When a curious group of young dancers asked Leslie Scott what the lyrics to Nicki Minaj's sexually explicit rap song "Anaconda" meant, Scott was mortified. "Have you seen the video? It's basically the lyrics come to life. One of the 7-year-olds told me it scared her," she says.
Enlightening moments like this are why Scott founded The Youth Protection Advocates in Dance, which is committed to evolving the integrity of dance education. A major component of the organization's certification program focuses on choosing age-appropriate music.
A 2015 YPAD study of 143 dancers ages 7 to 13 found that 87 percent of kids who heard a song in class watched the music video online. Of that group, only 6 percent asked for permission. "If I choose a song that's sexually explicit or violent," says Scott, "that's me as an educator co-signing the song's message." As a teacher, she finds it essential to pick music free of gender and cultural stereotypes, female objectification and misogyny.
Whether teaching at a Pulse convention or setting choreography at a studio, Scott wants the movement to have a relationship with the lyrics. "I want to be able to spit the lyrics while I teach," she says. She's aware the kids are hearing the same song over and over again. "The kids are also saying the words with me," she adds—another reason blasting explicit music isn't conducive to her process, or her classroom.
Mainstream hip hop has the "good beats," says Scott, but it's often not child-friendly. This doesn't mean teachers have to limit their choreography. Finding "clean" music might require more creativity and mixing your own music, a skill Scott has developed, but it frees teachers from worrying about a debatable song choice.
When a song seems questionable, Scott imagines a child or teenager reciting the words to a group of people. "I ask myself: 'How does that child feel reading the lyrics, and how's the audience responding?' If the song doesn't pass this test, I don't use it," says Scott.
Here are four suggestions Scott uses for class:
Album: First EP of three-part series Faith, Hope, Love
Song: "Love Is All"
"I have choreographed to this track for competition, used it for warm-up and for class combos. It crosses over into all levels, because it has such a diverse composition between the rap, singing, bassline and high hats, and some fun effects on the lyrics that give so many musicality choices for more advanced creations. It also has an uplifting steady beat that is great for beginning levels."
Song: "Keep Changing The World"
"The strings, bassline and lyrics of this track provide a variety of syncopation and musicality choices with sections that rise and fall with authentic feeling. I have used this track for social-justice concepts and also to perform in several outreach events. I do find the message is for a more mature demographic, since it speaks of suffering and homelessness, which may be scary for younger dancers to hear about."
Song: "Gurl Code"
"This track is more of a pop/jazz funk vibe with a side of beast mode! I'm really drawn to the song's message of female empowerment. When I used it, I did edit it to highlight the most relatable sections of the verses for the female teenagers I was setting a competition piece on, and I had the hook come on right at the beginning as a more high-energy intro to the track."
Album: Our World: Redeemed
Song: "Go Buck"
"I have used this song off and on for years and never get sick of it. It's a perfect example of a hip-hop song with a positive message that was created by a Christian artist, so it also includes deeply religious messaging in some of the verses. Due to this fact, I would not feel comfortable teaching a combo to it in a secular environment without editing it."