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North Hills Monthly

Teamwork and Chemistry Key to Competitive Dance

Jan 31, 2018 02:02PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Students practicing at Evolve Dance Complex

It takes two to tango, but it takes a whole team to win a dance competition. Competitive dance has stepped into the spotlight in recent years, and Pittsburgh has no shortage of competitive dance teams.

The Emsworth-based studio Pittsburgh Poison is home to the 2015 and 2017 Hip Hop World Champions, a title granted by the United States All Star Federation. Pittsburgh Poison has won a total of 13 medals at world championships. 

Owner Tracy Indof said that teams consist of dancers from six states who compete locally and nationally about once or twice per month. “We have no cuts for our teams. Anyone who wants to be a part of our competitive program is able to participate,” she said, adding that students do have to try out to be on a competitive dance team at Pittsburgh Poison. 

She continued, “We do have a placement process; we evaluate the kids according to ability level, and that is how we form our teams to be the most competitive.”

Although Pittsburgh Poison exclusively focuses on hip hop, students at Michele’s Dance Center in Wexford compete in other styles, including tap, jazz, contemporary, lyrical, and musical theatre. Founder and Artistic Director Michele Koerts-Fester said that about 25 percent of her students are involved in competitions.

At Evolve Dance Complex in Cranberry, about half of the dancers are engaged in the competitive life, competing in similar genres. Owner Jennifer Sebes said that the competition audition process is more about level placement, and not a process of elimination.

“If I have a child that wants to pursue it, we bring them on and we train them,” she said, adding that competitions today offer three levels:  beginner, intermediate and advanced, so there is a place for virtually anyone.

In addition to traditional competitions, dancers at Evolve also attend convention competitions, an entire weekend in which participants take master classes from industry professionals and compete later in the day. In fact, Evolve students just won several awards and scholarships at the recent Hollywood Vibe Dance competition in Pittsburgh, winning Junior, Teen, and Senior Dancer of the Year titles.

Training for competitive dance is a different animal than recreational studio dance, though Sebes said that she believes a good studio should have a strong foundational recreation program in addition to the competitive program.

“Dance class is where you’re learning your technique and learning how to incorporate different movements, connecting them from one movement to the next; where you’re really training your body to be a dancer,” said Koerts-Fester. Building upon the techniques they’ve learned, competitive dancers add on specific choreography for competitions.

“I think the mentality is very different because there are big goals connected to it. You see a difference in the drive of the kids, maybe because of the expectations of teachers or coaches,” said Indof.

Sebes said some of her competitive dancers train 20 hours a week. “The dancers’ time commitment increases due to training and rehearsing; their retention capabilities are enhanced as they learn and execute choreography, and physical growth occurs naturally when all of this is combined,” she explained. “It is a whole different dimension when training as a competitive dancer.”

Although competitive dance has been around for quite a while, it is growing in popularity; studio owners attribute the rise of competitive dance to reality television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dance Moms.

School-age students who dance competitively sometimes go on to major in dance in college and seek careers in the field, either as dancers, choreographers or judges. But even if a student does not pursue dance professionally, there are many benefits to be had, including the value in being part of a team and the close bonds that dancers form.

“We really focus on the team aspect rather than on the individual; you’re judged on uniformity and synchronization,” said Indof.  “You really learn to depend on others; you learn a work ethic and work for something bigger than yourself.”

“I think it’s a nice way for the dancers to have another stage experience and for them to get critiques from the judges,” added Koerts-Fester. “That is our favorite thing: to go back to the studio and listen to what the judges had to say about our routine; that really helps the dancers.”

Sebes agreed, adding, “It is important for them to learn constructive criticism, and to grow and learn from that.”

So what are the elements that make up a winning dance number?  It varies per studio and per dance type, but most agree that teamwork and team chemistry are key. “Artistry and skill are crucial as well, especially good choreography, good technique, good showmanship and great stage presence,” said Koerts-Fester. 

And don’t discount the athletic prowess that it takes to be involved in the sport. “When you have kids with crazy, athletic skills, the possibilities are endless,” said Indof.