Competitiveness: How Healthy is Your Spirit?

Competition surrounds us our entire lives. Some of it is inevitable, and some of it we create for various reasons. Having a competitive spirit can be a very positive quality, but it can also lead to some negative outcomes if it is taken too far. Outside of our everyday lives, those of us that work in the performing arts have to face and manage a great deal of competition. Therefore, knowing when competitiveness is useful and when it can hurt you is imperative.

I’ll begin by sharing my background as a dancer. I grew up as a competitive dancer and was lucky to have been raised in a studio that not only chose ethical and respected dance competitions to be involved with, but it wasn’t the sole focus of our training. We only went a few times a year, and many of them had wonderful conventions that we participated in. I was a sponge at conventions. I loved learning from multiple instructors, some of which I had idolized for years, and I was inspired by sharing that experience with a room full of dancers I didn’t know. At least one of our pieces was typically chosen in the top category and we would head to nationals. The trophies alone that remain in my old bedroom of my childhood home are a constant reminder of the amount of money and time my family put into my dream. Thanks, Mom and Dad! Sometimes we wouldn’t win, which of course was a letdown. However, because of the way we were taught, instead of getting too upset or jealous, we were in awe of the talent that did win. We wanted to meet these dancers, congratulate them, and tell them what an inspiration they were. 

Remember that your biggest competitor is yourself.

The second studio I trained at was a little more competitive, and rightfully so. The classes were more rigorous, and the talent was top notch. The demand for excellence was elevated for me, and I thrived in the expectation. Attending dance competitions with this company was a very different experience for me. I worked harder than I ever knew I could, and I was achieving a level of technique that I didn’t think was possible for me. The recognition at competitions was undeniable, and I was in awe of my teacher. Her ability to advance all of her dancers both technically and artistically is something I still aspire to be like. 

I was fortunate to have been disciplined with a great sense of work ethic and a clear understanding of being humble. Additionally, I began performing in musical theatre at a very young age, so the audition process was something I was very familiar with. When a dancer would come into a room that had a strong competitive nature combined with ego, I was always turned off. I immediately lost interest in the most talented dancer in the room if they were conceited. As a choreographer, I recognize this energy the moment it walks through a door. This type of dancer is typically shut off from the ability to be original, and to work in a collaborative, supportive environment. As an instructor, I work hard to help strip the ego away. I pride myself in creating an environment in the classroom that demands excellence as much as it creates community. We earn each other’s respect together, and at no point is disrespect tolerated. Keeping the dance studio a safe place for everyone to learn and explore is necessary. It only takes one person to negatively affect the energy in the room.

So, when is a competitive spirit facilitative, and when is it not? Here are three pros and cons of having  a competitive spirit as a performing artist:

Jealousy will never make you a better dancer

Positive: It can push you to work harder. My favorite thing to do in class when it came to leaps, was to head to the back of the line with the men. In my studio, the men were the highest jumpers, and getting to go across the floor with them lit my fire to match and/or out jump them. Having people in class or at an audition that inspire you to work harder will always push you to your full potential.

Negative: It can run a fine line with jealousy. If the competition goes beyond a healthy limit, it can turn inspiration and drive into jealousy. Jealousy will never make you a better dancer, rather it will turn you into a bitter human being. I spent years idolizing another dancer in my studio. All I wanted was to be able to dance like her. It wasn’t until I realized that I would never be able to dance exactly like her, that I grew. Instead, I learned to focus on figuring out why I was drawn to this person, and how I could use those qualities in my own movement. Then, I learned how to find my authentic voice as a dancer and artist.

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Positive: In a competitive setting, such as a competition or an audition, it can give you an upper hand. Wanting something so much so that it pushes you to work at your absolute best is not a bad thing. Exuding confidence in you and your skillset is a beautiful attribute to possess. Use your competitive spirit to show your work ethic and talent, all while remaining humble and open-minded. 

Negative: If you’re only there to compete, you’re cutting yourself off from collaboration and being a team player. Being “that” person who shoves their way to the front with zero regard for anyone else in the room is never good. This will be recognized right away by the people you are trying to impress. Be yourself. Teachers, choreographers, and directors want to work with dancers that not only bring something to the table, but are respectful and great to work with.

Dance is an outlet for vulnerability, failure, and growth.

Positive: Healthy competition is a beautiful life lesson, especially when it comes to learning how to fail (and win) gracefully. It’s so important to remember that you will not always come out on top, and that’s okay. Dance is an outlet for vulnerability, failure, and growth. Failing is how you learn to get better. How you handle defeat says multitudes about you as an individual. Supporting those who do succeed amidst your failure is vital, especially when you know you gave it your absolute all. Keep working. Don’t give up. Stay open. When you do win, win humbly. Remember that your biggest competitor is yourself. 

Negative: It can cloud your connection to your artistry, and can lead to a misconstrued idea of what success means. Hyper-focusing on “winning” will negatively affect your growth as an artist. You are your own worst critic, and you will typically never be fully pleased with your work. If you get too stuck in this mindset, you will never actually allow yourself to be successful. Enough people will make your journey to success challenging. Don’t do it to yourself. Remember that it’s not just about perfecting technique. There are so many other elements to focus on in order to become a well-rounded artist. Find your voice.

There are so many benefits of competition. Whether it was for an audition or a job interview, having a healthy competitive spirit kept me fighting to improve myself, and truly grasp what I had to offer. But it’s not just about getting hired. Dancers are known to be driven human beings that don’t settle. Stay grounded, and allow your competitiveness to assist you in your advancements and overall growth. Great talent may get you that first job, but a great work ethic and attitude is what will make you a reliable and re-hirable dancer.

About the author

Megan Glynn Zollinger holds a BA in Dance from Chapman University, and an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine. At UCI, Megan worked directly under the tutelage of Donald McKayle, who was her thesis mentor and advisor. Formerly an Assistant Professor of Dance and the Director of the BFA Dance program at Colorado Mesa University, Megan is currently an Assistant Professor of Dance at Chico State. A native of Napa, CA, Megan began dancing at the age of four and by the time she was 15, she was teaching and choreographing. Megan’s training was focused in commercial dance, as well as musical theatre and voice. She is an active member of NDEO, ACDA, and MTEA.