before you go on stage. Remind yourself mentally to go slow and to finish every movement. Remember to smile- it really “sells” your performance, the audience loves smiling dancers. Even if the judges are keeping poker faces, smile right at them and look them in the eye! A smile and a confident attitude sometimes makes the difference when points are getting scored, keep that in mind, too.

If you miss a few steps in choreography, or have some sort of minor mishap onstage, do not let it show in your facial expressions. Know that you have prepared for this moment fully, and trust in yourself and your abilities. Nobody on the judging panel started out being a fantastic dancer- nobody was born that way, everyone has worked towards that goal, just remember that! As judges, we admire your bravery and your unique presence, we are only human…and we too have had mishaps occur onstage, probably more than we would ever admit to!

Look at competitions as a learning experience
Congratulations, girl: even if you don’t win or even place in the semi-finals, you have done your personal best, and by the very action of entering a contest alone, you are a winner!
All of your preparation and practice has not gone to waste if you don’t win, you will only be a better dancer for the experience. Don’t beat yourself up and try not to feel dejected. You set a goal for yourself, and you followed through. You probably also made some new friends, and now people in the community are aware of you, as well.

All that alone is amazing…. and with the popularity of belly dance growing every day, there will be plenty of other chances for you to enter other competitions!

1 comment:

  1. I just love your blogs. As a dancer that is just starting to head towards professional performance, I find them very helpful!