I'm watching a re-run of last week's episode of Dance Moms, my new guilty pleasure, and the focus of the episode is on the girls wearing extra skimpy dance costumes and performing an extra sexy dance for a competition. Think the infamous "Single Ladies" dance that made headlines last year.
Now, there were two conflicting opinions. Most of the dance moms thought the costumes and routines were extremely inappropriate. Personally, I agree with them. Then the choreographer and one of the dance moms made the point that a lot of successful dance groups wear that stuff, and do dances like that. To them, that level of sexualization is just necessary to be competitive in the dance world. And sadly, they're right.
Let's get one thing straight: I support dance, and I support cheerleading. I support any physical activity that can (potentially) teach girls to value their bodies for what they do rather than what they look like, or what they can do for men. Studies have shown that, statistically, girls who participate in sports and physical activities are less likely to participate in risky behaviors such as drugs and underage drinking; casual, unprotected sex; gang activity; and eating disorders. Not to mention, the endorphins from practices and success of doing well can boost a girl's confidence and test scores. This is why the Women's Sports Foundation launched its GoGirlGo! initiative, which gives money to programs that help underprivileged, at-risk girls get active, giving them a better shot at a bright future. Dance and cheerleading can be very good for girls and young women.
That said, there is a sexualizing element that needs to be addressed. My sister's an all-star cheerleader, and I've seen what a lot of the successful squads wear: short, short skirts, cropped tops, and lots and lots of makeup. These aren't just young women wearing skimpy outfits and pageant-level amounts of makeup, I've seen seven year-olds wear stuff like that, and it's a little disturbing. The dance world has the same problem. It's not just a few gyms and studios pushing the limits, it's a widespread problem that's often rewarded with top titles and trophies. Now, on Dance Moms the girls did not place, and the sexual nature of their routine was probably the culprit. But that was a single competition in Lancaster, a conservative area, if they had done the same routine at the Phoenix competition where the choreographer got the idea to do a steamy number, they might have won.
What message are we sending these girls when the teams when sexy equals success for so many teams?
I do understand that revealing uniforms make it easier to move. As a young woman, I get that girls probably get a boost of confidence from feeling sexy in those outfits. That is, the girls who have the "typical" cheerleader/dancer body (skinny). What about the girls who, despite the exercise they get from practices, aren't as skinny and don't feel comfortable, forget sexy, having to reveal so much of their bodies? Skimpy cheerleading uniforms may make some girls feel alienated from the sport because of their bodies. If being sexy is seen as a par for the course, a requirement for success in competition, girls who are unwilling to dance and dress in a suggestive nature might feel alienated as well. In fact, there was a six year-old girl who was kicked off her squad, not because she said anything, but because her mom expressed concern over a cheer where girls chant about shaking their booties.
Abby Miller, the owner of the dance studio in Dance Moms, does not take kindly to parents expressing concerns over their kids' dancing. She says that when a parent opens their mouth, they ruin their child. And yes, that is sometimes true. Doing theater in high school, the director made it clear that we were to ignore any notes our parents gave us about the performance. Overly involved parents have the potential to undo what is taught in the gym or studio. However, in this case, parents should be outspoken when they feel that something their daughters are being made to wear or do might be too sexual. It's a parent's responsibility to protect their daughter from early sexualization and exploitation.
This isn't about young women choosing to be sexy and exploring their sexualities. This is about girls having no choice but to be sexy, not realizing the implications of their actions. These girls are at risk of growing up with a manufactured sexuality, influenced by their dance moves and how they're dressed for competition, rather than an authentic one. The competitive environment can be toxic for the girls' sexualities and sense of self, overemphasizing the importance of being sexy in order to be competitive with other girls, not to mention the importance of being skinny enough to look good in belly-bearing tops and tiny skirts. Now, I'm not saying that it has this impact on all girls who compete, and it's certainly something that needs to be studied, but it really appears to magnify a lot of toxic cultural ideals.
So what can be done? Sadly, I don't have a fool-proof plan. The problem is that all-star cheerleading and competitive dance isn't exactly centralized. It seems as though every competition has its own rules and judging criteria, with lots of overlap but nothing established as a universal rule. The Varsity corporation does run a large portion of it, but even then, there is no one ruling body regulating the competition circuit, so there's no one office to write to in order to get judges to crack down on vulgarity or to implement rules regarding cheer uniforms and costumes. And of course, if skimpy costumes were banned or suddenly very much frowned upon, that means gyms have to get new uniforms, which may not be a problem for the rich, expensive gyms that frequently change their uniforms anyway, but might be an issue for lower income gyms that recycle their uniforms and can't afford to buy new ones to adapt to the rule change, putting them at even more of a disadvantage in competition. Still, change can come from the top down, if successful cheer gyms and dance studios can be persuaded to lead by example and wear uniforms with more coverage, at least for the younger squads.
I think the world of cheerleading and dance can be just as good, if not better, sans the skimpy outfits and suggestive dance moves that, by most people's standards, are not appropriate for the younger age groups. After all, the focus of cheerleading and dance should be what people's bodies can do, not what they look like.