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.

Foot Perfect: A Review of Jig

One weekend I went shopping at a mall in downtown Boston—and was transported into another culture.  A hotel, connected to the mall, was hosting an Irish dancing competition (or “feis”). My friend turned to me and asked, “Wait, is this a child beauty pageant, or something else?”  With the bobbing heads full of Shirley Temple-like artificial curls, the tanned legs, the glitzy, flouncy dresses (that can cost around $2500), the make-up, and the anxious mothers and daughters, you’d be excused for thinking you might be at a child beauty pageant (And, indeed, I think the events might be distant cousins for historical and sociological reasons—but more on that another time. In the meantime, it's interesting to think how appearances in Irish dancing compare to the appearance of young, Irish Traveller girls). But you’d be wrong. Jig, a 2010 feature documentary just released to DVD, focuses on nine contestants competing at the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, held in Glasgow, Scotland.  The film shows the extraordinary hard work, practice, and athletic ability (including a serious cardio workout) that goes into creating a “foot perfect” contestant.  All contestants have already qualified for the Worlds and are in the final preparations for the big event. Jig concludes with the award ceremony in Glasgow.  Interspersed throughout are interviews with the dancers, their parents, and their teachers.

The stars of the film are its youngest contestants, three ten-year-olds.  Brogan from Northern Ireland is an especially well spoken, clever, and engaging young lady.  Her main rival, Julia O’Rourke from Long Island, is a serious competitor. Julia’s family (including her Filipino mother and Irish father who had never participated in Irish dancing before) invests in private lessons (aka “privates”) and physical therapy sessions to help give her an edge.  John, from Birmingham, England, is immensely talented and sweet, if a bit forgetful—a real-life version of Billy Elliott.

I had a harder time engaging with the three nineteen-year-old female contestants, and keeping them straight. Two teenage boys have interesting back stories (one boy grew up in California, but his parents moved to England to help him train as a dancer, with his father giving up a medical practice; the other is from the Netherlands, adopted by a Dutch family from Sri Lanka), but less interesting onscreen personas.  And the team of older Russian women were also hard to keep straight, especially because their story arc is fairly short in the film.

Not surprisingly Jig has been compared to two of my favorite documentaries of all time—Spellbound (about the National Spelling Bee featuring middle schoolers from the US and Canada) and Mad Hot Ballroom (featuring elementary school kids from across New York City participatingin a city-wide ballroom competition). While I really enjoyed Jig, it doesn’t reach the level of these other two films for me for two reasons.  The first is that many of the children draw you into their lives in Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom. When I saw the latter in the theater my fellow audience members and I cheered aloud together by the end of the film.  Partly due to the presence of so many characters in Jig, I felt this was harder to do. Then again, I loved that the featured dancers really showed how international competitive Irish dancing is, so it is a difficult trade-off.

The second way in which I found it more difficult to relate to Jig is that it is simply harder to understand competitive Irish dance. We know from Riverdance that the upper body is usually stationary.  But I didn’t understand why the face was often blank while dancing. And I certainly didn’t understand the intricacy of the footwork, and differences between hard and soft shoe style.  Even as someone who follows dance (and cheer, and gymnastics, and figure skating…), I couldn’t quite discern why some dancers were so far superior to others, even when they danced side-by-side (as they do in rhythmic gymnastics, for example).  I was certainly impressed by their skills, but with a bit more explanation of the technique I could have been blown away.

That said, the film highlighted many similarities between Irish dancing and other forms of competitive dance.  For example, as in Dance Moms, we saw teachers who yell, kids who give up aspects of their social lives (like missing birthday parties), and young dancers struggling with injuries.  You also see and hear about the ways in which family members invest in this activity, both financially and by making costumes.

More serious issues that affect many other competitive activities also came up—like judge tampering.  Another similarity across different competitive activities includes the language of getting drawn in by the competitive experience itself (Julia O’Rourke’s parents astutely commented that when they started they couldn’t understand why a family would drive to Connecticut to compete, but now they fly to foreign countries).

What I truly enjoyed about Jig is that it highlighted some important and powerful differences too.  Again, this is a very international activity, which was nice to see.  You also actually have to qualify for the Worlds (unlike many “Nationals” in the US, which for most activities are pay-to-play) and the Worlds appear to be quite a big deal.  Over several days you get about six minutes on stage dancing among 6000 other competitors and in front of 20-30,000 spectators who cycle through.  Finally, I loved the use of live music during the competitions, which is not common at all at dance competitions (even ballet competitions), or gymnastics, figure skating, or synchronized swimming events.

The end of Jig is a real highlight.  You can feel the tension in the room as scores are announced and revealed on a screen.  It was amusing to see the kids, parents, and teachers hold their heads in anxiety waiting to see the final scores—I kept shouting at the screen that all they had to do was add! I’m sure nerves played a role, but I know I would just bring a calculator or use an Excel spreadsheet to add up the scores quickly.  I guess that’s the social scientist in me… I also took particular delight that the top prize included a mirror-ball trophy. Maybe that is where they get the inspiration from on Dancing with the Stars?!

All in all, Jig is a delightful and objective portrayal of an impressive, but little understood competitive activity.  I hope this brings some deserved attention to Irish dancing, especially in the United States, and that we continue to receive updates on its stars (Note: Jig’s IMDb page has results from the 2011 World Championships for those spotlighted in the film).  But you won't be seeing them on Toddlers & Tiaras anytime soon.