April 13th, 2016
Written by McClaine Timmerman
Graduate Student at University California, Irvine
In 2015, I attended yet another American dance competition as a choreographer and teacher. As I witnessed the event as both an audience member, and overseeing eye to the drama backstage, I began questioning if this experience was more positive than negative for these dancers. What was it teaching them? I remember listening to a teacher backstage prep her soloist before her turn to impress the judges. She got uncomfortably close to the young and barely dressed dancer and said, as if it were a life or death situation, “This is it. I want to see you kill it. Walk out there and show them who is the best. Make me proud.” After hearing that, and watching the attitude of that young dancer as she performed her turns, leaps, splits, and seductive hip movements, I thought what did this 13 year old girl learn from this? Having taught at multiple dance competition studios, I am a witness to its effects on children of all ages and levels of study. As I am not specifically a supporter of the atmosphere, attitudes, and drama the American “culture” of competition dance provides, I am in search of a new way to approach teaching the students from this background.
I recently watched War Dance, an American documentary film written and directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine in 2007 on YouTube. The documentary captures the role that dance and competition plays in the lives of thousands of refugee children of Uganda who have fled their homes to live in government protected villages from rebels. The film focuses on three children who reveal their stories of horror, and how their community and traditions through dance and music provide them with a sense of empowerment. In exposing the darkness surrounding so many lives of those in Uganda, the directors were able to show the empowerment and sense of community that competition driven dance and music can provide.
As a graduate student and teacher of dance, I am beginning to ask myself how I can integrate both history and current events into my classes. So the questions I have to ask myself are how to incorporate a particular subject into class and make it relatable? And why is it important and relevant to these students? By asking myself these questions about the documentary War Dance, I decided the topics of competition dance and perspective would be appropriate and educating.
With such a high percentage of College and University students in the U.S. coming from a competition dance background, the topic is highly relatable and relevant in the field. Competition dance in the United States seems to be mostly technique driven and provides more for a platform of superiority and fame. The underlying benefits that competition dance can and does bring to children may not be as prominent or important in the U.S. as it demonstrates in the film for the children in Uganda. To bring some perspective to students about what is important and what is not surrounding competition dance, I would feel confident bringing up this documentary.
The perspective on competition dance offered in the film could be translated into many aspects of the dance world. It could be used to teach students about accountability, and the roles of leadership within their community as a dance student and performer. Or it could be referenced in helping dancers find something else other than just the technique to drive their movement in both class and performance. Beginning at a young age, competition dancers in America develop a strong drive to be the best, to be winners, and to be perfect. These concepts although natural in a competitive atmosphere can diminish the positive effects and experiences that it can offer its participants. In War Dance, the portrayal of the effect competition dance has on the children of Uganda is of pure light and love. It shows the pride it brings to the children and their village, the accountability and responsibility it teaches, the reason and tradition behind representing their village and country, and the empowerment it provides having worked for something meaningful, accomplishing that task, and being a part of something so liberating.
If there was a documentary portraying competition dance and its effects on children in America, I do not believe the same concepts would be highlighted necessarily. It isn’t about culture, or tradition for American competitive dancers. The elements of tradition and culture do not seem as significant or important as technique, winning, trophies, and sex. I am using the word sex in the broadest sense of American competition dancers focus on the projection of what is “sexy” regardless of age. Having middle school children in tiny booty shorts bend over facing away from the audience, sliding their hand on their butt as they body roll up, and snap their head to the audience for a wink, doesn’t seem like the best message to be sending either the children or viewers. Never the less, this is what is being taught and what is winning attention.
It is important as a teacher to remind dancers to remember why they have chosen to spend so much time devoted to this art form. Asking themselves that question might aid in remembering why they love dancing so much as opposed to just being in a routine of doing and perfecting it every day. This concept of gaining perspective in our lives as individuals and dancers is such a humbling awareness, and I believe can be taught at any age. Dance didn’t come from a machine that never makes mistakes. It came from tradition, and expression. War Dance is an important tool that can be referenced to guide competitive dancers to having a more humble and playful learning experience.
I gained perspective both as a person and as a dance artist watching this film. I believe anything that I find valuable in my practice can be valuable to my students. The children shown in the film were given a beautiful outlet and opportunity to find peace and empowerment in their lives through dance and music. This is a universal form of expression that can offer its freedom to any and everyone from a child with no training to a professional dancer. Competition dance offers a lot of great lessons to be taught and learned for children. I think the valuable lessons and experienced joy can be lost in translation in American competitions. A little perspective never hurt anyone.