Last month, I asked you all a really important question: would you read my book? Like, if you bought Misty Copeland’s biography on Amazon and saw my book in the “You might also like…” section, would you click on it?
The overwhelming majority of you said yes, which is encouraging. The rest of you kept your mouths shut, which I also appreciated, because only jerks would write in and be like “No, your book sucks. And you suck. And your book sucks.”
So since I got the encouragement I was looking for, I pressed forward. Now I need to know: would you keep reading my book? Here’s a little taste of the second chapter, which is an introduction to the competition dance scene. Enjoy!
I’m standing backstage in a huddle of blue and sequins. Sixteen anxious girls smooth their buns and try to keep their twitchy feet still. Two more numbers until we’re up. I squeeze my eyes shut and go over the routine in my head. Shuffle ball change, shuffle ball change. Our teacher, Ann-Marie, gathers us together for one more pep talk before we take our positions behind the curtain.
“You guys will be great. Just keep doing everything you’ve been practicing. Stay sharp, lots of energy, and don’t forget to have fun and smile! I’ll be down in the audience cheering you on.”
We nod, we smile, some of us clap tiny silent claps, and then we break off into two groups. Eight of us stay stage right while the other eight make their way behind the backdrop to the other side of the stage. We stand, single file, waiting for our cue. As the MC begins to announce our number, “From the Charlotte Klein Dance Centers, competing in junior large group tap, this is…”
I peek out from the curtain to survey the crowd. The stage lights temporarily daze my eyes and the audience, a dark blur, politely cheer in the long pause between the end of the MC’s introduction and the start of our music.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. My chest thumping, my stomach tightening and releasing. Adrenaline rushing to my fingertips, to my toes, straight into my heart. Then the music. And out into the blazing light.
Before I know it, the dance is over. I hit all my positions, the audience claps in all the right places, and everything felt as though it clicked into place. We take our bow and flap ball change off the stage into the wings, where we cluster together into an ameba of giggles and high-pitched whispers. We nailed it.
And now the long wait. Hours go by as other studios and groups perform in different age groups and categories. I see soloists pirouetting over and over, and large groups of teenagers performing in production numbers with props. I see girls much younger than me in full makeup, dancing across the stage with the poise of a professional. I hear whispers in the audience. Dance moms with their own scorecards, ranking the numbers and gossiping openly about which studio owner is sucking up to which judge.
What world is this?
Finally, it’s time to announce the awards. All of the competition dancers cram onto the stage in tight circles amongst their own studio members. Each dancer holds some kind of good luck charm—some dancers, I can see, are already decorated with ribbons and medals from routines completed earlier in the day. Others clutch teddy bears in tutus, anxiously awaiting the results. The MC strolls onto the stage, mic in hand, and congratulates the participants on a job well done.
What I quickly learn about dance competitions is that there is no single winner. Each routine is judged independently of the others. Judges award points on a scale for choreography, technique and execution, performance quality, and even costuming. When you add the points up, you can receive anywhere from a bronze (for this, kids would cry, and not the good kind of tears) to a gold, with awards such as high bronze and high silver in between.
As the MC announces results, groups of dancers stand and cheer, and they send a representative from the team to wade through the tangles of competitors to receive their awards. Our little huddle of blue-sequined dancers grows quiet as the MC begins to bark out the results of our category. As he calls the name of our studio, we grab onto each other (a leg, an arm, whatever we can find) and squeeze our bodies into a tight wad. Our toes are curled, our fists clenched, our eyebrows are burrowing down into our noses. Finally, anxiety reaches a fever pitch until we hear:
I open my eyes wide and release the tension in my body. High silver! I think I’m thrilled, but I look around to the other girls to confirm. Many are openly cheering and hugging. But a couple, the more seasoned competitors, only smile politely and clap. They’re happy, but a twinge of disappointment seeps out of the corners of their mouths. Once you’ve earned a gold, only another gold is good enough.
After a fellow dancer returns to our circle with the medals, she passes them out to the group. A heavy silver pendant is etched with the name of the competition, Terpsichore, and the shape of a dancer goddess arched in a graceful back bend. I turn the medal over and over in my hand, studying the engravings, the shape, the weight. I vow that next time I compete, I will win a gold.