The Problem with Winning at Dance Comps

Could Second Place be better for you than First?

by Jo Bolden
We’re taught to strive for first place. Almost as soon as we learn that a ‘First Place’ exists and see the glory, congratulations and applause that rides shotgun with it, we develop the understanding that First Place is where it’s at, … it’s the place to be. The place that feels like you ‘made it’, can breathe out and stand taller. Right?
Before I go on, I want to say that I’ve been in both places here. Both First and Second. This is not sour grapes, cranky pants or belated jealousy – I’ve got myself in check. So I’ve been in both places and when I now judge/adjudicate, teach, create and observe the dance world around me I’m starting to wonder if the super charged competitiveness and ever increasing focus on winning isn’t causing a major roadblock for so many dancers.
Dance is this beautiful, creative, hard-to-hold-onto-because-it’s-always-changing little piece of magic. It’s magic for dancers and for those in the audience. It’s art. And the thing about art is that it’s subjective – meaning that any real value given is based on personal feelings, tastes and opinions. In a dance competition this means the personal perspective of the judges. Of course there are a number of agreed criteria to be balanced including technique, execution, performance quality, musicality, use of various elements etc. But still, the inescapable variable element here is the eye of the judge.
More and more dancers are feeding into the massive dance competition world. Which, in theory, offers incredible opportunities to practice, refine, work on stagecraft, share and explore dance. Except that it feels like First Place has become the sole destination for so many dancers. The problem with this is that it becomes about winning, then about making sure the ‘winning criteria’ is included in the routine (tricks, on-trend style, ‘steps of the moment’). It becomes more about winning than about the art of dancing.
Now in most of my conversations with dance judges the majority will tell me that they are looking for a combination of things to come together. A preparedness meets training with intention and a willingness to share with audience. The interesting thing? None of them have ever told me that those that are awarded First Place have ‘made it’ or that winning First Place somehow makes any dancer or troupe MORE THAN or MORE VALUABLE THAN any other performance. Though some have talked about outstanding moments in time and incredible, emotive and jaw-dropping performances.
No single moment in competition time, however, can eclipse the journey that dance is, or accurately predict the future for any performer. What do I mean by this? First Place doesn’t guarantee that you have it all ‘right’ or are in line for every future success on your list of goals. It’s a YES – I see you and your dance development, I like what you did here today and I want to let you know. Plenty of professional dancers have NEVER placed first at a dance competitions!
The ATTACHMENT to First Place is where the trouble lies. While it is a lovely moment of validation and verification – it feels so good to get that vote – it is not the sum total of who you are as a dancer. What happens when we get attached to First Place is that we become focused on keeping it rather than growing as a dancer. We become afraid to lose it because it might mean we’ve lost what it takes. All of this stifles and stops creativity, exploration, openness to any part of the journey that we don’t ‘nail’ first time round.
Second Place (or third, or fourth place for that matter!) on the other hand looks quite different. Yes, there’s bound to be some disappointment because we’re wired and conditioned to be aware that somehow First Place is better, but that’s ok, we can work around this. It’s just important that this disappointment doesn’t turn into ‘I’m not enough’. I believe that disappointment just tells you that you were invested and wanted something. It’s just a sign.
But Second Place also tells you that you did some incredible work. That what you did reached the judges, and probably the audience. Second Place keeps you moving forward on your journey without getting caught up in the ego that often hangs out with First Place. In Second Place we feel good but by nature give ourselves permission to continue striving. Second Place usually listens to the feedback with open ears to chances to reach for more. Second Place stays hungry for growth. Second Place dangles the carrot that keeps us excited and enthusiastic but not worried about losing it.

Jo Bolden

I love it when I see dancers and their tribe of teachers, choreographers and supporters get excited about performances BEFORE any places are announced. In this way any VOTE from a judge is taken as an extra, a bonus and a shout out. It doesn’t become the defining factor. The votes, the places and the awards will come and go but I hope it doesn’t change the love of the dancer to dance. Because you’ll win some and you’ll lose some and the work and the dancing goes on.
I said that maybe Second Place is better for you than First Place… I truly hope you’ll know both. Enjoy both. Let both tell you something. Then let them go and keep dancing. It isn’t the places that are really an issue; it’s how we let them make us feel about ourselves.

Jo Bolden runs As1Creative and can be followed on Instagram and Facebook