Some dancers start tapping their toes and twirling in their tutus before they can even walk. Then after years of dance training, many young dancers begin their careers in dance competitions and dance convention settings. These multi-day, regional companies move from big cities across the nation, conducting competitions where competitors perform dances in many styles (from lyrical and contemporary, to hip-hop, musical theater, and more). Dancers are divided into divisions based on age, experience, and group size and register to compete as solos, duets, trios, small groups, etc. Choreographers and instructors choose music and costumes that create a story or theme. From here, judges watch and score these numbers with detailed notes and corrections. All the while, when not performing, dancers have the opportunity to attend dance conventions and classes, usually focused on improving technique and learning/perfecting new styles of dance.
The dance training that competition dancers face is rigorous: from maintaining technique and improving balance skills, to strength training, conditioning, and flexibility improvement. This upbringing requires constant training, from technique classes to cleaning huge production dance numbers, traveling on weekends to different cities, competing for trophies and doing it all over again. But how do these dancers turn out later in life, and what do they end up doing as adults? What life lessons did these dedicated dancers learn from their rigorous dance competition backgrounds?
Two professionals with dance competition and teaching backgrounds were interviewed for their thoughts and experiences regarding the dance industry. From growing up in the competition circuit, to choreographing and instructing dances, we learn a bit about how it affected and continues to affect Abigail Ellen Graham and Sydney Baranski, and why they are still involved or not.
"Competitive dance requires time commitment, physical commitment, and emotional commitment" - Sydney Baranski
To start out, Abigail Ellen Graham (she/they) is no stranger to the stage, nor to the dance competition circuit. Originally from Washingtonville, NY, Abigail began their performance career at a local dance studio and has gone on to choreograph and instruct competition dances/classes, as well as perform professionally in the entertainment industry. A few notable roles include Sophie U/S, Ensemble in Mamma Mia (The Media Theatre) and Vern/Swing/Dance Captain in The Big Test (LEGOLAND NY Resort). Now residing in Brooklyn, NY, she is constantly auditioning and has had much success getting seen for Broadway, cruise ships, national tours, theme parks, and more.
For Abigail, dancing and competing in a small-town studio helped prepare them for the professional world as a performer and dance teacher.
If you could change one thing about your upbringing as a competitive dancer, what would it be and why?
“Growing up, my studio didn't actually compete too much! I only got to go to a handful of competitions as a dancer, and I wish I had gone to more. The more you do, the more fun it becomes, and the less scary it seems. I think it would've helped me more in the future in audition settings and paid performances. And I definitely would've told myself to stop skipping the convention classes to hang out at the hotel pool.”
Did you experience a rougher or smoother transition into pursuing dance professionally, because of your competitive dance background?
“Life became a lot more difficult in the real world. No one was handing me parts anymore, and I had to learn to work really hard for the things I wanted. But on the other hand, it gave me a leg up in performing under immense pressure, and I think that has served me really well in my audition life.”
Although performing is at the forefront, Abigail has balanced a heavy workload of performing, auditioning, and survival jobs, all while still holding onto their passion of bringing the art of creativity to the classroom. Abigail has instructed countless dance classes of varying styles, as well as choreographed for many local recitals and regional competition solos, duets, group dances and more. After all, a dance teacher is burdened with much more than instructing students to blindly mimic steps. It is rather a combination of educating students on an entire art form while simultaneously partnering with the other adults in their lives to keep them safe and healthy.
For former/current teachers: How has competitive dance evolved from when you were performing to now? What do you do differently as a teacher to ensure your dancer's success?
“When I was dancing, we didn't know much about how the competition world worked. We registered under the most advanced categories because we didn't know any better. Now as a choreographer and teacher, I research each competition we go to. I look up who is on their judges panel, I read every word in every rule packet a thousand times over, and I rehearse my kids until they feel like they could dance with their eyes closed. We work on different "saves" within their routines in case they get tripped up. I have them practice in different rooms, facing different directions, wearing different shoes or costumes, so that they are as prepared as possible for anything that may happen when they get on stage.”
As any good teacher does, Abigail challenges their students to be prepared for the worst: rehearsing long, hard, grueling hours. Clearly, Abigail’s dedicated passion as a dance teacher for preparing her students for anything possible is a clear indication toward her determination and drive in the industry as both a previously competitive dancer and current performer and a teacher, because after all, today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers.
Competition by nature can fester a level of toxicity, as some attend these events to win, even if it means not playing fair, but Abigail stresses preparedness, kindness, hard work, and determination to their students
On the other hand, former competitive dancer and performer, Sydney Baranski (she/her), has hung up her competition medals and trophies and is now a home-based clinician. Working at EasterSeals MI, a leading nonprofit provider of services for individuals with behavior health disabilities, emotional impairments, autism, developmental disabilities and other special needs, Sydney is driven and detail-oriented in her case management and home-based psychotherapy. As a dancer, she began dancing before she could walk and went on to perform in countless dance competitions, musicals, and recitals before graduating high school. Then, she attended the University of Michigan for undergrad, and went on to attain a Master’s Degree in Social Work with a concentration in Welfare of Children and Families, where she also led an on-campus, student-run dance company. All the while, Sydney has never lost sight of her roots in dance and her dance competition days, where she developed her lasting passion, drive, and genuine commitment to everything she does.
What is one valuable piece of advice that you would give a young dancer entering the competition dance world?
“One piece of advice for someone entering the competition world is just get ready to work. From my experience, the comp world was completely draining a lot of the time- [however], not to say that’s always a negative. Competitive dance requires time commitment, physical commitment, and emotional commitment. The lengths we really put our bodies through and the emotion we were asked to dive into- it’s a lot. And the practice required outside of the 20+ hours already spent in the studio just adds up.”
Did you ever feel there was any pressure to look a certain way as a dancer?
“100%, I think there’s pressure to look a certain way as a dancer. I think this is really difficult because some of the more attractive qualities looked for in a “dancer body” are things we have no control over like leg length, foot arch, small chest, all things like that. And then when you don’t have these things, not to say you can’t be successful or great, but you may be limited in some styles of choreography or overlooked just because of physical characteristics. And the costumes are SO revealing at times (which honestly, I’m all about because why not) but it definitely puts you in a place of vulnerability just by what you’re wearing. ALSO, it’s so difficult because you’re standing next to each other every day- the whole point of choreography might be to look exactly the same and be in sync, so it’s so easy to compare yourself to who’s right next to you… and that’s hard. AND THEN, going on stage next to all these people. The point of competition is to compare, so naturally we compare ourselves as well.”
From a young age, Sydney could leap, turn, flip and tumble circles around other dancers, and she still felt the looming pressure to fit into the “dancer body” that the industry stresses. Sydney now focuses much of her energy on working out and staying healthy, for herself and her own piece of mind, but it is seemingly difficult to forget the trauma and competitive mindset that one’s body is not good enough. She makes it a point to remind herself and other dancers that your body is dynamic, and that is what makes you an artist. The tiny quirks and variables are beautiful aberrations that only you are capable of producing.
Why did you leave the competition circuit? Why not?
“I wanted to leave the competition circuit a few times. When my friends graduated, I still had 2-3 years left and I didn’t know what it would be like without people I talked to. Also, I thought about quitting once around 8th grade— I wasn’t very good, was placed in the back for everything, and I just asked myself ‘Are all these hours worth this?’ I practiced for 4 hours after school almost everyday, and then [rehearsed on] Saturdays and Sundays during competition season. I barely had time to be with friends outside of dance. But I kept with it because I decided it was worth it, I guess. Also, I almost had to quit when my dad lost his job and it was just too much. The studio owner gave me a “scholarship” so I didn’t have to pay for classes, so I could continue. I think it was just the idea of not dancing anymore that kept bringing me back.”
Although Sydney stuck it out until the end of her high school career, she never lost sight of the lessons she learned in commitment, vulnerability, and connection built both on and off the stage.
“Rehearsals are SO hard, but once you start the competition season, and you start bringing it on the stage, it’s so rewarding.”
All in all, the dance competition circuit isn’t for everyone. Many dancers compete, attend dance conventions, and go on to pursue successful dance careers in the industry, and others stop early on and never dance again. Sometimes these dancers experience burnout due to the rigorous competition and class schedules, and ultimately quit dance before reaching a professional career. At the same time, the competition world can be dangerous to a young dancer’s body image and mental health, becoming too reliant on external validation through a trophy or winning a dance award, or simply looking a certain way. These learned mindsets of determining success based off of someone else's judgment can constitute for many challenges in the professional world.
It is important to note that considering all the pros and cons, the entire basis of competitive dance is to share artistry and creativity through building relationships and connection through dance. After all…
“It’s not all about the trophies.”