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Dance Competition Soloists: 5 Tips to Help Prepare You for the Stage

Dancer: Courtney Saffold | Fierce Dance Competition

I have been judging regional and national dance competitions throughout the U.S. and abroad for well over 20 years. During that time, I not only have seen the tricks and trends come and go, but I also have witnessed the level of talent expressed by these young people rise to an unbelievable bar.

Once in Chicago, I saw an 8-year-old soloist pull off six pirouettes, finishing perfectly balanced and in relevé. The soloist after her could not do nearly as many pirouettes, but she gave a performance full of joy and showmanship that I can still remember it to this day.

When I see performances like those, I can't help but wonder what young dancers are doing to prepare for such a stiff level of competition. While not every dancer can pull off six pirouettes, surely there are some worthwhile tips that can help a competitor to succeed at any age or skill level.

As adjudicators we offer written or verbal critiques in real time as it is happening onstage. But there is an entire process that takes place before the dancer hits the stage in which we are not a part.

In a perfect world, these young competitive dancers have teachers, coaches and choreographers guiding them along the way, offering lots of advice.

The question then becomes: Are they getting the proper advice, are they listening to the advice, and are they implementing the advice?

As owner of Man In Motion and the event director of The Dance Lab: Perfecting Your Competition Solo, I wanted to do my part to help young dancers prepare their solo for the stage. While I easily could offer 50 ways to prepare, I thought it best to reach out to a few of my colleagues for those little pieces of advice that stand out the most.

I asked and here are the five tips that they delivered.

Dancer: Sophia | Studio: Dance Mixx | Starpower National Talent Competition

1. Get the Proper Rest and Nutrition

“Although resting and sleeping may be taken for granted," said Omar Hekal, director of Allegro Arts Dance Academy in Carlstadt, New Jersey, “it is very important for the dancer to maintain a regular sleep schedule, along with balancing other responsibilities around dance. Scheduling rest and strict bedtime routines provide the dancer’s body with proper physical muscular recovery with a good night’s sleep.

“Eating healthy is also an important component in maintaining a strong healthy body and stamina during long hours of practice and performance. Fueling the body with proper nutritious foods that support energy and strength is an essential practice to gain positive results both on and off stage. Hydration is also important; drinking plenty of water is always encouraged.”

2. Enjoy Every Step Along the Way

“This may seem like something that we recognize as dancers already, but make sure you really LOVE every single step given to you by your choreographer. Judges and adjudicators alike can see if a soloist is genuinely in love with the piece of choreography they are given or if the emotion is ‘masked.’” So says Keith Leonhardt, adjudicator for Turn It Up Dance Challenge.

Keith continued: “Go through your choreography step by step. Take the time to understand how the choreography is moving through the space and how your body can connect with the material. Your choreographer has specifically set this solo for you or better yet, you may have even had the opportunity to create it yourself.

“As a soloist, you are given the freedom to express ideas to your audience independently. It is your job to captivate the audience and take them on a journey. If you love that journey, so will we!”

Dancer: Sage | Studio: Ballet Nouveau | ASH Dance Competition

3. Stretch Your Feet

Being a dancer turned choreographer turned judge, Kevin Raponey finds that the biggest struggle a soloist has is pointing their feet. Kevin is a longtime dance educator and a current cast member in the Off Broadway production of Rock of Ages.

“Your feet are an extension of your legs, which are the main source from which we dance,” said Kevin. “Whether you are kicking your leg, rolling on the floor, or doing a turn, you must stretch your feet. Use ballet class to really push through the floor during tendus, degages and frappes. Concentrate on strengthening the ankle and remembering that every time your foot comes off of the floor (unless specifically choreographed) the foot should be pointed.

“Film yourself during rehearsals and really hone in on how many times you forget to stretch your feet. Take notes on yourself; that is how you will get better and come out on top.”

4. Stay Focused - On and Off the Stage

According to Alexa Sanniola, owner/director of Lambarri Dance Arts in Matawan, N.J., there is a difference between looking and seeing. “When executing a solo, your audience needs you to map out the movement for them to follow along. Instead of just knowing where your head and neck should face, actually see what is in front of you.

“In rehearsal, test yourself,” said Alexa. “After executing your solo, go over what you saw. For example, ‘When I reached to the right, I saw the number six on the clock. During my leap forward, my focus was right at the seam of the mirror.’

“This specificity will not only translate on stage, but will bring clarity to your movement, and even help you dance more fully. The audience will know exactly where to look and why you are making the movement choices you have made.”

Dancer: Eva | Studio: Star Essence Performing Arts | Breakout Dance Competition

5. Get To Class!

“Everything that you take with you onto the stage starts right in the classroom” That’s the view of Amy Cowley, Man In Motion's new assistant director of special events.

“When you are in class, you are not just learning steps; you are building strength and flexibility and creating confidence as a dancer,” said Amy. “From barre to center work and across the floor, these are all utilized to perfect the skills needed for the stage."

“All of these attributes are what makes an amazing soloist - and they start in the classroom before you hit the stage.”

So there you have it - five tips to get you dancing and ready for the stage. Read them, remember them, and apply them. Pay close attention to the written and verbal critiques given by the judges after your performance and see if any of their comments are related to these tips, either positively or negatively. We have faith in your performance and so should you!

Need a few more tips or some hands-on professional coaching? Then join us in New York City for The Dance Lab: Perfecting Your Competition Solo, on Monday, January 20. 2020.

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