How to Choose Showstopping Songs for Your Comp Dances

July 12, 2022

Watching your dancers take the stage at competition is the culmination of countless hours of dedication—all in the hopes that the judges will recognize (and reward!) your efforts. But when your dancers perform to the same angsty Olivia Rodrigo hit the judges have already heard four times that day, the outcome could be predetermined by the first note.

“The song is our first impression, and often our last impression, of a piece, which is critical,” explains Celebration Talent judge April Henehan. Henehan and two award-winning competition-team teachers offer their tips on picking songs that will wow the judges and inspire your artistry.

Tiffany Oscher Burnette looks for unique music that stands out. Photo by Tori Wegner, courtesy Oscher Burnette.

Down the Rabbit Hole

“When teachers all look for music in the same places, it creates this cycle for us judges, hearing the same songs in every city,” Henehan says. While other studios’ numbers are a major source of inspiration for Tiffany Oscher Burnette, who leads the competition team at Brandon School of Dance Arts in Seffner and Tampa, Florida, with her mother, Teresa Oscher, she says they look for something unique. Maggie Larkin, competition team director at Studio Bleu in Ashburn, Virginia, agrees. “One of my teachers heard a song she loved, but it was clearly overused,” says Larkin, “so she created a Spotify station to find similar but more under-the-radar options.” 

Try using a remix or an instrumental version of a popular song, or adding an unexpected choreographic spin. “I’m using­ Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ for a weird and creepy contemporary piece,” says Oscher Burnette. “It’s fun for the audience to get excited by the song, but then see it embodied in a completely different way.” And think twice before choosing songs that gained traction on professional stages or TV. “It’s really hard to watch a recreational group and not compare them to the professional company or show that’s associated with that song,” Henehan says.

Showcase Your Students’ Strengths

Even the most wildly creative song will fall flat if it’s not well suited to your dancers. “You never want a song that’s more powerful or dynamic than the movement,” says Oscher Burnette. When it comes to ensembles, however, she opts for high-energy tunes. “For me, a group number has to build in excitement and have an arc from start to finish,” she says.

That said, if you’re set on a song that’s especially complex, spend extra time honing your dancers’ musicality. “Our juniors are dancing to a contemporary song that’s counted in sixes,” Larkin explains. “I emailed their parents the song and instructed the kids to listen to it until they know it inside out.” 

Keep It Appropriate

There’s nothing worse than a judging panel cringing at a song they find inappropriate. “Instead of giving corrections and feedback, we’re wondering whether an expletive is going to be bleeped out,” Henehan says. Consider emotional appropriateness, as well. “I wonder if younger dancers have really gone through enough to embody the emotions behind certain songs,” says Henehan. “For me, happy always sells. I love when dance teachers truly let kids be kids onstage.” 

Stay True to You

Ultimately, competitions are subjective, and one judge may love a song selection just as much as the next dislikes it. So, the best advice is to go with your gut. “I know I wouldn’t be able to do my best work for a song that doesn’t inspire me 100 percent, and hopefully I’ve earned the trust of my dancers to allow me to make those decisions,” Oscher Burnette says. Henehan agrees: “Winning is nice, but it’s important for teachers to keep satisfying their own artistry. That might mean picking a song that speaks to you, and not just to the score sheet.”