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Keeping the Competition Stage Age Appropriate

The world of competitive dance has exploded in the past ten to fifteen years, with hundreds of events to choose from, in cities all over the world. They are an opportunity for growth, feedback, performance and countless other benefits. Dance has always been influenced by pop culture – hip hop as a competitive dance form, for example, grew from the street culture that developed in New York and Atlanta, among other influential cities. Dancers became teachers and began to codify techniques that applied to the different styles of hip hop. As the industry continues to grow and be influenced by pop culture, the more educators and choreographers have a responsibility to tailor the pop culture stylings they use in dancing to the age, development, and ability level of the dancers. Age appropriate music, costuming, content and choreography may be the most controversial topics in the competitive dance world today. IDA judges and educators Mary Roberts, Joey Ortolani, Diona Hamza, Miranda Spada, and Kimberly Corbett weigh in on their opinions about appropriateness in competitive dance.

From the get-go at competitions, Miranda Spada, teacher and judge from Buffalo, NY, relies on “first appearances” to determine her thoughts on the appropriateness of a routine – specifically, the title of the entry, costume choice, and song choice. “For me,” she explains, “age appropriateness means the lyrics, song content, song meaning, costume choice, and routine name are all suited appropriately to that age division. The dancer entering should be fully aware of the song’s content and meaning, and the teacher should be confident in choosing that song in regards to not only the dancer, but in regards to the parents, studio, and audiences. After first appearances, I then look at the movement and choreography. My rule is that if you, as a teacher, question any of the movement while choreographing, then it might be best to keep it out of the routine.” The judges agreed that if there was any doubt about a step, movement or costume, that’s sign to remove it from the routine. Joey Ortolani, teacher and judge from New York City, cheekily suggests, “Treat your routines like you would treat meat that you want to cook with – if it smells funny, throw it out.”

In addition to questionable movement and costume choices, Dione Hamza, dance teacher from Michigan, asks this question of choreographers: “Is the routine built around the dancer’s strengths?” This is also a form of age appropriateness to consider. She continues, “A Petite dancer cannot understand the proper body placement to perform more difficult steps such as a pirouette if they do not understand how to hold their leg in a passé with a pointed foot, with a stretched supporting leg, squared shoulders and hips…the list can go on! Know your dancer’s strength and play to them.” Competition is a place to show the judges what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T do. Allow younger, less experienced dancers to showcase age and level appropriate content to receive the best response possible.

Both Mary Roberts and Joey Ortolani gave specific examples of routines they found inappropriate, and how the distraction of the content and costuming made it nearly impossible to do their job. Mary, a recent MFA graduate of Florida State University, remembers a piece that told the story of Roxanne, which details the experiences of a young prostitute. “The 8 year old female dancer was being thrown around by four boys of various ages, while wearing a garter belt with no tights. I do not believe anyone wants to see a child act this way,” she explained. “The artistry of the choreography was greatly diminished by having the wrong dancers, ie children instead of adults, performing the material.” It could be assumed that when a choreographer has a vision for a piece, but not the right performers to set it on, they will often “make do” with what they have, and set a piece that needs more mature dancers with a younger group simply because they want to see their vision realized. The story of Roxanne might very well be one that could be meaningfully presented – but using dancers of the right age and emotional development is paramount to ensuring the story is told properly and without the damage that will inevitably be done to a young dancer.

Joey brings up an important point that often gets swept under the rug - the double standard that exists when we costume and choreograph for young boys versus young girls. He explains, “I had the unfortunate experience to judge an all-boys hip hop routine once, and at one point all the boys ripped their button down shirts off, exposing bare chests while body rolling, all to the excited uproar and applause of their families. I sat there horrified, and the routine received the lowest possible score I was allowed by the competition to give. We can’t have an issue with under-dressed girls and then somehow think a young boy onstage, shirtless, is acceptable.” By costuming and choreographing on young dancers with material beyond their years, judges are unable to focus on the technique of the routine and are forced to comment on things that are beyond the dancers’ control. The job of a judge is to provide critiques that the dancers can use to better themselves – and the dancers almost always have no control of the costume, music or content within a routine. But those things must be commented on, thus putting judges in between a rock and a hard place.

With 28 years of competing, judging, and teaching under her belt, Kimberly Corbett, owner of Harvard Academy of Dance in Massachusetts, has seen the competition industry progressively devolve, with a rare few competitions actually taking a stand against inappropriate material being presented on their stages. She laments, “Many competitions state that they will take deductions or disqualify a routine from the competitions if there is age inappropriate material, however, I have never seem them enforce these rules. In fact, we see the age inappropriateness rewarded in many, many instances.” Remember that Roxanne number? It took a top overall small group placement.

Miranda adds, “For the world we live in today, I feel that competitions have a greater responsibility than ever to make sure they are putting dances on their stages that are appropriate to what they stand for as an organization, and what is appropriate for that age in a general dance context.” While the competitions do have an onus of responsibility to screen and deduct accordingly for inappropriate content, the initial point of entry for keeping young dancers safe begins at the studio. Kimberly says, “First and foremost, I think teachers and choreographers need to educate themselves. The age inappropriateness is becoming so commonplace now, many teachers and choreographers don’t understand the damage they are doing to these dancers! I highly recommend looking into the Youth Protection Advocates in Dance and reading the research of Leslie Scott and her team. It’s truly eye-opening! Let that research guide you in your music, costuming and choreography selections and start to develop a gut instinct for what is right and wrong for children.”

What is appropriate and inappropriate is subjective, and depends on each individual’s beliefs, values, background, upbringing, and a host of other attributes. However, what we can all agree on is our collective desire to keep our children safe. Before you act on a choreographic idea, or choose a costume, take some time to think it through – look at everything through the lens of a parent or a grandparent; research song lyrics; use Urban Dictionary – just because a bad word isn’t used doesn’t mean the content is clean. If you have an idea but not the students – be patient! Wait until you have the dream team to tackle a number that has more mature content, and let the children shine in their own age-appropriate way.


Photos: Top - Supernova Dance Company. provided by Diva Dance Competition

Bottom - Dancer: Samantha Grutadauria from Jan Martin Dance Studio. Costume by Oliveri Designs - provided by Beyond The Stars

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