Shifting the Comp Kid Stigma

July 8, 2024

When Kamille Upshaw arrived at The Juilliard School in 2007, she’d been a competition dancer for a decade. “There was still a bit of a stigma about competition dancers,” says Upshaw, who attended Baltimore School for the Arts and trained at Spotlight Studio of Dance in Millersville, Maryland. “We were seen as being all about legs and turns—and that wasn’t necessarily true! I had to fight against that stereotype. Yes, I can do the leg thing, but I also have something deeper to offer.” Casting directors agreed: Since graduation, Upshaw has performed in three Broadway shows.

a young dancer wearing bright red pants and top posing against a white backdrop
Upshaw as a young comp kid. Courtesy Upshaw.

The “comp kid” image has come a long way. Once viewed as over-the-top performers who prioritize tricks and trophies, competition dancers now fill the ranks of top colleges, conservatories, and companies around the globe. Competition studios are training dancers who aren’t just ready to win—they’re ready to work professionally. And the dance world is now making space for them to thrive.

The Bar Keeps Rising

How did competition dance achieve this image upgrade? One factor is that the technique at competitions has skyrocketed over the past 20 years. “Every time someone steps it up, whether it’s one studio or one dancer, a whole shift happens,” Upshaw explains. “You’re only as good as who you’re competing with.” And versatility, always a comp-kid strength, has become even more impressive. To win, today’s comp kids must do more than master the latest trendy moves: They must also study diverse dance styles and perform innovative choreography.

Competitions and conventions have also shifted their priorities, with many now emphasizing their educational aspects instead of focusing on titles and trophies. Choreographer Jessica Lang—who competed as a child and teen before attending Juilliard and launching a professional career that included running her own company and dancing for Twyla Tharp—believes that change has been especially impactful. Lang says education-minded competition directors have helped competition dancers “become more than what the outside world could perceive them to be.”

Studios are also bringing in more guest artists. “Competition dancers are getting direct contact with the professional world from a young age,” says Katie Langan, chair of the division of fine and performing arts at Marymount Manhattan College. Often, that contact comes in the form of successful alumni returning to teach and choreograph.

Competitions and competitive dancers tend to be very active on social media, offering plentiful information about and footage of top performers and schools—which has helped lift the scene’s overall technical and artistic standards. “Students can easily search for a competition, see who won last year, and watch those routines,” says Michele Larkin, co-owner of Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood, Minnesota. Larkin’s niece Mackenzie Larkin Symanietz, an instructor at Larkin Dance Studio, adds, “We can all look at what other studios are doing, in a way that’s not copying but admiring. What can I take to make our dancers the best they can be?”

And social media visibility has helped those in other parts of the dance world get a handle on what competitive dancers are capable of. “Competitions post winning dances as marketing,” Upshaw says. “That gets people’s names out there.”

a group of performers wearing period style clothes standing on props with their arms spread wide to the side
The cast of Hamilton, including Upshaw (upper center). Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy The Press Room

Dance Culture Is Changing

Langan admits that when she first became involved with competitions, about a decade ago, she was skeptical. Then she saw the performers. “These students are very, very talented,” she says. “They’re fearless, and their solos are so well-choreographed.” Langan isn’t the only college dance program chair to have had her assumptions about competitive dance challenged. Scholarship programs at competitive events have led to an intertwining of the competition and college realms: More comp kids are pursuing dance majors, and, in turn, more dance departments are welcoming them.

There has also been a shift within those dance departments. “We’ve been breaking down the hierarchy,” Langan says. “No one style is better than any other.” This often involves incorporating cultural and social dances into the curriculum; it also means no longer viewing concert dance, particularly ballet and modern, as the be-all and end-all. Dancers who’ve competed in jazz, contemporary, tap, hip hop, theater dance, and acro may feel more welcome on campus if every aspect of their training is valued.

As far as landing a job, versatility is an asset in today’s dance climate. Even the most classically oriented ballet companies are seeking out well-rounded dancers, a trend that began some decades ago and has only become more pervasive. Madison Brown, now a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, attended competitions frequently as a teen. While she recalls a few teachers wondering why she’d continue competing in contemporary after declaring her intention to become a professional ballet dancer, Brown says she’s grateful for the breadth of her training: “I hear a lot of people saying they wish they’d done other styles growing up.”

Looking to the Future

Just as professional dancers often revisit their childhood studios, many former competitors, now affiliated with big-name shows and institutions, return to teach and judge at events they attended as students. More and more of these comp alums have earned positions of power within the dance world and are able to mentor or even hire members of the next generation.

“When I was doing conventions, I crossed paths with choreographers like Andy Blankenbuehler, who I later ended up working with,” says Upshaw, whose Broadway credits include the ensemble of Hamilton and assistant choreographer for the musical Hell’s Kitchen. Now Upshaw is the one with the influence. As a judge for On Stage America a few years ago, “I loved being behind the table,” she says. “I saw so much potential in these young artists. The confidence they exuded gave me a lot of hope for dance’s future.”

a female dancer wearing a plaid skirt and red jacket kicking her leg side and smiling big
Upshaw during the Broadway run of Mean Girls. Photo by Erin Baiano.

The “Dance Moms” Effect

From 2011 to 2019, the reality TV show “Dance Moms” earned a large viewership with its talented tweens, their domineering teacher, and cast of catty stage parents. Unfortunately, “the show made it seem like competition dance was all about negativity and drama,” says Mackenzie Larkin Symanietz. “It gave competitions a bad reputation.” Now that it’s been several years since the show ended (aside from a recent reunion special), the shadow cast by “Dance Moms” is finally waning.

“It wasn’t representative of the community most of us try to surround ourselves with,” Symanietz says. “You have to have a positive competitive relationship with the people you’re up against. You have to appreciate everything that’s happening onstage.”

Comp Kid Magic

As more and more competition dancers enter higher education and the professional world, directors and choreographers are seeing firsthand everything they have to offer:

Confidence onstage: “Competitions give you stage experience,” says choreographer Jessica Lang. Broadway dancer Kamille Upshaw agrees: “Competing every weekend made me comfortable in front of the audience. I knew how to manage my nerves. I made mistakes onstage and learned how to recover. Those tools are so important.”

Strength and stamina: “As a professional, you might be dancing all day, with only a short break for lunch,” Madison Brown says. “For me, that was like a convention workshop day! When I joined the ABT Studio Company, I was less overwhelmed, because I’d been exposed to that workload at a young age.”

Quick thinking: As a result of their experiences in fast-paced convention environments, “Competition dancers are capable of learning a lot of material very fast,” says Lang. “They’re musical and hyper-rhythmic.”