But this is the truth about letting your child participate.
It’s 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon and Layla is just in time for dance class. As she puts on her ballet shoes, girls of all ages race around her – hair flying, faces make-up free. In one room, two teenagers concentrate on their leg exercises while Ed Sheeran croons in the background. In another, a group of six-year-olds – Layla’s class – sway rhythmically to a song from the Disney movie Tangled. Parents walk in and out of classes. All the students and teachers are dressed in a loose fitted T-shirt and leggings.
Welcome to a new generation of dance schools, where there is not a midriff, slow grind or Rhianna song to be seen.
Australian dance studios are currently under fire, with a recent spate of articles accusing the industry of sexualising girls through provocative costumes and raunchy routines. At the centre of the furor is Dance Moms, a US reality television show where prepubescent girls are preened into nude bras and feather boas by their formidable dance teacher, Abby Lee Miller. As the show gains popularity in Australia, some fear it has infected our dance studio scene with its hyper sexualised choreography and Miller’s ‘everyone is replaceable’ ethos.
Speak to those who are actually in the dance industry, though, and a different picture emerges. At Layla’s dance school – Creative Arts Studio in Sydney’s north west – students are taught to reach their ‘individual best’ rather than ape Iggy Azalea’s latest video. All songs are screened for inappropriate lyrics. Similarly, choreography is checked for suggestive poses. But director Claire Toose says this hasn’t stopped the media from claiming her studio is simply an Australian version of Dance Moms. “No one seems to be able to draw a distinction between the borderline pornographic dance schools and the age-appropriate ones,” she says. “Everyone has jumped on the ‘all dance is bad’ bandwagon. Dance education has so much to offer kids…many young girls who just want to dance will miss out because their parents have ruled out all dance.”
Jane Grech, director of the Jane Grech Dance Centre, the largest dance school in South Australia, agrees. “I’ve had parents ring me to enquire about dance classes and ask, “Are you like Abby Lee?” she says. “Dance Moms has tarnished the dance education industry: an industry that is generally undervalued by Australians anyway in comparison to sport.”
Like cricket or netball, dance has many benefits to offer children. According to health experts, dance lessons can improve flexibility, physical strength and stamina. When taught in the right way, classes can also promote healthy body image amongst girls. While shows like Dance Moms or So You Think You Can Dance idolise firm abs and thin waists, many local studios prefer to focus on what bodies can do, rather than what they look like. “Dance gives kids an awareness of how strong their bodies are,” says Toose. “All people, regardless of the type of body they have, can express things with their bodies. It’s empowering for kids to learn that.”
Then there are the emotional benefits of dancing. Melanie Gard, principal of the Peninsula School of Dance in Victoria, believes dance can help children escape into another world. “All other pressures – home, studies, friend problems – are gone in that moment. They have an opportunity for stress relief and self-expression,” she says. It’s this sense of escape that captures the imaginations of the girls in Layla’s class back in Sydney. “The challenge is exploring age-appropriate emotions,” says Toose, while watching their small arms windmill around to encapsulate ‘joy’. “The kids watch So You Can Think You Can Dance and want to copy it, but eight-year-olds don’t need to dance about their boyfriends cheating on them. They can dance about being left out at school. That’s still lyrical”.
Despite the number of responsible dance schools in Australia, not all platforms are age appropriate. A number of studios avoid the eisteddfod scene due to increasing pressure to conform to a sexualised dance style when competing. The industry is also currently unregulated with no code of practice, making it difficult for parents to choose the right school for their children.
The rewards are there, though, for parents who are willing to do their research. Geraldine Agahari, Layla’s mother, visited several schools before deciding on the right one for her daughter. “I would observe the performances at schools and festivals. Some were too grown up, with midriff tops and lots of make up. I wanted to find a school that let little girls be little girls; that teaches her anyone can dance.” As a result, Layla has flourished - her creative side finding an outlet that is both nurturing and wholesome.
“I believe the best learning occurs when students are comfortable, not fearful,” says Grech. “When children are built up, not pared down, when they are told they are unique, not – as Abby Lee Miller puts it – easily replaced.”
What do you think about dance schools? Do your children participate in dance classes?
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