Just a Little Unhealthy Competition

Family gathering 2011

When I was seven years old, I did swim team. To my mom’s relief I spent hours at the pool over the summer (as she thought I was busy making friends and playing games.) To her surprise and dissatisfaction I’d actually invested in a stopwatch where I’d time myself over and over again after taking every swim practice offered in the program. Needless to say, I had a competitive edge. My mom knew this but until she witnessed me rip up a ribbon because it wasn’t a personal best did she realize it was a problem.

It’s no secret that dancers aren’t exempt from human’s innate instinct to be competitively wired. Why is it that competition leads to such positive experiences and negative outcomes? Competition in dance (putting competitive dance aside altogether) makes up a huge part of the dance experience. I once had a friend that would watch me out of the corner of her eye and would only raise her leg if it didn’t compete with mine. Teachers often endorse competition claiming “healthy competition” is advantageous to a dancer’s growth. While aspects of the argument are substantial I have to contend that competition may cripple the art form altogether.

To be clear, “true competition” is a healthy, effective method of challenging dancers. True competition refers to participants pushing themselves through motivational self-competition.

I came across a psychological term called “decompetition” that better illuminates the competition I see more often in the dance world. Decompetition is when a participant is striving against their opponent. For instance, my friend in ballet class saw me as an opponent she needed to beat. In my younger days as a swimmer, I was my own opponent; thus negatively motivating me to improve. Competition in Latin means “strive together” whereas decompetition means “strive against.” As a result, pure competition will theoretically build performance whereas decompetition goes hand in hand with stress, anxiety, and the negative repercussions of self-destructive criticism.

It’s as though competition in dance arises from the motto that there are a limited number of people that will “make it” in the dance world. On the contrary, dancers and all artists will argue that the arts need to expand. If that’s the case, why do we conform to an ideology that claims the arts are only for the most talented, ruthless of the bunch? As artists, we shouldn’t be creating to achieve self-recognition; rather we’re working to add to the presence of art in our society. “Making it” is an entirely subjective term used to demean smaller projects and self-employed artists. The “cut-throat” ideology suffocates the expansion of new voices within the arts and regressively cripples the arts community.

As artists, we should be encouraging new voices because we share the vision that the arts are beneficial and deserve expansion. In class, we should foster a supportive environment between mentors and peers because of a mutual desire to create opportunities and add to existing ones within the arts. Our motivation shouldn’t be “proving people wrong” rather it should be “proving them right” by making our fellow artists proud through the creation of new opportunities that contribute to our community.