Appropriate Choices In Dance Choreography For Young Girls

A video of young girls (around 8 years old) performing a fierce competition dance to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies surfaced online in May. It caused quite a stir in the United States when news and media networks picked up the story and questioned dance teachers’, choreographers’, and parents’ choices when it came to appropriateness in movement, costume, and song choice.

Of course, to those in the dance industry, this controversy is not really new and every once in a while our feelings on the matter bubble to the surface. It doesn’t take much to get the heated conversation going because people are rightfully passionate about the protection of children and because dancers (as artists) have an ardent connection to their work (also merited and a license deserving of protection). The discussion is often divisive, unfortunately, as of course what is appropriate or not is subject to opinion and perspective.

Reaction & Blame

When news hits that reignites the flame, we react. And, usually we look for something or someone to blame. I must reflect that my reaction, my first response, is almost never the best I have to offer. And, I daresay, that is probably true for most of us. So in a public space, like this blog, I gave the issue a bit of time. I talked to good friends in dance. I talked to subscribers. I talked to others who dutifully listened and let me use them as a sounding board. I wanted to give my reaction space in order to balance my own emotional response and root my reasoning in logic.

As for blame, nothing happens in a void, does it? Condemnation is not terribly useful because we could go round and round ad nauseam. Of course, in any one situation there are those who must show and take responsibility for choices made. I want to be clear that I am offering my opinion, for what it’s worth, about the choices that were made in this case and the cases I’ve seen like it in the dance industry because I think (obviously) that it has solid footing.

I will discuss why I feel inappropriate choices are harmful and what I think the responsibilities of teachers and parents are when it comes to the young people they work with and influence. You do not have to agree, in fact the comments are open for you to politely discuss your point of view, should it correspond or contrast.

Let’s Talk About Sexualization

Young girls in a questionably appropriate dance performance are not necessarily acting out what they do on stage at home or in their daily lives. These particular girls may thrive as they grow into young women and adults. However, it seems safe to say, that outcomes are unpredictable. As with repeated exposure to violence, patterned sexuality in movement or dress has the potential to negatively affect those who, because of problems at home, victimization, or other destabilizing factors may not as clearly separate their feelings about what happens onstage versus off (that goes for the performers as well as those in the audience).

In addition, though girls performing a routine may be acting, I present that this performance (and those like it) contribute to a larger issue of how women and girls are perceived and perceive themselves. Though admittedly more could be done, there has been some study and reflection within the psychological community on how the barrage of images on television, in magazines, in music, etc. affect the feelings girls and women have about themselves. Low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, even cognitive disruption like inability to focus or concentrate – these outcomes have been documented. If you’d like to learn more about the research, you might start with the American Psychological Association’s report on the sexualization of girls.

My Response To Counter Argument

It is natural that children would imitate adult sexuality. True, but a choreographed dance is not an imitation or exploration led by the child herself. It seems healthy that a girl might imitate or look forward to what she will be as an adult. It is different to assume or imply that a child is already an adult, that she should move, talk or act as an adult, or that she could process her experiences in the way an adult would. For a woman, sexiness and sexuality may be a source of empowerment. Sexualization has been shown to have the opposite effect on young women and girls, and what psychologists term adultification has yet to be studied at length.

The students already dance like this, they want to move or be like [insert celebrity here].

Painting by Gonzalo Morales. Oil on Canvas

Image via Wikipedia

From the aforementioned report, “If girls purchase (or ask their parents to purchase) products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy, and if they style their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape, they are, in effect, sexualizing themselves. Girls also sexualize themselves when they think of themselves in objectified terms. Psychological researchers have identified self-objectification as a key process whereby girls learn to think of and treat their own bodies as objects of others’ desires (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997; McKinley & Hyde, 1996). In self-objectification, girls internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance. Numerous studies have documented the presence of self-objectification in women more than in men. Several studies have also documented this phenomenon in adolescent and preadolescent girls (McConnell, 2001; Slater & Tiggemann, 2002).”

Seeing something sexual in the movements or dress of a child is imposing an adult idea of sexuality on the dancer (placing responsibility on the viewer and not the presenter). This suggests that language of the body is not a two-way conversation, that expression and perception do not occur simultaneously. No, we cannot control how something is perceived (case in point, my Toe Sit-ups video immediately attracted those with a sexual interest in feet). However, a choreographer has control of the context in which certain movements are presented. For example a pelvic roll as an isolation in class, designed to develop range of movement is one context. A pelvic roll executed among lyrics like “gloss on my lips, a man on my hips,” or while wearing lace and garters is an entirely different context. I will yield that there is grey area in terms of context but I have difficulty finding it in the above example, whether intended for a global audience or simply an audience of other dancers/competitors. A choreographer, like it or not, must be aware of the context in which they are presenting their movement and make adjustments according to their audience and (when dealing with minors) their performers.

Costumes are limited by and chosen only so that a dancer’s lines can be in full view.

Particular movements are chosen to break dancers from their comfort zone and encourage fearlessness on stage.

It is impossible to find appropriate music and still be culturally relevant or edgy in contemporary dance.

The above statements have been made in regard to the video I mentioned. All that I can say (without taking on more than I can cover in one article) is that these show a very limited exposure to the wider realm of dance, a lack of ingenuity and creativity, or both.

You Have A Choice

I realize that not everyone agrees that sexualization of girls can be harmful. We may not agree on what qualifies as sexualization. On these points I can agree to disagree.

A routine like the one so sensationalized still begs the question, why choose this? I know the answer may be ‘why not?’ but,

  1. if it is unknowable (or remains unproven either way) if or how girls might be affected long-term by sexualization or adultification,
  2. if the choices made open the studio and the industry to such criticism (overshadowing all the great and wonderful things that dance can do for children and young women)
  3. and when so many alternatives in costume, music, and movement exist in this nearly limitless art form of dance…

I can find no justification for the choices made or facilitated by the adults in this situation – teachers, choreographers, studio owners, and parents (who are of course fully aware and in support of the studio/teachers).

Intention and Responsibility

I seriously doubt that any harm is intended. Some say it’s about money and winning – shock value in the truest sense. I can only conclude that the decision to imply or impose an adult sexuality upon one who is not yet an adult, comes down to poor judgment. This does not release anyone involved from responsibility. When we work with children the standards must be higher and the choices must not be careless because children cannot truly choose for themselves while adults are guiding and influencing them.

For this reason, also, I do not think it is too much to ask competition administrators to evaluate what they allow and do not allow, reward or do not reward within their organizations. As with television or any other form of media, however, I don’t fully believe that we can hold an entire industry to a standard without trampling on the freedom of expression. In the end we have little control over what others decide to consume.

We can hold ourselves to a standard, however. And I do hope that with rational discussion and arguments presented that all involved in dance training (teachers, parents, organizations) might embrace their role as educators, influencers, and role models, might contemplate their responsibilities to the young women who dance with them, and might choose more carefully.

To anyone who feels limited by what some are considering the norm in dance choreography or competition, I encourage you to look further or expand your own horizons. Inspiration and alternatives are not so far out of reach.

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Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle Suzanne began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. Nichelle holds a BA in dance and is an instructor with more than 17 years experience. She covers dance performance in the Houston area as a freelance writer and balances daily life as a mom to two young children. In June 2012, Nichelle presented the whats, hows, and whys of blogging on a panel at the annual conference for Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance, to better equip artists and companies for engaging their audience and new readers through online communications and content.
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)

Comments

  1. Well done for adding a layer of depth into the discussion that goes far beyond the (appropriate) moral outrage and hysteria from when this first broke.

  2. Thank you! I agree with your comments. I feel as a dance instructor that it is part of my job to “protect” our female AND male students by using tasteful music and choreography in our classes.

    • Sue, I want to thank you for pointing out that this isn’t just about the girls. For clarity, I focused just upon the effects for females but studies also show negative outcomes in terms of sexualization of men/boys and also in terms of the male response to female sexualization and objectification.

  3. Well said. As educators we need to make sure the content matches the emotional, social, cognitive as well as physical development of the children we teach. In terms of sexualization of young girls, by treating girls as sexual objects it demoralizes them, whether they are aware of it or not and perpetuates this type of sexual exploitation. As teachers, parents and adults we are responsible for the children in our care. Thank you for tackling a difficult and important issue.

  4. I’m so glad you not only spoke to this, but spoke thoroughly as well. I was in the dentist office waiting room when I first saw the story… needless to say, everyone in the room knew how I felt about it. And after counting a septuple fuerte performed by the group, I was even more aghast! With that level of skill at 8 yrs old, who needs garters & beyonce?? What’s needed is exactly what you said – creativity & innovation.

  5. Michelle says:

    I agree with you almost entirely, Nichelle. However, the one problem I keep returning to is how it is possible to define what is appropriate. Appropriateness is SO in the eye of the beholder, and although most would agree (myself included) that this crossed a line, others do not. They thought it was fine. Why should my line be imposed on them? Because although my daughter’s dance costumes and choreography are VERY modest (she’s about the same age as these girls), significantly more modest than most of what I see at the competitions we attend, let’s be honest – there are certainly very conservative elements in our society who would find even what she does objectionable. And I don’t want THEIR line to be imposed on ME.

    So how do we define appropriateness? It’s that very sticky question that makes this issue so gray, as much as it seems pretty black and white to most of us on the surface (myself included!).

    • Hi Michelle,

      You bring up a good question that others may be asking. Where do we draw the line? I like the way Stacey stated it above, so I’m going to use it (thanks Stacey)…

      A dance that matches the emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development of the child is appropriate. The grey area becomes much less a question of morality when you look at appropriateness from a developmental standpoint.

      Even were I not a dance instructor, as a parent, I want people working with my child who have and who demonstrate an understanding of his/her development on all levels. Parents of dancers may not have a clear idea of what is appropriate physically for their child (though I hope this blog and other sources are a help with this). However emotionally, socially, cognitively, it is not too much to ask of a dance instructor to show awareness in these other areas of development. If the subject matter… if the way they dress on stage… if the music lyrics… if any of those elements do not match where the children are in their development, then a dance is definitely veering into inappropriate territory.

      The argument… “but these girls don’t dress this way at home,” “they don’t talk about or fully understand what is implied by “man on my hips,” “they don’t cup their breasts as part of their daily body language”…. to that I say EXACTLY! So even if we are looking at a milder case than this particular video, the barometer of appropriateness I’m writing about is not a moral barometer. I would encourage parents, teachers, etc. to step back and look at their own routines, at their child’s dance numbers, and examine them from a developmental standpoint. It’s not imposing morals or values if we apply a standard to ourselves and to our work, or if we expect a standard of the people that work with kids that is aligned with developmental principles and research.

  6. Anne Miles says:

    So well-written, so sensible and smart.. . . why I love this site.

    I particularly agree with this:

    “I do not think it is too much to ask competition administrators to evaluate what they allow and do not allow, reward or do not reward within their organizations”

    I angers me some that the competition organizers were absolutely silent and NOBODY asked them!

    I also agree that girls must not grow up internalizing an observer’s perspective of their physical selves and treating themselves as objects. Of course this can happen in many different ways to women who have never danced. I see 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 year old women whose entire identity is wrapped up in how they look to others.

  7. Rhee Gold says:

    Nichelle,

    Thanks so much for your logical perspective on this subject. It is well written and filled with food for thought. I appreciate your work. Have a great day–Rhee

  8. Thank you Anne and also Rhee for commenting and for your kind words of encouragement.

    Anne, well-stated – girls and women objectifying themselves is certainly not just a dance thing. As I mentioned, nothing happens in a void. Folks can lament and say, well that’s just the way things are “these days.” That doesn’t work for me and I guess it doesn’t work for others out there. My agenda, therefore, is to stimulate a commitment to more thoughtful choices.

    The responsibility is really a shared one. So yes, competitions have a role too. And no it’s not too much to ask but competitions are businesses as well. Asking is not necessarily receiving and in the end it is the consumer that makes their choice… about which competitions to frequent, which studios to attend, what kind of dance they are going to make. That’s why those who do their best to stick to appropriate choreography share some responsibility as well. I share responsibility, that’s why I felt it necessary to speak up.

  9. I really appreciate this post. There are so many good comments as well!

    After I read it I started to wonder if there is a distinct correlation between the level of critical thinking skills and dance education the dance teachers and choreographers are engaged in and the types of choreographic works they present. Are choreographers who do such works like the one discussed in the article critically thinking about what they are trying to say? I would guess that they aren’t. They may be thinking about doing something shocking and memorable but not on a critical level. The thinking seems to be on a very superficial level. The questions that you listed are important and it also made me think that a sort of prospectus before starting a piece can be crucial and would help the choreographers in situations like the one in the article to look more closely at what they are communicating. In addition, I also think that forums about dance in general are of great value to dancers, teachers and choreographers. Dance is so layered and movement on every level has meaning. It’s good practice for all dance teachers and choreographers (budding and seasoned) to think about what dance means to them and listen to what it means to others. It gives awareness and sensitivity for dancer and viewers alike.

    I really enjoyed thinking about why I love dance during the virtual dance link that you were promoting. The responses were delightful and thought provoking. I also want to say that I don’t think that higher education is needed for teaching dance (though it is very useful in creating a whole dancer) but investing time into the many facets of dance brings awareness and more understanding. That’s another reason I think your website is so important and useful.

    Judges in dance competitions would also benefit from a written statement/prospectus from the choreographer about their aims and goals for the piece they will showcase. . . If the choreographer has to express on paper what they intend to speak in their dance it could in turn help the choreographer develop a dance that is age appropriate or realize that they are saying something whether they mean to or not (with feedback from viewers and judges). I don’t think that many choreographers (probably not any, though you never know. . .) would put in their prospectus that they want to do a dance that promotes the sexualization of young girls, though so many do it in their choreography. Ignorance is key in the discussion. That said, I don’t think that because there is a level of ignorance that anyone is void of responsibility. Education will counteract ignorance. Dance teachers and choreographers should be constantly educating themselves. I don’t buy into the comments like “it is impossible to find appropriate music and still be culturally relevant or edgy in contemporary dance”. That statement truly saddens me.

    I also enjoyed the comment by Michelle. She raises a good point. I thought your response was great as well. Looking at movement from a developmental standpoint very useful. . . good discussions going on here.

    Intuition, awareness, education and your statement “when we work with children the standards must be higher” ring true to me.

    Thanks for doing this post.

    • As always, Cami, you bring something new to the conversation. Thank you! I find the idea of a prospectus really interesting… a statement of intent or even a list of objectives about the dance to be presented. Boy, that would bring a whole new level of accountability, wouldn’t it? Wheels are turning… I find that a really interesting idea.

      You know, I feel a resistance, a two-camp division when it comes to dance training sometimes. Those that say “I am a dance educator.” and those who say “But, we’re just a dance studio. I’m running a business here, not a college-prep program.” I’d love to (and I hope Dance Advantage is in some small way) bringing these camps closer together. That’s what I love about the community that is growing around this blog. Diverse and intelligent! Thank you all for your participation in the discussion.

  10. One of my routines was to Primus’ “john The Fisherman”, which contains no vulgar language, though the heavy metal music is a harmonically harsh and dissonant. Judges’ comments were that the music was inappropriate for the kids, while another studio’s piece, to Christina Aguilara’s “Candy Man”, got a 5/5 for age appropriateness. I mean, that song contains the lyrics, “makes my panties drop” and “makes my cherry pop.” I blush even typing this.

    I did find it very interesting that the judges were basing their values on the harmonics of the music opposed to the lyrical content. I’m sorry, but I feel that a diminished 7th chord is less harmful to a child’s development than the highly suggestive lyrics that they are constantly exposed to.

    • Thanks Tristan, Anne, and mochazina…. interesting to be coming back to this one after some time has passed!

      Tristan, I wasn’t familiar with the Primus song. Curious, as it isn’t even as “thrashing” as I might have expected, nor do the words or themes seem questionable – adolescent level in their unrest/angst perhaps. I don’t know the age or content of your dance but it does seem possible that maybe the judges were affected by the music itself… or maybe even had some preconceived notions about Primus?

      But yes, Anne, I do think that extracting one element of the dance (like lyrics) is not completely useful in assessing the appropriateness of a dance. In most cases, I’d say looking at the dance as a whole is necessary. Your Greased Lightening example is a good one. I’ve seen the dance performed by children in a manner that I wouldn’t consider offensive (actually the musical Grease itself is intentionally subversive so even adults often perform it with only a touch of innuendo). Most people do not catch what are some pretty raunchy lyrics. However, I think as one in the know about the lyrics, I’d probably choose something else for youngsters based on lyrical content alone (there are always choices & probably something less overdone than Greased Lightening, after all).

      Bringing that back to Candy Man, the lyrics are definitely beyond the realm of kid experience… not just the more suggestive ones but even the overall theme of dating, drinking, my man, etc. which is pretty clearly heard/interpreted throughout. Kids might not understand or think about it and context-wise, I suppose a choreographer might play up the candy themes but again, other songs accomplish this so I don’t agree that Christina’s song is the best or only choice for a group of young kids. The boogie-woogie style makes the song really appealing but there are plenty of songs in that genre to choose from. Wholly inappropriate? Maybe not, but certainly questionable… I wouldn’t give it a 5/5 for appropriateness, nor would it be my choice.

      Do choreographers perhaps latch onto a questionable song they love and find it difficult to let go long enough to break down why they like it, what makes it particularly danceable or gets their creative juices flowing? If they were willing/motivated to take a bit of time, it’s very possible they’d find something else to be the more appropriate (and in the end even more original) choice.

      And, yeah, I’d imagine there are a greater number of judges who don’t yet have kids… but since most are teachers too, they work with them – in my opinion it’s no release from responsibility or good judgment. In that same vein, watching number after number probably desensitizes judges a bit… that may be another point to add to Tristan’s experience. After numerous Candy Mans perhaps the appropriate-meter is less tuned but Primus sticks out and makes them sit up and pay particular attention in that regard (unfounded or not). Just a thought. Thanks all! So much insight and food for thought in the comments – it’s most appreciated!

  11. Anne Miles says:

    Interesting. . .

    Here’s a question worth considering How many judges actually have children themselves? I know a few judges and they don’t have children.

    I wonder if lyrics are as harmful as sexually explicit movements.

    I remember growing up listening to Grease songs and “Greased Lightening” which my 3rd grade teacher would not let us play. My mom wouldn’t let me go to the movie either even though I think I was the only child in my cohort who had not seen. I did not understand the meaning of Greased Lightening until I was about 23 (and I am not kidding). In fact, all the adults making such a big deal made me more curious but I still couldn’t untangle the sexual innuendo.

    While I am not suggesting the gross lyrics are okay at a dance competition if the ADULTS know what they mean. I just think that we should think seriously about what children take away and how their general understandings, upbringing, and possible naivete make a lot of this sail right over their heads. Also, you would have to be listening very, very carefully sometimes to catch the nastiness and I wonder if the judges just didn’t catch the nasty lyrics. It seems that protecting children is very multifaceted and thinking only about lyrics may obscure some other things that we should consider.

  12. mochazina says:

    WOW!!! I’d never known all the words to Greased Lightning: what a shocker!!

    But I believe the line is drawn when the sexual references (or other questionable materials) are overt. If the kids won’t get it or easily figure it out then it’s safe. The problem is that to often *love songs* abandon poetic illusions for crass statements; so, the songs (with words) become limited, even when the musical content is beautiful & translates well to dance.

  13. Alison Woodward says:

    I am always really careful as a choreographer with my dancers… especially when I am choreographing for the 11 – 14 year olds – their social life and body image is too delicate I really try to be careful. This is the rule I try to follow… there are 3 parts to a routine… the movement, song and costume… I can afford to be a little dangerous in 2 of the 3 but once you go overboard in all 3 the number is just plain gross… I know people must be saying why even be dangerous in 2 of the 3… it allows my dancers to remain competitive… example: take the song ‘girls just wanna have fun’ = safe song… so if my movement for that dance is relatively safe with a few booty shakes here and there then their costume could probably be a 2 piece (a little dangerous) and no one would see it as offensive. Take a risky song like Christina Aguilar ‘Candy Man’ risky song (I edited out the lyrics mentioned in a previous post) in order for me to feel comfortable doing this number my costume would need to be safe and my movement really safe (I actually used it as a tap number = little to none booty shaking going on there)…. the 3 areas can even themselves out a bit allowing my girls to be modern and competitive but not dangerous to their mental psyche…. last example: I did a lyrical number that was a risky subject and much more adult so I selected my 4 oldest dancers to perform it… their costume and movement was incredibly safe and it scored high every where we went….. It seems to work for me and my dancers and whenever I feel that I am doing a piece that is on a sensitive topic I always sit down with my kids and we have a long talk about what they have seen at school, what they have experienced, what beliefs they have and what I am trying to reach with the routine… all opinions and beliefs are shared and respected and it always ends up being a very good and important conversation! :)

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