Getting a Leg Up: How Growing Up as a Comp Kid Prepares You to Go Pro

August 5, 2020

Commercial dancer Kaitlynn Edgar was in Travis Wall’s class at NUVO when she realized that competitions and conventions could lead to big things. Like joining-Shaping-Sound big. “After class, Travis started asking me all these questions, like when I was graduating,” she recalls. “Everything fell into place, just because I happened to be a senior that year—and because I went to that convention. Soon after, I ended up joining the company.”

There are all kinds of natural bridges between the competition world and the professional-dance world. We spoke to the experts about how life on the comp circuit can benefit your future career.

Gaby Diaz performing “Baby I’m a Star” at Starpower Talent Competition in 2006 (courtesy Diaz)

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You Meet All the People

Daniel Gaymon, who most recently hit the Broadway boards in The Lion King and CATS, thinks that he was networking at convention weekends long before he realized it. “As an assistant, I was networking naturally, because I wanted to pick teachers’ brains while training under them,” he says. Gaymon says he still regularly runs into teachers and choreographers from his comp-circuit days at auditions and gigs.

Beyond the exciting possibility of landing a job or a mentor, you’ll get invaluable feedback just by dancing for high-profile professionals. Gary Pate, CEO and president of Star Dance Alliance, suggests that current comp kids treat judges’ critiques like the gifts they are. “These critiques, if handled well, are worth their weight in gold to a performer,” he says. A fresh pair of eyes can lead to major breakthroughs in your technique and artistry—and will help you become used to absorbing constructive criticism.

Then there are the friends you meet along the way. “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 12 winner Gaby Diaz grew up in Miami, a hot spot for comp-world stars like Rudy Abreu, Jeanine Mason, and Ricky Ubeda. She says, “It’s been nice to see the people we grew up competing with, and against, moving to NYC and doing the hustle like we are.” Always keep in mind that today’s rival could well be tomorrow’s castmate. If you let them, competitors from other studios (yes, even that intimidatingly amazing dancer) will inspire you to dance your very best.

Kaitlyn Edgar’s first dance competition solo in 2002 (courtesy Edgar)

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You Know How to Do It All

What do comp kids and the most successful professional dancers have in common? Adaptability and versatility. “When I’m on jobs, I see a real difference between dancers who grew up in the competition world and those who didn’t,” Edgar says. “There’s just a gap in ability to pick up different styles of choreography fast, push physical limits, and apply critiques immediately.” (Speaking of speed, Edgar adds that she remains a champion quick-change artist, thanks to her days competing multiple routines as a comp kid.)

Overcrowded auditions are also no big deal to veterans of the competition circuit. “We see hundreds of thousands of kids a year, in 300 cities,” says Pate. A nonunion cattle call doesn’t have quite the same panic factor when you’re already used to leaving it all on the jam-packed hotel ballroom floor.

Another huge benefit of the comp lifestyle: the sheer number of performance opportunities. As Diaz says, “Being onstage all the time from a young age really helped me become comfortable with performing. By the time I was 19 and doing it on television, it wasn’t scary at all anymore.” Pate, for his part, believes competitions are invaluable to developing the “performing” in “performing artist”: “At a dance competition, your goal is to entertain the judges through technique, personality, and storytelling,” he says. “Once you go pro, those goals remain the same.”

Daniel Gaymon competing as a teenager (courtesy Gaymon)

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How to Avoid Potential Comp Pitfalls

No matter how many titles you’ve won, going pro means embracing a learning curve of some kind. Gaby Diaz relearned how to take care of her body in the months after winning “So You Think You Can Dance”: “Growing up in the competition world, my ‘strength’ was my ability to force my body to do things. I was good at figuring out how to make it work, but that didn’t necessarily come from a technically correct place.”

Daniel Gaymon
cautions competitive dancers to be wary of the fine line between assertiveness and aggressiveness: “It’s great to have that hunger in you to dance, to stand out in a room, to book the job. But don’t let that tenacity cross over into selfishness.” You don’t always have to be in the front row to get noticed by your dream choreographer.

Kaitlynn Edgar
‘s advice for former comp kids: Get ready to hear “no” a lot more often. “You might be used to getting validation from all these awards, but now the job is the prize,” she says. “It’s important to wrap your head around not hearing the no as a loss, but as an opportunity to grow and learn.”