Seeing tiny tots covered in bling while gyrating to a suggestive song is a hot-button issue for judges, teachers and parents alike. Particularly when that's the number that wins top honors at competition. Just how much of a factor is age-appropriate choreography, costuming and music in scoring? Or to put it bluntly, why do the judges continue to reward behavior that makes nearly everyone cringe?
The situation has improved somewhat, says Francisco Gella, choreographer and 24 Seven Dance Convention faculty member and judge. He thinks that because more competition kids have access to concert dance, via YouTube and live performance, they can see that in professional dance, the costume trend is more subdued. "I am seeing fewer problems, but it depends on which coast you are on," he says. "I see more of these issues on the West Coast, which is more the center of commercial dance, whereas the East Coast is more tied to concert dance. Generally, the more rhinestones, the less technique."
Last season he witnessed a group of tiny dancers shaking to "Money" from Cabaret, complete with fake currency attached to costumes that included bustiers and garter belts. "It did affect their score negatively; we consider appearance, costumes and confidence, all of which come together in a situation like this," Gella says.
"Some teachers thank me for my remarks, while others just never come back," he says. "We may have become desensitized about overt sexuality, because we can get lost in the process." But it can be a reality check, he says, to watch the reaction of the general public when they see these tiny tots parading around in their skimpy attire at the hotel or a nearby Starbucks.
Scoring, of course, involves a variety of factors, and judges must weigh their decisions. "It depends on whether it's only an issue of costume or only inappropriate content—or the combination of both," says Gella. "If the dance is executed phenomenally, it will still tend to score high, based on the performance. But as judges, we do point out why we feel a costume may be inappropriate or if the choreography is too graphic for the age of the dancer."
But when music, moves and costumes are all inappropriate, Gella will judge the number harshly. "I would go as far as penalizing it one award category lower," he says. "Things get a bit tricky, because if that inappropriate dance wins, it sends a message that judges condone those types of dances."
Choreographer Joey Dowling of New York City Dance Alliance (NYCDA), points out that each competition comes with a somewhat different set of values. And what constitutes age-appropriate varies from person to person. "I will see parents and teachers screaming with enthusiasm when their tiny students are dancing in bikini tops and shorts," she says. "They obviously think it's OK. For younger ones, it is really more about the teachers and parents, because they are making or allowing the costume choices."
Dowling has never deducted points for costume issues, though she might mention it in her comments. But inappropriate choreography is another matter. "The suggestive/inappropriate moves/choreography do have an effect on my overall score," she says. "Some studios try to wear flashy costumes or do suggestive moves to cover up the fact that they are not trying to push their technique."
If she feels uncomfortable by what has happened onstage, she has no trouble explaining why to those in charge. "At the end of the day you are paying to be judged," she says. "I often find myself wishing the teacher spent more time listening to the music—and, more importantly, the lyrics to the song that 7- to 12-year-olds are dancing to. Several times while I am sitting in a judge's chair, I am disappointed, thinking, 'Why would this teacher let these minis dance to this song?' It's so important to make sure that the students know exactly what the song is about, the exact lyric on specific moves and how they are interpreting the song."
She's also a stickler for dancers understanding what they are doing—whether they're juniors or seniors. And dance steps with direct sexual suggestions have no home in this age group. "Twerking is not appropriate for a 17-year-old," she says. "They have no idea what it means. These are the best kids at the studio and that affects the younger students."