Entry #2: The Competition
I was standing backstage watching the other dancers go before me; reviewing my routine in my head for the thousandth time. There was this one part that I kept getting mixed up on and it worried me. I went back to it over and over again, but the right order eluded me.
I knew what to do on stage if I didn’t get it right, but I wanted it to be perfect. Could I hide the hiccup with my face? Could I make it look purposeful if I had to improvise on the spot? Would I be able to get back into the actual choreography and make it look seamless?
But I wanted it to be right. This was a big competition for me. Star Makers was one of the biggest competitions in the country and I was at one of the biggest venues in New York City. Scouts from professional dance companies were in the audience and I had to make a great impression. My mom was counting on me. I saw her schmoozing with some of them while I was getting ready.
Back here, in the dark wings of the auditorium, I could finally breathe for a few seconds. My mom wasn’t allowed backstage with me, and I always checked in earlier than necessary just to get away from her for a little while. She probably knows what I’m doing when I head back with more than the standard five dances before mine, but she probably thought I had some special ritual I had to do backstage before I performed. The truth was that I just need to get away from her. Maybe that does count as a ritual.
My eyes were drawn to the girl on stage. So far, she delivered a nearly flawless performance. She was in the lyrical category and I was contemporary, but she was still my competition.
For those of you that don’t know: Competitions are broken down into age, skill level, and style. When we are judged, we are competing against others of the same age and skill level; the style of the dance is irrelevant. Some would argue that tappers and ballerinas shouldn’t have to compete against each other because the styles are so completely different, but it’s just your score that matters. Elite-level dancers that are sixteen to nineteen years old will all compete for the top spot. We all have to be flawless regardless of our chosen style.
I peeked at my mom’s program before I came backstage and there were only a couple of tappers here today and their chances of reaching the top ten were slim. No matter how good they were, it was usually lyrical and contemporary that dominated Winner’s Row, which was a pity. Tap is really cool to watch.
My mom liked to count how many dancers I will have to compete against at every competition, but I never wanted to know. Whether it’s a hundred or twenty, my performance has to be perfect. Only after I’ve already performed do I let my mom fill my head with all the stats and gossip about my competition.
Miss Perfect-Lyrical finished her routine and I clapped along with everyone else out of polite obligation, even though I hadn’t been paying attention to her dance. If she exited my way, I’d tell her good job, even though I didn’t know if she fell on her face or not. It was just what we did back here. We clapped for each other and we congratulated each other to show that we were good sports.
Some studios take their efforts at sportsmanship to the extreme to try to win the annoyingly elusive Sportsmanship Award. It’s only handed out to one studio at the end of each competition. Their enthusiasm was always so unbelievably fake. Standing ovations for every double platinum is not necessary and none of the dancers actually want to do a leg workout on stage for the world to see, but their teachers tell them they have to, so they do.
Another lyrical dancer just started her routine on stage. I recognized her from other competitions we’ve attended together. I think her name is Amber or something. She’s dancing to a cover of a well-known song, but I couldn’t place it and didn’t really care enough to try to figure it out. There were four more lyrical dances before the contemporary category was set to start and I was third on the list of contemporary dances. I had time to get this stupid part of my dance figured out before I performed.
I stepped back toward the prop area to mark my routine, hoping that doing the actual movements would help me remember.
“Right arm cross. Prepare. Quad. Reach. Chiané calypso.” Damn. What comes next? It’s not the floor work. That comes later. I stay standing after this calypso, but what do I do before the pitch? I went over it again, but I was still drawing a blank. If I couldn’t remember, I was going to choreograph it right here on the spot. What can I put there that would make sense? Antonio, the choreographer of this routine, won’t care. I doubt he even knew I was competing it today. The outside hires never do.
This had always been a big source of tension between my mom and me. She always insisted on hiring the best of the best, but half the time, their prices were too high and my dad refused to pay that much, or the choreographers themselves were too stuck up and rude that my mom ended up fighting with them; by the time we finally got started, they were all huffy and my questions and concerns always fell on deaf ears.
“That’s it!” I whispered to myself. I remembered that stupid part, now. It didn’t flow and I hated it when I was learning it, but Antonio didn’t care. He forced me to do it his way anyway.
After the calypso, I had to change direction and run to make it to a certain spot on stage in time and it threw me off balance, so my pitch was wobbly.
I glanced at the list of dancers checked in and I still had five dances until I went on, plenty of time to rework this a bit to make it more solid. I decided not to change direction and slow the reach just a tad, throw in a leg hold turn before the pitch for dramatic flair and called it good. I reviewed it a few more times, then started from the top to make sure I could get through the whole thing without stopping. I could.
Another quick glance at the monitor: two more dances. The contemporary category had started.
Some dancers can’t watch their direct competition; I have watched many dancers turn away, nervously reviewing their routine one last time. Others stand mesmerized, choosing to know exactly what they’re up against. I was one of the former. I couldn’t watch the ones who came before me. I didn’t want to know how they did.
I used to watch them closely and found myself changing my own performance according to how well the person did before me. If she totally tanked, I would relax and not put one hundred percent into my routine, hurting my chances because other people’s flawless routines would follow mine and I’d kick myself for letting my guard down.
On the flip side, if the one before me was amazing and nailed everything, I would get myself all worked up and nervous and my performance would suffer. Shaky turn, wobbly leg hold, lost facials. It only took me a few competitions to learn that I needed to turn away.
I heard the audience cheer and I clapped along. One more routine and then it was my turn. My hands started to shake, so I clenched them into fists, then shook them out, cracking my toes and jumping up and down. I went over the new part one last time and it came to me easily. I knew I’d made the right choice.
My mom would notice the change, but I didn’t care. I’d gladly take the lecture over a fumble on stage any day.
Another cheer, the dancer exited the stage toward me. I stepped into the wing and clapped along as she came over.
“Good job,” I told her, and she gave me a breathless “thanks” as she walked away.
The applause died down and the MC announced me. “Continuing on in the contemporary category, number seventy-two. Escape. This is Skyler Thomas!”
That’s my cue. I quickly picked my wedgie and entered the brightly lit stage to the polite applause of the audience. Even my entrance had to be carefully choreographed and when I reached dead-center, I posed, waiting for my music to start.
I couldn’t see the audience and for that I was grateful. I didn’t want to know where my mom had chosen to sit. I knew that she would be overanalyzing my every move. All that mattered now was how I do at this very moment. I let the whole audience fade away and let myself get lost in the opening notes of my song.
No one but me would ever know how appropriate this song is. I wished so badly that I could escape, but I let my movements speak for me. Letting it all flow out of me. All the pain and loneliness I felt, I let it show on my face as I moved. My mom would think I was just putting on a good show for the judges, but these emotions were real today.
I moved past the new choreography without hesitation, and before I knew it, I was in my end pose. I let my arms fall, nodded my head in a small bow to the judges, and made my choreographed exit. I held my posture and face until I reached the shadows of the wings and finally let myself breathe again.
While catching my breath, I heard a few murmured, “good jobs,” and said thank you and good luck to those still waiting to perform.
I picked the giant wedgie that happened because I forgot to hairspray it in place, but this costume had a half skirt, so it probably wasn’t too obvious.
I was getting a lot of stares from the other dancers, but I was used to it. I’d developed a reputation as a powerhouse according to the dance bloggers, and I could practically feel the envy emanating from the other dancers. As soon as the MC said my name, they knew who I was and what they were up against.
My mom had an Instagram page that she updated religiously for all my “fans.” She liked to tell me when someone commented on one of her posts, or when a celebrity decided to follow me. I was guessing all of these girls backstage followed my mom’s page and knew who I was better than I did. I had my own page too, but I rarely went on it, I didn’t have anything to put on it that wasn’t already on my mom’s page. It wasn’t like I had any friends to check in on anyway.
I took one final deep breath and prepared to face the music. My mom will have rushed back here after my performance so that she can meet me in the hallway to give me a hug and say all the obligatory motherly things that make her look good for the gawkers.
I pushed open the stage door and sure enough, there she was, power walking toward me with what I knew to be a very fake smile. She gave me a loose hug and whispered, “You know you shouldn’t change the choreography.” Her grip tightened. “I paid good money for Antonio.” She released me and laughed loudly. “You forgot to hairspray your costume again, I see.” She said this like it was a funny mistake, but I knew I’d pay for it later when we were back at our hotel.
For the next couple of hours, I was dragged around the high school, forced to meet all kinds of costume reps, dancewear designers, promoters, and company recruiters. I was asked to model for costume companies; I gave statements for dance magazines; posed for pictures and even signed a few autographs for some little starstruck petite dancers.
When I was first starting to get noticed, all of this seemed like a dream come true. I was still starstruck myself. When I was asked to model for a dance catalog for the first time, I remember gleefully accepting the gig and loving every minute of the photoshoot.
That was over four years ago, though. Now, I just smiled and accepted whatever my mom told me to because I knew we would get a free costume after the shoot and the costumes were one of the few things my mom actually let me have even a tiny bit of say about.
But with all the schmoozing came the other side, too: the darker side of this dance world.
One time, I had a mom “accidentally” spill her soda on my tights and laugh when she walked away. Luckily, my mom was in the bathroom at the time. I told her it was my fault and I got in trouble, but that was better than the horror show that would have happened if my mom had seen what that woman did. I found out later that that woman’s daughter was scheduled to compete immediately after me and she was trying to mess up my game. I don’t know if that woman knows, but her daughter apologized backstage before awards. I told her I completely understood how protective moms could be sometimes and the lengths they would go to make their kids happy. We still chat occasionally when our paths cross. She’s one of the good ones, despite her crazy mom.