The NYT ran a pretty cerebral article on the subculture of dance competitions for young children. Verging on cringe-worthy while also being kind of harmless, the culture is mind blowing, but for very different reasons than the NYT set forth. Having been a dance mom in both the wacky, chaotic venues of competitions in the Deep South and the pretty, uptight bench-warming waiting rooms in New York studios, I have found there actually are some pros to zooming around the Deep South looking for art deco theaters and non-fried food.
Studios in the south set out a yearly competition schedule that involves distance-appropriate venues and levels. This means a series of weekend trips with you and your daughter trying to navigate Google maps through Deliverance-like regions, all the while praying that you are not the mom that has forgotten extra shoes, tights, hair nets, and the all-important sparkles that will be attached to your daughter over the course of the weekend. The unloading of dance mom minivans is much like Special Forces operations, except in pink.
What I did enjoy was the two day opportunity to get to know that new town. The sometimes dog eared southern downtown was our own for two days; we found the pizzas and diet cokes, and made friends. Did you know that Mobile, Alabama was a hot bed of Egyptian revival architecture in the 20’s? And that the Alabama Theater’s interiors are far finer than Atlanta’s Fox? We learned important travel tips such as an historic bed and breakfast after hurricane season is a no-no. Better to stick to Holiday Inns–the air conditioners always work. We learned to love malls and the Cheesecake Factory (evidently nothing better than a Cheesecake Factory meal AFTER a tough day of hip hop mimicry).
The Parenting Lessons
For me, long hours in a dark theater on Saturday tested every parenting lesson I had learned living on the perimeter of Park Slope, Brooklyn. You are allowed to hover if you can do hair, eyeliner or sew. You are out of there if you cannot. You have clear specific jobs but coaching your child is done by pros– Miss Kim, Miss Clair–righteous teenagers who are way younger than you and know the score. They will get your kid to smile and high kick. They will change the costume, makeup, and entrance. And they will get your kid pumped! They will prep them in corridors, bathrooms and sidewalks. They will make them impervious to critics. They will get them to perform! You can’t really do that – you’re too soft, too forgiving, and just love them too much. You would like to go back to the Cheesecake Factory, you are not a performer. But your child will become the swan or urban teenager, whatever she needs to be at any given moment under the tutelage of these young adults. It’s amazing. These competitions become THE OUT OF THE NEST experiences.
The children are graded on performance. One of the most interesting things I found was that the judges recorded commentary and sent it out to studios after the competition. On this tape you can hear multiple judges speaking while the child is dancing. They offer clear thoughtful criticism, treating your daughter like a pro. For my child, these tapes were a revelation; the criticism was taken seriously and with maturity. I was no longer the bad guy for saying it like it is, “your feet did not point in the fouettes, sorry.” The dances got better.
Mom friends or my fellow DM’s were great. No competition exists if you have gotten your kid to a theater at 8:00 in the morning to dance to a sad Ingrid Michaelson song. If another Mom comes to support you with coffee; you will be friends for life based on the facts that no one needs to listen to that song that early ever and doing so on a volunteer basis surpasses faith and good works. We were all in a peculiar situation together, why act out?
The Down Side
The parents in our studio did grapple with one thing, and we named it the FPDA thing: Future Pole Dancers of America. Some dances, some studios, and some costumes (well a lot of the costumes) are highly sexualized. At first glance it seems part of the whole carnival vibe, but by the next glance you wonder, “where do they get there ideas from?” TV! We live in a highly sexualized time. In this day and age tarty can easily take the place of beauty. All over little girls have to grapple with pretty vs. tarty. At one point I got asked the question, ”Mommy is Barbie pretty or tarty?” Definitely tarty, sweetie. Dressing up is fun, kids love to do it, but watch what the expectations are, these are little kids. If you want a big dose of Girl power, hang out in these theaters all over the country and you will begin to feel that girls can rule the world with or without booty shorts. Confidence is more than the costume.
Through an odd twist of fate my family is back in Brooklyn and my daughter has eased into a city kid’s dance life. What she learned is all-girl forums are seemingly sticky, but if you are sweet and ask people questions, there are friends to be had ANYWHERE. She has learned that you cannot control everything, but you can be prepared. At the time that she did competitions she was a full-fledged middle school kid–braces, chubby, awkward–but on stage she was a princess or super cool, again, whatever she needed to be. I am so glad she had those magic moments and did solos. Something southern culture does really well, whether it’s the pageant culture or that the girls are just prettier (just kidding), is build some hard core confidence. This just astounds me. The little girl, who would not let me go to the buffet table without her, got up on stage and danced to Phillip Glass. Sometimes I am just glad she does not hide behind her intellectualism, sometimes she is just fierce.
Navigating the transition from toe touches and callipsos has not been hard for her. The discipline of Horton and ballet are better suited to her body type than crazy amounts of fouettes. Those weekends in Meridian and Mobile and Birmingham has made her love performing and made us very good citizens of this country. Nothing scary here, just what parents do.