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.
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.