Her name starts with A. She is a refugee, Muslim, 11 years old, from an African country. I know her.
In Maïmouna Doucouré’s Mignonnes (Cuties), the main role of Amy is payed by Fathia Youssouf, and she is a doppelganger for student of mine. Like Amy, my student’s name also starts with A. She is also a refugee, Muslim, 11 years old, from an African country.
I run a dance program in Chicago for children from refugee families. Mostly, the dancers are pre-adolescent ages 7-11, Muslim, and identify as girls. I know Amy.
Leading up to a World Refugee Day virtual celebration in July 2020, our dance program had been unable to meet for months due to the quarantine and the dancers’ lack of devices/broadband access. Nonetheless, I wanted to give them the opportunity to participate. I asked each girl to record a video of themselves dancing, freestyle, any style, any music. I planned to edit their videos together with a shared track. One girl sent me a video of her dancing to “Atasayugn” by Sancho & Gildo Kassa; along with the song’s signature move with one hand covering the face, she was dancing bent over with her backside in motion and her index finger hooked inside her mouth. She repeated this move a couple times. Rather than having the guts to ask her where she got this move (Was it from her culture? Was it from the music video for the song? Was it from Tik Tok?), I edited it out and never addressed the issue.
It is the charge of today’s dance educators to address age appropriateness, cultural appropriation, while de-centering Whiteness in the field. I’m doing my best. In addition to the initiative with refugee families, I co-teach a dance program in a Section 8 housing complex. All children there happen to be Black. There, the children often have impromptu battles (Bring It! style), with a focus on bucking and a little bit of twerking. I don’t allow bucking and twerking in my class, so the dancers usually stop when I arrive. I’m a White lady with no background in J-Sette or Majorette; I may qualify as one of the world’s worst twerkers and am no Coach D. But I try to connect my students to specialists and I want to help them to achieve their dream of being competitive in a stand battle like Buck or Die Chicago, where bucking and twerking are integrated.
I also try to educate myself online. While trying to find out at what age bucking and twerking become age appropriate during the past few months, I learned quite a lot. I learned that twerking derives from the Mapouka dance of Côte d’Ivoire, near Senegal where Doucouré and her star character Amy are from. More importantly, I learned that — while yes, pulled from their cultural contexts, bucking and twerking can definitely be inappropriate (as I had assumed, hence my ban on them in class) — in the contexts of J-Sette and Majorette and a number of both West and East African dances, it is a different story. These moves are embodied, guttural, inherited head-tail connected and hip dexterity. They are not always sexualized. But when these moves are indeed sexualized, whether by the dancer intentionally or the viewer, it can become dangerous for the dancer. This is where role models and educators have an important role in navigating these complexities. Amy is facing a complexity I can only imagine.
There have been a few times that I’ve seen my students physically “helping” one another with their bucking and twerking when on their own time, and I’ve tried to explain to them that here in the U.S.A. and in “the dance studio,” we value our personal space and keep our hands to ourselves. Even same-gender butt-patting by a friend is wrong in this culture. I have to explain that not only is it taboo, it is unsafe. I know Amy and her friends. And I’m glad this scene is included in the movie. It shows a playfulness gone too far, and a huge question of judgement and cultural relativity. The camera angles make it especially problematic for an audience who do not have this kind of touching (all over the clothes) as culturally accepted. I questioned when and how adults should intervene, especially in cases where the parents are of a different culture or are struggling with their own traumas and need support.
I hear the French, Wolof, Spanish and Arabic in the film, sliding between religious text and everyday conversation. I hear the music on Amy’s stolen phone of Nigerian Afropop star, Yemi Alade singing in English, Igbo, Yoruba, French, Swahili and Portuguese. I hear worlds crashing and sliding through one another. I hear Reggaeton and wonder about at what age dancehall becomes appropriate. I become confused. I want to be a powerful woman and own my sexuality. I feel Amy’s tragic desperation. I see her making bad decision upon bad decision. I want for her to be safe enough to take risks and be vulnerable, like the kid she is.
I see and acknowledge the Vogue Femme moves these girls do in the film. This is the same Vogue Femme that has been culturally appropriated in the dance world. Taken from its queer activist originators and profited from by many a Hips n’ Heels class, with perpetually younger and younger students, these moves are now accessed via Tik Tok and YouTube. I know Amy’s dedication to dance and am impressed by her. She reminds me so much of another self-taught, self-trained, self-choreographed talented J-Sette dancer who came into the studio, wanting to learn ballet while keeping the authentic moves in her body.
Watching a particularly cringeworthy scene in Mignonnes, I see a security guard who I perceive to be Arab not want to be incriminated as a pervert in a situation with these girls who have no idea how dangerous it could get for all involved. I see this man call for his fellow guard, a White man. I see this White man watch Amy’s twerking for too long without saying anything, just a creepy tilt of the head. In the same frame, I see the Arab guard turned to him (not the dancing girl), watching his colleague in horror, but not knowing what to do or say to stop the situation.
In the film, I see that the consequences of Amy’s many crimes and offenses come not from the adults around her, but from her peers and from her own conscience. I am brought back to that one time that I, myself, was de-pantsed when I was in middle school. That was the pre-Internet era, but the panic of the moment lives with me more than three decades later. Today’s youth are coming of age publicly.
Amy’s crimes remind of the 11-16 year olds I worked with in East London, who started stealing things as a way to explore agency, power, popularity, and advantage. It all came crashing when one of them scaled the building to climb into my apartment to steal from me while I was working. In that case, his own brother caught him and turned him in to the police in order to help save him. I know Amy and her slides from reality to fantasy that relay her internal sense of foreboding. There are trite stereotypes in costuming and portrayals (of bullying, for example), and this seems intentional. Things in the film are real, then too real, then unreal, then a combination of all them simultaneously.
The film is made for caring adults, not for perverts. And it makes adults feel like tweens, tossed around and trying hard to become. We feel like these a pre-adolescent trying to become someone in this messed up world that the adults created.
Amy hits puberty in the movie. It reminds me of the two car rides where I have given the refugee students a ride and they sat in the back seat discussing the details of getting your period. It reminds me of being in the women’s group at the mosque where they had a detailed discussion over how to stay clean during Ramadan where sex is concerned; this conversation was in front of several kids. From what I understand, sex in Islam is sacred and a gift from Allah. It is for married couples only. And like in Senegal, gay people are seen to not exist. I know from experience that adolescents growing up in conservative communities of all faiths can struggle to find and build healthy, safe sexual lives as they become adults. The film touches on all this is both subtle and bold ways.
The film ends with the dance contest. It seems, like the C.U.T.I.E.S., most of the other competing groups are sets of 4-5 girls who are self-taught, self-trained, and self-choreographed. The C.U.T.I.E.S. somehow arrive with costumes that are very Molly Long 2013. Their moves are very Nicole Kirkland 2019 (including a bit where they imitate the action of licking their fingers and touching their genitals over their costumes) but not as explicit as Nicole Kirkland 2020. They are around 11 years old and they are trying to find and exude confidence like the dancers they admire. It is ugly. The camera angles feel sick, showing us what the girls want to show us but we don’t want to see. I wanted to cover my eyes like the mother does to her child. It is all so heartbreaking. I’m left feeling ill, like I’m not sure what I would do exactly if I were there. I just cried along with Amy.
In the film, Amy’s mother is portrayed brilliantly by Maïmouna Gueye. For me, she was everything. The complexity of her own marriage, while raising children in a new culture. Struggling to keep her children in faith, devoted to Allah, yet unworried and free to succeed, able to come of age at the same time and in some of the same traditions as they would in Senegal. She is raising a powerful, creative, Muslim French-Senegalese woman who is a brilliant self-trained dancer. And a baby and a bright Black son.
I want for Amy and her siblings to dance their entire lives, with or without hijab, their choice.
There are some who will say that because I liked this film, I shouldn’t be a dance teacher. I heartily disagree. While it does go quite far, I could tell the young actors were protected and always first consideration. There is no nudity or intimacy. That said, there is one quick shot of a breast by an unnamed character who is said to be a bit older than the main girls; I’m guessing the character is 14-15. The main girls react to seeing this online as both commonplace and shocking, hastily turning off the video they are watching. It was a flash and it reminded me of the young girls I saw flashing boys during Mardi Gras. Made me question the age that society thinks flashing become appropriate? Made me think of all the European topless beaches, and how there is an age for a growing girl when the nipple suddenly becomes inappropriate. This is an important scene that got me thinking about how much nudity slips into social media platforms and how dangerous and confusing that world can be. It got me thinking about adolescents today have to navigate slut shaming, rape culture, and pedophilia.
I watched this film as the rape survivor that I am. I watched the film as a person who tried to take her power back by exploring her sexuality in unhealthy and dangerous ways. I watched this film as the aunt to three Muslim girls and three Muslim boys. I watched this film as a person who saw her 14 year old cousins in shorts that revealed their butt cheeks, but wasn’t sure if it was her place to say anything. I watched this film as a close friend of many refugees and migrants. I watched this as a woman insecure about her figure, looking at the dancing, full bodies of Egyptian women with envy. I watched the film as a person worried about those most likely to be victims of human trafficking (migrants, LGBTQ+, Indigenous women and girls).
And the film moved me to be better, do more, not look away, to ask the right questions. I am a dance educator and I admit that I liked this film.
END NOTE: If people in dance want to learn more, here is a good place to start. Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (YPAD)’s free course on the subject of Sex Abuse in Dance is also good. But this film is far more complex, with ethno-racial and religious cultural relativism at play. It reminds me of a UN summit I attended about when human rights conflict with cultural rights. At the end of the day, we all want to keep kids safe. But the complexity of the issues cannot be ignored.