The Competition-Performance Relation and Dance

When I read Matt Richtel’s article, “The Competing Views on Competition,” last month in The New York Times I couldn’t stop thinking about what one of the chess moms I met told me while I was researching Playing to Win: “Raising kids is a big experiment and I won’t know till later if I did it right.”  The truth, of course, is that we may never know if we did it “right.”

One of the main takeaways of Richtel’s article about the role of competitiveness in raising healthy children is that there is– not surprisingly– a lot of competing (pun intended) advice out there about kids and competition.  As evidence he mentions a meta-analysis that was forthcoming in Psychological Bulletin. 

I recently got my hands on the article, and the two responses to it, and was struck by two brief excerpts.  The first is from the main article, “The Competition-Performance Relation: A Meta-Analytic Review and Test of the Opposing Processes Model of Competition and Performance.”  Don’t let the long title scare you, because here is the main find: “The take home message from the present research is that at the level of individual psychological processes, competition appears to be neither entirely beneficial nor entirely detrimental to performance.  Rather, our work indicates that the competition-performance relation varies as a function of the type of achievement goals pursued.”  This also means that it can vary for the same person in different situations.  It’s not realistic to turn away from all forms of competition because, as some critics explain in a response, “Competition is pervasive and an important aspect of human life.  Many people every day are involved in mandatory competitions in educational and career settings whether they want to be or not.”

One setting in which competition is a fact of life is the dance world, which I’ve written about before as competitive dance is one of the featured activities in Playing to Win.  Dancers are constantly ranked in class and in roles for productions and in formal competitions.  Those formal competitions have become even more public as of late.  Recently my DVR has been filled with shows featuring dance competitions– some of them healthier than others.  Below are my thoughts on some of these shows.

1) Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition– While So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars started the competitive reality show craze over dance, Dance Moms started the candid reality show craze.  But the teacher featured in Dance Moms, Abby Lee Miller,obviously had to get in on the competitive reality show market too. So Lifetime came up with this (also featuring Robin Antin of Pussycat Dolls fame, who has her own family history with reality shows, and Richy Jackson, known to many for his association with Lady Gaga and Laurie Ann Gibson). This show is pretty bad– and the viewers seem to agree as the show earns significantly worse ratings than Dance Moms. The show isn’t just about the kids’ dancing, it’s about whose mom creates more drama and makes better TV.  In this case the competition is more about character than talent.

2) Down South Dance– This one-hour TLC special featured two rival clogging teams.  Clogging is a cross between Irish dancing and tap and involves lots of group precision and rhythm.  The show– which seemed like a pilot for a possible series– is in the vein of other TLC shows, setting up dramatic rivalries among big personalities in a relatively obscure activity.  Of course, this being TLC,  injuries, momma drama, and poaching were all plot lines.  In any event the competition here is definitely between teams.

3) The Big Jig– This one-hour TLC special featured five American girls competing in the 2012 Irish Dancing “Worlds.”  At this point I’m guessing that each year we can expect a one-hour TLC special about the Irish Dancing World Championships given that TLC showed the 2010 competition by showing Jig (the careful viewer will notice Julia O’Rourke is featured in both), then the 2011 championships shown over the summer in Strictly Irish Dancing.  This special got quite the Toddlers & Tiaras treatment, following the exact same format (seeing the girls train at home a week before the competition, interviews with the moms and girls, seeing them at the event, setting up some other drama for the cameras, etc.).  In addition to the formula there are some child pageant-like elements included the curled wigs, the heavy make-up, and the sequined dresses that can cost thousands.  Now, based on what they showed, seems like some of the Irish dancers might drink pageant go-go juice too. How do we know? Well, they did show one girl become sick on stage (*multiple* times, which wasn’t really necessary, I might add)– and her vomit was bright pink.  Too many pixie sticks?

In any case, the competition shown here is more like what we would expect and each girl handles her own victories and losses in her own way.  I loved 10-year-old Grace who was thrilled to come in 9th, only to find out that due to a computer glitch she came in 13th. She said she was sad, but then she “Grace-ified it,” and felt better. None of the featured girls won, and while tears were shed, in general they genuinely did seem focused on their own performance goals and less on the top spot.  I suppose when you train all year for 2-3 minutes of dancing you have to keep perspective.

One other show I’d like to mention that I recently LOVED is PBS’ Broadway or Bust.  While dance is a small component of this high school musical theater competition, the main focus is singing.  In any case, this three-part series on the week-long competition is fascinating and fun to watch.  I especially loved that the kids genuinely seemed amazed by one another’s talent.  While there was only one male and one female “Jimmy” winner, all of them seemed to gain so much for the experience itself that it felt less like a competition.  As the judges explained every day is an audition if they want to be professional performers, so they have to learn how to be friends now.  made me anxious for Smash to come back.  Along with my other new favorite dance shows, Breaking Pointe and Bunheads.  And would you believe I still haven’t seen First Position?! Can’t wait for the DVD to come out!

I’m guessing most of the winners’ parents worry less about whether their parenting decisions were the right ones… Then again, the truth is, we all worry. And we always will. Some kids thrive in competitive situations and the trick is figuring out if your child is one and what the best competitive outlet is for him or her.

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