Top Dance Competition Judges Answer Your Biggest Questions

July 7, 2019

We asked judges Lisa White (of Starpower) and Chris Pederson (of Leap!) to answer reader-submitted questions. Survey says that you might be more than a little surprised by what they had to say.

What Do You Look for in Dancers?

“I’m huge on polished technique and proper placement. I also look for performance quality. If it’s a contemporary piece where they’re emoting, I look for emotion and storytelling. If it’s a musical-theater piece, I look for star quality. If the choreography calls for synchronized movement, I look for precision.” —Lisa White, judge with Starpower

Lisa White, judge with Starpower (Paul Fenton, courtesy White)

“I look for performance right off the bat. I love to see younger dancers really show an emotional side. Whether it’s a large group or a solo, when dancers give you a story—joy, pain, sorrow, whatever—that takes the dancing to another level.” —Chris Pederson, judge with Leap!

Chris Pederson, judge with Leap! (David Greenhouse, courtesy Pederson)

What Are Your Biggest Pet Peeves?

“My top pet peeve is age-inappropriate music or movement. There are thousands of songs out there to choose from. Why push the envelope? I also don’t like thumbs sticking out. That’s a comment I commonly give in lyrical pieces.” —LW

“Lack of preparation. Judges want to know the work has been put in. I see plenty of dances where kids are looking around with no clue what step is coming next. The other thing is choreography that’s beyond your technical abilities, or emotional content that’s beyond your maturity level. It’s good to push your limits, but equally important to understand those limits.” —CP

Are Boys Scored Differently Than Girls?

“I assess each dancer based on where they are as an individual. It doesn’t behoove anyone to score a male higher just because he’s male. My wife is a dancer as well, and we’ve discussed many times how her career has been more difficult than mine, because the dance world feels like it’s 95 percent women and 5 percent men. I would never jump a boy’s score up because he’s the only guy there. You have to earn every inch, whether you’re a girl who’s been dancing since you were 3 or a guy who picked it up two years ago.” —CP

Dancers performing at Starpower (Universal Event Photography, courtesy Starpower)

I’m Injured, but Feel Like I Can Push through the Pain. Should I Go Ahead and Compete My Solo?

“It’s up to the parent, the performer, and the teacher. If you’re almost back to 100 percent, maybe try your performance out with some modifications, but if it’s a severe injury that needs rest, wait until you feel ready. I don’t want anybody to worsen an injury and prolong the healing process, just to perform their solo.” —LW

Does the Time of Day I Dance Affect My Score?

“Mental toughness has to be part of a judge’s work ethic. There are moments when I wrack my brain to find something to say that I haven’t said 50 times that day. I’d be lying if I said that giving 100 percent from 7:30 am to 11 pm isn’t exhausting. But that’s my job. As clichéd as it sounds, the kid at 7:30 am and the kid at 10:59 pm deserve my full attention. What I look forward to as I’m watching is, who’s got a little something different? Looking for each dancer’s unique qualities takes me into the next performer and the next.” —CP

Are You Bothered By Political or Religious Messages in a Piece?

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. As long as the piece and the message don’t insult other people, it’s OK.” —LW

“What I sense is whether the dancers really connected to the issue being portrayed. Dance is a sensitive, passion-driven, physical art. I’ve seen beautiful pieces with messages that I don’t personally share.” —CP

More Is More When It Comes to Makeup and Costuming, Right?

“I gear toward light, natural, minimal, clean makeup. Not bright-red lips or a lot of eyeshadow, unless the piece calls for that and you’re older. Each piece calls for a different costume, and your score won’t be affected by whether or not I think yours is really great.” —LW

What’s the Comment You Write Most Often?

“The most common corrections I give are core placement (closing your rib cage and engaging your lower abs) and turnout (in battements, extensions, and jumps). Just keep everything square and properly placed!” —LW

“I’m tired of saying the dancer was ‘dead from the neck up.’ A dancer who takes me on a two-minute journey is always preferable to one who’s got unbelievable extensions.” —CP

A version of this story appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of
Dance Spirit with the title “You Asked…The Judges Answered.”