An Interview with Adrenaline Dance’s Chris Jacobsen

By Emmaly Wiederholt

Although I’ve experienced intense competition many times in my pursuit of dance, I have never formally competed in dance. So what’s competition dance all about? I sat down with Chris Jacobsen, a teacher, choreographer and judge at Adrenaline Dance, a national convention that includes workshops and competitions, to find out.

Chris J-headshot

Emmaly Wiederholt: What is your background?

Chris Jacobsen: I’m from San Francisco. I started dancing at a local neighborhood dance studio once a week. I took tap, jazz, and ballet, and it was great. It got me interested in dance, and was a really nurturing outlet. After that I decided to get more serious so I went to the San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA) and did the whole ballet/modern thing and took from Elvia Marta; she was my main influence in high school. She taught me a lot, pushed me in the most positive way and brought out my passion. Dance really saved me. I had never really found a connection with school, I lost my father at a young age, and just finding a safe place in dance, being the gay kid among a lot of girls I related to, it was just the most amazing environment. After high school I didn’t go to college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with dance, so I stayed around and kept training. I went to high school with a couple dancers who also did competitive dance at another school, and that was my introduction to competitive dance. They would bring back their videos and I was inspired by what I saw and I wanted to know more about it: what is this whole dance world about? So what I decided to do was go to their school after SOTA, which was called Schumacher’s School of Dance, and which is no longer around. I went there and started doing competitions. At some point a group of us saw another really talented group of dancers at a competition, and decided to do what they were doing, so we started our own thing. Basically we rented out space, choreographed our own numbers, and competed at conventions. Sooner or later I got really serious about it. I also discovered that I love to create and teach. And so I developed this youth competitive dance company out of that where I auditioned dancers ages 11-18 from the Bay Area and formed a group of serious young dancers who would go to conventions. I would teach them throughout the week, and welcome them to train everywhere else as well, as I didn’t own a dance school myself. And this was a great opportunity for me as a choreographer to have the same group of dancers who really trusted me to work with week after week. As students they got to take from not only me but through the conventions from a plethora of teachers from all over the country. I did that for many years and through that I got exposure as a choreographer and started getting asked to other dance schools who would fly me out to come set work or teach class. I also got sought out by a man who was starting his own convention called Adrenaline Dance, and I’m still doing that today.

EW: What exactly is a convention?

CJ: Basically it’s a weekend event. The convention rents out a hotel and we hold classes for all ages, from 5 to adult. It’s usually Fri-Sun, and we are currently doing about 16 in different cities throughout the year. And then as part of the event we also host a dance competition on one or two nights depending on how large the convention is. We offer scholarships to our summer workshops and intensives. The classes are varied from ballet, contemporary, jazz, tap, and hip hop.

EW: Where do dancers from a competition/convention background typically end up professionally?

CJ: It’s so varied because of the versatile training. Some excel at hip-hop, and a lot of those dancers want to go to LA and do commercial work. A majority do. So many dancers who have come through Adrenaline Dance Convention are now working in music videos, commercials, award shows on television, etc. That’s one avenue. However, now more than ever, because the concert world has come into the competitive world and has merged to some degree, a lot of the dancers go to college and major in dance. A lot of them. And then a third route I see are dancers going to New York and pursuing Broadway gigs. But what I see a lot now is people continuing their education in college, which is kind of neat to see because I don’t know if it was always like that. The level of knowledge these dancers have is a lot different than it was 10-15 years ago in terms of their bodies, their skill level, and the way they look at dance. The skill level is pretty impressive nowadays, and the amount of quote-unquote artistic work they are able to comprehend and execute has grown too.

EW: What do you mean by artistic work? Choreography?

CJ: Exactly.

EW: What do you feel are the pros and cons of training at a competition dance school and regularly attending competitions and conventions?

CJ: I think the benefits are the versatile training more than anything. Often young people aren’t sure what their focus in terms of dance wants to be, and when you go to a competitive dance school you don’t have to know yet because you’re getting exposure to so much. So it gives you time to figure out what you really love in dance and what you’re drawn to.

I think the drawback is the opposite, where if you don’t find a focus you’re not getting enough of one thing. If you go to a competitive school there’s often not enough ballet classes a week. So you really have to find the right dance school for you. Some don’t have enough ballet, but some of them do. It really depends. But I think the drawback would be not spending enough time on one kind of dance because it is so widespread.


EW: You were talking about “concert” dance coming into the competitive world more, and so I wonder if and how you think the concert world and the competitive world could inform one another more?

CJ: I think they are already informing one another more and more. For example, certain teachers from the concert world now teach at conventions. Like Desmond Richardson. So it’s interesting to see that sort of crossover happen. But yeah, I think the concert world sometimes doesn’t take the competitive world seriously and looks down upon it. There can be a judgment. Not always, but there can be that. But really I think they’d be surprised if they really looked. Of course these dancers don’t know everything but they’re really great. They’re disciplined. In terms of attitude, skill level, and discipline, it’s not that different from concert-focused dancers. You’re going to find kind dancers or mean dancers or disciplined dancers or lazy dancers in both worlds. I really mean that.

I hate labels, I really do. And it’s something I don’t like about the dance shows on television, although they’ve helped the popularity of dance, because they specify genres and labels. And that’s another drawback of competitive dance. It’s an art, so it’s hard to judge it, or to say who the best is. It’s so subjective. That’s one of the things I don’t really like.

EW: Do you judge at competitions?

CJ: I do sometimes at the conventions. Like I said there’s competitions during the conventions. I’ve been judging for over a decade.

EW: I’m curious what criteria you judge by. How do you compare one dancer to another?

CJ: Stage presence, how proficient their technique is, and their execution. If I just look at what I like, it’s vague and subjective, so I try to look at how well they’re executing what they’re doing. There are so many criteria, but it can be so vague and so subjective.

EW: As an educator, what do you most hope to impart to your students?

CJ: I try to be nurturing. I really believe in positive reinforcement. I want my students to trust their instincts, and embrace their individuality. I try to disparage comparing, because it ultimately leads to despairing.  I tell them, there’s only one of you, and your voice is valid.

Because of all the exposure of dance on TV, many aspiring dancers want to be on a TV show for dance and become quote-unquote known, or famous, when really, what I’m noticing is a lot of the dancers go on the show and have expectations and then they’re not always met, but because they have a name and they were on a show, they end up teaching everywhere. And so what happens is there are less nurturing teachers, and a lot of these teachers are really young, and I think their teaching suffers.  And I was a young inexperienced teacher at one point, so I get it, but it’s this weird expectation that’s come out of television that it is an ultimate goal for some dancers. And to some degree I think it can be toxic at times, all this competitive dance on television. But then on the flip side it’s all more exposure for dance. And some of the people who have been on these television shows have gone on to do wonderful things.

Chris Jacobsen also cofounded The Dance Sessions. Click to learn more.

First photo courtesy of Chris Jacobsen. Second photo courtesy the Adrenaline Dance website.