So You Think They’re Too Young?

So You Think You Can Dance recently announced a new season, “The Next Generation,” featuring kids 8-13. I’m not all that excited.

I’ll admit that my feelings about SYTYCD in general are pretty lukewarm. It attracts some very talented dancers and good choreographers, but once they did a “sexy dentist” routine, I started wondering if the show was reaching its limit. Still, despite being a little weary of tilts and crop-tops, I have to admit that the show has really expanded the range and quality of dance featured on mainstream TV (even if that still represents a relatively small slice of the larger dance world).

But the younger cast seems like part of an unfortunate trend–especially, but not exclusively in the dance world–of emphasizing child celebrities.

Now it’s not that I don’t admire talented kid dancers. I definitely wasn’t cranking out lengthy turn sequences when I was eight, but if you are, good for you! Unlike some others, I don’t automatically assume that a very advanced young dancer is exploited, destined to burn out, or deprived of a childhood. Of course, these things can be the case, but it there are also some genuinely gifted, hardworking, and passionate kiddos out there.

The issue is when we as a culture get overly fixated on the child prodigy ideal, gawking over their youth as much as their abilities. Yes the title “The Next Generation” suggests that these are future stars with their real careers ahead of them. But in reality, when we repeatedly focus the spotlight on early excellence, that becomes seen as the goal itself, rather than a step on the way to something greater (and post-pubescent). We see this with “instafamous” competition kids and “master classes” given by girls from Dance Moms.

baby

SYTYCD Season 20?

Idolizing child prodigies probably isn’t all that good for the prodigies themselves.  Besides the pressure and fear of disappointing that comes with the extra attention, what kind of message are these kids getting about growing up? If half of your appeal is being young, how can getting older feel like anything besides a loss? (More specifically when it comes to SYTYCD, I’m really hoping that high injury rates and excessive sexualization of female dancers don’t carry over to the junior edition.)

But beyond those chosen few, these TV shows and cultural attitudes also shape the aspirations of other young dancers. Do we want them aspiring to be 10-year-old TV stars? Or aspiring to have sustainable careers as adult professionals? Or even aspiring to continue dancing throughout their lives?

It’s not impossible for one individual to accomplish all of those things, but as goals, they demand very different training priorities. Hopes of child stardom push dancers to focus on the immediate product: to push for bigger, higher, more, and most importantly, sooner. To focus on presentation and exposure over consistent technical training and education. To elevate solo performances over ensemble work or collaborative skills.

Longevity, on the other hand, requires dancers to focus on developing sound technique, generally prioritizing alignment over flash and quicker advancement. To understand their bodies well enough to work intelligently around limitations or injuries. To realize that being a responsible, contributing team member is as important a professional skill as being a good soloist. To recognize that artistic development is a potentially lifelong process that they are just starting.

Let’s be real: our culture is already youth-centric enough–dance even more so–without the child star aspect. Dancers are known for having extremely short careers. Yes, this has to do with physical aspects of aging, but also with an industry that is all-too-eager to replace more mature dancers with younger and shinier (not to mention cheaper) up-and-comers.

And yet, some of the performers that most inspire me are those who have stuck with dance–in whatever form–into their 40s, 50s, and beyond. Who have shown that older moving bodies can be intelligent, expressive, and beautiful, even if they have different needs and functions than younger ones. Who have moved beyond the competitive ambition of early adulthood (which is totally valid–I’m so there now) to define their own personal values and contributions as artists.  Who have repeatedly challenged themselves to keep growing, changing, and reinventing themselves in their work.

So if mainstream attention shifts toward even younger wiz kids, will it become even harder for us as dancers to convince the public that we are not disposable? That we gain something of value in our years of work and experience? That we have something to say in our dancing, and we need some time to say it? That dance is a relevant form of human expression–that doesn’t restrict the definition of “human” to those under 30 (or 13).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun to watch awesome 11-year-olds, but if I had to choose an “impressive for her age” dance idol, it would more likely be that 95-year-old woman taking class at Steps in a green unitard. Because while SYTYCD: The Geriatric Edition may be unlikely, that’s not going to stop those who need to dance and are in it for the long haul.

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Why This “Girl in Tights” is Over the “No Homo” Defense of Ballet Boys

Being a boy in ballet can be rough. Like a lot boys with interests counter to expected gender roles, they can get targeted for being “girly” or “gay” (whether or not these things are true).

But let’s also pay attention to how we’re responding to this type of bullying.

The Real Man thing again? Eh, I know plenty of men who lift nothing and are still pretty real.

One of my least favorite defenses of boys in ballet is the “no homo” defense (with a side of misogyny). Growing up, I heard a lot adults tell boys who do ballet to respond to “that’s gay” comments by replying that they spend their days surrounded by hot girls in tights that they get to touch.

Now I can hardly blame a kid for saying what he has to say to get through middle school–though the adults encouraging it might be a different story–and I get that it sucks to have people make assumptions about your sexual orientation, but it always bothered me that:

  1. People care more about disassociating ballet from “gay” than disassociating “gay” from “bad.” (And what if that kid is gay?)
  2. As one of the “girls in tights,” these statements always made me feel uncomfortable and objectified.
  3. I also like girls, but I certainly never came to ballet class to check people out. I would be pretty offended if someone suggested otherwise—so why should it be different for boys, who are also probably coming to class for the purpose of actually learning ballet?

Because let’s be real, ballet is hard, and regardless of your gender or sexual orientation, you’re not gonna stick around long or get very far if you’re only there for the purpose of staring at butts.

What does it say about our cultural values that staring at butts (as long as it’s hetero) is considered a more acceptable motivation for boys in ballet than practicing a challenging art form?

Look, I want to erase the stigma associated with boys in ballet at least as much as anyone else–but we can’t do that simply by erasing gay boys in ballet and waving around flag of aggressive heterosexual masculinity. That only trivializes the commitment of male dancers, demeans female dancers, and devalues ballet itself.

If really we want to end a stigma based in homophobia and gender-policing, we’re gonna have to actually fight homophobia and and gender-policing. 

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Credit to Asher for inspiring this post!

It’s Not You, It’s Society: “It’s Just a Phase”

“It’s not you, it’s society” is a series of rants about socially acceptable and polite comments that bother me. Read more here.

“It’s just a phase.”

I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It’s a common way to dismiss some aspect of a person’s identity or life that you don’t want to acknowledge, while claiming to know that person better than they know themself. It can refer to sexuality, gender identity, interests, career aspirations, political/religious beliefs, and basically anything else. Younger people tend get it a lot.

Usually, people defend themselves by trying to prove that the aforementioned quality is not a temporary phase and is instead a permanent part of who they are. This is completely valid and I have done it in more than one context, BUT I also believe that no one should ever even have to make that argument because the entire idea behind “it’s just a phase” is really an awful and illogical reason to trivialize someone’s identity, experiences, or desires.

Like this guy.

The assumption is that whatever someone is right now is more of an transient experience on the way to becoming the fully-fledged, real, predestined, unchanging “true” self. They’re more of a pre-person than an actual current human being.

But when exactly do people turn into their “real” self instead of some less-real self-in-transition. When they’re 30? 40? When they completely stop changing? For how long? 5 years? 20 years? Forever?

If we’re going to take those standards to their logical extension, pretty much nothing is real. Imagine these conversations:

  • Yeah, he retired from his hospital job. He always told me he was a doctor, but I guess he was just going through a 40-year “practicing medicine” phase.
  • At 90, he doesn’t seem to be into women in the same way he used to be. I guess he was just going through a 80-year heterosexual phase.
It's okay, we all go through hetero phases.

It’s okay, we all go through hetero phases.

  • Turns out she’s dead now. I knew she was just going through a little “alive” phase.
This guy knows.

This guy knows it.

Sorry, was that last one too morbid? But lets be real, the only permanent state in human existence is death (maybe–even that one is arguable). If we’re going to use permanence as the golden standard of legitimacy and “realness,” we’re left with a very narrow and pretty depressing view of reality.

Of course, no one claiming “it’s just a phase” actually comes to this conclusion because they don’t actually apply that permanence standard universally. It’s not exactly a coincidence that people only declare qualities that they dislike or don’t understand to be “phases” while automatically assuming qualities they like or identify with to be legitimate. Since we’ve established that permanence isn’t an actual thing, can we agree that “it’s a phase” is just a method of dismissing a present reality that you don’t like/understand by assigning more legitimacy to an imagined future which you like better?

So, yes it may be very likely that “it” (what ever it may be) is actually not a phase (relative to a person’s life span, anyway). But so what if it was? Even then, it still wouldn’t be “just” a phase. People have every right to go through phases, because humans are living, breathing, dynamic beings who are don’t have to be the same people today as we will be tomorrow to prove that we exist.

If phases aren’t real and important . . . what is?

So go along with your little “living” phase and make it as real and fabulous as you want to, without challenging the existence of anyone else’s. Have fun!