They come to my ballet class under layers of tutus and tiaras. The parents of these little girls expect me to play the Frozen™ soundtrack, or at least reference the Barbie™ in The Pink Shoes video. Most of these parents are not too happy when they are asked to remove the Minnie Mouse ears and Princess-themed plastic bracelets.
Around the world, I have found a preschool girls’ ballet class can be as girly as the human race can get.
In Egypt, where I am teaching now, femininity has a deeper value. Gender sets up different life-long expectations early on. Boys will be boys, and they are allowed full freedom to explore what that could mean. Discipline is questionable and inconsistent. On the other hand, girls should be girls, and they are provided a level of experience, compliments, protection and discipline to help them achieve it.
Assigning gender too strongly and divisively can be harmful, for boys and girls and transgender children alike. Girls are rarely encouraged to invent, tinker and question. And boys are rarely encouraged to develop empathy.
When I first started teaching here in Egypt, I was at the Egyptian High Institute of Ballet where males outnumbered females by a wide margin. The Egyptian teen male ballet dancers were also more focused and hard working, pursuing careers as lead dancers where they would have fame and a sustainable life for their families. The teen ladies were mostly pursuing past-times in the ensemble until they could get married.
Then I started teaching at a small studio in the suburbs. I titled the class for 3-5 year olds “Creative Movement” but there were few registrations. People were asking for ballet for their daughters. I then tried to open the class as “Pre-Ballet” but again parents were hesitant. They wanted real ballet. Professional. They were even asking if their 4-year-old daughters were too chubby or too stiff to join the class. Dance on a recreational level, for transferable skills, is not valued as much as it is in the States or in some other countries. In Egypt, most parents find classes a waste of time and money if their child won’t be going pro. I am generalizing, but indeed there is a general difference.
When I don’t indulge the princess-ness in the girls I teach, there is often push back. Princesses are graceful, pretty, refined, confident and ornate. Why wouldn’t I want to encourage that? What is so wrong with it?
Don’t I want the girls to dance like girls?
If you haven’t seen the new Like a Girl campaign by Always, I encourage you to check it out. At least watch until 1:07 and you will see some of my intention. This always campaign is part of trend of brands taking on girl empowerment as a gimmick or focus. Like the second-wave feminists, I join these marketers in believing contemporary gender definition is socially constructed especially in the toy and dancewear stores.
I make specific choices as a teacher.
For 3-5 year olds, my focus is on the skills they don’t get much of elsewhere: independence, uniqueness, respect for difference, empathy, patience, self-discipline, proper alignment, smarts, hard work, risk, physicality away from the screen, and trust and love for one’s own body.
If you happened to be dressed a princess during all of that, so be it.
The studio, academy and hospital where I teach in Egypt all have an institutional affinity for princesses. But I simply don’t cater to it on a regular basis. In my 20+ years of teaching dance and gymnastics in diverse contexts, some things remain constant:
- Princess and Fairy references are replaced with Queens (a slight but important distinction), Dancers, Presidents and other leaders, and Strong-Rooted Trees Opening to the Skies.
- Disney-free music (except for some instrumental Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo).
- Parents can choose the level of make-up for performances. Costumes cover the belly. If parents want to add a nude leotard or sleeve underneath, that is more than ok.
- Uniformity and Hyper-Synchronization are not stressed until age 6-8.
- Use of the descriptors such as pretty and beautiful is limited.
- Students explore the elements (water, fire, earth and sky) and animal movements much more often than fairytales and story ballets.
- Choreography for anyone under teenage does not include sexualized movements, weak, flirtatious or suggestive gestures.
- Students improvise to classical music or inspiring music they cannot sing along to.
- Order comes from repetition and confidence in respecting others.
Yes, in our class we sit nicely and keep our hands to ourselves. Yes, we are under 5 years old but we stop and applaud each student after she takes her turn. Yes, we get our hoops and balls and bean bags one-at-a-time, patiently. Yes, we return our props in the same way.
We are responsible for getting our mats, even of they are much larger than ourselves. We are also responsible for rolling our mats and putting them away. No one helps us. We can bring ideas and stories to class. We can explore new ways to dance and include some gymnastic elements. We can invent new moves and teach the teacher.
This will give us a good foundation for when we grow from little girls, into young girls.
And if a princess ever walks into my class, I have learned that it is ok.
A good friend of mine wrote the following,
“I vowed that my girls would not be the Disney Princess type. As it turns out, the older one is decidedly not, while the younger decidedly is. We don’t judge where she got it since her older siblings don’t care for it, and we didn’t have any princess stuff in the house. But, the little one just loves it. And you know what, it’s ok. It was hard for me at first, but she’s smart, sassy, independent, and Hella funny, and she happens to like princesses, and now I can’t remember what I thought was so bad about it. She likes what she likes, and in trying to suppress it, I’m telling her that what she likes is somehow bad or wrong. That flies in the face of everything I’m trying to teach her: respect people for who they are. Be kind. Appreciate. Love. Be who you are.”