Competitive Dance

My daughter just completed her second year on a competitive dance team. Here’s what I fundamentally didn’t understand about competitive dance before I got to see it from the inside.

There are no rules.

For-profit companies travel from city to city hosting competitions. Each one has its own scoring, its own judging, its own schedule. There is no way to compare results from one competition to another.

Other artistic competitions like cheerleading and figure skating have standard scoring. Dance scoring is completely arbitrary.

There are no winners.

Dancers cannot say simply, “We took first place!” Each dancer performs in many different routines in different categories and possibly even different age levels (depending on the ages of other dancers in the same piece). Each piece is ranked in three or four different ways.

A typical awards ceremony runs over an hour, covering all the combinations of age, number of dancers, and styles of dance. “We took took first place in intermediate small group tap, against one other routine competing in that category, but didn’t rank for any of our other numbers” is about as concise a ranking as will ever be possible.

There is no sharing.

Dance is an artistic expression, but competitive dance must never be shared. Don’t record video. Don’t take pictures. Don’t share anything on social media.

Choreography is guarded like a trade secret, so even when a studio stages something amazing, hardly anyone will ever see it. Middle school band concerts the world over are readily viewable on YouTube, but I’ve seen some truly spectacular dancing in the last year and nobody but me and a handful of spectators in the room at the time will ever get to experience it.

We’re creating great art with the intention of hiding it from the world.

There is only dancing.

There’s a pervasive expectation that dancers are dancers to the exclusion of all other interests. If you want to dance you’ll give up your weekends, your summers, your prom, your family vacation… you’re a dancer first, last, and exclusively.

Surely that’s the perfect mindset for some dancers, but it clashes with the norm for middle school children that many activities are worth trying. Competitive volleyball for an eleven year old takes up only six weeks of the year, but dance for the same age level somehow requires the entire calendar.

There are only dollars.

As an entirely for-profit industry, the costs are astronomical. Plenty of articles about high school sports feature parents griping at the costs climbing to as much as $1,000 for a year — how outrageous!

One year of competitive dance costs $9,000 for only the minimum required activities — plus travel and lodging in California for a full week for a “national” competition. Most dancers do more.


Competitive dance was a lot of fun for dancer and parents alike, but it’s nothing at all like any other middle school activity, and indeed nothing at all like I expected walking in the door for the first time.