the next generation of Dance as Art

I recently shared an article about a competition routine danced by 8 year old dancers that appeared in a prominent news source.  The article was reflecting on the appropriateness or lack of that was demonstrated in this dance.  I was absolutely floored that within 48 hours the post had reached just under 19,000 people and generated almost 100 likes, comments and shares combined.  It's obviously a hot button topic.  The overwhelming response was that the act was inappropriate for that age group.

This morning I was going to write a response post and then realized my response really needed to be more of a blog post.  The questions I want to toss out for consideration, are:

If so many people feel so strongly about this topic, how is it a growing problem?  

What can be done about it?

Without playing the blame game, why is this happening and how do we turn the tide?

I have been involved, as a judge in the dance competition industry since about 1990, it was a concern then and I remember being able to request a number to be disqualified on the basis of inappropriateness of the material or sexualization of the children.  It didn't happen often, it is a judgement call, but if all of the judges agreed it was a way of sending a message.

Another option, was lowering scores in the areas of choreography and costume (if that was part of the problem).  I'm noticing more competitions are asking for a total score, this makes it a bit harder to knock down areas that are a problem because it's just an overall score.  Very often these routines are performed by students who have strong stage presence, technique and facility for their ages and if we are judging these areas, they are going to score well and it then looks like the judges are rewarding a routine that we might very well find inappropriate.

The other thing that happens at competitions, is that things like the overall scores are based on how routines do against other routines of the same age group, so again if the dancers in the questionable routine are stronger than other dancers, they will again receive more recognition and this continues to look like inappropriate content is being rewarded, when it is in fact stronger performances being rewarded despite the poor content choices.

I have a very hard time "punishing" young dancers for the lack of common sense shown by their teachers and to some extent parents for allowing this to continue.  These dancers are children, part of what they are learning in the studio is to respect their teachers and parents and to work as a team for the common good.  They are performing their best with what they have been taught.  They don't choose the choreography, music or costumes.  We would reprimand them if they were speaking back or challenging their instructors as a general rule.  Many dancers have the personality traits of being very hard on themselves, wanting to please others, looking for positive affirmation and acceptance from the people they respect and being very goal driven.  It's then no surprise that these same kids excel at the task they are given, even if it's one that might be personally uncomfortable to them, without complaint or argument.

As a dance educator and choreographer, I can refuse (and do refuse) to create pieces that I find offensive or inappropriate for the dancers due to age or any other factor.  But now we are in a grey area of my morals or sense of what is appropriate being projected onto others.  While many people feel that blatant sexuality of a young child is inappropriate, others are in the audience shouting out to "shake what your momma gave you" or other similar comments….they are 8, hopefully what their momma gave them to shake out is a beautiful ponytail of hair because to me anything else is disturbing.   

When people choose to choreograph or overly sexualize young dancers, I have to wonder if they ever take the context of what they are creating out of the studio environment to determine if it might be crossing a line.  In general, would you train your 8 year old daughter to flirt with your peers?  Would you dress her up in provocative clothing and makeup and put her in a public space encouraging her to draw attention to herself?  Would you ask your 8 year old son to rip his shirt off at restaurant and toss it at the woman eating at the next table?  Or have him flirting with his teachers?  No, of course not.  So why are these kids taught to entice, flirt and make what  could be considered sexually based advances to the judges and audience at a competition.  Please don't excuse bad behavior by saying it's art or freedom of expression, if the basic premise is wrong or inappropriate, it's just bad behavior choices.

Many of us in the dance world recognize that a very small percentage of our students will go into dance as a career, and we like to explain all of the other benefits that a good dance education will have on our students as people, not just dancers.  Having these young children performing inappropriate material unravels so many of these benefits.

Benefit - Self Confidence …… performing a piece that makes the student feel uncomfortable will then make them less confident because they will start to question the accuracy and authenticity of their feelings.

Benefit - Positive Body Image…..overtly sexualizing young children will distort their body image.  Instead of appreciating the healthy strong body that allows them to dance, they concentrate on how others respond to their physical bodies.  Their perception is then dependent on the reactions of others.

Benefit - Healthy Teamwork ….. by having students to perform content that they is uncomfortable to them or wearing costumes that are risqué and telling them that this is what needs to be done to win, you are teaching them to give into peer pressure instead of how to stand up for themselves.  This will create victims instead of leaders in the long run.

It is my hope that this blog post gives people something to think about, and hopefully will open a constructive discussion on how to turn the tide in competition dance.  I'd love to see competitions actually post guidelines for what is considered acceptable and not at their competition and then actually enforce those rules across the board, perhaps hiring and training an invigilator for each event who's sole job would be to watch for infractions and enforce the published penalties.  This would allow each competition to create the environment that matches their own sense of morality and acceptability and would allow schools / studios to support the entities that they felt were a good match for their students.  Something for everyone and people could choose to spend their money in ways that supports their decisions.

It is also my hope that teachers and choreographers remember that children are not just miniature adults, but at a very different psychological and social development areas and that these areas need time to mature and grow to allow for healthy development.  Just because you have physically trained a child to do X,Y, Z well, doesn't mean that it's the right choice.  Culturally, kids today are a lot less kid like than they may have been 20 years ago, but that's not necessarily a good thing.  Lots of studies are showing that the lack of play and emphasis on growing up faster and exposure to more mature topics / concepts at younger ages are having an impact on students' overall development and learning capabilities.  Play is actually a needed component in educational development.  

The Tween age is very challenging, they don't want to be babied and do kiddy stuff, but they really aren't ready to be teenagers either.  Respect this time period and find material that is appropriate and challenging at the same time.  Work on technique and stage presence and revel in the joy that that these young dancers bring into your studio.  Don't rush the process or development, honor the child.

The article that precipitated this blog post can be found here

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