Dallas — I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a topic that has been in the public eye for a few years now, but continuously finds itself in the front of the line when discussions about dance, the media, and it’s effect on education and youth comes into play. It’s what I call the “Dance Mom Complex.”
We are all aware that the media plays a huge role in how we relate to our peers in contemporary society. Who hasn’t found themselves in the middle of a conversation at work about the latest episode of some serial comedy or drama, or about what happened on the latest episode of some Real Housewives franchise, or what this or that Kardashian is up to—particularly Bruce Jenner, but that is for another story and another column.
The narcissism that runs rampant on these shows has become a model for parents and children, and is especially reflected in the Lifetime hit series Dance Moms. No one could have predicated how quickly America—and really the world at large—would latch on to and develop an obsession for these mothers, their children who just want to dance with their friends, and their teacher; yet, here we are, nearly four years after the show first premiered, and we can’t wait until the next episode. Abby Lee Miller has become a household name; we feel like we know these moms and we’ve watched their little girls become pre-teens and teenagers, and “celebrities.” Further, we watched a cultural phenomenon develop before our very eyes and without any public consent or control. Whether we like it or not, Dance Moms has become a template for the general public—it shows us that if we wanted to (and if we can afford it), we can turn our children into stars by sending them to “dance schools.”
I use the term “dance school” loosely here. In the “Dance Mom Complex,” a dance school is one in which you enroll your children, possibly take them out of their educational school in lieu of homeschooling, so that they can take dance class every day for at least eight hours a day. You pay exorbitant fees for private lessons, group classes, competitions, and costumes. You remove your child from learning environments that foster socialization and creativity for the structurally rigid work environments that instead foster antagonism, aggression, and conformity. But dance class is supposed to be fun, right? Not if you want to make a winner.
If Dance Moms has taught us anything, if you don’t do it Abby Lee Miller’s way, then you might as well find another “hobby.” Dance is becoming a commercialized industry based on managers, prepubescent makeovers, cutthroat behaviors, and less about the art of movement, the human experience, and a connection to the world around you.
Have we lost an understanding of what dance schools are supposed to mean and what their original missions were? In some countries, parents will send their children to artistic vocational schools—circus school or traditionally historic dance schools—to prepare them for a future in doing what they are absolutely passionate about. Sacrifices are made to accomplish these goals, but not at the risk of loosing childhood, experiences, and education, because within these schools is an academic component—studying core curriculum, such as English, history, math, and science is still a focus. But in the instance of the “Dance Mom Complex,” the mission is not about education, but about money. If you spend enough money to train your child, get the right coach—because teacher is not the appropriate word for the role these people play—and you live in the right city, then maybe your child will get booked for a job, or hired for a TV show, and then you make money. And that’s all that matters.
We have glamorized and romanticized the celebrity lifestyle at the risk of harming the types of artists we are trying to cultivate. It gives young dancers the wrong idea; if they aren’t making a stir, or causing a buzz, then they aren’t accomplishing their goals—then they aren’t a good dancer. Instead, we should be fostering an environment that promotes learning a specific technique, becoming proficient in that, and developing yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically before trying to enter the professional world.
Education is less about perfection and winning, two themes that are also promoted within the “Dance Mom Complex,” and more about commitment and dedication. While dance teachers at competitive studios might require commitment and dedication from their students, it is sacrificed for the perfect extension, layout, turning sequence, and the medal and trophy at the end of a competition. It is also finds itself coming in second to maturity from the role models children should be looking up to—their parents. On Dance Moms, the parents demonstrate textbook inappropriate behavior, from catty and mean actions that more often than not cross the line into bullying, blatant gossiping, backstabbing, and public instances of violence. They also support the premature sexualization of their children. I can only think of a couple of instances in which a mom on the show stood up and said that a costume or theme was “too much” for their young kids. For the most part, they applaud the decisions of their coach and her creative team, saying that their child “looks cute.”
Is that a healthy recourse for the future of dance education? Or is this a beginning of a new trend in how we promote the learning of dance to our youth? We will have to see what the impact of the “Dance Mom Complex” will be on this new generation of dancer and audience.
» Danielle Georgiou is a dance educator, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and is a working dancer and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears the third or fourth Sunday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
Previous columns are:
- February 2014: Cash Choreography
- March 2014: Make the Fringe Your Future
- April 2014: Don't Freak Out, It's Just an Audition
- May 2014: You Love Dance. You're Not Alone
- June 2014: Persevering Through Movement
- July 2014: Sharing in Success
- August 2014: To the Barre
- September 2014: Method Act
- October 2014: Fear of Flying
- December 2014: The Editor Dance
- January 2015: Community Relations
- February 2015: The Fabric of Movement
- March 2015: State of the Dance