What Judges Are Looking For

I’ve heard from many coaches, choreographers, dancers and pretty much anyone involved with dance team who need some clarification on what exactly judges at a dance team competition are looking for.  With the help of good friend and Larkspur colleague, Kayla Kernel, I break down categories that are present on just about every dance team scoresheet out there.  

Prior to the competition, analyze the scoresheet.  Figure out  what categories are worth the most points.  If you want to start getting better and getting higher scores, really focus on the categories that are worth the most points.  If you want to know what the judges are looking for, it’s right there on that scoresheet. Here’s an explanation of the most common captions.  

CHOREOGRAPHY:  The moves that are being performed, not how well the moves are being performed, but the actual routine that has been set on the dancers.  Common subcaptions under choreography:  

Musicality:  A routine with good musicality brings the piece of music to life by utilizing all parts of the music, not just the drumbeat.  Utilize the lyrics, accents, different instruments used in the music and have your movements match all the layers.  

Story arc or storyline:  It doesn’t have to have a message, or try to teach something.  A story can simply be the events within your routine.  Strong beginning, strong ending, and then in between there needs to be peaks and valleys.  Peaks could be dramatic movement en masse, a cool trick on an accent, a really visual display.  But if the routine is nothing but peaks, that will be just too much for the judges to take in.  The valleys need to be present to build to the peaks and add importance to them.  

Variety:  Make sure all the movement doesn’t look the same.  Variety can be achieved with levels, layers, group work, utilizing and counts, ripples, and facing different directions.

Flow:  Transitions are everything, and I’m not just talking about traveling between formations.  I’m talking about how the dancers get from event to event, from moment to moment in the routine.  If the routine looks like a series of starts and stops, transitions need to be addressed.  A lot of times there is a drop in the action while dancers are setting up for the next big thing or event.  Those big things and events need to tumble seamlessly, one right into the next, and they need to be danced through, not walked through.  Make the transitions interesting and visually pleasing.

Creativity and originality:  There is nothing wrong with sticking to what is tried and true and really works for your team.  The challenge is to take it and tweak it, and switch it up so that it’s different from last year, or different from how another team performed it.  Safety and utilizing good technique should always be the priority, so don’t think that you have to be stuntmen or ninjas or do tricks and skills that your dancers may not be ready for.  Take what they can do and make it different.  

Difficulty:  Again, safety and proper technique always take precedence over sticking skills in a routine that a team is not ready to do.  Challenge your dancers, but don’t set them up for failure by having them do skills that aren’t done well, and aren’t synchronized, or could result in injury.  It’s better to use group work or spotlights for the dancers who do have the skills, and have the others do supportive moves that complement the skills in a visually pleasing way.

Staging:  Look at the routine from up top, because that’s usually the judge’s vantage point.  And that’s really helpful when evaluating how the routine is utilizing the entire performance space.  What does the overall picture look like?  Do you know where to look?  Are the highlights and events being seen?  

Formations/Transitions:  Have many and make them seamless and visual.  Getting from point A to point B shouldn’t be painful.  It’s an opportunity to do something visual with dance movement.  Make sure that formations aren’t so spread out that judges don’t know where to look, and that they’re intentional and purposeful.  

TECHNIQUE/EXECUTION:  How well the choreographed moves are being performed.  Some common sub captions for technique and execution are:

Placement:  Where are the dancers placing their arms?  If it’s a T, it needs to look like a T, even in a jazz or hip hop piece.  

Posture:  Shoulders should be back and down with chins elevated slightly.  

Completing the moves:  Where are the moves initiating?  Utilizing the core makes moves stronger, and also discourages rushing through the movement.  

Strength:  The movement needs to be powerful so it’s not lost.  Powerful movement is also easier to clean.  Engage all muscles in body to achieve power behind the movement.

Control:  Is the starting point and stopping point of a motion clear?  It is when the move is controlled.  Don’t just focus on arms when working on control.  Also look at feet.  Are they strongly pointed and not sickled?  When skills are performed, are they done so with mastery?

SYNCHRONIZATION AND GROUP EXECUTION:  How together are these moves being performed?  Here are common sub captions for synchronization:  

Uniformity:  Are all the dancers performing the moves the exact same way at the exact same time?  Doing the nitty gritty and super tedious detailed cleaning of uniformity will elevate something from mediocre to outstanding.  Are all the dancers hitting movements at the same angles?  This is another area where spacing helps.  If spacing is uniform, movements will look more uniform as well.  

Hip and shoulder orientation:  many times this won’t be listed on a scoresheet, but when working on uniformity and synchronization, this is a game changer.  So many times something doesn’t look right because someone’s hip and shoulder orientation isn’t the same as the others.  

SHOWMANSHIP/COMMUNICATION/PROJECTION:  Are the performers connecting to the routine and the audience?  Common sub captions for showmanship are:  

Facial expressions appropriate or present:  It’s more than just slapping a smile on your face.  A big grin most likely isn’t appropriate for an emotional lyrical routine or an aggressive hip hop routine.  Are the facial expressions showing an understanding and a connection to the music and movement?

Eye contact:  Making actual eye contact with audience members shows confidence as opposed to looking at the ceiling or the floor or other team members.  Making eye contact is also a way to connect to the audience and the judges.  

Authenticity:  Are the dancers really performing and dancing as opposed to going through the motions?  Are you believing them, or is it forced?  

GENERAL EFFECT/OVERALL EFFECT:  What impression is the judge left with?  Was it dynamic?  Was I drawn in?  Many times this is a rating of the “total package.”  

The best way to clean a routine and figure out where your team needs to work on upping their score is not only by analyzing the scoresheet, but actively using it as a team to clean your routine.  Have all team members fill out a scoresheet while watching video of the routine.  Give the scoresheet to anyone coming to help clean your routine.  That way it’s no mystery and it eliminates a lot of the guesswork.  

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