Taking the Judge's Exam
Nicole Odo’s Dancer Diary Part Two
Welcome back for part 2 of my judge’s exam blog! I’m going to dive into the actual exam process so you know what to expect, I’ve summarized all my prep tips by exam section, and I’ve also included what I wore for each section because if you’re like me, when you read you can wear a “kilt/skirt suitable for demonstration purposes and suitable shoes” for the oral exam, you’re like:
How do I wear my hair?
Do I wear kilt socks?
Should I just wear my full kilt?
Is a full kilt too much?
Should I do bare legs or panty hose?
I’m here to give you the full inside scoop!
Did You Catch Part One?
Last week, the blog covered part one of my journey toward taking the judge’s exam: the preparation. Make sure you read part one first so you don’t miss a thing!
Judge's Exam Components
For anyone that doesn’t know, there are three components to the judging exam: mock judging, oral exam and written paper. Each candidate needs to pass all 3 sections with an 85%.
Common Q: if you only fail one section, do you just get to re-write that part?
A: No, you have the re-write the whole exam each time.
A Month Before the Exam
At the beginning of the month, all the approved candidates received a letter that detailed our personal identification number (the tests are anonymous), and our exam schedules. It also gave you the requirements, some information on what to wear, etc.
I mention this so you have a rough timeline on when you’ll receive these details!
The Day of the Exam
The night before the exam, Halifax was hit by Hurricane Fiona. I kept waking up to the sound of really strong winds, and then frantically checking to see if the power was still on. Then I would fall back asleep and have a nightmare about the judge’s exam. And repeat!
Not exactly what you would call a “restful sleep”. When my alarm went off at 6AM, I was just ready to get up and start the day at that point.
Miraculously, our hotel was one of the only places in Halifax with power!
My assigned schedule for the day was:
- 7:30AM 7:45AM: Registration
- 8AM – 9:15AM: Mock Judging Paper
- 11:45AM – 12:30PM: Oral Exam (which then changed to 10:30AM once I checked in, as they had one less candidate than expected)
- 1PM – 3:45PM: Written Paper
My understanding is that the order of exam sections can change! Don’t expect / bank on this order, but they will give you a timeline well in advance so you can mentally prepare.
Since the mock judging exam was first, and you’re supposed to be dressed as you would to judge (business dress), I got up and did my hair and makeup, and got ready. What I wore:
- A tartan wraparound skirt that Sarah Warman, a true queen, custom made for me basically a week before the exam (god bless)
- A black tank body suit
- A black blazer
- Black closed toe heels
The written requirements are: business suit, dress and jacket, skirt and jacket, tailored trousers and jacket. Tartan can also be incorporated within accessories.
You definitely don’t need to go out and get a skirt made, I just couldn’t find anything else that was really suitable and thankfully Sarah is a very fabulous friend!
Back to the morning – I got ready much too quickly, got some breakfast (I feel the nerves all over again as I’m writing this!!), and ended up having a bunch of time to kill. I reviewed some of my notes last minute on the deductions for competition, and then eventually headed down for registration.
I got to the registration table before 7:30AM, and some of the other candidates had already arrived. We made introductions, stood around chatting, and waited for check in.
Then, it was time for the mock judging exam! This was the part I was most nervous for.
In many ways, I was grateful for this part to be first so I could get it over with. I was SO nervous for the mock judging section because obviously, this component of the exam is a lot more subjective.
There were tables evenly spaced out throughout the room, and on each table was an envelope with a booklet in it. Each candidate had a number identifier they were to write on the front of their booklet, and then we waited for it to start.
The mock judging for this exam was done using pre-recorded footage of dancers. From my understanding, this was the first time they’d done this, but will be the preferred method going forward, as it can be tough to get the number of dancers required to put on a mock competition in person.
We had to judge a 4 step Fling, 2 & 1 Sword, 3 & 1 Seann Truibhas, Strathspey & Highland Reel and Reel of Tulloch.
I think there were 12 dancers in the group, so there were 4 – 5 sets to judge for each dance. When the first set of Flings started, I had a true moment of imposter syndrome and had a bit of a panic thinking “omg I can’t judge what am I thinking??!!”. I guess the reason I say that is if you are also feeling this way, it’s okay! Judging is a LOT different than teaching, so I definitely felt like I was working on a whole new skill set the whole time. This made the mock judging seem so intimidating.
In saying that, I walked out of the mock judging and was really unsure of myself. I had time between the mock and the oral, so I went up to my room and immediately texted Janice telling her the mock was done, but I really wasn’t sure how it went. She assured me that others likely felt the same way, and to keep focusing on the next part (pro tip: get a judging mentor because they will be the voice of reason when you are CHAOS).
Here are all my thoughts and tips on the mock judging.
Things to remember:
- You will not be judging championship dancers in the mock judging exam.
- You will be judging non-championship dancers (I’m not sure what everyone’s level truly was), but you’re supposed to judge them all as Premiers.
- What matters is that you’re catching deductions properly – don’t disqualify (DQ) someone who shouldn’t have been, and don’t deduct 5 if you shouldn’t have.
- Catching sword touches (a DQ in Premier) can be tough. Get used to paying REALLY close attention from a distance.
- You have to put a mark in for each dancer as soon as the set is done. DO NOT leave a bunch of blank squares to fill in later. This is 1. Incorrect and 2. A total nightmare honestly. It would be impossible to remember what you should give if you don’t give a number right away
- Take a look at the set on stage and think – who are my eyes drawn to? Who is your 1st place in the set? Then for the next set, how does your 1st place of this set compare to the 1st place of the last set? How do the others in the set compare to the last set as well? Getting your 1st , 2nd and even 3rd will probably be pretty easy. Be mindful you still need to place the rest of the placings accurately, and I found this can be where it gets hard.
My tips for mock judging:
- Practice judging Pre-Premier dancers. People told me this and I thought “okay cool, will do” and then I STILL didn’t do enough Pre-Premier practice judging. Pre-Premier is arguably tougher than judging a championship, so don’t underestimate that!
- To practice judging, pick some competitions near you and ask the competition organizer if you can mock judge.
- When practicing judging at local competitions, Janice’s number one tip for me was to make sure you are separate from the crowd (you don’t want parents seeing you’re giving marks and interpreting that as something it’s not), and try and act like it’s truly a judging gig – ie. don’t interact with parents, dancers, etc. This can be really hard as a teacher with competitive dancers, but I would email my dance parents in advance and they were great to support me and let me isolate from the dance school during the event.
- Janice’s other tip for me when practicing judging was “not to be extreme”. When I first started practicing, I would see someone mess up and I would penalize to the extreme, or I would mark DQ’s that were also extreme. If you’re on the fence, don’t automatically go to a DQ – maybe just reflect what you think in the mark. Also, remember what the deductions for each category actually are!
- Know the deductions for each category inside and out. When you give a -5 on the exam, you have to have a reason.
- Something that worked well for me was to write down one comment per dancer to help me remember who they were. Even if I wrote the word “backsteps”, it would help jog my memory. I’m sure with more experience, I may not need to do this in future, but for the exam and for my first few judging gigs, I will definitely be doing this! Otherwise, by the time you get to dancer 12 of the group, and you’re thinking back to dancer 1 of the group to compare, I found it hard to remember who it was if I didn’t write SOMETHING.
- Do not use kilt colour or appearance as an identifier. This can be tempting for the Reel of Tulloch, but don’t do it.
What I will say about judging in general is that I couldn’t get over how different it is from teaching.
Maybe that seems obvious to some! But when teaching, I’m looking for all the little things I want the dancers to fix. When you’re judging, you’re just sitting back and seeing who sticks out in the group. It’s actually changed the way I’ve taught a bit. I now focus more on “how can we stick out on stage”.
Which is why it’s so important to practice judging as much as you can. At competitions, with YouTube videos, whatever. Get the practice in! My outlook certainly shifted, and I had a new appreciation for what judges have to do in the run of a day.
One thing is for certain: it’s the ultimate memory game. I think Highland dance folks stay so sharp because of this!
The Oral Exam
As mentioned earlier, I had some time to kill between the mock judging and the oral exam. I went up to my room and Kate was working on some things for For Reel Apparel (also chaos moment – agreeing to run the FRA booth the same weekend as writing this exam???), so I was like KATE ASK ME QUESTIONS and I gave her my chaotic sheets of notes and was getting her to quiz me.
Reflecting back, please take the advice that if you don’t know it by then you just don’t know it. Don’t keep reviewing things over and over again and stressing yourself out. This will probably fall on deaf ears, because I knew I should stop reviewing but I kept doing it??
Anyway, you know your material, just relax!! I wasn’t too worried about the oral exam because every professional exam you take is in that format, so it felt familiar. And all I can say about it was that it was just that! A familiar format and the examiners were lovely and they made us all feel comfortable.
What I wore – this might seem like a weird thing to include, but I was stressed and even asking the morning of what others were wearing.
- Kilt socks
- Dance shoes
- A black long sleeve body suit
- My hair in a low pony tail.
The description is Kilt/Skirt suitable for demonstration purposes and suitable shoes. So some wore their aboyne skirts and a shirt. No one wore their full kilt just FYI, but you definitely could if you wanted to!
Oral exams are done individually, and you select an envelope with pre-made questions in it, so no one knows what questions you’re getting, including the examiner. I think it was 10 questions, but I can’t remember exactly. It’s only a 45-minute exam, and everyone managed to finish in the time, so I haven’t experienced anyone running out.
For my oral exam, I danced A LOT. Full sweating. But this was different depending on the examiner, and would probably also depend how recently you’ve danced (ie. I only recently stopped competing, so there was no reason why I couldn’t dance).
What I do remember is not really warming up that much and then IMMEDIATELY having to do the Leap & Highcut step LOL. For me, the examiner would ask the question, have me demonstrate and then describe; so I danced every step.
My tips for the oral exam:
- Practice answering oral questions with someone – whether this is your judging mentor, a friend, all of the above. Just get used to someone asking a question and you having to give a response right away.
- Practice counting in beats and bars AND straight counting. I had a hard time with straight counting for some reason, so just be sure you can do both.
- Get used to a format for answering the questions. I preferred:
- Feet descriptions (with single counts along the way so you don’t get lost)
- Arm descriptions / head descriptions if needed
- Counting while walking through / demonstrating the feet and arms
- Leah Smith gave me the study tip to draw step names from a jar and practice answering. That way you don’t know what question is coming up (versus describing the steps in order when you know what’s next). A great tip!
Overall, for the oral, I felt confident, and I think most people would do fine on this section (although I don’t know the stats). They aren’t trying to trick you with questions, but they ARE looking to make sure you know all the options. For example, I had to describe the low cutting step in mine (RIP me – IYKYK), and there are a lot of little options, alternatives, exceptions, etc. Be thorough!
The Written Paper
The written paper is the horror story everyone tells people taking the judges exam about. Before you even take the exam, you’re terrified. But I’m here to ease some worries (I hope)!
Overall, the written exam felt like my best component. What I will say is that it’s a VERY comprehensive exam. The most comprehensive exam I’ve taken in my life, to be honest. So, the VOLUME of material is a lot, but once again, they aren’t giving you trick questions. You just need to know your material.
The other thing about the written is it’s a 2:45 long exam, and there are a LOT of questions. I think there were 160 or something. That gives you about a minute per question, so you truly don’t have time to mull a question over. Be ready to write, and write quickly.
My method for going through the exam was to answer any questions I knew and if I was unsure, I just skipped it and hoped I had time to come back. Again, not much time for thinking. So, when you’re reading the question, if the answer isn’t already coming to you, just move on for now.
VERY IMPORTANT – they don’t want you putting a bunch of additional information in the answer. You know how in university exams, you would write down everything you knew on a topic and pray for a half mark? Don’t do that here. It’s written on the front of the exam booklet not to do that. It won’t get you any points.
Another thing to note is that every piece of information is work 0.5 marks. So if a question says it’s work 2 points, that means you need 4 pieces of information. This is how you can make sure you aren’t over-delivering on info.
My tips for the written exam:
- I can confidently say I went through and re-wrote every textbook 3 times. On the 3rd time was when I felt most comfortable with the material. It may sound crazy, but again, you could be asked anything and you need to know this material inside and out!
- Practice re-writing the steps with the counts.
- Dance a step out after you study it, you will likely come up with more questions when you are physically doing that (ie. what height is that extension ACTUALLY?)
- Things I left for last minute memorization (within the last couple weeks leading up to the exam):
- Time signatures
- Song names for the dances
- Study all the smallest details! Things I put on sticky notes in my bathroom to look at every day:
- Time signatures
- Diagrams of the jig arms (male and female)
- Jig break options for each step
- Hornpipe arm names
- A list of places you use 3rd aerial VERY low
- Release positions before breaks in different dances
- The tune names
- Lilt transitions
- Highcut options for Sword + Reel
- Shake counting in different dances
- Deductions and DQ’s by category
- Ending positions (in letters) for Reels
- National intros summary
- Scotch Measure and Laddie & 7 or &7 summary
- Do some practice exams – get used to sitting down and writing for 2:45.
- Bring something to write with that you can erase. I brought these erasable pens which I am very passionate about.
- Tartan wraparound skirt from my mock judging
- Long sleeve body suit I did my oral exam
- Hair in a low ponytail
You can wear whatever you want to the written exam from my understanding, so I kept my outfit nice enough, but I didn’t wear heels as I wanted to be comfortable! Some people just decide to wear what they wore for the mock judging section, and this would also depend on how much time you had between sections and what order everything is in. You might not have time to change.
Now, Time for Some Q&A’s I’ve Been Asked!
Q: What was the hardest part of the actual exam process?
A: I found mock judging to be the hardest! It was the section I was least confident in and I was constantly worried I had missed something that should have been a deduction. I think I just had pre-stressed myself out about it though. Everyone I talked to before the exam says the mock judging is the easiest part!
Q: For the oral part – how similar or different was it to any other professional exam?
A: I found it VERY similar to any other professional exam. But I found the questions required you to describe the whole step usually, instead of having a bunch of smaller questions on movements like other exams.
Also, lots of questions on “how would you judge this step”, “what are you looking for in this step”, “would you deduct for”, etc. Get ready for judging related questions! If you’re actively teaching, I didn’t find these questions too bad because you’ll know the mistakes or technique things dancers struggle with.
Q: What was the exam itself like?
A: It was a full day, so by the end, I felt very mentally exhausted. But overall, I had a good experience with the whole test!
Q: It’s sooo much info you have to know! How’d you break it down so it’s not so overwhelming?
A: I have some study tips in here for each section, but I go through how I broke it all down in Part 1!
Q: Thoughts on taking your judges exam if you weren’t a champion or well-known dancer?
A: This was a very thought-provoking question! The question was regarding being uncertain about credibility in the Highland community, getting gigs and being taken seriously as a judge. My rambling thoughts for those who want to know:
Credibility: the fact that someone passes the judges exam automatically makes them credible. I know we all know this, but think about it! SO many people fail this exam. If you can pass, you deserve to be on the list! I don’t think anyone will question that, and anyone who has written the exam or knows about the exam will fully be able to appreciate what you’ve accomplished.
Getting gigs: the need to keep the budget small for Highland competitions is REAL in many places, so you will most likely be hired by proximity. For example, all my judging gigs so far have been in neighbouring provinces. SO, it’s very likely you will get your first gigs just by having your name added to the list as an option a neighbouring province hasn’t had before!
This brings me to two suggestions for the Highland world:
- As a professional, encourage your local competition organizers to hire from the list of judges that aren’t eligible to judge championships yet (when it isn’t a champ, obviously). This means they haven’t yet done 12 competitions, so they are still looking for experience! If there is someone in that list that is affordable to bring in, encourage them to hire them.
- As a new judge, network as much as you can! Connect with other judges, attend networking sessions when there are conferences, etc. It will help to get your name out there, like in any other industry.
Thank you all for joining me for a couple rambling blog posts all about my experience. I hope it makes someone’s exam experience a bit less intimidating by knowing what to expect!
A huge shout out to Janice, who made all the difference in helping me prepare for the exam. To Cass, for letting me put sticky notes all over the house, and supporting the fact that I had to spend most hours studying well into the night. To my whole studio for being the most supportive dance family in the whole wide world, to every judge that let me ask them 1000 questions and to all my bestest friends and family for hyping me up. I couldn’t do it without everyone who was in my corner!
Thanks for Reading!
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