Sequins and Soul-Searching in the Competitive Dance World

In spring, Siara Fuller, the artistic director of Charlotte Performing Arts Academy in North Carolina, brought a group of students to a dance competition in Fort Mill, S.C. It was, in many ways, an ordinary weekend within the extraordinary world of competitive dance: Hundreds of young dancers assembled at a convention center, donned glittery costumes and giant false lashes, and presented spit-polished routines for a panel of judges. (Because of Covid-19, the dancers accessorized with face masks.)

But a moment from that weekend nags at Fuller, who is Black, as are most of her students. Nine of her dancers performed a jazz piece set to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” which featured fan kicks and pirouettes — hallmarks of competitive jazz — while also, as Fuller described it, “getting a little funky.” The number had scored well at other events. But this time, one white judge gave it a low score, citing a lack of “technical” elements.

“We had every element you could need,” Fuller said. “But because we were more groovy with it, in the judge’s mind I think it became something more like hip-hop. And I thought: If we’d had nine white girls on that stage, doing the same thing, would we have gotten the same comment?”

Fuller grew up attending dance competitions. Like many “comp kids,” she enjoyed the experience, and now brings her students to several competitive events a year. But she also recognizes the need for change in this lucrative, influential industry, whose bright lights can conceal discrimination, exclusivity and even abuse.

“I see how much my kids benefit from these events,” Fuller said. “But some competitions haven’t evolved at all in 15, 20 years.”

Dance competitions — and conventions, which offer workshop classes with prominent teachers, often in conjunction with competitive events — first emerged in the 1970s. Since then, they have spawned a distinctive, seductive subculture, mixing the hard-driving athleticism of organized sports with the presentational flair of performance art.

Scenes from the New York City Dance Alliance competition in Orland, Fla., in July

The Talent Factory in Rhode Island perform “Heroes.” 

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