Survival of the Wit-est? How Dance Competitions are Adapting for Covid

In this time of global social distancing and virtual everything, how are global dance competitions surviving? Here I review some of the challenges and opportunities

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, dance — that most physical form of creative expression — has been one of the hardest-hit creative industries, affecting performers, choreographers, teachers and promoters everywhere. Nowhere has this been more painfully seen than in the usually lucrative sphere of national and international dance competitions.

The traditional model of live events featuring scores of individual and group dancers in glittering venues packed with adoring fans and anxious families across multiple cities is now simply a no-go zone. Hundreds of events have been forced to cancel or shut down, resulting in massive financial loss or even bankruptcy as managers have had no option but to issue refunds. Some hoped to forestall financial troubles by offering partial refunds based on a future rescheduled event, yet even planning when and how to reschedule has proved a logistical nightmare, since no one knows how and when the pandemic restrictions will end, and physical competitions can safely resume.

Most competitions have attempted to adapt by adjusting live competition formats or by offering online versions — some more successfully than others. However, if — God forbid! — the pandemic continues to keep us all in a virtual limbo, it will ultimately serve the global dance community to use this time to discover what does or doesn’t work.

With that in mind, here are some of the more notable competition successes and failures, along with a few current online competitions whose unique approaches may offer fresh inspiration.

TV hits and misses

Amid initial speculation of a reschedule of NBC’s popular World of Dance Championship Series, Executive Producer Jennifer Lopez initially issued a statement announcing that the show would be “postponing or changing the dates of all domestic and international events based on the Centers for Disease Control recommendations and restrictions”, noting it is an “ever-changing situation”.

However, as of March 2021, World of Dance was firmly cancelled, blamed on reduced ratings and lack of a crucial viewing demographic following the final August 2020 show from Season 4. Although that show’s format was adapted significantly to accommodate Covid-19 restrictions, introducing new items like a “Blind Battle,” a “Callback Vote” and a “Qualifier Twist” in an effort to replace the missing live audience energy, it failed to fire viewers sufficiently to justify the show’s lavish production expenses and the whopping $1 million prize money.

As Lopez told Variety in an interview, “We were trying our very best to make it what it should have been for those people who fought so hard to get there… [but it was hard] without an audience cheering them on.” Co-judge Derek Hough had previously told the magazine, “It did feel a little weird in the ballroom”; while he had hoped “the magic of television to create that energy with pyros and sound effects” would still be able to “capture the energy”, it clearly wasn’t enough for viewers.

Likewise, So You Think You Can Dance? made headlines recently as the Fox TV favourite’s Summer 2021 season was also abruptly cancelled — a double letdown as it was hoped this year’s show would go ahead after the Summer 2020 cancellation. As Fox producers explained in a statement, “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic… we cannot meet the standards we’ve set for viewers and contestants in light of the show’s unique format, intricate production schedule and limited time.”

While other popular TV dance competition shows such as Dancing with the Stars and The Masked Dancer — which usefully featured its own creative version of face masks — did go ahead, one of the reasons So You Think You Can Dance was unable to proceed is that it has a strictly public audition process, which is impossible under the current government guidelines. This has also been a challenge for many other national and international dance competitions that rely on public auditions and audience reactions to help choose and eliminate contestants.

As for Strictly Come Dancing, the UK’s ever-popular version of Dancing with the Stars, despite reducing the show’s usual run of 13 episodes to nine, the 2020 season remained a huge hit as viewers flocked to their sets to receive the much-needed escapism the show reliably delivered. Clearly, the UK show’s tried-and-tested formula of celebrity contestants paired off with pro dancers is a winning theme even Covid can’t kill. As BBC Executive Producer Sarah James commented, “The passion and dedication for Strictly shone through more than ever last year as they all sacrificed so much to deliver an unforgettable series during unprecedented and challenging times.”

So, for TV competitions, it seems simply adding new variations on routines or relying on special effects doesn’t always guarantee the wow factor in these challenged times. There clearly must be something intrinsic to the content or format itself that makes the competitions work – and if that all-important je ne sais quoi can’t be a live show and audience, what elements are certain to deliver?

Salsa competitions — but not as we’ve known them

Thankfully, as those of us in the global salsa community know, the energy and fire of the best salsa shows can never be completely diminished by being a virtual-only offering — that at least eliminates one element of the risks of hosting competitions. Yet in a scene bursting with multi-talented, passionate solo, couple and group dancers, the main challenge for salsa and other dance competitions and contestants in transitioning to online is how to make these truly stand out.

Having made the move to virtual this year and partnered with Romania’s Fantastic Art Dance Company, World Dance Movement’s international virtual dance competition is highlighting the all-important aspect of having a stellar judging panel on board, giving aspiring contestants the extra incentive of an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of renowned celebrity judges for prizes including prestigious scholarships and contracts on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The celebrity judges providing crucial feedback include Brian Friedman, Tiler Peck, Medhi Walerski, Tricia Miranda, Bill Goodson, Dusty Button, Kat Wildish, Joshua Pelatzky, Assaf, Peter Oxford, Claudia Cavalli, Vito Cassano, Jessica Franco, Karine Newborn, Phineas Newborn III, Emily Bufferd, Ginger Cox, Damiano Bisozzi, Ashley Carter and a surprise guest judge.

With 25 participating countries and over 200 categories in styles including bachata, salsa, samba, tango, mambo and urbana, the renowned World Latin Dance Cup took the bold step to host a month-long, virtual-only competition in February 2021, with the final qualifying competition taking place in April 2021. The virtual show didn’t disappoint in terms of sheer dazzlement of the performances, but apart from their Instagram clips, the competition can only be accessed by using the Settle app, which may have limited some audiences.

Although World Dance Group’s World Salsa Championship’s 2020 event for ESPN-TV was cancelled due to Covid, it was relaunched as a virtual-only event in Puerto Rico with the $2,020 prize money still on offer. One of its specific emphases was on looking for the “most liked dance video of 2020” in a nod to the power of social media to influence popularity and dancer recognition, which WDG CEO Noel Roque said in a blog is an essential tool for dancers who wish to build a ‘brand’ and public awareness of their skills and personalities, as well as to monetise their offerings.

Fired specifically by the challenges of pandemic-required virtual competitions, the latest global salsa and Latin dance competition to arise is Agozar’s Like My Dance. With the stated aim of “locating the most creative and innovative salsa dancers for the television and movie industry”, this competition has added a new dimension to the online dance competition format by inviting contestants to “go beyond their wildest dreams” by utilising video special effects, with the videography skills themselves featuring as an element of the judging. The competition on 12 June (final results on 19 June 2021) will be accessed both via the Like My Dance website and social media channels Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Offering a first prize of 1,000 euros from sponsors Agozar, Burju Shoes, All Out Salsa, CoBeat Party, Salsa Y Control, Planet Salsa, V Dance Club and Fuego Shoes, it will be judged across multiple areas including musicality, timing, chemistry, technique and choreography by world-renowned salsa performers and teachers Nelson Flores, Magna Gopal, Steve Star Mambo TV, Ismael Otero, Rodrigo Cortez, Paula & Ricardo, Osbanis & Anneta and Cecile Ovide.

Elsewhere around the globe, other initiatives are striving to keep contestants motivated and signing up to compete by adding new enticements to the competition programmes. The Canada Salsa and Bachata Congress has launched a Choreography Contest that is levelling the competitive playing field by offering all dancers an opportunity to create a winning choreo with a prize of C$400 to a brand-new, nationally themed song, “A Bailar Canada”. The track was specifically created for the contest by legendary Latin musicians Marc Quinones and Tony Succar.

Meanwhile, Down Under, Doudoule Latin Dance Camp has launched a Dance Battle Australia 101 competition via Facebook. Seeking to provide a platform for salsa dancers to “take their dancing to new heights”, the event offers dancers an opportunity to improve their musicality, improvisation, creativity, performance confidence and dance ability through battling it out with other dancers for an AU $5,000 prize.

A virtual future?

As in everything with the pandemic, it is hard at this stage to say what the future will hold, and when – and how, and where — competition events will be able to return to “normal”. For those studios and dance teachers struggling to make ends meet or adapt to the medium of online teaching — as well as for the millions of dancers whose ability to experience their chief joy in life has been challenged — getting back to the true physical sphere of dance can’t come fast enough. And yet for those whose creativity has been stretched and resulted in the emergence of brand-new approaches, the challenges of Covid have also brought many blessings and valuable lessons.

As World Salsa Championship’s Noel Roque reminds us in his blog, pandemic or no, we are already half-living in a virtual world, with most of our connections — even in dance — dominated by social media. Therefore, whatever the future has in store for all of us, for those dancers and competitions that wish not only to survive but to thrive, it will require not only reappraising the tried-and-tested formulas that are guaranteed crowd-pleasers, but also the wit and imaginative ability to create new formats, new channels and new methods for self-expression within the limits of a virtual-only space.

Beyond that, the challenge for both international competitions and the dancers who lead, judge and compete in them is how best to use social media and other tools to create memorable experiences and build a brand and platform. So here’s to all those channels that are presently earning their worth in cyberspace by keeping the competitive spirit alive and well!

© Jane Cahane April 2021

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