Dancing Against The Stars

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In the surreal world of dance competitions, victory can take a toll.

By Kristen Martin

I peer sideways through my fake eyelashes at Mrs. Potts, who’s adjusting the top of her teapot. Lumiere is here too, and Belle is fussing with the blue satin bow in her hair. We’re sitting in the tacky ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, waiting for the 13- to 15-year-old lyrical-group division to finish competing. If I hear the opening chords of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” come over the public-address system one more time, I’m pretty sure I will vomit.

Dozens of little girls dressed in Day-Glo sequined costumes run around the ballroom. Their camcorder-wielding mothers follow close behind, capturing every precious moment. Some pause to shellack their daughter’s faces with yet another coat of heavy makeup. A tiny girl across the room from me looks eerily like JonBenét Ramsey.

I’m beginning to wonder what I’m doing here, sitting next to the cast of Beauty and the Beast. I remember as soon as I scratch at the itch produced by my sequined, black, midriff-bearing top. My costume is complete with a black velour mini-skirt, stretch suntan tights, and tan jazz shoes. My hair is in the requisite low bun, and I hardly recognize myself with all the black eyeliner, fake eyelashes, and red lipstick. “Kristen, we’re on in 15,” says an identically dressed girl. I look past her at 15 more of my clones. 

“Okay. Don’t forget to move back before the fouetté turns,” I respond. My brain goes into performance mode. I want my company to go home with as many first-place trophies as possible. After all, this is a dance competition, right?

I have a complicated relationship with dance competitions. I love competing but also think it’s ridiculous. Whenever I’m at a competition, I always have a moment when I take a step back from all the hectic costume changes and last-minute practicing and am struck by the bizarreness of it all. This time, it came when I was sitting next to Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Belle.  

But I’ve seen more outlandish productions. My personal favorite was a 20-minute Batman-themed montage including Poison Ivy, the Penguin, and a bicycle turned into a Batmobile. There was little actual dancing, just very poor acting on the part of Batman himself. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing when the Batmocycle fell over. 

At every dance competition I’ve ever been to, there are overly made-up and spray-tanned little girls who look like oversized Barbie dolls. Their stage mothers live and breathe dance competitions. I half expect the moms to run up and accept the trophies themselves at the awards ceremonies. They weep after every performance. 

Then there are the “expert” judges. After every competition, companies are sent home with score sheets filled with what are supposed to be informed comments. Some of the most interesting ones my company has received include: “Stylish. Nice Pants,” for a jazz dance, and “Nice outfits, could use more accessories,” for a pointe solo. Our can-can-themed production one year inspired a comment from a judge who obviously mistook the clowns (girls from my company’s 7- to 9-year-old division) for hookers.

But as bizarre as dance competitions are, I loved being a part of them. Months of preparation and anticipation led up to each one. We practiced twice a week for three hours at a time, with daylong weekend rehearsals right before each competition. Rehearsals meant bonding: we gossiped, doled out advice to whoever was having a crisis that week, and, most importantly, danced hard. When the competition finally came, rehearsal season ended with a bang. The trophies we went home with were a reward for our dedication.

The other girls in Central Jersey Dance Company became my second family. Between late nights spent in each other’s hotel rooms and playing pranks on our teachers, we invented our own private language of inside jokes. We also had a signature celebratory move: the slow clap. After each dance, and at award ceremonies, we would start clapping sparsely, almost inaudibly. We’d build it up to a perfect crescendo, throw in an Ohhh Central Jersey!, and end in a rumble of applause. 

The others were always more intense about the actual competitions, but I stayed because I loved to dance and I loved my classmates. Besides, I liked to think that we were the classy company—above all the tacky costumes and spray-tans. Our choreography was always tasteful and our dances were always well executed. My sense of superiority was bolstered by the fact that we almost always won. Central Jersey was usually the best company there, and we developed a reputation with the other companies we competed against. They hated us. 

This time, though, we were up against an opponent that actually posed a threat: Front and Center Dance Company. We’d never competed against them before, but we were about to become serious enemies.

Dancers usually stop competing in the hotel-ballroom arena when they graduate from high school. It’s considered tacky and a little sad to come home from college just to compete with your old dance company. Front and Center had not gotten this message. Their star dancer was a college freshman. She was painfully skinny, with a bony face and thin lips that looked like they were hiding a long, forked tongue. 

I must admit that Lizard Girl, as we dubbed her, was a graceful dancer. But her ego was something to behold. The younger girls in her company treated her like a queen, fetching her bottles of water and decorating her hotel room door with a glittery gold star, as if it were a dressing room for a Hollywood starlet. She must have needed a very large hotel room to house all of her costumes, because Lizard Girl was in every single dance a girl could possibly be in that weekend: ballet solo, ballet duo, ballet group, you get the picture. 

Most remarkable was her ethnic-dance solo to an African tribal song on the first night of competition. Her ivory skin didn’t hold her back from connecting with her imaginary African roots. The only thing missing was her own personal bongo drummer, banging out the beats to which she was stomping and flailing. I couldn’t fully enjoy the dance’s ridiculousness, though, because the woman sitting next to me was weeping the entire time. She wore a Front and Center T-shirt and wielded a camcorder. No doubt about it: Lizard Girl’s mother. “It’s just so beautiful,” she said between sniffles. When the dance ended she embraced her daughter, yelling, “We’re going to get first place for that one!” 

Not youWe

Our company was already predisposed against Front and Center’s bratty star when her mother stepped over the line on Saturday morning. My company’s 16-to-18 jazz group was performing when Christina landed the wrong way out of a toe-touch. She collapsed to a crouched position on the ground instead of simply bending her knees to soften the blow and standing up straight again. Christina’s error left her four beats behind for the triple pirouette that followed the toe-touch, giving her only enough time to do a single. She never stopped smiling and played it off like nothing had gone wrong, but to all the trained eyes in the room she had royally screwed up. 

Our instructor, a slender sixtysomething woman we all called Miss Rena, was watching the dance in a back row—she never sat up front for fear that she would make us nervous. She didn’t flinch when Christina made her mistake. The woman sitting next to her, though, cringed and blurted, “Ouch!” It was Lizard Girl’s mother, who had taken time off from sniffling and videotaping to check out her competition. She turned to the women sitting behind her and said with a smirk, “The door is open!”

Miss Rena urged us not to act out. “We have to be the bigger people in this situation, girls. Don’t do anything stupid,” she said. But trying to tell a group of teenaged girls not to be bitchy is futile. We wanted revenge. We all knew that we needed to lock that door and bolt it shut. We silently vowed to dance our asses off and to be as obnoxious as possible. We would put Front and Center in their place.

I wasn’t really that interested in the rivalry, but if I’d voiced agreement with Miss Rena, my fellow company members would have looked at me like I had three heads. For me, the catty back-row comment was a challenge—just another reason for us to do the best we could. I didn’t see any harm in that.

We stuck to our pact. Every one of our dances thereafter was error-free. We were energetic and peppy for jazz, serious and graceful for ballet, emotional and flowing for lyrical. Front and Center, with the exception of their starlet, seemed flat in comparison.  

Our rivals were not done with us, though. After their lackluster pantomime to “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray, they gathered in a circle on the side of the stage. Lizard Girl yelled, “Ready? One…Two…Three!” Clap. Clap. Clap clap. Clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap. Front and Center was stealing our slow clap! 

“How dare they! Who do they think they are? They weren’t even doing it right—they sped up way too quickly,” Melissa whined. 

Miss Rena wouldn’t give credence to our complaints. “You girls have to stop doing the slow clap, then,” she said with a sigh. “We can’t have this kind of rivalry. It’s unprofessional and just not worth it.” She was tired of our gossip and wanted to see some sportsmanship. We half-heartedly agreed.

The awards ceremony was the next morning. We sat on the opposite side of the ballroom from Front and Center. Lizard Girl kept laughing and smirking across the room at us. “She looks like she’s going to poke her forked tongue at us!” Christina quipped. I giggled along with the other girls. 

The announcer took to the podium behind the long, trophy-covered table at the front of the room. “First we will give out the awards for the 3- to 6-year-old division,” she said. “Third place…Stars Dance Company. Second place…Front and Center Dance Company. First place…Central Jersey Dance Company.” We all squealed as the little Central Jersey girls scurried up to the table to collect their trophies. We slow-clapped, hammed it up, and rubbed our first win in the faces of Lizard Girl and her minions. 

For the next hour, the announcer sounded like a broken record. “Second place…Front and Center Dance Company. First place…Central Jersey Dance Company” was playing on repeat. We ended up taking home every single first-place award that day. But as our pile of shiny trophies grew, my enthusiasm in our slow claps disappeared. Lizard Girl looked crushed. Her mother had already gone through two boxes of Kleenex. 

I knew we deserved every trophy we won that weekend. When it came down to it, we were the better dancers. But this time, that didn’t seem like cause for celebration.

Kristen Martin is a College sophomore.

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