Who wins dance competitions?

Dominic Antonucci considers the pros and cons of dance competitions. This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of the Dancing Times and is reproduced by the kind permissions of all involved.

Competitions have always been somewhat controversial in the dance world. The idea of quantifying or scoring a subjective art form is inevitably problematic and there are many who disagree with doing so, at least in principle. Technique, execution and line are naturally easier to score than artistry or interpretation, and so competitions have sometimes been tagged as being 'all about the tricks'.

Despite dividing opinion, however, competitions have helped further the careers of young dancers since the 1970s and continue to do so. I recently had the honour of being a judge for the ballet category final of the newly launched BBC Young Dancer competition. It brought back memories of my own competition experiences as well serving as a reminder of the benefits and potential pitfalls that they may hold for developing dancers.

While I was a member of the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre, funding for the arts was at a low in the US. American Ballet Theatre’s rehearsal and performance weeks were cut down to a minimum. This left me little opportunity to perform and develop. Out of necessity, I sought as much 'guesting' work as I could find, just to keep busy and pay the bills.

My mentor and coach at the time was David Howard, who had prepared several young dancers to international competition success. David suggested to me that a competition may be exactly what I needed to boost the progress of my career and at the very least provide me with a goal to work towards and a structure in which I could improve.

Training for the Jackson International Ballet Competition marked a significant change in the way I approached my ballet practice. I could recognise the purpose of each exercise much more. I had more sense of controlling my own outcomes as they related to my dancing. I felt a greater responsibility towards my work. After all, especially in competition situations, it is only you out there and the stage can feel a very lonely place if you are underprepared.

'Competitions are a test of nerve, but also of consistency and mental fortitude'

My reasons for entering a competition were not dissimilar to those that motivate dancers to compete today. Several ballet schools that I know of now hold their own 'in-house' competitions on a regular basis, recognising the benefits and inspiration that they can provide.

The simple fact of it being 'competition' immediately raises the level of the student’s effort and focus. Instead of just having their usual daily lessons, students training for a competition have a specific goal in mind and focus on that alongside their normal classes.

This has a different effect on a student’s approach to practice than, say, a school performance might, where individuals may feel more or less challenged depending on the roles they have been given to dance. Competitions are much more personal as the student is scored solely on their individual performance, thereby creating more sense of responsibility and independence.

The criticism aimed at competitions has always been about the tendency to emphasise flashy tricks over performance quality. Artistry is sometimes overwhelmed by or lost in the preoccupation with technical execution. It is only natural that a competitor would want to display the maximum limits of their technique given the short amount of stage time competitions provide.

This consistently presents judges with a scoring dilemma: Competitor A executed flawless multiple pirouettes and soaring leaps that may or may not have fitted within the context of the performed piece artistically or musically. Competitor B does not have the same technical aptitude, but presents themselves extremely well, is musical and shows artistic qualities that will serve them well as a professional. To whom should a judge award more credit?


There are many different ways of scoring, but every competition I have judged has given the panel equal opportunity to score for artistry as for technical prowess. Personally I would always lean towards a more well-rounded dancer. As ballet master at Birmingham Royal Ballet I have seen many young dancers that can perform fantastic steps in a competition setting, but place them in the corps of something like Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée and they are lost.

I mean in no way to disregard the importance of technique, only to point out that it is often easier to recognise and score technical skill than more subtle qualities, and that technical proficiency at a young age is not necessarily an indicator of a good professional in the future.

It would seem that the very nature of competition lends itself to the more immediate 'eye candy' of technical feats. This, coupled with the idea of 'winning' at an art form, has caused some corners of the dance world to be dismissive of the merits of competing. What may be missed by those critical of the performances and prize results is the development of the dancer both mentally and physically. While I did not earn a medal for my efforts at the Jackson competition, I came away with a mental resilience that held me in good stead throughout my career.

This is something I can now spot in other dancers who have had similar experiences. Competitions are a test of nerve, but also of consistency and mental fortitude. The saying goes, 'What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.' This rings very true in regards to competitions. Self-belief is vital to any dancer’s success, and competing is a very practical way of building this.

'Competition isn’t just the one minute of dancing on stage, it’s weeks and months of focus and consistency with your work'

Chi Cao, Principal

There are several members of Birmingham Royal Ballet whose careers have been shaped or propelled by competition success. Principal Chi Cao was a prize winner at the Prix de Lausanne, and then won gold at the Varna International Competition. Chi recently returned to the Prix as a judge, and so I felt there would be no better person to bring perspective to our topic.

Like myself, Chi credits competing as a major part of his development as a dancer. 'One great thing about competitions is, for example, when I went to the Prix... I had never danced on a raked stage before. We had five minutes of rehearsal on the stage and then the next day we had to compete. That is quite a lot of pressure on a 15-year-old, but once you’ve been through it you really feel like you’ve achieved something and become mentally stronger. Competition isn’t just the one minute of dancing on stage, it’s weeks and months of focus and consistency with your work.'

I came up through the ranks of Birmingham Royal Ballet alongside Chi and I can attest to the fact that after he won the gold medal in Varna, he returned to the Company noticeably more confident and mature. It is no coincidence that shortly afterwards he was promoted to Principal.

Now that Chi is judging instead of competing, how does he view the balance between technique and artistry? 'I think when you’re young all you can see and understand is the steps and tricks. There were dancers I didn’t think were very good when I was younger but they actually turned out to be much better professionals than others who had more polished steps or lines. I think, nowadays, competitions are pretty good at giving credit to artistry and potential as well as technique.'

One thing that struck me while judging recently was how much responsibility the teacher or school holds in terms of the dancer’s success in competition and ultimately the amount of benefit they will get from the experience. Selecting a piece that is challenging but also constructive and confidence-building is essential. It disturbs me when I see young dancers performing steps and pieces that are beyond their current ability and maturity level.

It is up to the teachers to choose appropriately and with consideration of the dancer’s development rather than just 'winning' the competition. Responsibility also falls on the judges to not be seduced by tricks and flash, but to look for the deeper qualities and potential within the performers.

Regardless of the prizes handed out or how many pirouettes they managed to perform on stage, a young dancer who truly invests themselves in the process of striving towards their goals is all but guaranteed to come out of the experience better for it. That, to me, is a 'winner'.