37 Tips for Your First Dance Competition
Whether it's your first time or your 50th, your your first dance competition, this is a big deal.
After all, you probably didn't start this hobby with a lifelong urge to participate in an event like this, or maybe you did, and either way - you're not alone.
This article is your Pre, Mid, and Post event checklist. It's designed to give you a reference point on all the major things you will need to work on, remember, and schedule to get the most out of the experience.
Don't worry, it is broken up into sections based on where you may be in the process.
1. Lock in your Date
We all have a calendar. We are all well aware of the dates, times, and scheduling technology it is capable of, yet owning something and using it are two completely separate things.
The sooner you secure the date of your Dance Event, the sooner you can begin to prepare. Think of it this way, you will prepare the same way you have scheduled your event. If that means you have "sort-of, kind-of" scheduled it, then you're only "sort-of, kind-of" preparing.
2. Reset Your Definition of "Ready"
No one ever feels ready. Now, that doesn't mean you can't be prepared, but if your perfect description of the term "Ready" includes the perfect mastery of both the dance steps, your heartbeat, and your adrenal glands - then, I'm sorry, you'll never be ready.
Unfortunately, many students wait until that version of "Ready" shows up, and opt to skip out on events until it happens.
Instead, it's better to anticipate those uneasy butterfly feelings your body is sending through your body. Prepare a pre-performance routine, like Dan McGinn shared in his podcast interview on "Off the Floor", and just know that the event you're participating in is designed to show you, after you've danced through the pressure, that "Ready" is a feeling that is best appreciated afterwards.
"I did it! I'm ready for the next one."
3. Prepare Under Pressure
Take the first 10-15 minutes of your upcoming lessons to simulate the environment at the event. One easy way to do this is to practice dancing without stopping.
During the learning process, it's easy to create an environment where you are, essentially, hitting pause, rewind, and play whenever you encounter mistakes.
Preparing under pressure is a concept that will help eliminate the habit of stopping after each mistake.
4. Bet on Your Strengths
You won't need to demonstrate the entire syllabus, or show off your entire repertoire of moves you've acquired at your event. Your goal is to always demonstrate what you know best, because you'll perform it the best.
In each dance you'll have a handful of patterns that will be your go-to, bread-and-butter, moves. These should be the patterns that show off your strengths, technique, and style.
5. Address New Material
Just because you've limited the material as you prepare, that doesn't mean you'll discard any new patterns, techniques, or concepts. In fact, a dance event can serve as a great deadline for getting new material started.
Just remember #4.
6. Your Biggest Competition
If you didn't know, you are the only competition you will ever need. Just like golf, ice skating, or hatchet throwing, you are always going head to head with your own best effort.
7. Load up on Practice Parties
There will be other people on the floor. From a comfort standpoint, this can be both a blessing and a curse. It's definitely more comfortable having a group of people on the floor, after all, you won't be the only one being watched. On the downside, you've got to navigate through traffic - also referred to as Floorcraft.
So load up on parties. The more traffic, the better.
8. Backup Plans
Even pre-rehearsed choreography is subject to change, given that there are other humans on the floor with you. Think of this like driving a car, playing chess, or running the two minute offense in the Super Bowl.
You need backup plans.
There is absolutely no way you will start and end your dancing exactly the way you have planned. Get over it.
What you can do is have some fallback maneuvers. Moves that are familiar enough that you can easily get out of trouble, regroup, and possibly connect back with any choreography you've missed.
9. Practice at Full Intensity
No, this is not permission to suddenly get overly dramatic on your lessons, but you should, absolutely, practice your dancing at a maximum level of effort.
Because your effort is energy, and since you're dancing with someone, that energy can be felt. If the only time that happens is the day of the event, that can lead to a loss of balance, missed signals, or further dance disaster.
So, max out in the studio so your teacher, or partner, knows exactly what you are capable of and can prepare accordingly.
10. Maintain Communication
Imagine driving a winding road, late at night, without your headlights on. That is the scary scenario equivalent of keeping concerns or anxiety to yourself, and not keeping an open dialogue with your teacher.
In the same way that one push of the headlights button could drastically improve the safety of driving at night through a windy road, one simple decision to communicate any concerns you might have can give your teacher the opportunity to keep your dance performance vehicle on the road.
11. Goal: Log Minutes, Not Trophies
There's a version of you that is calm, confident, and fully capable of dancing the way that you do in the studio, even when it is at a big dance event. That version of you is accessible once you've logged enough pressurized minutes on the dance floor.
Your number one, without a doubt, goal for any dance event is to melt away the external layers of nervousness and anxiety to find that dancer on the inside that is too tired to care that people are watching.
So rack up minutes on the floor. The real trophy will be the newly formed confident dancer that emerges by the end of the event.
12. Low Criteria Dances
There are some dances that allow you to set your brain on auto-pilot a little easier. Dances like Merengue, Country Western, and Peabody are just a few examples of, what we like to call, "Low criteria dances".
Their goal isn't to replace your favorite dances, but instead, they get your body moving, get your face smiling, and will help accelerate your comfort on the dance floor by the time the dances you care about the most start up.
13. Goals: Work Percentages
You need to re-calibrate the traditional goal setting you may be used to. Get ready to ditch the black and white, pass or fail, good or bad assessments and aspirations. You have to remember that you are doing something artistic, performing in a different environment, and there are a lot of moving parts.
So here's the new way to set your goals - percentages.
Pick an objective you've been working on for a while. Then set a percentage of the dance where you'd like to see it in action. "I want to see myself on video smiling in the Foxtrot at least 25% of the time." Insert any other goals, and chat with your teacher about what percentages would be appropriate.
14. Goals: Expected Vs. Bonus
Sometimes it helps to understand what your teacher is really expecting from you. Unfortunately, often times, students can judge themselves to a higher criteria than their teachers, or the judges, are expecting.
To counteract this, get together with your teacher and determine what would be something Expected (for example, "staying on time in Waltz for at least one lap") and what would be a Bonus Goal (for example, "maintaining rise and fall from start to finish").
The best part? Whatever is your current Bonus Goal will be an Expected Goal in the future.
15. Multi-Day It
Here in Northern California, we are fortunate to have a District Showcase that is two days. This immediately gives participating students an incredible benefit: Less dance regret.
Every dancer, amateur or professional, will wake up the morning after a dance event with a list of missed opportunities on the dance floor. With a second day, that list can become a to-do list for day two.
So if there's still time, do whatever you can to add a second day of dancing. It's a built in dance-developing, regret-fighting activity.
16. Bring Snacks
It's important to stay hydrated, first and foremost. Especially if you are actively applying #16 before you dance or during long breaks. This may sound crazy, and against the current healthy grain we are all abiding by, but bring something sweet.
Maybe it's a bag of gummies, a couple of Snickers bars, or, if you insist, some fresh fruit. You will need a little pick-me-up if you have to wait a while.
Aside from that, protein bars and trail mix can tide you over until the lunch buffet.
17. Pack Ahead of Time
Sure, you may be able to pull off the magic act of slamming random garments and a laptop into an overnight bag for a work conference you could attend in your sleep, but this is not that conference.
It's important that you pack outfits for the Smooth and Rhythm categories. Many will add a second set of outfits for the second day, and you may want to eventually change into a different costume for Open Category. It's easy to forget to pack certain items, and it doesn't get any easier if you're doing it last minute.
Bottom line - pack in advance, ask your teacher for suggestions, and don't add any unnecessary stress to your life 24 hours before you dance.
18. Post Event Strategy
Sure, this may sound like something you'd do after the event, which sort of goes against the placement of this point in the article, but you should decide on your post-event strategy while you're still in your pre-event preparation.
Let's repeat that: You absolutely, without a doubt, must agree to your post-event strategy while you're still in pre-event mode.
Set the agenda, schedule coaching lessons, and pinpoint areas of the program that will be improved immediately following the event, and you won't lose any momentum or progress when the event finishes. The reality is that you will be accruing vast amounts of progress in your pre-event preparation, but a momentary decision to take time off afterwards can nullify it.
19. Greet the Judges
It may sound crazy, but the judges will always come across as ominous dignitaries until you meet them. Whether that's before the event begins, or during a break in the action (try the lunch break), feel free to introduce yourself.
It will immediately reduce any weird, judging speculation you may have, and you may even get a great selfie in the process.
20. Arrive Early
There's a reason every Dance-O-Rama starts with at least a day of leisurely activities, and why the most experienced students arrive on Friday for the District Showcase. It's called stress reduction.
The logistics of packing and traveling to any type of dance event can take its toll. So the sooner you arrive, the sooner you can unpack, find a quiet spot, and start warming up.
21. Warm Up, Get Hot
Your first sweat shouldn't be on the dance floor. If you play your warm up cards right, you should already have the perspiration going prior to performing.
Whether that's dancing basics on your own, running through choreography, or good old fashioned stretching - it makes a big difference, especially in your first 10-12 dances, when your body is already warmed up.
22. Introduce Yourself
There will be a group of people that you'll be dancing with throughout the day. It's hard to tell when adrenaline is coursing through your veins and you're stuck in the mental fog of your dancing checklist, but they are there.
One great way to cut through that fog, and to just enjoy the event more, is to introduce yourself to some of the students around you. After all, they are sort of like extended family. Say hello, you have a lot in common, and you may find that you've got another person to look forward to seeing at the next one.
23. Eliminate Your Side View Mirrors
Speaking of other people (#22), there will be people, just like you, at this event that took a leap of faith, worked really hard, and can use any additional random acts of encouragement they can get.
The performer in you may want to see every other student as a threat, a competitor, an adversary. That same performer may give a sideways look at them as they walk by.
Note: There is zero possibility of someone seeing a sideways glance as a random act of encouragement.
So instead, remember that you are your only competition, and everyone is attending the event to improve in some way. Stop someone, tell them they made a great choice to participate, share something that you appreciated about their dancing, and let them know you'll be cheering for them the next time they pass by.
24. Think Calibrate, Not Calculate
When you finish a dance, there's a part of you that will want to calculate the mistakes, the two dozen seconds where you couldn't hear the music, and if you continue that way, you'll quickly eliminate any possible benefit to participating.
Instead, think of the word calibrate. Your teachers are like ringside coaches at a boxing match. Before you make any wholesale assessments, ask a question, "How did I do?" Don't forget to let them answer, then follow up with, "what should I focus on in our next dance?".
Your teacher may not be prepared to dance the next one because those two questions could cause them to cry spontaneously and lose all composure.
25. Scream and Smile
It sounds weird, but the sooner that you scream and cheer, the sooner that you're going to laugh and smile. It's as simple as that. A showcase is your dance hobby version of summer camp, or a pep rally, and you just won't get the full experience if you're quiet.
So let loose. The more noise you make, the more comfortable you'll feel.
26. Dance Stuff: Take the Floor (Quickly)
The sooner that you walk on the floor, the easier it will be for the judge responsible for your feedback to find you. Not only does this keep the event running smoothly, but it's a bold statement that can help you shed your nervous exterior even quicker.
27. Dance Stuff: Bumps Will Happen
Remember that little bit about Floorcraft? Or all those times your teacher explained the importance of the Practice Parties? Well, it's events like this that really put that to the test. But no matter how much you've prepared, bumps will happen.
When it does, stay calm.
This won't require a long drawn out apology and an exchange of your insurance information, but a quick wave, nod, or mouth the word sorry and get back into dancing. For more major collisions, you may want to stop to see if the other person is okay, but in general, treat it more like Bumper Cars at the fair, and less like a fender bender on the freeway.
28. Dance Stuff: If You Fall
Every now and then someone will fall. This happens once or twice at events like this, and aside from a bruising of the skin, or your ego, getting back up and finishing the dance will usually net a bigger applause than anything you did dance-wise before you fell.
Because every single dancer - student, teacher, or judge - has been there. So get up, keep dancing, put it behind you, and you'll be applauding even louder for the next person it happens to.
29: Dance Stuff: Reset Moves
So if anything like #27 or #28 happen, or you just happen to blank out or you are trying your best to avoid a collision - it's good to have patterns that help you get reset that are familiar and effective.
In the Foxtrot, use the Swing Step.
In the Waltz, use a side Hesitation Step.
For something like Rumba, try a Rumba Break or Second Position.
In each case, these lateral moving patterns can help hit the refresh button on any clutter in your execution, and get things reset with a clean slate.
30. Keep Tabs
Your teacher is going to be pretty busy at events like this. If they've got 2-3 students, they will be managing multiple schedules, and if they've got more than that, they may even have other teachers assisting. It's a lot to juggle.
Here's how you can help.
You'll have a copy of the dances you're doing on what's called a "heat sheet". Treat this like a precious manuscript, or the login credentials to all of your social media accounts - very carefully.
If you aren't dancing for 20 more heats, let your teacher know that. If you're within 5 heats of your next dance, let them know that you'll meet them at the lineup area. The better you are at your schedule, the lighter the burden becomes on your teacher.
31. Take a Bow
When all your dancing is finished, it will be time to take a well deserved bow - and drink a well deserved celebratory beverage of your choice.
It's not just the dancing that you did, but what the dancing did for you. By this point, you're leaving the floor in a much different physiological state than when you first entered it.
The nervous energy is replaced with enjoyment, and, hopefully by that point, you're too tired to care about the pessimistic voice in your head. It's this point that unlocks your ability to dance in front of people with no hesitation. Whether that is an audience of dance students, or your friends and family.
32. Critique with the Consultant
As important as it is for you to create your own personal proof of progress, hearing feedback from an outside opinion can help to shed light on areas you hadn't considered, or validate feedback from your teacher.
The critique is designed to pinpoint trends, offer areas of improvement, and act as a launch point to the next chapter of your dance program.
Not to mention, it replaces any speculation you may have had about the judges' opinions with a conversation to clarify your next steps.
33. Repeat Your Prep-Week
Many students load up their lesson schedule the week before their big dance event, but reduce it drastically the week after. The students who lock in the most progress maintain the pre-event schedule in the week following the event.
This allows you to follow up with the feedback from your critique (#32), and build on any feedback you and your teacher may have shared from the event while it is still fresh in your mind and body.
34. Coaching Lessons
Imagine talking to a plumber about a leak, but you're not sure where it is on your property. That would be an expensive consultation.
Now imagine that same interaction, but you know exactly which pipe is responsible.
That's a little like a coaching lesson immediately following a dance event. Any areas of your dancing that need to be addressed are backed by recent, specific experience instead of a general feeling.
"We'd love for you to look at our Foxtrot. We noticed that our head position was great in closed position, but when things got crowded, our promenade wasn't as strong."
"We really want to make our Foxtrot look more confident."
35. Reconnect Your Program
Regardless of what your points of emphasis were going into this dance event, you made major strides in your dance program... and you may not even know it.
In your week following the Showcase or Dance-O-Rama, sit with your teacher and have them show you the ripple effects in dance, style, or technical knowledge this event has created.
36. Set the Agenda
It would be weird for a newly married person to plan their Anniversary party, or worse - their next wedding, immediately after their wedding was over.
But for athletes of all genres, they already have their next game or match on the calendar.
As soon as you lock in the next few dance events on your dance calendar, you'll be able to start this checklist over again a lot sooner.
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