I was at the Australian Dance Challenge on the weekend. What a showcase of amazing talent, from little toddlers to young adults. The art of dance has come so far since I was a dance student in the 70s, and in fact it has come so far in the last 5 or so years since my own daughter has been involved in competition dancing. The standard is so high that I wonder just how far it can keep going. 8 year olds are doing complicated steps, acrobatics and choreography that was only being done by teenagers just a few years ago, and not at all a few years before that. These kids are achieving so much so young – every bit as good technically as some of the adult competitors on SYTYCD, or professional performers in the theatre circuit - it is simply amazing.
But even though they dance beyond their years, they are not grown ups. And as much as I am enthralled by the skill, for the last year or two I’ve been struggling to come to terms with the rapid sexualisation of our children in the arena of dance. Some routines are so adult in their orientation that I squirm in my seat and look away in embarrassment.
Costumes are getting ever smaller – nothing is left to the imagination. Knickers are so little that within a few seconds of the routine starting, the kids all have wedgies and we are treated to a revealing butt show, along with the bare midriffs and teeny tiny tops. The hair and makeup is looking more and more like the American pageant queens on Toddlers and Tiaras that most of us scorn. The music choices are inappropriate – with lyrics that I certainly hope the children don’t understand. The moves are suggestive and raunchy - grinding and gyrating, crotch grabbing, or the long held offside 'fanny flasher' mount which has me wondering where to look. Surely we can celebrate all this talent without turning our little girls into hookers and our little boys into leering gropers?
I don’t suggest the kids understand what they are doing – but they have been taught to move this way. We are normalising things that aren’t normal for young children, and along with the teachers, many parents seem immune to it, justifying it, encouraging it. The barriers are being stretched so quickly…where will it stop? When will a troupe of 12 years appear on the stage with a pole for a prop, and begin gyrating, while someone stuffs dollar bills in their garters. Surely not, you say. No, you are right, surely not – I reckon it will be the 10 year olds!
Sadly any criticism is quickly dismissed as prudishness or a lack of understanding and appreciation of the art. Or as jealousy or sour grapes. Judge Cameron Mitchell commented after the very first section of the comp that the costumes were perhaps too revealing, suggesting further that perhaps footless tights might be a nice option given that the judges were being offered a feast of crotches with very little consideration to modesty. The audience largely cheered, happy he said it out loud. But this sent off a flurry of derision – the judge is prudish and old fashioned – get with the times Cameron! Footless tights are from the 70s for goodness sake! The parents are just sheep for clapping your comments!
The flurry of controversy continued later in the day when one studio’s routine was critiqued by all three judges as being, perhaps, too sexy for the 12 year old age group. The leotards for the girls were, in retrospect, relatively tame…although they were skin-tight, black wetlook lycra and teamed with sophisticated hair and make up. The boys were shirtless (12 year old boys are lovely, honestly, but I don’t think they have chests that look particularly attractive bared on stage – a shirt works wonders). And the routine was apparently a little saucy (I’ll confess I didn’t see it). Now maybe this wasn’t the worst routine of the weekend in terms of pushing barriers, but maybe the judges just reached a point where they felt comment was warranted. The studio in question objected loudly, publicly, widely. But before dismissing the judges opinions completely, wasn’t it worth thinking for a moment about whether the comments had any merit?
The usual defence from those who dismiss criticism is that the costumes are no worse than bikinis worn at the beach. Well maybe so (although I wouldn’t agree to let my own child wear so brief a bikini on a public beach as some of these costumes). But the argument is ridiculous in my view - when they are at the beach they aren’t wearing Jon Bonet style makeup and hair, or gyrating on a stage.
I'm not suggesting they need to be covered top to toe. I'm not a religious conservative, or a moral campaigner. - I'm willing to go along with a bare midriff or long bare legs. . But boyleg shorts or a modesty skirt go a long way in preserving dignity!
What exactly are we hoping for our children’s future – Broadway, or Moulin Rouge? The Australian Ballet, or a cruise ship cabaret? Sydney Dance Company or a Kings Cross titty peepshow?
Many of us parents are in a bind. We don’t control the costumes chosen for these troupe competitions. Our kids work hard, gain widespread benefit from being involved in healthy competition, love the environment, the art, the friendships, the showmanship. It’s difficult to protest with the studio when you bring home your costume a few days before the comp, unwrap it, and realise you aren’t keen to see your child gyrate on stage in it. We certainly don’t want to punish our kids for something out of their control. So we quietly go along – we don’t rock the boat – it’s a bold move to change studios over an issue like this, and after all, the studio you go to might well do the same. So you reluctantly go along. When Cameron said out loud what many of us whisper to each other in the hallways, carparks and changerooms, many parents breathed a sigh of relief and/or clapped out loud – here was a member of officialdom pushing back on the trend – at last!
I find it hard to believe that we can’t stretch these kids into more difficult routines without moving them into older mentality as well. So many obviously creative studios – can’t we be creative within the confines of being reasonably covered, and dancing to songs that don’t talk directly about sex?
Few studios are completely immune from criticism, but some push the envelope way too far too often. And parents caught up in the moment sitting in the audience cheering every time the kids shimmy or thrust aren’t helping the situation. (And let me assure you, when you do that, a huge chunk of the parents are quietly cringing and silently urging you to shut up – even those from your own studio!).
This trend can be halted if parents start to push back without fear of critcism and accusations of prudishness or envy. If adjudicators take age appropriateness into account when judging routines. If studios listen to feedback and – instead of becoming defensive - ask themselves whether they might, in fact, have gone a bit too far in their enthusiasm. I'm putting the challenge out to studio directors - I'm positive you can achieve an equally impressive show of talent without using skimpy costumes or raunchy moves. Any maybe you widen the circle of potential talent as those from more conservative backgrounds feel more comfortable in this environment.
Please - let’s celebrate all that skill in an equally creative but age appropriate way, and let them be children for just a little bit longer.