Dance by the Numbers

June 30, 2015

There’s no one right way to score a competition solo. Sure, we can count fouettés—but what about artistry? When every pair of eyes sees the same performance differently, how do judges keep personal opinions from swaying results? Five veterans share their strategies for navigating the tricky terrain of putting numbers on an art form.


The judging panel at the 2015 YAGP finals. Photo by Kyle Froman.


Mandy Moore

“So You Think You Can Dance,” JUMP Dance Convention

Judging is an opinion, that’s really all it is. Two people will never think the same thing. Because it’s never black-and-white; dance has a lot of colors to it.

So many things can affect the judging experience. You can be having a good day or a bad day. You feel differently when you are 10 hours into judging than in the first 45 minutes. We are humans and not computers. I try to spend the first 30 seconds of every piece not thinking anything or jumping in with preconceived ideas, because that first judgment can be wrong. You may think, “Oh I know these kids,” or “I like this song,” or “Great opening movement,” and that can sway everything. So I let my mind go blank, and just take it in. I let the dance sit for a while. This really helps me remain objective.

I look for the shape, technique and line, and the emotion, feeling and connection to the song. I try not to judge kids unfairly over things like hair and costumes, which were their teachers’ choices. But there is no way you can be entirely objective in judging art. It’s sticky to be putting a number on it, but that’s competition.

Mary Ann Lamb


Every judge brings his or her own sensibility, due to their training and history as a performer. While there are certain technicalstandards every judge is looking for, sometimes a dancer can touch you personally. Dance is not a sport; it is an art. But even as an artist, dancers must learn the craft, and the technique of that craft.

My personal pet peeves don’t count when judging—I always strive to be fair to everyone. Every dancer who steps on that stage has worked very hard to get there, and bravely stands up in front of a camera and a crowd. It is my job as a judge to take this in, to appreciate it and, as fairly as I can, give a critique that will help that dancer become better.

A competitor at the 2015 YAGP finals. Photo by Kyle Froman.

Hae Shik Kim

Prix de Lausanne, Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition, Cape Town IBC, Helsinki IBC, Indianapolis IBC, USA IBC, Valentina Kozlova IBC, Varna IBC 

Objectivity is made easier because each competition has definite guidelines to follow. I have judged for 28 major international ballet competitions, and each provides evaluation guidelines on clarity, turnout, footwork, turns, jumps, extension, épaulement, expression, artistry, style, musicality and presentation. I check these carefully and try to avoid subconsciously coloring my scores.

At the end, the tabulation center typically takes out the highest and lowest scores for the final points. That is why they have so many judges: to be fair to the competitors. In my experience, that makes remaining objective easier.


Suzi Taylor

New York City Dance Alliance

We can be objective about several aspects of dance, including technique, musicality, precision in a group and overall execution. Even personality—either you have a stage presence or you don’t. But, of course, a judge’s personal style and taste come into the equation.

Sometimes, the choreography can play a role. For example, I have seen brilliant choreography that makes not-so-good dancers look good, and just the opposite. We have it drilled into us at NYCDA to look at the ability of the dancers and not the choreography. Sure, there are things that can be annoying, like music that hurts my ears, or formulaic dancing, or crazy things like a series of fouettés that end up in a tap sequence. But the dancers are not responsible for those choices. Some studios have tons of money and can hire choreographers, while others do not have that advantage.

In the end, we are looking for what moves us. You would be surprised at how often the judges agree on that. We really do come together on selecting artists of the highest quality.


“By the second round, we all have our favorite dancer.” – John Meehan. Photo by Kyle Froman. 


John Meehan

Prix de Lausanne, Youth America Grand Prix, Genée IBC, USA IBC

At first, I thought the idea of dance competitions was ridiculous. This is an art form, and some things can be brilliant to some and completely uninteresting to others. But I have grown to value competitions: The late teen years are so important, so much comes together for these young dancers quickly and we need a place to see that.

We all have priorities: Some judges will be looking for musicality, others how someone walks onstage. There will be cases where the technique is not as strong, but they have great potential. Sometimes, a dancer can remind you of someone you love and you can react in a positive way, or just the opposite. You have to keep the big picture in mind. I look for a dancer’s ability to move me, and often with a detail. For me, it’s not the big steps—they can all do those—but the transitions, their phrasing or what part of the combination they feature. Sometimes, it’s their dramatic choices. They can be great communicators, but it all happens at the same level. A more enigmatic performance will have more light and shade to it.

By the second round, we all have our favorite dancer, and we want them to do well, but then they might fall apart in the final round, and we must mark them down. That’s hard. And sometimes we are judging students who we know or have taught. Do we judge them by what they do just at the competition or what we know they are capable of?

In the end, we have to put that mark down. But the most important thing about judging is that one doesn’t do it alone. If I were asked to be the sole judge, I would never agree to that.

Directly above: Mark M. Sugino. All head shots courtesy of judges

Nancy Wozny lives, writes and does her best to be ob
jective in Houston, Texas.