Dancer Diary: Preparing for the RSOBHD Judge’s Exam Part One

Preparing for the Judge's Exam

Nicole Odo’s Dancer Diary Part One

In 2022, I prepared for the Highland dance Judge’s exam, and I wrote it in September 2022 at the SDTA Conference in Nova Scotia. The best news is, I passed! I’m excited to say I’m on the world-wide panel of judges in 2023, and I already have some Canadian events that I’m scheduled to judge at. Both nerve-wracking and exciting! 

Now, I want to share my experience with anyone who is interested in the judging process, or is interested in becoming a judge themselves. 

When I started prepping for this blog post, I started writing everything I could think of that I wanted to talk about. It turns out it’s A LOT of content, so we’re going to split this up into two separate blog posts.

Part one is all about the exam preparation, the pre-requisites and answering some of the questions I’ve been asked about studying. Read on for all you need to know about the exam itself, how I prepared for it, and some of my tips for anyone looking to go down the same path.

Part two will be all about the exam itself! I’m going to be taking you through the experience from start to finish, and I hope it will either help professionals feel more prepared by knowing what to expect, or maybe even inspire a few people to take it. 

The Highland world needs more judges, and while it can seem daunting to prepare for the test, you can totally do it!

Are you looking for more background on judging and the RSOBHD as a whole?
We’ve got you!

Check out our previous blog posts with all of the background info you need.

Taking Us Back

I’ve known I wanted to be a Highland dance judge since I started competing at seven years old. I thought it would be the best job ever – you get to watch dancing all day, travel, and wear fabulous outfits. What more could a Highland dancer want?

While it had always been a dream of mine, it was something I put off while I was still competing. Something to note: if you want to continue competing AND be a judge – you can, but you can only judge under 16 years olds. When you decide to fully commit to judging, you have to be done competing.

I knew I didn’t want to be a judge while still competing, as I didn’t want to put any restrictions on the events I could judge if I passed.

I first thought about seriously studying for the exam in 2020, as I had returned to school for graduate studies. It seemed like the vibe would be that I would study for school and the judge’s exam at the same time.

The issue then became that there weren’t any exams offered until 2022, but since I was in a 2-year grad program, the option was still on the table. 

In November 2021, Janice MacQuarrie (from Nova Scotia) was our examiner at the studio for medals testing. We got chatting about the topic of judges exam, and she asked me if I had any intentions on taking it. I mentioned that I really wanted to, but wasn’t sure when the next exam was. I also asked if she would be willing to be my mentor and study with me (which is a big commitment).

She mentioned there might be an exam happening in 2022 and THANKFULLY agreed to mentor me. I truly couldn’t have done it without her (more on that later!)

Some things to note:

  • The exam takes place every year in August in Scotland if you’re willing to travel.
  • There is usually at least one internationally approved judges’ exam – and it usually happens in conjunction with a conference in North America!

In January 2022, I started studying and didn’t look back!

Pre-Requisites for the Judge's Exam

To write the judges exam, you will need:

  • To have taken a professional Highland exam with the SDTA, BATD or UKA – Member level or higher (Associate only not acceptable).
  • To have taken a professional National exam with the SDTA, BATD or UKA – Member level or higher (Associate only not acceptable).
  • OR you can have taken a Fellowship exam with the SDTA, BATD or UKA covering both Highland and National material and that will cover you for both of the above requirements.
  • To be 21 years of age or over.
  • And to be a fully paid member of a Highland Branch (SDTA, BATD or UKA).

The RSOBHD announced the judge’s exam dates in early 2022, confirming that there would be one in Halifax, NS. Since this was a drive-able distance for me, this REALLY pushed me to take it that year; as it’s probably the closest it would be for a while.

Janice & I had started our weekly study sessions on the RSOBHD books, and she reminded me a few times to get my application in to take the exam. I was kind of procrastinating on applying because it made the whole experience more real and, to be honest, I was scared. BUT I finally downloaded the application to start to fill it out. 

Then… I noticed it.

Back in the day when I knew I would take the exam *someday*, you only needed a Member-Level professional Highland certification, so I took my Members back in 2015 and thought I was covered.

Then, when trying to fill out the application, I looked like a National membership was needed. Which I didn’t have, so, queue panic.

This was something that had been newly implemented, and I didn’t learn this until February. So all of a sudden, I went from studying the RSOBHD books with Janice, to frantically needing to book a National exam with my branch (the SDTA) and study the SDTA books.

A question someone asked me: Is there a different exam for SDTA or BATD? 

Answer: For the judges exam, no, everyone is taking a RSOBHD exam. For other professional exams, yes.

The RSOBHD National book is a combination of the SDTA, BATD and UKA books. A lot easier to study from! That’s what is needed for the judges exam, but for the SDTA Member National exam, I had to transition to studying the SDTA methods only. I wanted to get that exam over with so I could get back to studying the textbook I needed to know for the judge’s exam.

So, I booked my Member National exam (huge shout out to the SDTA for virtual exams!!) for a few weeks out, which was ambitious and ALSO required a lot of studying (Janice’s words when I told her my test date: “you’re brave”, lol). I completed the exam in early March, and I was happy to have gotten it out of the way so I could get back to the RSOBHD National book.

Tip: know you need a National exam (or Fellowship, to cover this requirement), and do it ASAP! I believe that most professional exams can be done virtually. Get that over with sooner rather than later, and get back to focusing on the RSOBHD material!

Preparing for the Judge's Exam

When signing on to take the exam, just know studying for it will be fairly life consuming. That isn’t to turn you away from the idea, though. What I found so great about it was I got to:

  • Connect with other people taking the exam or those who had already taken it, making connections I may not have had otherwise,
  • Get to know Janice a lot better because we spent MANY hours together,
  • Network with more judges at competitions, and I got to hear about their experiences with judging.

The whole experience made me feel a lot closer to the Highland community, and I actually looked forward to my weekly study sessions with Janice so much. It was a couple hours during the week that I wouldn’t check my phone, I wasn’t worried about work or the studio, and I got to really challenge myself and my memory on a topic I truly enjoy.

If you can change your mindset so that studying is something you look forward to, it makes the experience become great. I became a better dance teacher because I now knew more about the technique than I ever had; and I had a whole new perspective on Highland dance and how judging actually works that never would have had otherwise.

But back to the life consuming part. I typically studied for at least an hour each day, and I had a session almost every Wednesday with Janice to do oral exam-style questions for a couple hours. This is also where I would ask her all the questions I ran into the week before.

As mentioned, I started studying in January (with a quick blip of studying for my Member National exam), so it was many months of focused work. A lot of people ask me how I studied, because it’s an overwhelming amount of material. When I say I studied for about an hour each, it could sometimes be less than that. I assigned myself material each day on a calendar to cover.

How I Did It

  • I studied the textbooks in this order: Highlands, Nationals, Jig and then Hornpipe.
  • I would assign myself a few steps a day to cover. This also depended on what Janice and I agreed she would quiz me on the next week. 
  • If I had to go back in time, I know that 3 times was the magic number for me to review each textbook to feel as prepared as I was. Not knowing that at the time, planning was a big more ad hoc. 
  • If I had to do it all again I would:
    • Break each textbook down into number of steps in it,
    • Figure out how many steps I would need to cover each day with the number of months I had available to study,
    • And leave the last month before the exam strictly for final review.

My Tips

  • Put all the questions you run into either in a Word document or a note on your computer. Just use something electronic. I am a paper girl through and through, so I had started by writing my questions and answers out, but you can imagine how many pieces of paper you end up with and how difficult it can be to look back at the information. I started with a computer note during the second half of my studying, and it was just way easier. Trust me.
  • If you don’t study EVERY day, don’t beat yourself up. Sometimes, I simply wouldn’t have the time, but I would double up on the steps the next day. And sometimes I would get REALLY behind and just have to use a weekend day to catch up. Life happens! I tried to stick to my daily schedule as much as possible, but if I had to push the steps forward a day, I wouldn’t sweat about it.
  • Whether you have a mentor or an accountability partner, having a weekly meeting with SOMEONE to quiz with is so valuable. If I didn’t have the fear of being unprepared for my sessions with Janice, it probably would have been harder to stay on top of things.
  • I would start each individual study session by reading the steps, then I would re-write the steps from memory, and then go through and correct it and add any terms or definition components that I forgot in coloured marker.
    • This was then easy to compare the first time I wrote it out versus the third time through the textbook. I was able to see what parts of the step I was always forgetting, but I could also see where I improved!
    • This is how my brain works best, so just use whatever memorisation method works for you! But, you will have to get used to writing out information for the exam, so make sure you practice that format. 
    • I didn’t do this enough, but after the reviewing the steps and writing them out, DANCE THEM. You run into way more questions for yourself when doing that (lol @ me having a question for myself IN the oral exam when demonstrating a step…)
  • If you can teach the steps, this is also a huge help! Maybe offer some free lessons where you practice teaching the steps from memory.
    • Huge shout out to my Retired Highland class who ended up being a great practice class for me. You are all queens! I would try to teach a handful of steps from memory to them every week. 
  • For each of the movements in the front of the book, I would list where they were used. 
  • Closer to the exam, I was writing high-level number and name of step, followed by any important things to remember for the step all from memory (ie. extension is to 4th int aerial LOW). 
  • Don’t forget to study the Constitution & Rules book! I downloaded the latest electronic PDF on the RSOBHD website.

Wrapping Up the Preparation Stage

In general, I would say stick to a schedule that is manageable, and it’s way easier to do a bit every day than pile it all on for a longer multi-hour day. Dance the steps as much as possible – you WILL come up with more questions for yourself when you physically do them – and teach the steps from memory whenever possible.

The exam isn’t hard in the way that it’s a bunch of trick questions like some university exams are. What is hard is that the exam is SO comprehensive and you could be asked literally anything. But if you can get to a point where you’re really comfortable with the material and have practiced answering questions in different formats, you will do great!

Part two of this blog will talk about the exam itself, and I’ll be summarising all my study tips for each part specifically (oral, mock judging and written). I got tons of questions about what each part was like, which part was the hardest, and more, so I’ll be covering all the details next week!

Are you someone who’s taken the exam before? Are you on the fence about taking it? Do you have some barriers that prevent you from taking it? I’d love to chat! Send me a DM on Instagram or Facebook! (@nicoleodohighlanddance_)

See you next week for part two!

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