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

 

Dance Teachers: Please Put Some Clothes On Your Students

Dance Teachers, we need to talk. You have got to stop sending children out to dance in public in their underwear. Maybe you’ve added some rhinestones to that underwear or maybe you’ve strategically placed a piece of chiffon somewhere but come on…underwear is underwear and we all know it.

And Dance Parents, you shouldn’t allow your children to do this, even if your Dance Teacher thinks its okay.

I go to dance recitals and competitions and feel like I’m in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Surely I’m not the only adult among the hundreds in attendance who thinks it’s inappropriate to send kids on stage to dance in their knickers. Am I?

You may be wondering what qualifies me to state such an opinion, so here are my credentials:

  • I’ve been involved in dance either as a student, a performer or a teacher since somewhere around 1963.
  • I started my daughter’s dance training at a traditional ballet school but when she was lured by the showy world of competition dance, I was sucked into being a Dance Mom.
  • I created an arts education program for kids with special needs and dance represents a significant chunk of what we do at Merrimack Hall.

Surely this sufficiently convinces you that I’m an expert on the topic of dance competitions…but I have been called an opinionated know-it-all before so feel free to disregard my impressive resume and chalk this up to me being obnoxious. It won’t be the first time I’ve stated a strong opinion that I was convinced was irrefutable only to have people tell me I’m being an asshole.

I am not a prude. If you know me, you know that I excel at cussing and have strong liberal leanings. I have an open mind about most things, particularly the arts. But as the years have rolled along, I’ve watched kids’ dance costumes get smaller and smaller and  now…well, costumes seem to have disappeared altogether, replaced by what they call “hot shorts” or “bloomers” worn with what appear to be bras from Victoria Secret while they are performing for an audience, under the glare of stage lighting. I’m not sure what I find the most objectionable – sending 8-year-olds out onstage dressed like this or sending 17-year-olds in this attire.

Maybe Dance Teachers think they are costuming their students like the people they aspire to be…perhaps Misty Copeland or Beyonce. So, I offer you Exhibit A:

MIsty Copeland

Misty Copeland is not covered up in this photo or in the incredible commercial she filmed for the Under Armour campaign. But…

  • She’s Misty Copeland.
  • She’s a grown woman.
  • This is an ad for base garments, otherwise known as UNDERWEAR and is not apparel that is advertised as a dance costume.
  • Notice that both the photo and the video take place in a rehearsal space…not on stage in front of an audience.

And take Exhibit B:

Beyonce

I adore Beyonce and think she is a positive, empowering role model for girls. Obviously, she isn’t wearing much in this photo. But:

  • She’s Beyonce.
  • She’s a grown woman.
  • She’s Beyonce.

I’m guessing that even Mrs. Carter would Exhibit C objectionable:

Single Ladies

I could go on and on about this picture and the dance these 6-years-olds performed, which nearly blew up the internet when the video went viral a few years ago. This specific dance and the controversy around age-appropriateness was a hot topic back in 2010 on Dr.Phil, with Anderson Cooper and with many other reputable journalistic outlets.

But I’m just focusing on the costumes right now.

I’ve seen dozens of teenagers dancing in “costumes” like Exhibit D (which is featured in an online dancewear catalogue) at competitions and recitals:

dancewear

See what I mean? She might as well be naked. But she’s a professional model, she is in a rehearsal space, there’s no one else in the photo and the catalogue calls this item “activewear,” perfect attire for dance class, yoga, pilates etc. It is important for dancers to be able to see their bodies, to check their turn out and lines while taking class in front of unforgiving mirrors. Dance class is one thing but in front of an audience? I vote no.

This trend seemed to start when young dancers stopped wearing tights. But you can dance barefoot while wearing footless tights, you know. And at least tights would add a layer. I sat next to a man at a competition recently and he told me that he couldn’t watch dancers dressed like this – said it made him extremely uncomfortable so he scrolled through Facebook during these numbers. His daughter is only 7…by the time she’s a teenager, they may just be wearing a thong and pasties.

I thought costumes were supposed to enhance a dance piece or advance the story of the dance. Have a look at Exhibit E:

shutterstock_291046667 copy

This stock photo is representative of a photo I saw where about 25 teenage girls were wearing sequined bikinis while dancing on scaffolding. What story could a dance teacher be telling that requires girls to wear bikinis while dancing on scaffolding? Maybe the dance teacher who chose to costume her students like this is actually preparing kids for careers as erotic dancers. I have nothing against erotic dancers and quite enjoy a well-done strip show…when the performer is over 21, everyone in the audience is over 21 and I’m enjoying a nice cocktail. At a “family friendly” dance competition…not so much.

Now, I realize that there are categories of people who perform in public wearing in very little clothing – like track and field stars or gymnasts. They are wearing garments that are aerodynamic and help improve their speed or they are wearing leotards because anything else would get tangled up on the uneven bars. Of course, dance teachers have to insure that the costume they select won’t trip up their dancers or impede their movement. But there’s a line of good taste and I hate to be the one to tell you but Dance Teachers, you have crossed that line.

So, Dance Teachers, please rethink your costuming choices. And Dance Parents, please voice your objections to costumes like these, if you have them. Barely there costumes like these do not make a dance more competitive and parents shouldn’t be afraid to voice concerns over immodest attire.

Maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m just being an asshole but I think our kids deserve better.

Stay tuned…in future posts, I will offer my expert opinion on tilts, leg extension, crotch shots, props, music selection and much, much more.