Competitions - The good and bad

I just returned from my first trip to Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition (BDUC) and with La Danse Orientale competition just around the corner, a lot is on my mind around the meaningfulness of competitions.

I’ve read many blogs and postings on the reasons for why one should do a competition, one of which is to grow as a dancer because it helps to set a deadline for getting something accomplished. Also, the regular practice that goes with preparing for a competition also helps to build muscle memory that helps improve technique.

I’ve also read many reasons for why competitions can be detrimental to a dancers progress. Competitions can be unfair, with biased judges, ambiguous judging and scoring criteria and an unhealthy competitive environment amongst dancers, that I can understand why many people would be turned away from them.

After participating in about 8 competitions and attending many more, I can tell you both perspectives are true. I’ve seen a lot of good and bad dancing at competitions. I’ve seen good dancers outplaced by dancers with either lesser technique or no stage presence at all. I’ve seen categories where a competitor is far below/above the level of the category in which they entered. I’ve even had judges forget to circle scores on my sheet! Well, here’s what I’ve learned from witnessing and experiencing all this and more, competitions are UNFAIR. As hard as some organizers try to create scoring sheets that take away bias, it’s an impossible thing to do because dance is an art and art is subjective.

Many people go into a competition to win, to be the “best of the best”. That’s a fallacy, the “best of the best” doesn’t exist. I’ve seen too many disappointed faces and tears after a competition to know that if your sole purpose to enter a competition is to win, then take a deep look inside and ask yourself why someone else’s stamp of approval is important to you. It sound’s cliché, but do the competition for yourself and you will get a lot more out of it. I decided to do BDUC because it was a challenge.

I decided to enter the “Universal Category” because it requires competitors to use zills, a veil and have an understanding of Persian, Chefetilli, Egyptian and Turkish rhythms. I have so-so zilling skills and have very little knowledge of Persian and Turkish rhythms. I had 6 weeks to put a costume and choreography together. I reached out to other dancers to mentor me in the pieces I was weak in. I also had set meeting times with my mentors which kept me from having to procrastinate and kept me from letting myself down.

I practiced and practiced a LOT! I practiced beyond the point of being sick and tired of hearing the same track, over and over and over. But with each practice I grew. I learned how to use a large space more effectively. I learned how to manage transitions better and I learned a lot of great tips from my mentors along the way. From improving my zill speed to how to position oneself for floor work. All that wouldn’t have happened had I not entered the competition.

By the time the competition day came, I felt prepared and good about my performance. I didn’t win, but that’s okay because I gained a lot from the process of preparing. But it doesn’t end there. The two most valuable pieces of information from doing a competition are judge’s scores and video.

Score sheets can be hit or miss in providing value, but the good news is you get many and so you’re bound to get some valuable feedback. Some judges provide lots of valuable comments that help you understand those areas you can work on and specifically what to work on, and that is gold! Other times, judges can give you low scores and no explanation why, and that you have to let go. Some times a judge leaves you with downright mean comments that add no value. Which is why it’s so important to not be in this to seek anyone’s approval. There are also the times when a judge gives you a confidence boost, and writes nice things and it makes your day.

The other key reason to do a competition is video! Getting good clear quality video can be hard when one is performing in dimly lit restaurants. The quality of video ranges based on the organizer, but they all at least start at the basic level of having decent lighting and a steady shot. It’s important to review this video after your competition and analyze the areas you want to see improve. I’ve done competitions where I never received my video and I will never do those competitions again.

Finally, another reason to compete is for the camaraderie. Sure there are some girls there that are “in it to win it” and they are very cut throat, I like to stay away from those. But there’s also a lot of nice people there too and if you seek them out, you will find them quite helpful and supportive. Competitions are a great place to meet other dancers and be inspired by some amazingly creative and talented people.

This weekend I head down to La Danse Orientale in Tacoma. Even if you aren’t competing, go and watch. There is so much to learn as a dancer by seeing others work hard at pushing themselves to be their personal best. It’s very inspiring!


Mariana is a dancer in the Pacific Northwest. She would like to thank Rachel George, Janelle Bel Isle and Gigi Gulhan in helping her perpare for the BDUC competition.

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