Monday, September 26, 2011

Reality television is after me

My response to the Dance Moms show on Lifetime:

Yes, I know no one else cares about this. It's just another stupid reality show trying to hitch a ride on the Real Housewives' star. But this time they've come after my profession. Much as I hate to give more publicity to these kinds of things, I've heard so many defenders of the show state, "That's the dance world! If you don't like it, don't participate!" Not true. Abby Lee Miller does not speak for all dance teachers. There's more to be gained from enrolling at a dance studio than tears and abuse.

The first thing to remember is that this is scripted entertainment. Scenarios are introduced by producers and all the people involved are under contract. What you see on your television is not reality, or, if it is reality, it's such a small sliver of the elephant that there's no point in even treating it as reality. I'm aware of this. Still, the show likes to pretend it's giving us insight into the mysterious and crazy world of dance. It doesn't let its viewers know the amount of scripting and scheming that goes on behind the scenes. We're supposed to believe everything presented is genuine. We're supposed to believe that the behavior onscreen is indicative of dance studios everywhere. Let's examine that idea, shall we?

"When a parent opens their mouth, they ruin their child"

Believe it or not, I understand the impulse behind this one. By the time you've had the hundredth parent ask if their five-year-old is ready for pointe, or get angry for not allowing their injured child to practice her fouettes in class, or suggest rescheduling the entire recital so they can watch the game at home, the average teacher might be tempted to utter these words. The truth is, anytime you deal with clients or customers, there's going to be a certain amount of crazy. This gets amplified when you throw something as foreign as dance into the mix. Dance is a culture and if you're outside that culture, it can be difficult to understand how things work. So, yeah, sometimes dealing with parents can be stressful.

However without them we'd be lost. Aside from the obvious, the fact that they enroll their children in dance, they help us in so many ways. They volunteer at recitals and sometimes even sign up for roles onstage. Not because they want to perform, but because they know how much their kids will get out of being in the same show as "Mommy and Daddy". At conferences they try to understand the intricacies of technique, because they want insight into the work their children do. They tell their friends about our studio. They carpool. They help out with costumes. They write positive reviews online and, when there's trouble, they rally on our behalf. Sometimes they even bring us veggies from their gardens. And, at the end of every recital, they wait for their kids, flowers in hand, ready to give them a huge hug. Seeing a daddy beaming over his little ballerina is about the cutest thing in the world.

I'm not the only one who knows this. A studio that doesn't value its parents is not a healthy place to dance. There are plenty of teachers and studio owners out there who appreciate their dance moms and dads.

"Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."

Now, I'm as competitive as the next guy. Probably more. I really like winning. Back when I was a competitive dancer, I used to do visualization exercises where I imagined myself walking onstage to pick up a trophy larger than I was. But, even as an obsessed teenager, I knew all the hours logged at the studio weren't merely in service of winning. They were about learning to tell a story, to strengthen my body, to work with my classmates, to apply criticism, to present myself with pride, to do things that most people would consider impossible. Many students don't continue dancing after high school. They do other things with their lives. The trophies get donated to thrift stores and are soon forgotten. Winning is a temporary joy. If all we can give our students is trophies, we don't deserve their time.

"You're wearing two-piece costumes. Either sit down and do 100 sit-ups or paint on the abs. One or the other."

This particular quote comes from an episode where the girls (8-10 years old) are given a "sexy dance" to do. The idea is that dancing like the older girls will help them win at competition. Some of you might be familiar with the "Single Ladies" fiasco. I'm guessing that's where the producers got the idea for this particular episode of television. Here's the thing: yes, the sexualization of children in order to win trophies is wrong. I don't think I need to explain why it's wrong.

However, a lot of watchers seem to be under the misapprehension that this kind of thing is normal in the dance community. It is not normal. Do some research and look into the values of your local studios, because there will be ones that share your values. Dance does not equal the sexualization of children. Dance reflects the values of its makers. There are dance teachers out there (many) who are protective of their students and want them to grow up at their own pace. Parents can also change policy. If you are a parent and your son or daughter has been assigned a costume or dance that makes you uncomfortable, speak up! You have the power to create change. In many cases, teachers and studio owners are reasonable human beings willing to listen to your concerns. We're not all like Miss Abby.

Dance is hard work. It takes a lot of time, effort and sacrifice. Even if you are a brilliant dancer, dancing for a living is rough. It's one of the most impractical and unforgiving lives any human being can chose. Yes, there are rewards, but they come at a high price. An eight-year-old is incapable of understanding what this means. There's time to make those choices later. They shouldn't be so focused on their careers at this age. Children who are at the studio every day and competitions every weekend are missing everything else the world has to offer.

Kids need to play. They need to develop outside the studio. They should have friends and enough time at night to do their homework. Dance is a worthwhile pursuit, but it shouldn't be the only pursuit. Not at eight. I understand this. Other dance teachers understand this. Many of us only want the best for our students. Please, don't judge us by the crazy things that come out of Abby's mouth.


  1. well said! There are the obsessive crazies in dance as in any sport or endeavor, but they are not the mainstream in my opinion, nor do the represent the truly excellent schools or teachers.I have ballet horror stories to tell as well, from my experiences, but that is just dealing with humanity. : ) You speak up, you change studios, whatever, but you don't subject a child to that sort of nonsense.

  2. Fascinating post, Sarah. My best friend used to be a competitive dancer and it was her whole life growing up. A totally different world than what I was exposed to.

  3. Great post. As a dancer, I completely agree with the points you made.

  4. "The first thing to remember is that this is scripted entertainment. Scenarios are introduced by producers and all the people involved are under contract."

    This. I totally agree. Some of my friends dance professionally and the whole idea of this show pisses them off.

  5. This is a great post. There's so much about reality TV that is anything BUT reality, and a little reminder goes a long way. It's kind of the same in books, you know? We can get away with bending a little truth, but bend it too far and someone's going to speak up and you're going to get in trouble.

    ALSO I bet you're a FABULOUS instructor!