“Can I show you my dance, Aunty?” my 11-year-old niece wanted to know. It’s part of my role as aunty to agree of course, so I joined my parents, sister and her husband on their large couch, ready for the show.
She searched for a Tik Tok dance video she’d been learning from and a twenty-something heavily made-up woman in a crop top appeared on the large screen T.V. Within two or three very sexy moves my sister jumped up, almost at the same time as her husband, and grabbed the remote. “That’s enough of that, I think.” They exchanged a pained look. “Why don’t you do the other dance you know.” My niece complained, completely clueless as to why her dance was stopped. “Come on, I’ll do it too,” my sister said, trying to smooth the situation over. Together, they performed a fun, age-appropriate dance.
My niece is the same age as the girls represented in the controversial French movie, Cuties, a film that caused a big stir this year when it screened on Netflix. This filmed has been discussed a ton: I’m not planning on adding to that with another movie review here. But it did get me thinking. After reading some polarized articles, I decided to watch it. The dance moves the girls performed in the movie are certainly extreme. But as uncomfortable as the dance in the film made me feel, it hit me that as a dance mum, I’ve been in a similar position before in real life.
Cuties displays an over-exaggerated version of dances performed every year at most dance competitions. They’re the same Tik Tok dances our little girls perform in the playground every day at school. The movie puts in our faces a reality teachers and parents have been aware of for years. The sexualization of girls in dance is not a new conversation, but the movie, whether good or bad, highlights it’s still a conversation we need to be having.
I’ve been a dance mum for over ten years now, but I was reluctant at first. I’d been a figure skater as a teen and — although I did perform once dressed as a sexy show-girl — the costumes were generally covered and any skin showing was skin-coloured fabric. Dance seemed to have a few more issues around body image than skating. I’d met a number of dancers with eating disorders. So when my daughter begged for dance lessons I readied myself to pull her out at the first sign of trouble.
The all-ages group dance was reassuring. There were incredible dancers of all sizes and it seemed the old “stick-thin dancer” idea had been dealt with — at this school at least. Then, when my eldest was four, we attended her first dance competition.
The ballet, tap, and musical theatre items were impressive but, about half way through the programme, I found myself watching two 8-year-old girls strut around the stage. Their tight tops and low-waisted short skirts exposed them from ribs to hips. They ran their hands suggestively over a young boy’s shoulders and wiggled their hips as he winked at them. Fully made up — as competition dancers are — the effect combined to make them look like tiny women fighting to seduce their man. I can’t remember the song, but I do remember the comment made by a father sitting behind me. “Ugh, I feel like a paedophile watching this.”
It was the first of a series of dance numbers that made me cringe that day. I’d never been so relieved that my little ballerina hated street dance and jazz. Some of the parents had complained the year before and been told sharply, “That’s just dance. If you don’t like it, leave.” But are sexually suggestive moves really “just dance”? Is the choice our girls have: gyrate or don’t choose street dance? Over the years I’ve noticed myself getting less shocked by the music selection and dance moves at comps, but they’re the same. The same pouty faces; the same skimpy costumes. The suggestive lyrics and sexy moves haven’t changed. I’ve just become desensitized to it. Is that acceptable?
Some dance schools and teachers are more careful about selecting age-appropriate moves and music. A number of schools even state on their website that their music selection is “always age appropriate.” But there’s no universal approach. Often teachers and parents leave the music choice up to the kids.
As an ex-teacher, I know that preteens don’t fully understand what it all means — they don’t hear the suggestive lyrics or realize how their moves and outfits sexualize them. They’re modeling adults and starting to experiment with what gets them attention. They’re learning about sexuality and what that looks like. Is this narrow view of “sexy” what we want our girls to learn? Are women only sexy when they wiggle their hips and wear revealing clothes?
Our girls are at an age where they’re trying “woman” on for size and we can’t expect them to monitor it themselves. We’re the ones who need to decide what’s age-appropriate. Do we seriously want our children doing anything described as “sexy”?
Perhaps it’s time for dance teachers, competition organizers, and parents to step up. Perhaps we need to look at the dance industry and the Tik Tok videos our kids are imitating and decide it’s time to say, “That’s enough of that.”
Thanks to Evie M..
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Murilo Bahia on Unsplash