What is the best pageant talent? If you are in a pageant system that requires you to perform in the talent competition, you have a number of ways to go. First, you may already be extremely talented in a particular area: singing, playing an instrument, dancing, and so on. The obvious answer is to go with the talent you already are strong in.
But you may be somewhat skilled in different areas and wonder what the best pageant talent would be. For those contestants contestants choosing between talents or wondering what talent to begin to develop, we are sharing the pageant talents that are most likely t win, the ones that can give you a better chance at the crown.
Dance has become the new and undisputed pageant talent of all in recent years. Oddly enough pageant dance talents used to be considered passe, dated and a sure way to not win the crown. That’s until a slew of talent reality televisions shows hit the airwaves showcasing phenomenal dancers. At the same time, pageants began to add one or two judges to each panel who were from an athletic background –Olympic athletes, football players and the like, who tend to like thing physical. They like to see bodies in action. That can give dancers and gymnasts a nice edge.
Of the last six Miss Americas, half of them have been dancers! Half, ladies! And in 2016 – which mat well go down as the year of the dancer in pageantry – three of the Top 5 were dancers, including the winner, Savvy Shields, who performed energetic jazz dance to They Just Keep Moving the Line from the TV show “Smash”. No leggings to keep it tame. Just a white swimsuit with fringe, bare legs and gorgeous leaps, spins, kicks and splits. Savvy’s first and third runners-up were dancers who performed to “Something in the Water” (SC) and Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud” (WA). Decidedly not your Mother’s Miss America Pageant.
The comeback of dance as a top pageant talent began in 2013, when future Miss America Mallory Hagan literally slid onstage in tight black leather pants and exposed abs and tapped the guts out of “Get Up Off That Thang”. By the time she had finished, Hagan had blasted the dust off of dance as a “outdated” talent. Suddenly, contestants everywhere realized that if Miss America could aggressively tap-dance to James Brown rock, then all were are off. Overnight, dance was the cool pageant talent again. The next year, Nina Davuluri, her successor both as Miss New York and Miss America, also won as a dancer (See Exotic Dance below).
In 2017, North Dakota’s Cara Mund, followed suit, choreographing her own jazz dance to Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel wearing a skimpy tux dress and top hat – and overturning a chair midway through as the camera’s zoomed in on the judges’ startled but smiling faces. Show me more girl…
A few words of warning about traditional dance as a pageant talent. Many contestants are lyrical, jazz and ballet dancers. It is extremely important today to make these more common forms of dance stand out. The key to doing so, is to (1) have fabulous music, (2) use interesting, showy choreography with leaps, flips, spins, etc., and (3) avoid the same old/same old dance costuming. Modern/jazz dancers especially need to be careful to avoid the Elvis Presley style fringed leotards. Study the Miss Americas above for costuming ideas.
The take-away? If you can dance, you have it made. Find energetic music the judges will love and pack your performance with leaps, spins, kicks, splits, and any other impressive choreography you can conjure up.
Of course, the pageant talent most frequently associated with Miss America is – of course – popular singing. Indeed, no talent has won the crown as often as popular singing. Yet, it is equally true that no other talent has lost Miss America as often as popular singing. Simply said, because so many contestants sing, there are a whole lot of singers who are not going to win. With that said, if you sing, you really need to stand out from the crowd. In a good way.
However, there are some traits that singers who have nabbed the Miss America crown have displayed. If you are a singer, take note. The type and style of song are critical. Winners…
- Frequently choose love ballads and torch songs from Broadway, major films, or top recording artists.
- They use increasing crescendos, building the song’s tension and closing with a strong, emotional climax.
- They choose songs that tugs at listeners’ emotions (love, heartache, loss, etc.)
- They stay within their vocal range. Winners do not necessarily have great voices. They sing songs that are suited to the voice they have. That can make an average singer sound like a really good singer.
Here are some actual winning performances to give you ideas to explore (and, maybe even copy)…
- Miss America 2010: Caressa Cameron won the talent award singing the Beyoncé song “Listen” from the movie “Dreamgirls“.
- Miss America 2008: Kirsten Haglund performed a popular rendition of “Over the Rainbow“.
- Miss America 2007: Lauren Nelson sang “You’ll Be In My Heart” from the Disney film, “Tarzan”.
- Miss America 2005: Deidre Downs sang the Popular vocal, ““I’m Afraid This Must Be Love”.
- Miss America 2004: Ericka Dunlap sang the vocal made popular by Celine Dion, “If I Could”.
- Miss America 2000: Heather French sang Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “As If We Never Said Goodbye”.
- Miss America 1999: Nicole Johnson sang the popular song made famous by Frank Sinatra, “That’s Life“.
- Miss America 1998: Kate Shindle won the talent trophy and crown belting out “Don’t Rain on My Parade“.
- Miss America 1994: Kimberly Aiken sang George Gershwin’s semi-classical song, “Summertime” from the opera “Porgy and Bess“.
- Miss America 1993: Leanza Cornett won the talent award and crown singing “A New Life” from “Jekyll and Hyde“.
- Miss America 1992: Carolyn Sapp sang the Ella Fitzgerald song, “Ain’t Misbehavin‘”.
- Miss America 1986: Susan Diane Akin sang the popular torch song, “You’re My World“.
- Miss America 1983: Debra Sue Maffett sang the popular song, “Come in From the Rain“.
Singers should always wear a gorgeous outfit! Make it beautiful and a bit on the theatrical side. Soft and princess-y work here. Slinky and seductive works here. You’re a girl. Work it.
Classing singing is one of the most successful talents. Statistically, classical singers, classical singers have a consistently strong record of winning both talent competitions and the national title:
- Miss America 2016: Betty Cantrell performed a classical vocal, Tu Tu Piccolo Iddio from Madame Butterfly.
- Miss America 2012: Laura Kaeppeler won talent and the crown performing an aria from the Italian opera, Il Bacio.
- Miss America 2009: Katie Stam sang the semi-classical gospel selection, Via Delarosa.
- Miss America 2003: Erika Harold performed a classical vocal, “Habanera,” from the opera “Carmen“.
- Miss America 2002: Katie Harmon won talent and the crown performing Puccini’s aria “O Mio Babbino Caro”.
- Miss America 1997: Tara Dawn Holland performed a classical vocal, “Ou va la Jeune Indoue” from Lakme.
- Miss America 1981: Susan Powell won talent and the crown performing comedic classical aria, “Lucie’s Aria“.
- Miss America 1977: Dorothy Benham won talent and the crown performing the aria, “Adele’s Laughing Song“.
- One of the most talented Miss Americas of all, Yolande Betbeze, (1951) sang “Sempre Libera” and “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto.
Okay, classical is awesome, but we are total suckers for comedic opera. We think Susan Powell’s humorous “Lucie’s Aria” was a masterpiece. How could you ever forget her faux laughing up the scales on the telephone? So, if you are thinking of going classical, consider giving it a wicked funny twist.
If you are a classical singer, you definitely want beautiful costuming. Unless you are another Dorothy Benham, who had such a gorgeous voice that she wore a plain white gown. Frankly, she could have worn a paper bag and still won. But other mortals wisely enhance their performances with beautiful costuming, usually operatic/theatrical gowns with added glam (feathers, gloves, fans, etc.) Watch talent performances on Youtube to get the gist of what other classical singers have worn.
Most importantly, pick music that touches the judges and perform with emotion. You want to emotionally move the judges. Make them cry. Make them laugh. Give them chill bumps. But get a reaction.
Play the Piano
Piano can be a surprisingly good pageant talent. If you are a great piano player, definitely use it to your advantage. Select music that has impressive-sounding keyboard runs and other features that will captivate the judged. Don’t be boring!! Unless you are a truly outstanding pianist who can carry a highly difficult selection, opt instead for something entertaining and somewhat theatrical.
- Miss America 1991: Marjorie Vincent won talent by performing the classical Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu, Opus 66” in the piano.Miss America 1976; Tawny Godin played her own modern piano composition, “Images in Pastels“.
- Miss America 1971: Phyllis George played a piano medley of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and “Promises, Promises”.
- Miss America 1968: Debra Dene Barnes played four variations of movie theme “Born Free” on the piano.
- A famous Miss America from the 1940s, Bess Myerson, performed Grieg and Gershwin’s “Summertime/Concerto in A-Minor“.
We are separating ballet from other form of dance because ballet en point comes across entirely differently than other types of dance in pageantry. We think of it as its own genre. Ballet is a pretty successful pageant talent – not stellar, but strong – with three women having won Miss America title as ballerinas.
- Miss America 1995: Heather Whitestone performed a classical ballet en point to “Via Delarosa”
- Miss America 2006: Jennifer Berry performed ballet en point to “Within” and won the talent trophy.
- Miss America 1970: Pamela Eldred performed a ballet to “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet“.
Ballerinas must interject excitement with unusual choreography, music and costuming. This can be accomplished in two very different ways. You can lean toward beautifully elegant traditional ballerina performance like Heather Whitestone.
Or, you can lean in the opposite direction, interjecting showbiz. The perfect example is Sandy Frick, Miss Florida title and made the Top 10 at 1989 Miss America performing an exciting “character ballet” en point to “Yankee Doodle Dandee” in a sexy Revolutionary War military jacket, tights and feathered hat. The result was one of the best talents ever performed at the Miss America Pageant. If you want to see ballet choreography at its best, check out her video below.
We have included videos Heather and Sandy’s ballet performances to demonstrate how widely music, choreography, and costuming can vary the same talent.
While piano is the instrument that most people envision when they think of pageant talents, other instruments have been even more successful statistically. One of the talents with the highest rate of success for the few times it is seen in competition is the marimba!
- The first woman to win the crown with this talent was Bebe Shopp, Miss America 1948, who played “Caprice Viennese” on the vibraharp (a relative of the marimba.)
- In 1989, Miss South Carolina, Mary Waddell Gainey, played “Scherzo for Marimba in C” on the marimba and placed as first runner-up to Miss America.
- The next year, Debbye Turner was named Miss America 1990 after performing “Flight of the Bumblebee“, “Czardas” and “Can Can” on the marimba.
- In 1992, Dr. Carrie Lee Davis, Miss South Carolina, played marimba and made the Top 10.
Other instruments can be successful as well. Miss Americas have won their titles playing the flute, harp, violin, and fiddle.
- Miss America 1989, Gretchen Carlson, won the talent competition and the crown performing a classical violin solo to “Gypsy Airs”.
- Miss America 1975: Shirley Cothran performed a flute medley of “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” and “Bumble Boogie”.
A lively, entertaining medley is an absolute must for any instrument. Don’t go slow here. The judges will zone out. Keep it energetic and entertaining. Some of the songs that have performed well for musicians over the years are: “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues”, “Bumble Boogie”, “Czardas” and “Can Can“.
And just in case you think that it takes years to develop an instrumental talent. Yeees, normally it does. However, two Miss Americas have publicly admitted that they learned to play one medley on an instrument. It was the only song they could play – but it got the job done.
Not only can you win with dance these days, but you are even more likely to stand out from the crowd if you can perform a specialty dance – Think Bollywood fusion dance, belly dance, Polynesian-Tahitian dance, Irish dance, clogging. They’ve all made the Top 5 at Miss America. For example, Sher Patrick, Miss Ohio, made the Top 5 at the 1979 Miss America Pageant performing an exotic Middle Eastern belly dance. It was outrageously seductive for that time, but she carried it off and nearly won the crown. And Miss America 2001, Angela Baraquio, performed a lovely hula dance to “Theme from Mutiny on the Bounty”.
In 2013, Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, showed up at Miss America, not only was a dancer – but as an Indian dancer garbed in an exotic Indian costume and bangles. Her “classical Bollywood fusion dance” to Naacho Re from the movie “Jai Ho” utterly captivated the audience and judges alike. No one could take their eyes off her – and she walked with the Miss America title.
Which brings up the other Miss America who performed an exotic dance – Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, Miss America 1988, who won her title performing a Polynesian-Tahitian dance while clad in a sexy bustier, grass skirt, and towering headdress with poi balls and grass pompoms. There was simply no way she could get lost in the crowd. She was memorable because her dancing was so completely different from anything ever seen at Miss America.
Find a unique niche in dance and you may up your chances. Here are a few more ideas:
- Chinese sword dance
- Hawaiian hula dance
- South Sea dance
- swing dance
- Russian Cossack dance
Sing and Play an Instrument
If you are multi-talented, consider performing both talents. Three Miss Americas have won their national titles after combining singing and performing an instrument.
- Miss America 1980: Cheryl Prewitt sang the Melissa Manchester song “Don’t Cry Out Loud” while playing the piano
- Miss America 1987: Kellye Cash sang and played the piano, performing the song “I’ll Be Home”.
- Miss America 1985: Sharlene Wells sang “Mis Noches Sin T” in Spanish while playing a Paraguayan harp.
In the cases of Cheryl and Kellye, both began by playing the instrument while singing, then left the piano to continue their performances with hand mikes. Sharlene began playing the harp, then transitioned into singing while playing. She then transitioned back to playing the harp alone for the remainder of her performance.
Gymnastics / Acrobatic / Athletic Talents
Although most people don’t think of athletics as a “pageant talent”, anything athletic can become a fabulous talent. Several Miss Americas won their titles with gymnastics/acrobatics, and gymnasts have come close to winning the national titles on a number of occasions.
- Kylene Barker, Miss America 1979, performed a gymnastics exhibit to “Feeling So Good” and “The Theme from Rocky.”
- Judy Ford won the 1969 Miss America crown performing a gymnastics routine followed by a trampoline exhibit.
- In 1981, Miss Texas Sheri Ryman, won talent and placed as a runner-up after performing an acrobatic routine that we consider the be the best ever performed at the pageant.
- In 1997, Christy Neuman, Miss Florida, won talent and made the Top 10 performing a rhythmic gymnastics routine to “Theme from Robin Hood.” Dressed in a “Robin Hood” jacket and tights, she performed impressive acrobatic moves with ribbons and a hoop.
- In 1970, Ohio’s Kathrine Baumann finished as first runner-up to Miss America after performing an “interpretive gymnastics” routine.
Make fun of it if you will, but ventriloquism is a pretty successful pageant talent in proportion to the small number of contestants who perform it. With the victory of 12-year-old ventriloquist, Darci Lynne Farmeras, as the 2017 America’s Got Talent winner, we fully expect this talent’s popularity to soar.
The only ventriloquist to win Miss America was Vonda Kay Van Dyke (1965), who performed a ventriloquism/singing routine to “Together” with her dummy Curlie-Q. To date, Van Dyke is the only contestant to win the national title, but others have come close…
- In 2017, Miss Louisiana, Laryssa Bonacquisti, became the audience favorite with her ventriloquism act with yodeling puppets.
- In 2015, Miss Ohio, Mackenzie Bart, performed a popular ventriloquism act.
- In 1981, Miss Alabama, Paige Phillips, won the talent award and placed as first runner-up as a ventriloquist (double dummies).
Mash-Up of Classical and Popular Singing
One of the talents that we always find charming is a mash-up of popular and classical singing. While it hasn’t won in a number of years, we think it is a pageant talent well worth considering. Usually, the contestant begins signing an aria, then stops midstream – usually with a sign of exasperation – and switches to a jazzy popular song.
- Miss America 1964: Donna Axum started with the classical “Quando Me’n Vo” and switched midstream to the popular “I love Paris” (Complete with a fur and sunglasses).
- Miss America 1959: Mary Ann Mobley performed an aria, “Un Bel Di Vedremo“, then switched to “They’ll be Some Changes Made” with a mock strip tease tossed in. BTW, they promptly banned the stripping bit.
So, if you can handle both vocal genres, maybe blend them together with a touch of humor to create a vocal talent that is truly memorable.
Think Up Something Clever
Sometimes, performing a “talent” no one has thought to use before can be a surprising success! Here are a few real-life examples:
- Miss America 1967: Jane Jayroe sang, danced a little, but mostly conducted the pageant orchestra to “One, Two, Three“.
- Miss America 1961: Nancy Fleming won the talent competition and the crown by displaying her fashion designs by rapidly changing garments hanging on a clothes pole behind a screen.
- Miss Hawaii 2011: Lauren Cheape won the preliminary talent competition at the 2012 Miss America pageant performing a jump rope exhibit to “Theme from Hawaii Five-O”!
- Miss Michigan 1985, Alecia Rae Masalkoski, performed a karate demonstration, stomping on broken glass and breaking a concrete slab with her foot.
- Miss Florida 1973, Ellen Meade, roller skated to “Swan Lake” to win the preliminary talent award at the Miss America pageant.
The key to making something a bit odd work is the make is seamlessly professional, set it to fabulous music, come up with sleek professional-looking costuming, and give it some type of flare.
The Bottom Line
The take-away from all this is that you can do pretty much anything for your pageant talent. But, make sure that whatever you choose to perform appears as professional as possible, is packed with showy moves/features/techniques, and has exciting, crowd-pleasing music.
Related pages can be found here: Pageant Tips