From a PPC Judge’s Mouth: Helpful Tips for Shining in a Competition
On Saturday, Feb 28, and Sunday, March 1st, 2015, PSO held the 2015 Pacific Pole Championships in Los Angeles, CA. I have attended PPC every year since I competed in the inaugural competition in 2012. Since I have competed and attended as an audience member, and written about my experiences prepping for competing, I thought it might be fun if, for this year, I stepped into the role as a Judge. I sat on panels including levels 1 through 3 of pole, and levels 1 & 2 of lyra, and judged across all available categories and age levels.
As a previous competitor, and someone who performs from time to time, I found the experience to be incredibly educational and inspiring. Therefore, I wanted to share a bit about what it’s like to sit on that judging table, but even more so, to offer advice to future competitors based on my personal experiences, and my discussions with other judges at the event.
We want to see you succeed!
We aren’t here to judge you, even though our job is to judge your performance. We want you to do awesome and wow us. We want to cheer for you. Many of us have competed before, or at least performed before, and we know how much goes into it. I personally – and I know I am not alone in this – felt such overwhelming empathy for every person who stepped on stage.
Judging is hard.
It is way more exhausting than I expected. We have to really pay attention to a lot of things…over and over again. And, we want to do right by you! I ended up judging a good 4 or 5 events more than I had been scheduled to judge, which made both days very long and chock-full of stimulation. So, if we don’t seem super enthusiastic when you step on or off stage, don’t worry! It’s not about you.
Going early isn’t a bad thing.
My tolerance for BS was dramatically lower later in the day. My notes took a shift from trying to be soft in my constructive criticism, to being fairly honest in it. So, don’t fret if you’re at 9am. You get judges who are fresh, and you get to relax the rest of your day and have fun!
It’s subjective…but it isn’t.
Each judge is going to have a style or something they favor and value over other elements, but there’s actually a lot of common ground in terms of notes we give people. If someone didn’t get your performance, it’s okay – it’s not the end of the world. But, consider the notes they gave you for the next time!
So, how does this help you?
I saw so much and learned so much over the weekend I decided to compile a list of Helpful Tips for Competition. This list is huge, but each point is truly something that was mentioned in my notes, or something that came up in talking with other judges throughout the day, and I think you’ll find a lot of helpful ideas here:
Form & Movement
Point your toes.
No, really. Start early. It’s not just pointing your toes in your finished moves, but in the transitions to the moves.
No lazy feet or limbs.
This is related to pointing your toes! Remember that every limb is active and needs to have purpose, even if it is not “the focus” of the trick. Example: when inverting to a knee hang/leg hang, that top leg should be engaged all the way through the foot…which should be pointed (see photo below). This is a common mistake, and fixing it adds elegance and cleanliness to your form. Also, from a safety standpoint, a flexed foot in a knee hang is not as secure as a pointed foot, although it may feel like it is. Be safe and keep it pretty.
Extend through your knees to have cleaner lines.
Microbends are really common if you’re tired, rushing, or if you don’t have great flexibility. Think about pressing through the backs of your knees as you straighten. To paraphrase Fit & Bendy guru Kristina Nekyia, pretend you have a little mouth on the back of your knee, and that you are trying to open that mouth as wide as it will go.
Commit to your movement – if someone is on the moon, they should be able to see it. This includes your accents!
If you half-ass it, or you don’t believe in it – or don’t believe you can do it – we’ll see it. That fraction of doubt reads MUCH larger to an audience. Committing to your movement, no matter how big it might feel, means you’re selling it and engaging with it.
As far as accents, ask yourself what the reason is behind the movement, and really commit to it. The audience can tell when an accent is just there to be there, and not really there to serve a purpose or work with musicality. Be sparing with your accents, too. Use them wisely (and, again, with commitment), to avoid a slightly scattered or messy looking routine.
Face your tricks, especially on static pole.
We all have a pretty good idea as to how tricks look best when photographed. Think of the audience as the camera – and remember that you may well have a camera on you – and strive to have your tricks face properly to get the best photo (aka tell the best story to your audience). Example: I saw someone land their Sneaky Pike in the wrong direction, so all the audience saw was a butt, not a great trick.
Pick your best tricks.
Judges would much rather see a well-executed “less difficult” trick than a poorly-executed difficult trick. Be sure to choose things you can do really well – reaching for more and having it be sloppy doesn’t win you points. Also, be sure to play up your strengths: if you have great back flexibility, find tricks/poses that showcase it! Find out what looks great on you and learn to nail it every time, so it will be clean in your routine.
Find creative movement and transitions.
There are just some combos that have been done too many times. Example: Extended Butterfly to Flatline. Try to leave those alone and come up with a new way into or out of your favorite tricks. If it comes down to skill level, and you can only do that combo, don’t stress about it. But, do strive to find new, creative, or dynamic combos. It will add something special to your performance and help you stand out.
Don’t throw away your climbs.
While some of this comes with an increase in overall skill, remember that you can always take the time to clean up your climb. Work to engage the back and shoulders while you climb, and to bring both knees upward at the same time, to create a cleaner movement. Start trying to point BOTH feet while climbing!
Commit to finishing your piece, no matter what happens.
Did you botch that trick? It’s okay. It happens, even to the pros. But, take a cue from those pros: let it go as much as you can and finish your routine. You will feel worse if you don’t finish, and the audience WANTS you to finish. They will love you even more for picking yourself up and powering through like nothing happened. It takes tremendous fortitude and commands respect. If you make a mistake or something unexpected happens, keep going as if it didn’t occur. If you stop and acknowledge it by dropping character, we’re more likely to notice and remember it than if you just let it go and keep going. It’s that simple.
Eye contact – engage the audience.
While not everyone is a natural performer, eye contact is something you must become comfortable with to have impactful performances. Watching a routine from a dancer who refuses to connect – no matter how beautiful a dancer they might be – is pretty boring. You might be super clean and have all of the tricks, but so what? You engage people by connecting with them. Give them that gift by taking every opportunity you can to look out and be present with your audience.
Related to this: use your entire face to connect with the audience – don’t just stare at them. Interact. Express. This is a tough one for people who don’t have experience as performers or actors, but it’s vital to bridging the gap between a dead-eyed stare and conveying a story. Videotape yourself and watch it. Ask friends for their honest opinion. You could even practice in the mirror (although, you’ll need to convey emotion in your actual performance, and faking it will likely not get you through). I saw a lot of dead faces this weekend, or the approximation of an emotion or thought, rather than a fully formed expression, and it does impact a dancer’s performance. And, related to all of this…
Stage presence can make or break your performance, especially in the artistic categories – it will elevate you, or it will sink you, in spite of cleanliness of moves.
This is related to audience connection and your facial expressions. Let the audience in. Be open and invite them along with you. If you don’t look at them, or don’t open to them – if you don’t extend the invitation to connect, they will not come with you. This is of particular importance in the entertainment and dramatic categories, where stage presence is a much higher portion of your score, but it holds value for every performer. I saw plenty of clean or good performances, but not nearly as many with presence.
Don’t lip sync!
Here’s my take on lip syncing: it’s lazy and distracting. If you have to lip sync to sell your character, you didn’t do enough work on your character. The best routines rely on movement and commitment to performance to sell character. Using lip syncing as a substitute for that lowers the level of your routine. It also makes for really awkward photos and creates a disconnect between you and the audience. Be aware that sometimes, people aren’t even aware that they are lip syncing. Watch your videos and be on the lookout for it. From a judging perspective, it signals that you’re distracted from your performance.
If you do want to lip sync, be very selective about when you use it and why, so that it has impact.
Really use your props or big costume elements with purpose and for more than 2 seconds.
So you have a cool prop or big costume element? Awesome. Then use it. Watching someone come out with, for example, a really dramatic cape, then take it off within the first 5 seconds, is a letdown. Related to this, make sure that if you are using some kind of cool costume element or prop, that you really commit to it and that it adds value to your story. If it’s just there to be there, it’s a distraction.
Play your strengths and do what is yours to do – don’t try to be anybody else. People love authenticity.
Dance how you dance. Tell stories that speak to you. Do what is yours to do. Trying to be somebody else will never serve you as well as when you are authentic to you.
Take your bow!
Even if you’re upset with your performance, or if you’re embarrassed to bow, or you want to get off stage as soon as possible, take your bow. This is your acknowledgement of the audience and your thank you to them for watching you.
No “oh” face. Learn how to smile while you breathe and concentrate, even in hard stuff.
What do I mean? Don’t do this:
That’s me, in my 2012 PPC routine. I made this face throughout my performance. Learn to smile when you breathe. Learn to smile when you concentrate. Or, just learn to keep a poker face when you do either of those things. Because when all of your photos come back with “oh” face, you are going to be upset. I speak from experience.
Beyond that, “oh” face is a dead giveaway that you’re tired, or that you’re disengaged from the audience, and the judges do notice it.
Test your costumes to make sure everything is covered.
I don’t just mean gluteal folds. Put your costume on and invert. Do straddles in it. Hang upside down. Roll around. Run your whole routine multiple times, in costume, prior to the actual performance. I saw a lot of near-appearance of nipples due to tops being a little too loose during inverts, and I saw one poor dancer’s labia due to gaps between her shorts and thighs at the crotch. This isn’t just about your personal embarrassment, or the competition rules: when I saw that flash, it was literally the only thing I could look for from that point on. I have no idea what that dancer did in her static pass after that moment, because I was trying to figure out if I actually saw what I thought I saw, and if I needed to put a deduction in my notes.
Make sure your costume works with your intended theme or song, especially if you are doing a character piece.
Doing a dark, moody piece? Don’t wear neon. Consider that your costume and makeup are part of your performance, and they are the first things that set the tone for your audience. If they don’t make sense, your audience is less likely to connect with you as quickly. Make sure everything gels.
Additionally: choose a costume that you are comfortable wearing. If you are uncomfortable with it, the audience will see it, and it will impact your performance.
Pick the right category and commit to it.
If you really want to be in the Championship, but you’re afraid you won’t place, where should you go? The Championship! If you choose an artistic category to try to have a better shot at placing, but you don’t actually commit to doing a truly dramatic or truly entertaining routine, it’s generally obvious. So, COMMIT to that artistic category! Don’t just do a pretty routine or a sexy routine, make it something more, and make it clear you are in it to win it for THAT category.
Dig deeper for music choices – avoid the recent popular hit songs or pole songs if you can.
I know, you love Sia’s Chandelier. It’s awesome. But, unless you are prepared to really go deep with it and do something original, walk away from it. Look for music that isn’t all over Top 40 radio, or that isn’t the Hot New Pole Song. Every year, there are songs that end up being used by too many people. Recent examples include:
- Sail by Awolnation
- Say Something by A Great Big World
- Radioactive by Imagine Dragons
- Counting Bodies like Sheep by A Perfect Circle
- Skyfall by Adele (or, really, anything by Adele)
- Let it Go from Frozen
- Carousel by Melanie Martinez
- Try by Colbie Caillat
Judges appreciate hearing something new, especially when they are watching dozens of performances all day. Plus, you’re less likely to have the nightmare of having the same song as someone in your group (it’s still possible, but it’s far less likely).
But, if you have your heart set on Sia’s Chandelier, and you can’t imagine dancing to anything else…do it, and sell it like your life depends on it. Just…find an original story to tell with it. That is way more impressive to the judges than doing literal interpretations of it. Trust me.
And, last, but not least…
No sandbagging!! We can tell, and it is unfair and crappy.
Seriously. For those of you who don’t know the term, sandbagging describes the act of a more advanced dancer entering a lower level category in order to look better and obtain medals. Some background on this: PSO events are now welcoming the next generation of polers, and those of us who competed in the first few years are starting to move into being judges. We’ve seen sandbagging over the last few years, and we know what it looks like. I was not the only judge to mention it in my judging notes, and I know other judges were just as honest in calling out those dancers and, in certain cases, deducting points.
During the inaugural PPC in 2012, sandbagging was grounds for disqualification. I don’t believe the rules still state this, but it doesn’t matter: sandbagging is an incredibly rude, selfish, and unfair thing to do. Beyond that: we can tell. Enter the category that is truly for you, and leave the lower categories for the people who belong in them. Let them have their day.
Competing is a lot of work, and while this is a lot to remember, I promise that if you can even do a few of these things, it will help your performance be so much stronger! Even if you’re engaged in competitions outside of the PSO world, these tips can help! There’s SO much fun to be had through competing and performing, and as such, I am going to leave you with one last piece of advice: don’t take it too seriously. Have fun, enjoy the learning process, and don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go perfectly as you imagined it. You are just as awesome if you place or if you don’t. 🙂 Remember to be kind to yourself! Oh, and…