So you think your kids can dance? Yes! Every child should be dancing. And there are so many options. This is just one of them…

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Photo credit: Nexstar National Dance Competition

 

I worked (with quoted contributions from several friends) to create this quick guide for you. Actually, this is for myself if I decided to ever teach in a competition studio again, or if I have a child.

 

FIRST, KNOW YOUR CHILD’S DANCE CHOICES

  • Classical Ballet Schools and Modern Dance Training and Apprenticeship Programs – routes to professional careers in concert dance (Cecchetti or Vaganova method with examinations, Graham, Horton, etc. and often attached to professional companies such as Joffrey, Bolshoi, American Ballet Theatre, Pittsburg Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey, or Dance Theatre of Harlem)
  • International Ballet Competition Circuit
  • International Ballroom/Salsa Competition Circuit
  • High schools for the performing arts
  • Gymnastics or Ice SkatingTraining – competitive and incorporating dance training
  • Recreational or Outreach/Community Dance Programs and Studios – often develops skills as collaborators, composition or social awareness, often less rigorous in nature or expectation for developing skills as professional dancers or college dance majors
  • Dance in schools (dance integration with other academic subjects, gaining choreographic skills, robust cognitive abilities and artistic voice)
  • Training in Folkloric or Rhythm Traditions – some of which offer their own competition circuits (Mexican, Afro-Caribbean, Arab/Bellydance, Khattak, Bollywood, Flamenco, Irish, African, Swing, Circus arts, Vogue, Step, Stomp, B-boyying and other urban dances)
  • Dance for fitness, health, spiritual or physical wellbeing (Liturgical or Praise dance, Zumba, Pilates, Yoga, Creative Movement, Sufi dancing, Dance Therapy)
  • Musical Theatre World – vocal lessons, acting classes, dance training, sometimes modeling, constant auditions for local and touring productions
  • Pageant World
  • Cheer/Pom/Dance Teams
  • Dancing socially and at home through free online instruction and games
  • Conventions/Competition Dance Circuit (well-rounded curriculum consisting of commercialized and often whitewashed versions of jazz, contemporary, tap, acro/contortion, ballet, hip-hop … often training that prepares them primarily for commercial dance careers)

“I wish I would have had such an opportunity as a child.  I love to dance, but I’m also competitive and loved to play sports.  [Dance competitions] are the perfect combination for a person such as myself.  Why can’t art be competitive?  Why does it just have to be art?  With a competition, a child is able to perform multiple times a year instead of just at the end of the year or a Christmastime for the Nutcracker.  In all honestly, I compare her experience in competitive dance to another child’s experience doing club travel soccer.  It’s pretty much the same thing (though as my daughter gets more into this, the hours and money will likely escalate considerably).”

“When my daughter started dance at the age of 3, I never had intentions of it getting “serious.”  I took dance as a child, and felt it was important for my children to do the same.  I didn’t necessarily plan on her starting to dance at age 3.  However, I felt dance class was a great way for our developmentally and physically delayed cancer survivor to get a little social interaction and physical therapy at the same time.  Never did I ever envision her getting into competitive dance.  I didn’t even realize this type of thing existed!! Comparably, my daughter is probably a late bloomer in the competition world.  She started the company this year, in third grade.  She’s competing in three dances – all group dances, no solos or duets.  I talked to a father today whose daughter had her first competitive solo at the age of 4 (?!!???)”

“My daughter has never competed.  She trains in advanced classes at a preprofessional ballet school where her director feels competition is not the best use of students time and it is not encouraged. When “Dance Moms” came on TV, she was attracted to the performances and begged to join a competition studio. I kept her from it for a couple of reasons, mainly cost, but also because I felt the training was too varied (multiple genres) when her main/only interest was ballet, and I really didn’t like the emphasis on tricks and overstretching that I was seeing.”

“Financially dance is affordable because we take advantage of our local recreation program. All of her teachers are college dance majors and work with local ballet company’s throughout the year. Cost for classes and costumes is very low compared to other studios. We just make sure we save what is needed so that every fall we can place her in classes. I believe dance in important for [my daughter] because it gets her moving during the winter months. It gives her at least 4 hours of good physical exercise a week rather than being pinned in the house. She also truly enjoys the stage and being the center of attention. She loves her teachers and the other girls that are in her classes. I believe is it also allows her to express herself through dance.”

“My girls aren’t in dance, but they do dance around the house. It’s the excitement, motivation, and thrill they enjoy. Wish I could do more. If I had the extra money to enroll them I definitely would. I know they would really enjoy and love to be in dance, it’s not cheap.”

 

If you decide competition is the right choice…

 

TALK TO KIDS ABOUT WHAT IS GOOD DANCING

In a land where everyone is a winner…

“I truly think the way they “place” these children are ridiculous.  Let’s see if I get this right: The very best is an “Elite Top 1st.” Then the step down from that is a “Top First.” After that a “First.” Then downward to “Second” etc, etc, etc, I’m just wondering whatever happened to 1st, second, and third. Or Gold, silver, Bronze? I clearly get that they are trying to make these children sound like they are all “first place” winners but to me, there’s really only one first place.  The best routine.”
After the results, on the drive home or during the next class, take time to reflect on which dancers the judges chose as winners and why they might have made those choices. Try to talk through assumptions and feelings/evidence of injustice. Talk honestly about what techniques and tricks were applauded and which were awarded. Talk about what the criteria and scoring system would be if redesigned. Learn together the language of dance and talk about what you seen in synchronization, precision, formations, full expression, line, extension, transitions, tension and release, control and risk, uniqueness and trendiness, 2D versus 3D, use of weight, lift, traveling and command of the stage, dynamics, working in and out of the floor,…
Ask your child what routines he/she enjoyed and why. Would you have picked different winners than the judges picked? What did you notice? What surprised you? What did you see that was uncomfortable? Who was missing?
Talk about what one thing your child is most proud of during the competition weekend; celebrate that thing your child has articulated (rather than the trophy) with a milkshake or a social media post.

 

LOOK OUT FOR SIGNS OF WHEN DANCE IS BECOMING DANGEROUS

Dancers grow up in front of mirror, with their bodies constantly open to self and external critique. Sometimes this leads to confidence and comfortability through puberty and their development into young adulthood and sexuality, but sometimes it backfires into eating disorders, self-abuse, depression, or unsafe sexual encounters. Stay aware. Are “successful” dancers being defined and promoted as being of a certain body type, with plus-size dancers having lower expectations and placed in the back rows or not given solos? Are dancers encouraged to dance through injury? Are shaming or threats being used as teaching strategies? Do the teachers use derogatory language or biased/bigoted remarks? Are the dance floors or tricks unsafe for dancing bodies? Are dancers learning to embrace their growing breasts and hips: what to wear as proper undergarments?
Know when this is happening to growing dancers. Talk openly with all teachers, children, and other dance parents. Make sure that the tricks and styles they are learning will not be detrimental to them if they chose to pursue a professional career in concert dance. What competition style will they need to unlearn in college?
Also know that even great dance educators can be distracted by competition and start to look past dangerous bad habits your child may be developing, such as ankle pronation (or supination) and tibial torsion. Know ways to prevent common dance injuries.
normal-300x241 tibial-torsion
Competition dance teachers were often competition or commercial dancers themselves and do not have CPR /First Aid training, anatomy, dance history, pedagogy,… Encourage teachers to sign up for classes such as those offered by the National Dance Education Organization.

 

LET PEOPLE KNOW WHEN THEY DO GOOD FOR KIDS

Many times, competition directors and dance teachers make fantastic decisions. Give them a shout out. Encourage them to keep raising the bar for their colleagues. Thank them discreetly and earnestly.

“This weekend, we attended our first competition.  My daughter was in three performances.  After this weekend, I feel complete and utter admiration for her teachers.  The love and support they have for their kids is amazing. “

“At times I wonder if my daughter [as a dancer of color] will encounter discrimination and how will she handle it. Thus far she has been treated fairly. She was Clara in the Nutcracker! I thought that was a courageous decision her teacher made. I’m not sure too many other dance studios would make that decision. That role gave her courage and confidence.”

“I am at a dance competition this weekend.  It is the third my child has done this year.  KAR is the name of it.  It is very very organized. And the locations have been very nice as well.  So the logistics and the producing of this particular competition I would give an A+. “

MAKE RESPONSIBLE FINANCIAL DECISIONS AS A FAMILY AND AS A STUDIO
The dance competition circuit is a money machine.  Not even looking at the costs of costumes, classes, private lessons, doctors’ visits, recital tickets, dancewear and shoes, therabands and props, bun wraps and makeup, photo sessions, travel and hotels, lost time from work and school… the competition registration fees alone are incredible.
“Also, the amount of money that is required to register compared to the amount of prizes, whether it be cash or trophies is also a little absurd to me.  So …..my daughter’s production team (one dance) has 25 kids.  It cost each child $35-40 to register.  So roughly $800-$1000 to do the routine for the local competition.  They received Elite Top First and overall top production (the best that dance could get) and got $100 for the studio. (And one tall plastic trophy)  Not each, but $100 divided by 25 kids!  It’s nuts!”

Come to consensus with the other parents and teachers on how many competitions your child’s class will do: how many regional and how many national and how many routines. What is the worth you are looking for? What type of conventions/competitions do your prefer and why? Are there better ways to co-invest in dance education and training such as skipping one competition and using the funds to create a studio scholarship or to send the teachers to kinesiology class? Or to save up for a career-focused summer intensive?

 

BE CLEAR ON WHAT YOUR CHILD IS IN IT FOR… AND FOLLOW THAT LEAD AS IT CHANGES

The career. The sport. The discipline. The passion. The personal development. The college scholarship.

“My child is learning discipline, that she’s not always first or most important, team work, respect for her teachers, and love of her fellow dance team. The kids at her dance company are seriously all professional, polite, etc. I have not seen any airs about the dancers who are top notch dancers at her company. I know this is not the same at all studios. We got lucky.”

“[From a parent whose child is at a non-competitive studio] The cost of dance classes is still not cheap and I have struggled financially as a single parent. I have decided the struggle is worth it. To see the pleasure it brings her & the determination she has for dance is something I never had within me. To see your child know what she wants to do with her future I feel I have to support it. Many people wonder all their life what is their purpose and never find it. [My daughter] has known since she was 2 1/2 her passion and love for dance. We decided to audition for her 1st pre-professional summer intensive and she was accepted! I feel  as though she is about to take that next step up to “committing” to dance. I know I would like her to attend a performing arts high school and she wishes to attend Juilliard or Alvin Ailey after that so, saying that we are in for the long haul of whatever the dance world has for her or whatever she may have to give to the dance world!”

“My daughter aims for a professional ballet career and we feel summer programs are more important to be competitive.  She has thought the YAGP competition could be useful to earn scholarships but again, the costs of preparation, costumes, travel, and entry fees are prohibitive.”

“Times are changing [for dancers of color] and the struggle is real. I encourage her to go for what she wants if there is a will there is a way is my motto. That’s how she is getting to New York, by pure will!” 

 

DON’T BE AFRAID TO CALL OUT THE SEXUALIZATION 

Demand better of the teachers, costume designers, choreographers, and judges. Write letters. Organize and make a noise.

“I am so glad that [my daughter] randomly ended up at the studio where she is.  Her teachers are supportive and respectful of their age.  Although they do have costumes that show the midriff, they are relatively well covered meaning that the bottoms go up or over their belly buttons and the tops aren’t too skimpy.  The dance moves taught are age-appropriate with no gyration, butt shakes, pelvic thrusts, etc.  The music is usually either obscure or classic pop remixes and also age appropriate. Some of the other companies?  WOW.  Six year olds in skimpy bikinis shaking their butts at the audience.  One 12-14 number was so racy that my husband felt uncomfortable sitting and watching.  Some of the songs had to do with sex or sleeping with someone.  Were they songs that my kids hear on the radio?  Yes – Do they need to do a performance to said songs?  Oh HELL NO.  The unfortunate thing was that these were the dances that were winning.  Yes, the kids were talented, but why are they not penalized in points for inappropriateness?  Anyone could have showed up to these performances.  There was no fee and no one watching the door.  This was like free porn for pedophiles at times.”

DON’T BE AFRAID TO CALL OUT RACIAL-ETHNIC STEREOTYPING 
If you see something, say something. If you see that your child is being asked to dress as a Native American, Aboriginal, Arab, Indian, African, Asian, Latino, Black “Urban/Hip-Hop” stereotype with little relation to the authentic dances or collaboration with said cultures, and your child is not of that race or cultural background, just say no. No to feather headdresses and afro wigs. Demand that all costumes, choreography, and classes be as authentic and diverse as possible.

This is where I give Dance Moms some credit for making a bit of progress:

African piece choreographed by Debbie Allen

Bollywood piece choreographed by Nakul

LEAN INTO THE JOY WHERE YOU FEEL IT
“But I will tell ya, I absolutely enjoy watching the dancers perform.  It brings joy to me and love to watch my daughter,  so I bite my tongue and pay the fees and continue on in my life.”
“I liked it because, well, because it was fun. It was working toward something – perfection maybe. There was always something to work on, get better at . . . I like that. Something to focus an energy on. We were working to achieve something and that feels good. It was fun to win, and crappy to lose, but there was a good emotional lesson there. It was team-playing with girls I really cared about. It was fun to dress up in costumes and get on that stage and work to do your best ever each time. It felt good to be passionate about something. Performing for cheering fans (even if they were only our moms ) felt good. Even being nervous before getting on that stage was a weird-good feeling. It was great fun being with my friends after the fact, just hanging out.”

 

BE PROACTIVE IN WELCOMING OTHERS TO THE STUDIO
If you notice that the students or teaching staff are homogenous, start to figure out solutions to increase diversity for the good of all of our children.
“This is an upper middle class “sport” – primarily white.  Primarily suburban.”

We should not be okay with this, and must work together to change it. How can we make our studios accessible and welcoming? What inclusion strategies we can implement for religious or cultural conservations, dancers with disabilities, dancers coming from different socio-economic backgrounds?

CHANGE THE CHANNEL ON DANCE ROLE MODELS
Yes, you can watch Dance Moms, So You Think You Can Dance, Bring It!, Dancing With the Stars, Hit the Floor, but you could also dive into Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive and the White House’s Celebration of African American Women & Dance. Supplement dance training with elements of strong dance education and appreciation efforts. Make sure they are getting the fundamental technique of transition and alignment. Talk about commercial dance (videos, television, cruise ships, amusement parks, hotel shows, Vegas, events, professional sports entertainment) but only in equal proportion to concert dance and musical theater opportunities. Attend VIBE or ADF or ciphers and concert dance performances. Talk about choreographers, designers, managers, researchers, composers, educators in dance, just as much as performers.
EXPLORE CREATIVE ALTERNATIVES
What about instead of trophies, the money collected by the organization went to a collective cause? What if the performance promoted social awareness or philanthropy? Are there ways to gain technical proficiency outside of competition?  Non-competitive ways to learn technique? Can we make a community-based performance be just as high stakes and motivating as a pricey competition?
Competition life can be great, full of drive and camaraderie. But there are simple ways to make it healthier, less financially wasteful, and more connected to the needs of our shared society. What do you think?

 

 

 

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