Monday, June 03, 2013

Is your Dance School Grooming Children?

When I ask this question, I don’t necessarily mean grooming for sex with the dance teacher, but grooming for sex generally.

I am the mother of three dancing daughters. Some years ago we joined our local community dance school. At the concert my children were dancing to the song Hot, Hot, Hot thinking it was about the weather. They were introduced with "And now here is [this class] as they prove to you why they are feeling hot, hot, hot." Suddenly they were presented in a sexualised way. Another dance, of girls aged about ten, was to the song Barbie Girl, where they were presented as various Barbies. For the male vocals a boy  came on stage; the only time a male appeared in the concert. To the lyrics "Kiss me here, kiss me there", he kissed his fingers, then put his fingers to his groin and thrusted. The message was unambiguous. The audience cheered and clapped. The teenage girls taught the preschool children. Their charges watched their teenage teachers dancing to Prince’s Cream, over chairs, like at a strip club.

These were not messages about sex, self or dance that I wanted my children to learn.

I complained that the presentation of children was not respectful, and that to present children in ways they were too young to understand is exploitation,. I was told I was out of step with the dance community and to leave the dance school. I contacted Australian Teachers of Dancing, to which the school belonged, which assured me none of its schools used inappropriate songs. I gave details of the concert but received no reply.

After some research I did find new dance schools for my children. It was a long process of many discussions until I found two were are comfortable with, in terms of care for children, respecting their modesty, choice of songs, moves and costumes. At one dance school we couldn’t have a conversation because the music was too loud.

I have since been involved in writing music guidelines for our local primary school performing arts program and music used at school events including the disco. Many students seem to expect that dance is only what they see in mainstream media, that is, ballet or the dancing on music videos. This is at a time when pornography has become more extreme to distinguish itself from music videos and advertisements, and prostitutes don’t know what to wear because young women have taken their look. It is up to teachers, with a broader knowledge of dance and music, to show there is a broader world of what dance can be. To have students move from dancing to Disney theme songs to Lady Gaga is lazy and irresponsible. Primary school children should not be thinking about their desirability. Healthy children should not be concerned with what people of the opposite gender think of them, and trying to please them. Of course children will dance sassy at home to songs they hear on the radio, but to put them on stage doing so is quite another matter.

These are some of the guidelines you might want to discuss with your dance school.

- Songs should be suitable for a family audience.
- Avoid songs that carry a warning sticker.
- Students should be aware of what the song is about (based on the principle that to have children perform a dance about something,  thinking it is about something else, but the audience knows what the song is really about, then that is a situation in which children are not being respected).  
- Changing the lyrics to a song may mean it is suitable for children, but will the audience be familiar with, and thinking of, the original lyrics?
- Be aware that children will look at the video for the song on youtube. Is it suitable for children?
- Be aware of messages about gender, race, sexuality, ability. What is the power relationship in the song?  Who is active and who is being acted upon, who has power, who is stereotyped?
- If you have any doubt about song choice, run it by the head of the program or the Principal.
- If the song was a film or book using the same language or about the same situation or theme, would you be comfortable for primary school children to study it? Keep in mind that parents sign permission for students to watch PG rated films.
- Remember that music and dance can be about anything - any idea or concept or situation - and is much broader than what is presented in mainstream media. Be creative.
- Look to The Arts Unit, Performing Arts High Schools and HSC dance curriculum to see the ideas and execution of ideas expressed in their performances.

I welcome the meeting this week of dance schools to discuss establishing a national regulatory body. It has been a long time coming, and I hope they cover all aspects of the dance industry. In the meantime, parents can ask questions and demand standards to protect their children. With about half a million children enrolled in community dance schools, that's a lot of parent power.


Liz said...

What an interesting post!! Having kids with no interest in dancing (sadly!), this is an unknown world to me. I must say that I am shocked by the approach and attitude of your local dance school. There is so much to say in response to your post that it's hard to know where to begin! I agree that it's really important to distinguish between home listening and public performance. From about Yr 7 I remember attempting to shock my parents by playing 'rude' songs (including plenty of Prince's more explicit tracks!!) - they were sensible enough to ignore my efforts (I should ask them now whether they were secretly chuckling to themselves!). Interest in 'sexy' music was part of growing up for me (in my view, a healthy part). As a consenting adult, some of the 'sexy' music that I've liked (eg the hip hop that I referred to on FB today, funnily enough - also about being 'Hot'!) contains lyrics/images that do not sit comfortably with female empowerment. I think this is OK for an ADULT who is aware of these tensions, but very different for children whose worldview/body image/sexuality is still developing. I am rambling - sorry - would be easier to do this over coffee! Suffice it to say: (a) I would have been shocked and offended by that concert; (b) I'm very glad you found a better dance school, though sorry to hear that this was so difficult; (c) it's great that you've drawn up those guidelines - I'm sure other schools would find them useful; and (d) there is just soooo much to think and talk about when it comes to this kind of 'grooming' and today's kids...not to mention the sorry state of today's music video shows!! I have often expressed sorry to my sons about the demise of the Countdown era, for reasons related to this post...

Judy said...

Coming to this late, I also agree with you. I am appalled by the costumes used in dance concerts, as well as by some of the music they dance to and the steps they do. My daughter went to a dance school where the costumes were made by a professional and I insisted that one of my daughter's be remade because it was too revealing. This also applies to school choires. I was horrified when the year 7-10 ensemble at the local Catholic high school performed a medley of "Hey Big Spender" and "What Lola Wants, Lola Gets" complete with suggestive choreography at the local eisteddfod. However, in that case, I mentioned it to my friend who is a nun and retired head of the local Catholic education office and she had a quiet word with someone and the choice of music was much more circumspect after that.