We Created Maddie Ziegler

Lately, this article by Alexandra Villarreal has been circling around the internet, as have many angry responses and annoyed posts bemoaning everything from the author’s ignorance about the dance world, to the fact that HuffPo published it, to the very idea that Dance Moms continues to be a thing. While I think the primary thesis of the article is rubbish, I have to admit that on some level, the author has a couple of points. We don’t always do enough to promote the good things that are happening in the concert dance world. Competition has become way too big of a deal. We aren’t educating parents and students that there is more to dance than pointed toes and fancy tricks. We are training a generation of robot technicians, rather than true dance artists. We celebrate the hot young things who are able to contort and spin, rather than the mature dancers who have truly mastered technique and artistry. I hate to say it, dance world, but in spite of all the complaining we’ve been doing about the article:

We created Maddie Ziegler, and we created Alexandra Villarreal.

How, you ask? Let me count the ways:

1.) We create Maddie Ziegler and Alexandra Villarreal when we dumb down dance for the audience’s sake. Now, before those of you who follow my blog cry hypocrisy, I will state again for the record that I’m a strong believer that you do have to keep your audience in mind when creating performing art of any kind. Dance is inherently a communal experience, a dialogue between performer and witness, a shared experience that builds and celebrates community. It has to be accessible for your audience to engage in it with you.

So in a country where most people think ballet is boring and modern dance is weird, where in any given city there are more artists than audience members, where savvy marketing skills have become almost more important than artistic vision, I don’t entirely blame anyone for trying really hard to make dance that they think people want to come see. But there is a difference between accessibility and pandering. When major companies and venerated artists follow the lead of pop stars and TV shows and start relying on flashy, extravagant, “flips and tricks” shows set to the rock and pop music to bring in audiences, they do us all a huge disservice. Cheap marketing ploys like that don’t often create new audiences who truly appreciate the art of dance and want to return to the theatre for something less commercial later in the season. In fact, they can often do they exact opposite – simply reaffirm for audiences’ taste for commercialized dance. At best, they might provide enough revenue to keep the presenting organization afloat for a while, but if we want the entirety of the concert dance world to truly thrive we need to do better.

We need to continue to educate non-dance literate audiences about what they are seeing on stage and how they can interpret it through program notes, interactive opportunities, and post-performance discussion. We need to continue to bring dance to lay people by offering site-specific concerts in public areas and performing in accessible but less than glamorous venues like community centers, school gyms, and town festivals. We need to share the sublime, understated performances of Margot Fonteyn on social media as much as we share the latest Sia video – and we need to explain to our non-dance friends why the former was so remarkable, “bad feet” and all. We need to bring our friends to Fringe Festival performances and local dance showcases – those inexpensive, small but often artistically rich experiences where the good stuff HAS been happening since Judson Church (whether Ms. Villarreal realizes it or not). We need to choose themes for our concerts that are inviting and easy for the lay person to understand, but present them in artistic and visionary ways (it is possible!) Most of all, we need to have more faith in our audiences. I truly believe, and have seen, that they are up for the challenge of appreciating artistic dance when presented in thoughtful, considerate ways.

2.) We create Maddie Ziegler and Alexandra Villarreal when we emphasize dance as a competitive sport. Let me start this by saying I am not inherently against competitive dance. Competing can offer many benefits, especially to students interested in commercial dance. Done properly, it can teach teamwork, sportsmanship, how to perform under pressure, graciousness in both victory and defeat, and the value of hard work. Done improperly, however, it is a huge disservice to the entire dance field. Everyone loses when teachers spend more time choosing costumes than teaching technique, when dances are judged on the quantity of rhinestones over the quality of performance, when ariels and fouette turns and heel grabs take precedence over body awareness, coordination, and use of weight and space, and when over exaggerated, grotesque displays of pseudo-emotion take the place of genuine, heartfelt, and authentic performance.

Over-emphasis of competition, whether at the local studio or on national TV, only confirms Villarreal’s opinion that “competitions dominate both Western classical and contemporary dance—in ballet the Youth American Grand Prix and the Prix de Lausanne, in contemporary, the venues that you see on Dance Moms.”  I’m not saying we need to stop participating in competition with our students or watching So You Think You Can Dance. What I am suggesting, however, is that for every competition we attend, we offer our students the opportunity to perform non-competitively in a local community event – without the rhinestones and false eyelashes. I am suggesting we teach our students to think about performing as a form of community service, rather than a self-indulgent activity done to win a trophy. I am suggesting that we tune into PBS’s Great Performances as enthusiastically as we watch Dancing with the Stars, and that we organize field trips to the local ballet as often as we do for Shaping Sound or the SYTYCD tour.

3.) We create Maddie Ziegler and Alexandra Villarreal when we put parents, judges, and fame ahead of our students’ training and the future of our field. I get how hard it is for private studios. There is so much competition, so much pressure to win, and such crazy ideas of what a “good dancer” should be able to do based on what is seen on TV. Parents can easily take their students to another school where they will get what they want if they think their children are not improving fast enough or winning enough titles. But when we give in to their wishes and start putting our three year olds into “Twinkle Toes Baby Ballet” and “Little Divas Jazz” and “Hippity Hop” classes, where kids are forced to stand in straight lines, smile pretty, and perform technical feats their tiny bodies and still maturing minds are barely able to handle, we risk creating a generation of robot technicians who are great at copying movement but have no true understanding of the kinesthetic, creative, historical, or artistic rationale behind what they are doing. And that is just the start.

We rush kids through training so that they can do quadruple pirouettes by age 7 like they do on Dance Moms, and then wonder why half our students are wearing knee braces and struggling with hip problems by the time they hit puberty. We insist that four year olds stand in straight lines facing the mirror and do plie after plie, and then wonder why they grow up having poor spatial abilities, body image, and improvisational skills. We drill our teens in group choreography, insist that they wear identical faux hairpieces, and choreograph uniform facial expressions into dances, then blame them when they can’t properly express individuality, story, and emotion in solo choreography.

We need to do better. We need to start by educating parents about the importance of comprehensive children’s dance classes that instill true coordination, kinesthetic awareness, critical thinking, and creative movement while teaching the movement basics that will provide a solid, healthy foundation for later classes in ballet, tap, jazz, etc. We need to realize that our kids’ physical, mental and emotional health is worth much more than a trophy or a TV spot. We need to constantly work to change hearts and mind as we advocate for the kind of training we know is best. Perhaps if we do so, it will no longer be considered “normal” or “artistic” for a twelve year old to be contorting herself, whipping off turns, and performing crotch-shot tilts in a nude leotard while trapped in a cage with a grown man.

4.) We create Maddie Ziegler and Alexandra Villarreal when we brush off degrees in dance as being “pointless” and careers in the field as being a pathway to poverty. I’ve written about this at length before, but it bears repeating. One of the best ways to encourage the growth and status of the dance field is to encourage the academic and professional pursuit of it. It makes me sad when I see and hear my fellow artists and teachers bash those of us with degrees, stating that they were a waste of time and money and not necessary for a career in the field. Truth is, my world opened up when I was studying dance in college and graduate school. I became a well-rounded person through my liberal arts courses and knowledgeable dancer through my courses in dance history, choreography, improvisation, dance science, global dance forms, and pedagogy. Did my degrees automatically make me a great teacher, an awesome choreographer, or a world class performer? No, of course not. Experience, trial and error, and great mentors have all impacted how I teach and make art, and I will never be featured in a music video like Ziegler. An academic study of dance did provide me with a comprehensive understanding of myself and the field; however, enabling me to have a career I love, make a living, and speak up against misconceptions of dance, like those expressed by Villarreal. When those of us who are successful in the field downplay what it is we do because we are afraid that others will judge us for following our passions over finances, or when we look at dance as a hobby and not a viable career path, we only encourage Villarreal’s notion that dance doesn’t matter anymore, or that it only matters if you reach Ziegler-esque fame by age 13. It does matter, and it’s up to all of us to prove it.

…………

So what can we do to change the Villarreal’s mind and show the world that there is more to the present-day dance scene than Maddie Ziegler? Well, the Facebook posts are a good start, but we need to go beyond words and into action. Here are my suggestions – please share yours in the comments if you’d like!

  • Support the local dance scene by attending performances. After a week of dancing and teaching dance and talking about dance at the non-profit I work for, the last thing I want to do on a Friday night is go see more dance. However, I want to make a true effort to support the local companies that are making a difference in the dance world with every performance.We need to show Villarreal that great things are happening in the dance world, and that we support it!
  • Join local and national dance service organizations (Dance/USA, NDEO, Dance MetroDC, Dance/NYC, etc.). There is strength in numbers, and by supporting our local and national D.S.O.s, we can be a united front to advocate louder than any trending blog post can.
  • Teach well, and teach unapologetically. Advocate for good teaching methods. Don’t be afraid to explain how and why they work. Stand up for solid practices and know that students are well served by them, trophies or no trophies.
  • Don’t fall for fame. Try bringing in a lesser known but highly qualified educator for a workshop or master class instead of the trending commercial artist. Chances are we’ll get a lot more bang for our buck, and we’ll be helping our students experience something truly new and different.
  • Learn as much as we can. Read books on dance history, study teaching manuals, take a class in a new style. Share what we’ve learned with friends, colleagues, and students. The best way to combat ignorance is through education.
  • Write our elected officials in support of the arts and arts education.
  • Use social media for the good of the dance world. When someone shares the latest trending routine, comment back with a link to comparable piece made by a dance legend. Use famous artists’ birthdays or major anniversaries in the field to share information, photos, and videos.
  • Mentor a young dancer. Help him or her to see how broad and amazing the dance world is. Offer support, advice, and guidance that will counter the negativity they might experience as an aspiring artist.
  • Financially support local dance when we can. Ten or twenty bucks can go a long way to help a small, up and coming company mount a new performance or rent rehearsal space, and the show of solidarity and support (especially from a stranger) provides priceless encouragement.
  • Join forces with local musicians, artists, or theatre groups to put on a new production. Co-host a workshop with another studio in town. Invite an up and coming chef to provide food for the post-show reception. The more people we can involve in our work, the more we will integrate dance into our communities and into our world.

*Note: I have nothing personal against Ms. Villarreal or against Miss Ziegler. My thoughts expressed within this article are concerned with the dance world in general, bigger and broader than either individual or their work.

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