How to Translate Competition Experience in Professional Auditions

September 7, 2023

For recent alums of the competition scene, professional dance auditions can seem intimidating: Instead of a trophy, you’re vying for a potentially career-defining opportunity. But the process might also feel familiar. In many ways, life on the circuit has been preparing comp kids for professional auditions all along. Here’s how to best leverage your competition experience in an audition setting.

Find Calm in the Chaos

On audition day, dancers encounter a myriad of new faces—from the creative team and audition monitors to choreographers and assistants—and often have to navigate unpredictable schedules and scenarios. If you’re familiar with the hectic, anything-can-happen environment of a competition weekend, take comfort in the fact that you already know how to find calm in the chaos. “Interacting with the backstage competition managers, teachers, and parents is a chance to learn how to stay cool and communicate your needs professionally,” says dancer Sissa Strain, who judges for Dancers Inc. and All Out Dance Competition and is also director of operations at Commercial Dance Intensive, an organization that teaches industry skills for aspiring professionals.

Terry Lindholm, founder and president of Go 2 Talent Agency, says he often seeks out dancers with comp backgrounds for that reason. “When I review agency submissions, I look for people who have competed, because I know they’ll have experience navigating stress, adrenaline, and adapting to mishaps and challenges related to live performance,” he says.

a dancer mid-air on stage at a competition
Sissa Strain as 17-year-old comp kid. Photo by Fire & Ice, Courtesy Strain.

Stand Out…While Also Blending In

After competing solos growing up, New York City–based performer Maci Arms learned how to turn on her stage presence quickly and exude confidence in front of an audition panel. “To succeed in both situations, you have to trust yourself, and your training, to make the one shot you have to perform your best,” she says.

But while auditions and competitions share a full-out mentality, Lindholm recommends taking a more refined approach in the audition room. In that setting, “there’s a stigma about how competition dancers facially over-perform to get presentation points,” he explains. “In the professional world, we prioritize authenticity, and love seeing dancers’ joy and unique spark shine through.”

At auditions, instead of channeling comp-solo energy, think about the team-focused quality of a group routine. On pro jobs, “more often than not, you’ll need to blend in with other performers,” Lindholm explains. “We need artists that are confident, but also super team players.”

Choose Your Lane(ish)

Unsurprisingly, comp-kid versatility is a major asset in audition settings. Thanks to the wide variety of styles they performed and skills they learned during their competition days, both Strain and Arms have been able to book a range of gigs, from commercial industrials to classic musical theater shows.

But versatility has its limits, too. “If a gig is seeking professional ballroom dancers and you’ve only taken a few classes, you likely won’t land the role,” Lindholm explains. Build on your jack-of-all-trades base by leaning into one or two styles you’re particularly skilled at or drawn to, amping up your training in those genres and listing them prominently on your resumé. “Successful professionals are constantly working on their versatility, but they also have a clear sense of where they fit into the industry and what they can book,” Lindholm says.

Ultimately, remember that—like competition judges—casting teams are just people with subjective opinions. “Competing helped me develop the thick skin you need as an auditioning professional,” says Arms, who attends or submits self tapes for upwards of 20 auditions a year. “You have to stay confident even if you don’t ‘win’ or ‘book,’ and love what you’re doing no matter what.”