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Competitive dancing needs a revolution

The art of dancing could do with a return to form

As someone who is unfortunately inept in all things physical, I vicariously live out my athletic dreams through watching dance competitions.

Dance to me is an art form that transforms boundary-pushing acts of the human body into a beautiful, effortless performance. I remember being in awe of the physical extremes in flexibility stunts — leaps beyond 180 degrees, leg extensions past the ears, and back-breaking contortion poses.

At the risk of sounding masochistic, all the moves looked painful but strangely so satisfying. They embodied my idealised vision of peak physical performance.

As I have come to learn, these stunts are known as ‘tricks’, which were once well-received by viewers of YouTube, back when I was watching competition numbers in 2014.

Being an amateur spectator however, I was unaware that dance was undergoing a revolution; one that would render it no longer recognisable to me.

Many dance teachers want dance to return to its artistic roots. In a 2016 article in Dance Australia, Paul Malek, a Melbourne-based artistic director at Transit Dance & Origins Dance Company, said that dancers are neglecting proper technique in favour of extravagant kicks, leaps, and jumps. Shelly Power, previous director of the international dance competition, Prix de Lausanne, echoed the same sentiment in a 2016 article in Dance Magazine: “too often we see technique compromised for the sake of the trick”.

Tricks, especially those that are gymnastic and acrobatic in nature, are essentially perceived as tainting the purity of dance. People distinguish tricks from dance; ‘dance is an art, acro is a sport’.

As U.S.-based choreographers Travis Wall and Alexa Moffett devised technique-heavy movement-based choreographies that dominated competition dance, tricks slowly became maligned in the YouTube dance community. Spectators began to criticise dance numbers for including lots of leaps and turns, calling in their comments for better ‘technique’, whatever that means. Consequently, my naivety led me to adopt an overcorrecting approach where I shunned all tricks even though they were my first introduction into the world of dance competitions. I would immediately close the tab if I saw a single pirouette or a dancer’s feet launched into the air.

Over the years, I have seen ‘technique’ become a central component in competition dance. For example, contemporary dance has become about the execution of shapes, technique and clear positions, balanced with musical and story-driven movements according to Freya List, choreographer and freelance teacher from Victoria, in an interview with Dance Magazine.

While I love the musical and story aspects of contemporary dance, movement-based choreography that is solely fixated on showcasing technique has become bland to me.

I am neither advocating for dance to completely abandon technique, nor for dance numbers to be a montage of tricks. Technique, like in any art form, is the central pillar of dance, and I, for one, am glad that technique is being foregrounded.

But I believe that tricks, in moderation, when accompanied by impeccable technical and emotional execution, can and should have a place in competition dance. If dance is an art of performance and making the audience feel something, tricks, able to inspire awe and incredulity, are surely deserving of validity.

As I was procrastinating and watching YouTube clips of competition dance, I noticed that tricks may be making a comeback.

For one, Expressenz Dance Center from Indiana in the U.S., who are famous for their synchronised turns, has been increasingly popular amongst dance spectators despite being a studio that is trick-heavy in their teaching methods.

While their technique, musicality and emotions are on point in every performance, it is their deft use of tricks make them a force to be reckoned with.

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