StEPS: Hyper sexualization of Young Dancers | Apolla Performance

StEPS: Hyper sexualization of Young Dancers | Apolla Performance

We are tackling something that is impacting our industry in a big way, does hyper sexualization exist in competitive dance?

To help us answer that question we're fortunate to have two guest expert panelists who'll talk us through the many facets of this topic and most importantly where do we start to change the narrative.

Welcome to Beyond the StEPS

This is a sensitive topic and may trigger strong feelings and reactions in you so please protect your peace and step in and out as necessary to protect your space. 

Leslie Scott is a renowned figure in the commercial dance world, known for her impressive career, outstanding teaching skills, and positive energy. She has an impeccable work ethic and a passion for using dance to drive change, which has earned her recognition globally. She is an accomplished public speaker and the founder of YPAD, known as Youth Protection Advocates and Dance. The organization's mission is to empower dance communities through education and activism, with the goal of stopping the exploitation of children in the performing arts, ensuring that young dancers remain happy, healthy, and safe. The organization is currently being managed by Misty Lown.

We have Dr Tomi-Ann Roberts is a Professional Psychology and a chair of psychology department at Colorado College she earned her BA from Smith college and her doctor's done tons of research on this topic and we're just so fortunate to have you both

We hear the word hyper sexualization a lot and for everyone reading  it seems like a simple thing, but explain and define hyper sexualization of youth so we're all crystal clear on what that means 

Dr Tomi-Ann: I was a member of the American Psychological Association task force on the sexualization of girls several years ago. Our main focus was girls, but we are now seeing that this issue of hyper sexualization is affecting boys as well. I apologize in advance if my perspective leans towards girls due to my past work on this topic.

My work with the APA task force is actually how Leslie found me. Our task force was tasked with defining the problem of hyper sexualization. It's a concept that's easily recognizable but difficult to articulate. We developed four characteristics of hyper sexualization:

  • 1) presenting someone as having value solely based on their sexual appeal, 
  • 2) applying a narrow, sexualized standard of beauty, 
  • 3) objectifying a person and treating them as a passive tool for others, and 
  • 4) imposing sexuality inappropriately, such as on a young child. 

It's important to note that hyper sexualization is distinct from healthy sexuality, which involves age-appropriate exposure to information about sex and sexuality according to the American Psychological Association.

Do you think it's possible, is competition detrimental?  Is there any good, can we have dancers compete without doing this? Is that possible?

Yes, it's crucial to identify which types of dance and presentations meet this criterion and to reevaluate our depictions of children in dance. This definition has many layers and requires a lot of reflection.

 Leslie has been advocating for this in the industry for a long time and it's hopeful that people are now paying attention and taking action .A prevalent misconception is that hyper sexualization in competitive dance only refers to inappropriate choreography or revealing costumes. However, it can manifest in numerous ways and can be composed of small actions that accumulate and have significant consequences.

Can you provide some examples of how hyper sexualization is present in the commercial competitive dance industry?

Leslie: The choice of music can also have hidden and overt hyper sexualization elements, such as the lyrics and the message it conveys about bodies, beauty, and gender stereotypes. The costume, along with the music and movement, can also contribute to exacerbating the problem. It's important to pay attention to not just one aspect but also the overall presentation, including the dancer's facial expressions and body language. Often, young dancers are trained to engage in flirtatious behavior with the judges on stage, even though it may not be age-appropriate. This behavior, such as winking, lip licking, and body positioning, can be reinforced by coaches, students, and choreographers. It's crucial to be aware of how these elements can contribute to hyper sexualizing the dancers and to promote healthy and age-appropriate performance in competitive dance. It's important to note that hyper sexualization can also present itself in the form of self-touch and physical interactions between dancers in a performance. This reinforces harmful stereotypes and perpetuates the sexualization of young dancers.

What is the responsibility to analyze inappropriateness to potentially disqualify those types of routines?

The competitions Guidance GUI and Big Dance have both undergone adjudicator training and YPAD certification because continuing to reward hyper sexualized performances perpetuates the issue. The problem can only be fixed by stopping the reward system. Therefore, there must be clear communication before registering for a YPAD certified competition, as deductions will be made for any instances of hyper sexualization. The dance community, which has been engaging in these practices for a long time, cannot be expected to change without proper education and informed choice. I believe that competitions need to start normalizing the concept of not accepting certain behaviors on their stages. This can be done by clearly communicating what will result in deductions and ensuring that actions that reinforce hyper sexualization are not rewarded.

As a judge, when we see these things on stage, how do you think that we should address them knowing that these children may hear these critiques, (because I know I let my kids hear their critiques when we get back into the studio) What are some of the things that we can say that keep a great balance positive sexuality and not making that negative but not sexualization how should we address that?

Leslie: I believe that the adjudicator certification training for the guidance competition judges was thorough and comprehensive. This training was the foundation for all aspects of judging and included actual performances with elements of objectification, hyper sexualization, and inappropriate content. It was important for the judges to learn how to provide feedback that educates instead of shames or blames the performers. Competition pieces are often deeply personal and the result of months of hard work and dedication. The performers can be sensitive about their art and it's crucial for the judges to approach their feedback in a supportive and constructive way. Instead of being critical, the judges can ask questions and offer suggestions for improvement. For example, they could say something like,

"I love the beat of this song, but could you consider changing the lyrics to be a better message for this age group?" 

“I admire the beat and colors of the costume, they truly shine on stage. However, I question the hyper sexualized style of the costume for this age group. Can you consider choosing a different costume next time?”

“I appreciate your passion for the concept, but I don't think it is suitable for 10-year-olds to express it as their own.”

It's important for judges to provide feedback in a way that doesn't undermine the choreographer's hard work or confuse the child. Competitions should have a platform in place for the judges to address problematic pieces in a way that avoids direct criticism towards the child. Using words like “can you consider” or “can I recommend” can benefit the judging tapes, and help get your point across.

The entire process becomes meaningless if competitions do not establish clear guidelines and standards. It is unjust to not provide choreographers and studio owners with a proper understanding of what is acceptable, before accepting their money and then penalizing them for inappropriate content without any prior education or warning. If competitions do not establish standards, it will lead to division and a hostile environment instead of education and positive change. People may become angry with the competition and various negative outcomes may arise.

How much impact do you think the idea of not suppressing artistic expression has on this issue?

Leslie:  Initially, when dealing with children, we must set standards for artistic expression. Materials like "50 Shades of Gray" or a naked model should not be presented in a Kindergarten or fourth-grade art class, as these are inappropriate for the age and developmental stage of these children. Children's development in their brain, body, emotional, physical, sexual maturity, and identity must be taken into consideration when deciding on what materials to present.

When we take on responsibilities as role models, influencers, protectors, and advocates for children, the notion that it restricts artistic freedom is not acceptable. If you are being paid to protect children, it is your duty to ensure that you do not cause any harm while fulfilling this role.

Tina Landon (choreographer and artistic director of Janet Jackson's Velvet Road Tour) said in one of her YPAD videos “if you cannot figure out how to artistically choreograph for children in

an appropriate way and you think that you were being policed to be asked to do so, then you're really not that creative”

Dr Tomi-Ann: This idea that choreographers would choreograph sexually suggestive movements for a child and believe it's okay because the child doesn't understand the meaning is deeply disturbing to me. It is a form of abuse, using a child as a means of expression without considering the child's well-being. The child may internalize this sexualized behavior and come to believe that their value and worth are based on their sexual appearance and behavior, which can have serious consequences for their development.

How much is social media playing a role in children learning things that are not appropriate for their age, for example, expressions or actions that they display without realizing the implications or where they learned it from? As a former teacher and director, I've encountered instances where kids would exhibit such behavior without being aware of its source. Why aren't we just telling students just to smile?! Why do they feel like they need to go beyond? 

Leslie: This raises a crucial question about the impact of social media and its role in rewarding children who engage in adult-like behaviors and emulating pop stars. It seems that society has a fascination with "little packages of pop stars" and finds it entertaining to dress up children in a similar manner as grown adult pop stars. However, this disconnect is not a result of malicious intent but rather a lack of awareness and critical thinking by the vast majority of people who engage in this behavior.

I would like to acknowledge my fellow colleagues who have put forth incredible concepts for kids' performances, such as animal-themed pieces and storytelling. As a judge, I have seen many remarkable performances and I know that it's possible to create something that's both entertaining and appropriate for children. I also want to recognize those who, like me, may have been on the wrong side of things in the past, by being overly sexualized, self-absorbed, and not considering the impact on the children. However, it's important to note that change is possible.

Once you know better, you do better. 

Some male-identifying colleagues struggle to address the issue of hyper sexualization in their field due to fear of negative judgment. They often pass the responsibility of providing feedback on such matters to their female-identifying colleagues. What advice do you have for male artists and judges who encounter hyper sexualization on stage and feel uncomfortable giving feedback on it?

Dr Tomi-AnnAs a social psychologist, I often strive to help people comprehend that our thoughts and perspectives may not always be consciously driven. Studies have shown that we all have implicit biases about various factors such as gender, sexuality, and race, and these biases are ingrained in us. When it comes to sexualized dancing, the responsibility should not fall on the audience members, but rather on the studios, choreographers, and all those involved in creating and presenting these performances. We need to educate ourselves on these biases and avoid using children as a means to play out our fantasies, as it is not humorous or acceptable.

Furthermore, the importance of an unbroken eye gaze and other non-verbal cues in dancing can also trigger implicit biases in the audience. Research indicates that making meaningful mutual eye contact is the only way to truly empathize with another person. This can be especially challenging for men witnessing sexualized performances, who may want to look away. But we are asking them not to look away. 

Leslie: It is important for people to not turn a blind eye to the issue of children being sexualized and objectified. However, many males fear that they may unconsciously experience attraction in these moments and they want to avoid this feeling. But as Dr. Tomi-Ann has pointed out, it is crucial for male-identifying individuals to confront this discomfort and trust that they have the ability to process these experiences with empathy and understanding. By doing so, they can overcome the fear of attraction and contribute to the solution of this issue.

It's important to use our voices to speak up against harmful acts, especially when it comes to children. Both men and women can be advocates for children, and it's not fair to place the burden solely on women. Men need to educate themselves, find their voice, and be kind and calm when speaking up against the exploitation of children. The discomfort they may feel is not just because they are men, but because they are human beings witnessing an unjust act.

We encourage male judges to provide constructive feedback by not avoiding the situation, as suggested earlier. To achieve this, it is crucial for organizations to provide support and reassurance to male judges so they feel comfortable addressing the issue. When a studio raises concerns, it is the responsibility of the organization to clearly establish its stance and support the judge.

Leslie: To encourage male judges to engage in the issue of children being sexualized and objectified, they need to be supported by their organizations and not feel ashamed if they have an implicit response to sexualized images. This is because our society is bombarded with these images and it is not surprising that men's brains are wired to have this response. However, they need to trust their own instincts and not let their discomfort get in the way of helping the children. It is not just about their discomfort, but also about the bigger issue at hand, which is to alleviate the discomfort of the children. Therefore, it is not fair to expect only women to handle this issue and it is imperative for male judges to join this important conversation.

Moving onto our next question, Is there a suitable time for exposing the midriff? Does it depend on the intention and purpose of the piece? Does it fit the context? Is there a specific age at which it is appropriate to show midriffs? What are your thoughts on this?

Dr Tomi-Ann: What is being discussed is the idea that what is revealed is often sexualized. However, it's important to consider the intention and purpose behind revealing a certain body part, such as the midriff. When a female child, especially a seven-year-old, is allowed to show her midriff but a male child is not, it sends the message that this upper area is off limits and therefore attracts more attention to it. Studies have shown that when highly sexualized dance videos are viewed, even by naive viewers, the eyes are drawn to the chest area more than they would be otherwise. It's not just about exposing skin, but also about what is being covered and what message it sends.

Leslie: There is a pervasive problem in society where the human body has become so sexualized that it's difficult for individuals to express themselves through their bodies. This is particularly true for dancers who are afraid to show their midriff in a half top, as it is often perceived as a sign of being fit, sexy, or attractive. This has led to body image issues, disordered eating, and sex abuse, as these issues are interconnected and cannot be discussed in isolation. The interesting thing with children is that adults often impose their own views on them. For example, a child with a round belly might be thought of as embarrassed, but the reality is that it's the children who fit into societal beauty standards, who are constantly praised for having flat stomachs and defined obliques, that develop a deep attachment to their physical appearance. This attachment leads to anxiety and stress about exposing their bodies. On the other hand, children who are not praised for their appearance tend not to care about exposing their bodies as their self-esteem and identity are not rooted in body comments.

Viewer: How can we prevent the sexualization of young dancers but also allow them to find that healthy sexuality as they grow? I want to protect dancers but never want them to believe their body or sexuality is bad or shameful. 

Leslie:  Healthy sexuality is not what is commonly portrayed as sex in our society. Developing a healthy sexuality involves building a trustworthy, respectful, and safe relationship with another person, characterized by mutual vulnerability and support. This type of relationship enables individuals to learn about their own bodily agency and to develop a sense of self-confidence. The absence of these crucial elements can make a person more susceptible to sexual abuse and exploitation. Thus, healthy sexuality has no connection to the sexually charged and objectifying images that are prevalent in our culture.What supports healthy sexuality, as noted by Dr. Tomi-Ann, is providing children with experiences and education that strengthen their intellect, emotional depth, expression, and sense of worth. This will help them form relationships with people who value and honor their essence, leading to healthy sexual experiences that are not defined by physical appearance or social media success. Healthy sexuality is centered on mutual respect, trust, safety, vulnerability, and support in a relationship.

Can you share what the American Psychological Association found out about cognitive abilities when there is sexualization and self and self-objectifying?

Dr. Tomi-Ann: As we discuss this topic, it's important to keep in mind the two major negative impacts of hyper sexualization. The first impact is on those who view the hyper sexualized dancing, including both adults and others. We've discussed how it makes men feel uncomfortable, but the bigger concern, from a psychological perspective, is the long-term effects on the young people who internalize this perspective and believe that their worth is based solely on their sexiness. Research over the past 20 years has shown that when young people are constantly bombarded with the message that their value lies in their sex appeal, they no longer have the mental capacity to consider other aspects of themselves.

We agree that hyper sexualization exists and now there's research that shows how harmful it is to children and young dancers, but we want to go beyond the conversations. How do we change it because it's been going on for so long. The biggest thing that we can do is education, education is what inspired us to do the steps initiative series. What is one thing in your opinion that we can do now, collectively, to start taking a step towards change in this regard?

Dr. Tomi-Ann:  We have to stop shaming and blaming others and ourselves. It is crucial that we take a step back and acknowledge the damaging effects of hyper sexualization in our society. We need to recognize that we have all been influenced by a culture that equates female bodies with only one value and perpetuates harmful racial, sexual, and cultural stereotypes. To make a positive change, we need to halt the practice of blaming and shaming, and instead engage in more educational initiatives like this workshop. The ultimate goal is to create a better future for children, who will one day become the next generation of great choreographers and leaders in their field.

When we know better, we do better. Watch the full episode below!

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