The sexualisation of children and the dance industry.
According to the American Psychological Association there are several components to sexualisation, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. Sexualisation occurs when:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualisation. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualised. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualisation by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.
Girls get this message repeatedly: What matters is how “hot” they look. It plays on TV and across the Internet. You hear it in song lyrics and music videos. You see it in movies, electronic games, and clothing stores. It’s a powerful message. As parents, you are powerful too. You can teach girls to value themselves for who they are, rather than how they look. You can teach boys to value girls as friends, sisters, and girlfriends, rather than as sexual objects. And you can advocate for change with manufacturers and media producers.
As dance educators, it is vitally important that we play our part in combatting the sexualisation of children within our society.
First of all – we must lead by example. As teachers, we should express who we are as people based on our values, our opinions, our thoughts and our teaching methods. We should strive to model a way of viewing and conducting ourselves that we would want young girls to emulate, for after all we are sometimes one of the most influential people in these girls’ lives. We must remember to compliment our students (particularly our little girls) in a way other than how cute or gorgeous they may look. We must ask what they think, how they feel and how they interpret the art form. We must continually offer them alternative perspectives on dance other than those which are considered in line with commercial dance.
Second of all, we must make wise choices regarding music choices for children. It is becoming increasingly difficult in genres such as jazz and hip hop to find music that does not concern itself with the objectification of women, and contain adult themes and lyrics. While children are usually subjected to these songs on a daily basis through many forms of media, we need to strive to ensure that when they are within our studios and particularly when they are performing in a public setting that they are representing themselves and their team with dignity. What is particularly disturbing today, is the music video clips that not only sexually objectify women and sometimes children, but they actively promote violence toward women. It is our responsibility as studio owners to first of all never purchase this kind of music in the interests of rejecting violence toward women, but to never expose our students to such a damaging and detrimental part of pop culture.
We also need to be concerned with our choreography – again particularly in the jazz, street funk, hip hop and commercial dance genres. With many adult dance shows on TV (eg. So You Think You Can Dance) and with dance featuring heavily in celebrities’ stage work and tours – children are exposed to choreography that has a sexual undertone and is created for adult dancers, on a regular and ongoing basis. While a lot of this choreography is incredible in its wow factor, design and movement innovation, the problem is it is also often sexually suggestive. The audiences of these TV shows, concerts and events are also teens, tweens and young girls (often as young as 3 and 4!) which desensitises children to objectification of women from an extremely early age. What used to be pushing boundaries with sexual choreography and what once was the extreme rather than the norm (think Madonna in the 80’s) is now more common than ever. What is difficult with this particular issue, is that by the time a student with an interest in commercial jazz is thinking about a career in the industry, they want to be learning what’s “right now” and what’s “hot”. They seek choreography/music that is current and often sexual in nature, without even realising the greater problems that stem from it. It leaves studio directors in quite the conundrum; do we expose these teens to the realities of the commercial dance industry? Or do we continue to try to shield them from these mature styles until they are 18 years of age?
One of the extremely important responsibilities that sit on studio directors’ shoulders is the choice of costuming for our students. This relates to attire worn in the dance studio and that which is worn in competitions, performances and concerts. Suggesting that "covering up" will help to solve the problem of the sexualisation of children is extremely naïve. Dance is a physical pursuit. It is artistic and it is athletic. It relies on line and body awareness. It requires a strong and confident display of body movement and it requires tight, breathable and movement accommodating attire that is appropriate for the classroom or performance. Sometimes a two-piece costume is right for the dance piece. Sometimes a nude leotard is and sometimes wearing tights may be detrimental to the “look” the choreographer is going for. None of these choices in their own right sexualises a performance. However, a two-piece bikini combined with fishnets, long boots, a fake tan, sexually suggestive choreography and facial expressions as well as adult lyrics inherently does.
So that leads to the question, where does one draw the line between what is considered appropriate for children and what is considered “art”? I can only answer this question for myself and my own studio.
At GDANCE Academy, I employ staff that embody all the characteristics of strong and empowered female role models. Music choices are age appropriate and in that, we strive to use “safe” pop music (hard to pre-scan every lyric). We keep music what we deem to be appropriate for children for displays, concerts and competitions. We try to choose songs that are empowering for women in the genres that lean toward this type of style and we introduce more mature themes in the Open Age category (pre-professional dancers). I like to showcase choreography and costuming that is edgy and unique – not sexual, and those that demonstrate a connection with the intention of the piece. The exception to this is if there is a character role (such as is the case in some music theatre numbers) that requires a sexual component to portray the essence of the character. In these cases, quite often the characters and performances can be extremely entertaining and we reserve these specialised pieces for our most senior dancers.
KidsPace has developed a framework for recognition of the ethical practices required by dance educators to exercise this responsibility in all aspects of dance education. The KidsPace Dance Code of Practice makes explicit the various facets within the Australian dance industry that may be causal or contributing factors to the developmental impacts we are witnessing in children today. The aim of the code is to guide dance educators of all settings (sole traders, companies, public and private schools) in the best practices to ensure the utmost protection, healthy growth and happiness of Australian children in the dance classroom. . For more information visit: http://www.kidspacecode.com
At GDANCE Academy we support the KidsPace initiative and you will hear more from me about these very important issues and collaborating with KidsPace in the near future.
What can you do as a parent?
Tune in and talk
Watch TV and movies with your daughters and sons. Read their magazines. Surf their Web sites. Ask questions. "Why is there so much pressure on girls to look a certain way?” "What do you like most about the girls you want to spend time with?" "Do these qualities matter more than how they look?" Really listen to what your kids tell you.
Girls who are overly concerned about their appearance often have difficulty focusing on other things. Clothes can be part of the distraction. If your daughter wants to wear something you consider too sexy, ask what she likes about the outfit. Ask if there’s anything she doesn’t like about it. Explain how clothes that require lots of checking and adjusting might keep her from focusing on school work, friends and other activities.
If you don't like a TV show, CD, video, pair of jeans or doll, say why. A conversation with her will be more effective than simply saying, "No, you can’t buy it or watch it." Support campaigns, companies, and products that promote positive images of girls. Complain to manufacturers, advertisers, television and movie producers and retail stores when products sexualise girls.
Young people often feel pressure to watch popular TV shows, listen to music their friends like and conform to certain styles of dress. Help your daughter make wise choices among the trendy alternatives. Remind her often that who she is and what she can accomplish are far more important than how she looks.
You may feel uncomfortable discussing sexuality with your kids, but it's important. Talk about when you think sex is okay as part of a healthy, intimate, mature relationship. Ask why girls often try so hard to look and act sexy. Effective sex education programs discuss media, peer and cultural influences on sexual behaviours and decisions, how to make safe choices, and what makes healthy relationships. Find out what your school teaches.
Help your kids focus on what’s really important: what they think, feel, and value. Help them build strengths that will allow them to achieve their goals and develop into healthy adults. Remind your children that everyone’s unique and that it’s wrong to judge people by their appearance.
Marketing and the media also influence adults. When you think about what you buy and watch, you teach your sons and daughters to do so, too.
(Advice adapted from the American Psychological Association).