By Kristin Kusanovich, Senior Lecturer, Santa Clara University, Artistic Director, k2dance, San Jose, Past President CDEA, California Dance Education Association
When I was volunteering at a carnival at my daughter’s school a couple of years ago, I found myself with time and space to think. I was stationed at the dessert booth with a great view of the festival stage. All sorts of community and semi-professional acts came on and off the stage; from a group of Mexican Folkloric dancers, to family bands playing bluegrass, jazz or pop standards, to solo singers trying out their voices on a windy day, to magicians, to singers, to guys with snakes, or parrots. Some of the classes performed dances they had done at their talent show that year. Dances that their classroom teachers had helped them learn from a video. These crowd-pleasers were also performer-pleasers, done to popular music with fun, punchy movement. People all over the world attempt to emulate or be a fleeting part of what appears to them to be hip hop culture. At least the part that is offered to them in commercial form, not what I would respectfully refer to as authentic hip hop culture. But still, these dances had a clear underlying purpose…to build up the group’s unity, to help everyone feel good about their accomplishment working together, to entertain, and to get some good exercise. You could feel that underneath it all.
They may have also done more than that. These fun-loving dances might have democratized the classroom, allowing everyone equal roles in something bigger than themselves, made language differences between students less obvious, let new students shine who don’t always show up in an academic setting, helped people enjoy each other’s company with some inside jokes being traded under their breath, and brought a few shy students out of their shells just a bit. This style is really different from the creative dance I teach to children, but I see the similarity in the goals.
At some point a new group of performers arrived and made their way past the bumper cars, the dime-for-a-duck booth and the terrifying upside-down rides. This group had matching jackets, matching monogram bags, and attentive parents, some of whom were fixing details of costumes or hair for their children en route. It was easy for me to recognize the micro-climate of a local competitive dance studio. These were not the scrappy 5th graders in baggy t-shirts I had just seen. These were mostly little girls, under ten years old, festooned in white satin leotards with sheer fabric backs, sequins and make-up, with fancy hair curled by patient parents and skirts that looked long from the back but were mini in the front. A couple of little boys in white satin pants and dress shirts looked ready for the stage too, but nothing about the boys’ outfits was sexy. Let me repeat that. Nothing about their outfits was sexy. They kind of looked like ring-bearers.
The girls weren’t sexy either. But the girls, unlike the boys, once they started moving especially, were mimicking a post-adolescent kind of sexiness. Pretending at something that they really knew nothing about. Wiggling their shoulders and upper torsos, dragging their hands up their legs with one heel cocked, presenting their “open V” legs when rolling on the floor (did they have to drop their heads back at the same time?) Right before my eyes they became the objects that are objectified in an over-sexualized world of what I’ll just call dansploitation.
Now, granted, they had learned some solid dance moves and sequences that showed their teachers’ knowledge of the varieties of commercial jazz movements. These teachers had obviously taught the students things that helped the students now demonstrate to the crowd of families, babies, grandparents and volunteers many things. Their flexibility, balance, coordination, rhythm, strength and understanding of formations was clearly greater than that the non-dancing child. But I wondered if anyone who choreographed that dance and taught those children had actually listened to them and taken time to learn about their real interests instead of imposing these characterizations on them. It appeared they were stuck in a ritual they did not understand but were learning they should value.
In fact, it felt like the whole audience, including me, was complicit in something, and that was the funneling of consciousness of young females toward self-objectification for another’s visual pleasure.
I enjoy watching commercial dance done by great adult artists of bygone eras and our own present. I believe it is an important facet of our culture and history. It is entertaining and can be wildly inventive. I am not very good at it. But, that fact does not stop me from admiring and enjoying all the great work that happens in that realm. Though many people in my field of modern/contemporary/concert dance do not always seem to fully appreciate commercial dance, I love that commercial dance is not precious or pretentious. I love that it requires ingenuity and brilliance, and I love that much of it has a fantastic sexual and sensual energy.
But back to the children. The song, which I have long put out of my head, was about weddings. And the girls who were displaying themselves with poses that were not unlike adult showgirls, I realized, were the brides. And the two boys were the grooms. And everyone was getting married, I guess. It’s not that you can’t have weird themes in art. I’m all for that. This act at the festival stood out to me because it placed dance in this unique light that no other art forms seem to suffer from. Would members of a children’s choir have done a pivot turn with one hand on their hind quarters, glancing back to the audience to blow a kiss? Would a young singer in any of the musical acts that day pretend to make love to the mic stand? Would the teen boy with the snakes unbutton the top half of his wildly patterned shirt? Of course not, because the other arts performed by youngsters were not sexualized like the young female dancers were, and like children’s corporate, commercial and competitive dance can be.
I looked up from selling a cookie to see the girls with their backs to the audience, in a straight line, maybe 15 of them with the shortest on the ends, of course, leaning forward, that is, heads toward the upstage. A dance teacher had once told me that if every kid is in the front row on stage, parents feel they are getting their money’s worth. Then, obviously following their teacher’s instructions, they flipped their skirts up flirtatiously, in a cannon mind you, to reveal whatever white trunks they had on under all the skirt fabric. Would Martha Graham have done that? I mean, she used fabric to create meaning from the tension of the limbs stretching it. Alvin Ailey let it speak of layers of earth or fly like a sail…and Isadora understood that the freedom of the body from restrictive garments was the most beautiful and empowering thing in the world—I guess we all have our heroes and heroines we turn to in times of trouble.
I looked at the families and wondered why everyone was not rushing forward to get their child off that stage. Did they see what messages were being expressed and what fantasies of not-yet-attained womanhood their daughters were fulfilling by rote imitation? Where were the angry parents, the outraged elders, the babysitters covering the eyes of toddlers in strollers? There was none of this outrage of course, because we have normalized the over-sexualization of young girls in dance. And for some reason, mothers become “ok” with this. Fathers seem “ok” with this too. Or maybe they feel something is amiss, but perhaps they cannot articulate it because they feel they do not know enough about dance, or they accept this is the American way, and go with it. The quiet, rooted alternative pedagogies are not always available or offered.
My parents, neither of whom were dancers, but both of whom had deep ties to other arts, put me in the first dance school they heard about in San Jose when I was four because I was unable to get through a meal without getting out of my chair and dancing. If there was music on, it was hopeless. Salad, apple sauce, leave table to dance, come back, fish stick, milk. That kind of thing. They just happened to enroll me in the only non-competitive, non-corporate, non-commercial dance school in the county. The one I would later realize was the oddball one, though it set a standard in my mind of what was normal. The one that did not do four-hour recitals and did not hand out trophies or ribbons. The one that produced a concert made up of dances that had to be good enough as works of art to be chosen. We were so well-educated there, by the time we were teens we could self-censor our own works-in-progress and say “my work’s not ready” when it truly was not there yet.
This outlier studio focused on modern and creative dance for children taught by master teachers from the Virginia Tanner (Salt Lake City) & Mary Joyce (Mountain View) traditions. Directed by JoAnn Black, a master teacher of teachers of children’s dance, Willow Glen Dance Center was a formative place. The one where I would be exposed to Humphrey/Weidman, Limon, Graham, Cunningham and some Luigi technique along with Labanotation, Laban Effort-Shape, choreography, improvisation. If we weren’t excitedly watching our teacher put on a mystery record from the LP collection that spanned the entire length of the studio we were being swept into something extraordinarily soulful as the incomparable Peggy West brought the piano to life and seemed to make us move. It was there I learned that dance comes through me, or is inside of me, or is created in openness and trust with others. I definitely felt from an early age that I am fully myself when I am dancing. I rarely made a move without understanding something of the design of it, the purpose, the possible significance or the inherent emotion. We traded in meaning and form and expression.
I want to skip ahead several decades, to the homage to my lineage and mentors, which is my small creative and modern dance school for children and teens in San Jose called k2dance. For a couple of hours on two afternoons a week, I set aside my university teaching work and dive into the world of students ages four to seventeen. We invite every one who wants to study. We have been going for ten years now. And I attract parents who come to recognize something different is going on here.
One parent reflected:
“I believe dance is, at its best and most important for children, an outward reflection of who we are and what we feel on the inside. It’s another tool we can use to empower children and help them be true to themselves. I so appreciate the intention and thoughtfulness you put into your k2dance instruction and how you actively listen to them.”
Some of my modern/creative dance students have come from the competitive circuit but it was not right for them. Some are like I was, with no exposure to competitive dance and with little clue that all dance schools are not like this.
I do not play music connected to massive, corporate commercial enterprises, aka mall and movie music. I figure my students will have plenty of exposure to it. I avoid using music that is tethered to a long chain of commerce and retail, that evokes images of ads, merchandise and product. I bring in lesser known works, from all genres. We hang out in a space for a while like “60s Brazilian” or “Japanese flute” until the children have a feel for it and have absorbed something of those artists, eras, and simply the unique beauty of different people’s musical expression. I want my dancers to have an ear for Filipino folk music. To know how Arabic sounds when sung. To hear an old person singing. Will you ever hear an elder’s voice on the radio at the mall? Probably not. We dance to experimental works too. We stay open and curious.
When it comes to movement, I teach by rotating through different modern techniques and some of my own inventions and lead lessons with conceptual themes. I teach them to explore the infinite creative choices we have no matter what kind of bodies we have to work with. I teach them techniques that help them develop flexibility, balance, coordination, rhythm, strength. None of the shapes they make with their bodies toy with images of adult sexuality for the attention or approval of the audience.
Dance is sensual in the fullest sense of that word. It need not be sexual or sensationalized.
The dances they create use organic staging principles. Sometimes dancers end up in a line, but if they do it is because the concept calls for it, not because it’s a great way to please all the tuition-paying parents. Since I did not feed them a steady diet of unison, they take all the freedom they want to pair contrasting movements whenever that conveys what they want to say. If unison conveys what they want to express in a given passage of a dance, they use it intentionally. I believe there is no default or formulaic way to do a dance. We proceed by inquiry. This comes naturally to children. My students start choreographing when they are about nine or so. And though I let them do what they want, they don’t come up with these codified movements that I saw in the wedding dress dance on the carnival stage. Only an adult would impose those on children.
We don’t put on fully produced concerts each spring like my amazing teachers did. We have an open studio where parents and families and friends get to come in the dance space (they are normally only allowed to observe through the glass door) and the students perform the culminating technique and class projects while I narrate. It is a lecture demonstration. No cameras are allowed. There are no fancy costumes; nothing is purchased. No demands are made that contribute to fast fashion, landfill and global warming. Sometimes simple props are used. No one in ten years has ever asked if they should wear makeup or how to do their hair. They make decisions, but they don’t change for this performance.
That in itself is a profound ethical choice a dance educator can choose to make. Having your students not change a thing about themselves in the presence of an audience.
When we teach children that dance is donning the evocative wedding dress and lifting those skirts high like they are in the follies I believe we are leaving little room for them to be themselves. We’ve effectively defined what their self is at that moment. And then the applause seals the deal.
During the k2 dance open studios parents are a few feet from me and the children. The faces of the family members are accessible to those performing. We have to convince them we won’t leap into their laps, we show off how high we can gallop, we surprise them with intricate, dramatic floorwork, we carry ourselves in focused ways, and the effort and the growth is always as clear as day…they do beautiful, real explorations. I find it very fulfilling to teach this way. We imitate each other, yes, but we also question things. Maybe it is that simple. Does anyone feel they have the right to question the authority and experience of the studio teacher who has his or her young students lace their fingers behind their heads with hips rocking to and fro? Perhaps more of us, including myself, should have the courage to open up such a conversation.
It has now been many decades since my Mom drove me to my first dance class. And now I try to carry that tradition on to the best of my abilities even though it is a very part-time enterprise. I believe there is one other modern dance school for children in the area. But the ratio is still 19:1 competitive vs. non-competitive. And now I’ll say why this matters.
I teach undergraduates, some of whom do not realize they’ve absorbed many notions of self-objectification, of dance moves that speak of bedroom acts or sexual fetish for the benefit of a hidden group of onlookers. They are unaware that the moves they like to do are not necessarily sexy in a healthy, “owned” way, where human sexuality, spirituality, wit, play, and self-awareness mingle as in a great tango or salsa dance. They are crawling on the floor toward the audience with their tails up, pretending to claw the marley like a hungry kitten in a dance that they say is about social justice. And they just can’t see it, but they are stuck in a mindset and it is really difficult to advance as an artist when you cannot see the cliché you have become.
Perfection plays a dastardly role here. If you are competing to win something, you are outwardly focused on what will win and you work to perfect those facets that get you there. If you repeatedly get kudos for the moves your teachers and coaches teach you that you don’t understand the meaning of, they become all jumbled together—the sudden slap- the-floor-with-your-hands and hip-thrust-to-the-lighting-grid move becomes the equivalent of any jump, kick, or turn. In fact, the oversexualized moves are often the default for choreographers confused about how to create emotional intensity on stage. They are the “go-to” moves for some young adult choreographers who want to create drama on stage but who do not understand that drama comes from any number of different qualities of energy, from establishing some sort of weight, some sort of expectation on stage, from tension, from relationship, and sometimes from what is not said, not done. Drama is not dropped in to a dance where needed. It is a part of the structure or design of the dance.
The hypersexualized moves of the dancer’s youth are in their toolbox of ideas when they go to choreograph later. They continue to present the pin-up version of themselves, the flattering angle, the accentuated body part, when they could just create, or just be. Having worked very hard to get something perfectly right, having been told by society that what they are doing has great value (blue ribbons, trophies!) and never having been shown an alternative, it becomes really confusing for them in college when these individuals are asked to think for themselves and to grapple with the significance of their movement choices.
Not all people from competitive, commercial dance backgrounds come into my undergraduate classes suffering from this phenomena of an oversexualized dance vocabulary or experiences of dansploitation. There are plenty of really good commercial dance studios that offer healthier, more natural, and frankly, more loving ways of training their girls and young women. But for those students that did not have that luck, I do believe it is my tough job to point out to them what a cliché is, what codified movement is, how it is read, where it came from, and why we should question it. It’s really the same kind of curious attitude we can bring to any artistic choice, like an over-reliance on fouetté turns, or other virtuosic but rather empty feats that betray, quite often, a lack of other ideas. Generic choices, even with technical prowess, don’t make great art. And, it turns out, neither do clichés.
If dance wants to be shown (and to earn) equal respect, status, focus and funding with all of the other arts, we should take a look at how far off the track we are. We should be sobered by how young musicians, young actors, and young visual artists are rarely put into hyper-sexualized roles in order to practice their art, and how our continuing this practice in dance hurts our youth and the reality and perception of our field in many ways.
I encourage every dance educator to think about their assumptions of what is beautiful, what is sensual or sexy, what is developmentally appropriate, and what the long-term effects are of not listening to children’s own ideas and feelings. Giving uncritical children instructions on moves that are coy, beguiling, for someone else’s benefit, not letting them own what they are doing, is giving them less opportunity to discover themselves in dance, through dance.
Why do we want to get in the way of the development of that inner wholeness, that quiet, sacred self that would be a great life partner on their artistic journey? We should be mindful that women have enough problems in the world and should not be subjected to more misogyny in the form of dansploitation.
The good news is young adults can learn about these habituated responses to filling time on stage and then unlearn them as habituated or default compositional choices. College students who encounter professors willing to explain the research, the multiple intellectual and conceptual points of departure in art, the psychology behind child pornography, the meaning of health and well-being, and who are willing to drill down into some of the sources of anxiety (perfectionism) and depression (from unconscious self-objectification) in our students, can often accompany a student on this journey of expanded awareness. A sophisticated yet beginners’ mind is always helpful for adult artists. In some ways, I facilitate some student’s returns to discoveries they were not allowed to have as children. Their delight in all they can express without forming themselves into someone else’s eye candy is as palatable as a person who has to go into the living room and move from her soul’s sense of the universe because Dad put on a Lester Young record during supper.
Applause, like sugar, can be addictive. When you see two long tables full of the unhealthy U.S. definition of dessert, essentially refined sugar made into different forms, you can easily think, I’ll have some of that, because it is all there is. There are great commercial, cultural, creative/modern, concert and community-based dance groups that provide a full array of healthy options for dance learners. Let’s build support for more of that on our plate.
To close, I’d like to share one last quote from another one of the parents of a student in my creative dance school:
“The reason we love this dance class is that it is a class that teaches expression and exploration in the form of body movements which, in my opinion, is what dance is really about. To us, dance or any other form of art isn’t about pleasing others, but expressing, healing, and entertaining oneself. We thank you, Ms. Kristin, for teaching exactly that in the class.”
Kristin Kusanovich is a modern/contemporary dancer and theatre artist who has directed, choreographed and produced solo and ensemble works in dance, drama, musical theatre, opera, film and video. Kristin is an international presenter, published author and researcher in applied performance using transdisciplinary research methods. She currently choreographs and directs professionally for Bay Area theatre companies and was Artistic Director of Kusanovich Dance Theatre of Minneapolis. As a Senior Lecturer at Santa Clara University in the Department of Theatre Dance and the Child Studies Program, she teaches in the areas of kinesthetic learning, creative methods in the visual and performing arts, modern/contemporary technique, composition and design thinking in dance, culturally responsive teaching, collaboration in theatre, and the business of the arts. She is a past president of California Dance Education Association and helped with the advocacy campaign to restore the dance and theatre credentials to CA in 2016. Kristin directs tUrn, an interdisciplinary project that builds climate crisis awareness and action. Two afternoons a week, she runs a small creative dance center for children, currently online, called k2 dance.