Are We Lowering The Barre…Or Raising It?

Project Up dancers performed at the 2013 Dizzy Feet Foundation Gala in LA

Project Up dancers performed at the 2013 Dizzy Feet Foundation Gala in LA

Well, hello again dance lovers!

Last week, I wrote about dance costumes. If you read through the comments on this blog and all over social media, you notice that people raised some big issues – the objectification of women, the exploitation and over-sexualization of children, our body-shaming culture, the prevalence of explicit lyrics in music and much more. Perhaps I should have shared what happened that led to me to write it, since I’ve never written about this topic before. I also want to share with you the one comment out of thousands that…well, it hurt my feelings.

I attended a dance competition in another state because my students with special needs were included in this event, offering the opportunity to spread our message of acceptance and to show hundreds of dancers, their teachers and their families that dance is truly for everyone, regardless of their challenges. This video is an example of what my incredible students and their teenage volunteers can do and there’s another video link at the bottom of this post:

* I’m only speaking about female dancers in this post. This does not mean I am negating or disrespecting the presence of boys in the dance world.*

For about six hours, I watched dancer after dancer perform in her underwear. Maybe its because I was in another state or maybe I just haven’t paid attention to this trend but it was surprising to me how different these costumes were from what I’m used to seeing.

And then it happened…a beautiful girl in the teen category (which means she is not older than 16), a girl who I do not know, from a dance studio I’ve never heard of, did her 11th leg tilt facing the audience and she had – well, let’s just say she had a hugely unfortunate wardrobe malfunction involving the bikini bottom she was wearing – without tights –  resulting in what must have been the most embarrassing moment of that lovely young girl’s life.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd but she maintained her composure and finished her performance, as dancers are taught to do. I was left with a roaring rage directed at the adults in her life who allowed that to happen to her. Adults who selected her costume. Parents who paid for that costume. Adults who did not insure that the costume was properly anchored with butt glue or toupee tape (yes, these items are part of competition dance and apparently many other activities children do these days). And so I wrote my post and hit “publish,” expecting that maybe 5,000 people might read it. Imagine my surprise when half a million of you showed up!

I’ve dug through thousands of comments on social media to see which way the pendulum of public opinion is swinging and according to my scientific poll numbers (obtained by me and my husband adding up likes, positive comments and negative comments with a calculator), 80% of the people who read it agree with me and 18% vehemently disagree with me. The remaining 2% were commenters who admitted they hadn’t read my post but had an opinion anyway. Oh, social media, you can be so entertaining!

Many of those who disagreed with me said they were dance moms. Go figure? The refrain of “It’s only sexual because you’re making it that way…get your mind out of the gutter…quit slut shaming girls” was common amongst my detractors. It’s interesting to me that the original post never used the word “sex.” And I did not shame the dancers…they are children, who have absolutely no choice in the matter. A dancer is going to wear whatever the hell her dance teacher tells her to wear.

And what was the comment that wounded my soul? It said, “This is just another example of the older generation trying to impose their views on the rest of us.”

Older generation? Wait a damn minute, now. When did I become the older generation?

Oh, right…it was when I turned 55 last October and an envelope from AARP showed up in my mailbox, uninvited and unwelcome. I cut up the membership card and threw it in the trash. Whew…that was a close call. I can still pretend I’m not eligible for senior discounts or early bird specials! According to TV commercials, I am actually a candidate for a senior care facility…worry-free living for seniors age 55 and up, they said. I’ll pass on that. I may not understand how the Kardashians became a thing but I’m not going to go quietly into the nursing home just yet. I wrote once before about how I feel about getting older and now someone else feels compelled to remind me that I’m no spring chick.

But you know that old saying, “With age comes wisdom?” It’s true. Or at least it gives you the hindsight and perspective to see things a bit more objectively. Back when I was a teenager, we got a lot of mixed messages from our society – it was the ’70’s, after all. But the mixed messages our girls, especially those involved in competitive dance, are receiving today are more convoluted than any other time in my life.

“You can be anything you want to be, you can break that glass ceiling, you can have it all,” we tell our girls. “You own your own body…you are woman, let me hear you roar.” And then we trot them out to perform, all tarted up and twerking, teaching our girls too early that “sex sells.”

Dance is an activity that should leave a girl feeling empowered, strong and confident. It is an activity where her body is her instrument and as such, should be respected and celebrated. But are we celebrating our young dancers or are we exploiting them? Maybe I’m just too old to understand the answer. But I am still young enough to know that you can be trendy without being tacky and you can give girls confidence in themselves without selling them out.

There has been an evolution in competition dance that has turned it into demanding sport with a higher degree of difficulty than ever, which must be considered when selecting attire for class and performances. If a costume matches age-appropriate music, adds to the story of the dance and can accommodate the dancer’s movements without leaving a tender young person exposed, that’s a win. But if its gratuitous skimpiness, if its just dancing in your underwear, then I think it’s time for a revolution.

Let’s raise the barre for dance, not lower it.

Program Director Melissa, Artistic Director Hayley and dancer Katie with Nigel Lythgoe

Program Director Melissa, Artistic Director Hayley and dancer Katie with Nigel Lythgoe


David & Goliath, Project UP Style


Nathan at the NRG Competition

Nathan at the NRG Competition

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants,” a fascinating book about turning disadvantages into advantages. The book made me think about my students, who are perennial underdogs in most every situation in their lives. The kids in my program are disadvantaged by cognitive, physical or communicative disabilities that slow down their progress in comparison with people who experience “normal” development. We’ve repeatedly put our students in “David and Goliath” situations and regardless of their disadvantages, they come out on top every single time.

Like two weeks ago, when we travelled to Atlanta for the NRG Dance Project’s regional dance competition…over 200 trained dancers ranging in age from 8 to 18, all typically developing and all extremely talented, converged at the Westin Hotel for a weekend of intense master classes and fierce competition. There were 15 of Project UP’s 43 members who made the trip, arriving at the hotel full of excitement and oblivious to the fact that the odds say they didn’t stand a chance of competing successfully with their contemporaries. These are kids who are left out of so many things…just being included is a victory. Don’t get me wrong…if my students know there’s a trophy or a prize involved, they certainly want to win it but winning the trophy is just icing on the cake. They are excited about the process, not the end result.

As we’ve done in the past, we enrolled our students – all at least 14-years-old – in the junior age division with kids ages 8-12, where we thought they would stand a better chance of keeping up with the choreography. Based on previous experience, we knew there would be some raised eyebrows when they walked into their first master class…typical kids in the world of elite competitive dance aren’t used to seeing kids with special needs in their classes, so we decided to meet those eyebrows head on this time. The kids all wore t-shirts to class that had different slogans on them depending on what each kid’s diagnosis is. The slogans were: You’d be happy too, if you had an extra chromosome; I have an extra chromosome and I’m not afraid to use it; The rainbow is also a spectrum; I have autism and I’m awesome; Am I rocking this extra chromosome, or what?; and my personal favorite, “Normal is a dryer setting.” We put their disadvantages out in front, in your face and acknowledged the obvious right off the bat. My staff and I wore t-shirts that said either “Typical,” “Average,” “Same,” “Ordinary,” or “Regular.” The shirts were a smashing success; people stopped all of us all weekend to tell us how much they loved them.

NRG Performance of "We're Not Gonna Take It"

NRG Performance of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”


So, having disarmed everyone with the shirts, the kids set about participating in master classes and the competition. And boy did they ever kill it! While they may not have mastered every combination or understood every instruction, they never stopped trying. At the end of their hip-hop class, they were all flushed and sweating after an hour of hard-hitting choreography. Their typical peers high-fived them, congratulated them, encouraged them and applauded them for their efforts, with Project UP quickly becoming the center of attention everywhere they went.

Project UP blew it out of the water at the actual competition…they executed their dances with enthusiasm and won over the audience with their wide-open performances. While their typical peers may have struggled with nerves, the pressure to perform well and win, and with the backstage chaos that could unhinge even the most seasoned pro, the kids in Project UP were calm, cool and collected. They took the stage, did their job and returned to the audience to cheer on their competition. Of course, both of their performances received sustained standing ovations and most of the audience had tears in their eyes as they applauded. When people see a real “David” in action, going after dreams that appear unattainable, they never fail to be moved.

Anna C & Laura Beth at competition

Anna C & Laura Beth at competition

Both of Project UP’s dances received platinum awards – the highest score awarded to a dance. The final three awards were called the “High Impact Awards” and were given for outstanding overall performance. And wouldn’t you know it? Our “Davids” won a High Impact Award! Before presenting the award, NRG Dance Project Founder Nick Gonzalez told the audience, “Our next High Impact Award is going to a group that has inspired all of us this weekend.” Yes, our students are inspirational…and so are all the other “Davids” in the world. Our kids did what underdogs have done for centuries…they refused to allow their disadvantages to stop them for going for their dreams.

There was a great deal of celebration, lots of hugs, tears of pride from the parents and our staff but as soon as the excitement died down a bit, our kids were ready to pack it in for the night. Great sports that they are, our kids wanted to rest up for the next day’s classes and had no interest in gloating in over their win. I took the staff out to dinner afterwards and I have to admit…we did gloat over the kids’ victory! We toasted the kids, we toasted each other, we toasted the judges for recognizing the power of our underdogs’ performance and we toasted the audience for embracing our underdogs (yes, we had quite a few celebratory drinks with which to toast!). We all felt quite full of ourselves because we are just so dang proud of our students and so proud that our program has given them a platform from which they can show the world that they can do anything they are given the chance to try.

Dinner at the NRG dance competition

Dinner at the NRG dance competition

Like “Davids” usually do, our students were back in class the following Tuesday, hard at work preparing for their next performance. Besides making sure that we had properly – and prominently – displayed the High Impact Award banner they were given, the kids were back to business, their victory just another fun memory to them. As they continue to have successful public performances, the odds will tip in their favor – they will always be underdogs but they will narrow the gap between them and their typical peers. As they continue to succeed on an even playing field with their “normal” peers, folks will begin to realize that normal, well you know…normal is a dryer setting.