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Competition Strategies

A Judge’s Suggestions


by Jillina and Lauren
posted September 26, 2011

There are many reasons why we, Belly dancers, enter into competitions. Competing is a great way to hold yourself accountable to your goals in dance.

Participating in competitions gives you a great platform for exhibition and networking; they provide a unique opportunity to receive constructive criticism from a cross-section of established dancers, and additionally, they may add a bit of excitement to your life.

I (Jillina) for one, am no stranger to Belly dance competitions! Although you will most often see me on the judging panel, I have also spent my share of time in front of the judges as a performer and competitor, trying to deliver my best, and while I did win a few titles, it’s safe to say I didn’t win them all!  However, it’s important to remember that (whether you win or lose) your career and passion goes on whether or not you win the coveted title “Belly Dancer of the Milky Way Galaxy”. Whether your goal is to go out and win the title, or simply to deliver your personal best, I have assembled a list of my own competition strategies in order to help you stand out in your next competition. These following things are what I believe to be most important and what I look for in a competitive dancer.


The two most important things to remember about your costuming for competitions are:

  1. Your costume needs to be unique, and
  2. It must flatter and fit your choreography and your body type.

Surely, we have all noticed the amount of cookie cutter produced costumes that are now available for purchase at festivals and over the Internet. While these costumes are beautiful, keep in mind that your favorite costume might also be the favorite of three other dancers in your competition if yours is not custom designed. If you can’t afford a custom costume, you can do some simple alterations to make your “off the rack” costume more individual.

Here are some of my suggestions for changes:

  1. Add flowers, feathers, or other accents to a “plain” bra, belt, or skirt.
  2. Apply extra stones, sequins and/ or fringe to your bra and belt.
  3. Add a contrasting fabric panel to the skirt, and run the same color through the bra and belt.
  4. Make arm bands or sleeves that enhance your costume and your dance style.

In short, dream up appliques (or alterations) that make your costume stand out as unique when you compete.

Choosing a costume that fits and flatters your choreography is equally important. If you want to highlight your amazing hip work, be sure to choose a costume with lots of fringe and tassels on the hips so the judges cannot fail to see that hip work.

If your choreography features numerous beautiful turns and spins, a circle or trumpet skirt might look more appropriate than a straight skirt. If you have some amazing footwork that you would like to showcase, be sure your aren’t wearing a floor-length skirt that is completely closed to the floor or your hard work will be lost. Perhaps a straight skirt with a slit might be the choice for you. Finally, consider what color will serve as the backdrop on the stage. If your costume happens to be the same color, you might end up looking like a “floating head” from far away. To avoid the camouflage effect, find out from the sponsor what color(s) they are using for the competition stage.

Make-upKhalilah competes at BDUC2011 with a fever!

Proper stage make-up is more than being beautiful; it is being able to project your emotions to the audience. Before your competition, try to get the stage and lighting specs, and the location of the judging panel. Will they be near the stage, or in the 15th row? Will the stage be raised with professional lighting or in a hotel banquet hall without lighting? All of these factors need to be taken into consideration when creating your competition look.

Some general rules of stage make-up to keep in mind:

  1. The stronger the lights, the bolder your make-up must be. Strong stage lighting will “wash out” all your color so be sure you use a red-red (as opposed to a brown-red) lipstick, darken your eyebrows and use more contour in the hollows of your cheeks and under your jaw line.
  2. Fluorescent lights make most performers look green and yellow, so counteract this by using warm tones, bronzes, and blushes.
  3. False eye lashes should be a standard for any performance because they enhance and direct the eyes.
  4. If you need help for makeup techniques, be sure to check out YouTube for great makeup tutorials on every subject. As an alternative, check in with your local drag queen for tips, tricks, and inspiration on enhancing or camouflaging with make-up.

Be sure you practice your make-up application well in advance of the competition so that you know what you are doing before your nerves set in. Also, ask an honest friend to look at you, both up close and from a distance, to help guide both your concept and application.

Your Choice of Music

Apart from that, here are a few things to keep in mind about choice of music:

  1. Your music needs to be professionally edited. Transitions need to be smooth, not chopped or spliced off rhythm. If you can’t do this, ask a friend (or hire an editor) to do it for you.
  2. Your introduction should be no longer than 5 seconds. If it is any longer, you are losing valuable stage time.
  3. Your music choice needs to be unique. It seems that most competitors stick with instrumental versions of songs, but don’t be afraid of using vocals! Even a great performance can be forgotten easily if the judges hear the same music repeatedly.

Here is a template of my ideal competition set:

  1. Ninety seconds of Entrance Music: My choice should be instrumental and dynamic. I build my choreography for the entrance, featuring traveling steps and turns.
  2. Ninety seconds of Um Kulthum or a rich Taxim. Here is your time to show a different range of emotions both with your face and your movements.
  3. Sixty seconds of folk-like or popular music; this should be playful and fun.
  4. Sixty seconds of Drum Solo. This is the climax of your dance presentation – don’t fake it! This is the time to showcase your detailed rhythmical expertise and high energy.
  5. Ten seconds of Finale Music for your exit. Hopefully, you will be off the stage before the applause dies down. (Don’t spend time dancing after your drum solo. It should be your climax, the most powerful part of your set. Leave the judges with that.)


Now that you have the look and the music, what are you going to do? Choreography should take time, and not left for the last minute. If you are new to creating and notating dance,  don’t be afraid to request private lessons with your favorite teacher. In all likelihood, they may be happy to help you create a choreography or scenario for your presentation.

Also, don’t be afraid to hire a good choreographer! Early in my career, I hired choreographers often to help me with my performances and felt it was a good investment. In other dance forms, it is a very common practice to hire choreographers and coaches.

Some things to keep in mind while constructing your competition choreography:

  1. Start offstage! This saves you from an awkward moment getting into position and holding a pose, pretending you are invisible, while the sound guy fumbles to find your CD. Remember that judging begins as soon as the judges see you, so be sure your entrance is grand and impressive.
  2. Pull out some show stopping moves. Your choreographic notation is probably musical and tasteful, but if it’s too safe and conservative, it can be forgotten easily. What is something impressive that you can do well? Deep back beds, drops, splits, spins? Throw a couple of those in, where they are musically appropriate. (Please, no high kicks during an Um Kulthum song!) Special moves can wake up both a sleepy audience and judging panel, helping you to be remembered while your scores are being tallied.
  3. Be sure to practice your choreography often before audiences of friends and family. Not only will this make you more confident on competition day, but their feedback can be invaluable.

Performance Day

Months of planning, practicing and preparation boil down to competition day.

Get the most out of your time and investments by keeping these things in mind before going on stage:

  1. Diet–be sure to eat only healthy foods on the day of the competition. You will want to have energy for a long day. Also, be sure to bring snacks with you to the venue. Food can sometimes be scarce and expensive at these big events, and you won’t want your blood sugar to dip too low suddenly.
  2. Water–stay hydrated so that your body is able to perform at its best. Warm up your body You always start your classes with a warm-up; be sure to treat your performance with as much discipline. You might consider including some yoga breathing exercises to help calm your nerves and relax the body.
  3. Warm up your face! You don’t want to be caught on stage with a plastered-on smile or unresponsive expression. Be sure to stretch out the muscles of the face so that you are ready to emote and express the music.
  4. Bring an extra copy of your music, and be sure both copies have only your competition song on them.
  5. Don’t let the judges intimidate you. They are there to work, and might seem to have scowls on their faces. Don’t take their expressions personally; different judges hold different opinions, and various contests give judges weighted parameters for judging, making selections difficult for them. If you need inspiration, find your friend at the back of the room. I am sure he or she will be happy for you!

This is my personal advice, based solely upon what I look for when judging a contest. I hope you find it useful. No matter in what venue you are expected perform, keep your love for the dance alive and strong. I wish you the best of luck and courage, taking on your next “Belly Dancer of the Milky Way Galaxy competition”!



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