Wednesday, February 13, 2013


This coming weekend, February 15-17, 2013 marks the 23rd anniversary of the Belly Dancer of The Universe Competition, held annually at the Convention Center in Long Beach, California. I hold an extremely soft spot in my heart for BDUC, and not just because I love the mother and daughter team who put it on, Tonya and Atlantis. BDUC was the very first belly dance event I ever attended...exactly 23 years ago! During those years, I went from "baby belly" to professional dancer and competion judge, and so I kind of count BDUC as my "belly dance birthday".

In that time, I've judged a heck of a lot of belly dance contests , so I thought I'd share a few observations I've made-both on competitions in general, and how to ace them, grow from them and have fun to boot!

Performers enter competitions for reasons that are as diverse as the belly dance community itself, but it seems the majority of dancers enter 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 and gift certificates, 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, the recognition and job offers can still happen- because contests are a way of putting yourself out there as a dancer. The very nature of a competition 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.

Sometimes performers enter belly dance competitions for the sole purpose of setting personal dance-goals, because they want to challenge themselves. For these contestants, winning or losing isn’t the main objective; it’s the whole process that counts. They may be 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. 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, 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 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 acts appearing 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. There’s always entries like the weird, un-choreographed “interpretive dance” that couldn’t even be classified as fusion entered into the Egyptian category; or some poor newbie dancer in a Halloween Headquarters costume that doesn’t fit and is showing the contestant’s underwear. There’s typically someone wearing finger cymbals but not playing them, or a dancer with zero 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 any of these train wrecks are actually not uncommon!

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 so 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! The age thing had me stumped too: How was I supposed to be judging a category where some contestants had been dancing for years longer than others had been alive? By the middle of the kid’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 chiropractor!

Also, and this is just my own opinion, I am not sure why nationally or internationally-known professional belly dancers (some 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 are not appropriate for the category; or songs or routines that run over the allotted time, or if the contestant’s age or experience isn’t suitable for the category entered. Many contests offer a “People’s Choice” where the audience votes for their favorite performer. The actual contest winner or someone who took second or third place may or may not win this award; sometimes it goes to another contestant that didn’t even make semi-finals. 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. Once in a while, competitions 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 judging panel’s personal taste, 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 the “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 will help you prepare.

Practice, Practice And Practice…Did I Say Practice?

 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 hours a day for months. Just make sure that during 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, 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 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, a compelling 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… if you are a strong fusion style dancer; do not enter the Egyptian category hoping to be noticed. You’ll only be throwing your contest fee away because you won’t stand a chance of wining. 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”. Specialty props are things like cane, fans, shamadan, veil poi, hula-hoops, trays, jugs, swords, Isis Wings, and double veils. If you are using a fire prop, you need to check whether or not open flames are allowed in the competition-because many times the event- and the venue itself-will not allow any sort of fire or open flames onstage!

Appropriate Costuming
You’re not going to win a contest through your appearance alone, but you can and will get points taken off if your costume isn’t appropriate. It doesn’t matter if your costume is home made or a high couture creation- but it should fit perfectly, 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 rehearsed well and planned enough to be comfortable in your performance, alleviate stage fright and performance adrenalin by taking a few even, deep breaths 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 adores smiling dancers. Even if the judges are keeping poker faces, smile and look them in the eye! A smile and a confident attitude sometimes makes the difference when points are getting scored, so 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 yourself and your abilities. Nobody on the judging panel started out being a fantastic dancer or was born that way- everyone worked towards that goal, just remember that! As judges, we admire your bravery and your unique presence, we’re only human…and we too have had mishaps occur onstage, probably more than most of us would ever admit to!

Use 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!



I will be teaching "Strike A Pose: How To Make The Camera Love You" at BDUC on Sunday, February 17, from 12pm-2pm in...appropriately enough(!!) "The Princess Lounge" at The Long Beach Convention Center...but I'll be there all weekend!

Come on by and say hi!

Photo by Dusti Cunningham


  1. I would love to read this whole article but something is wonky with the formatting/display; the last right-hand quarter of each line is cut off. Can this be fixed so I can read the article in its entirety?

  2. Thanks for posting! I'm entering a belly dance contest this summer, so this was really helpful!

    1. Thank YOU for reading!!!!! : )

      And best of luck to you on your competition, too!

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