Guest Bloger: Heather Harrington
“I would have put myself in a better position if I had just worn red lipstick,” explains Kayleen Babel (2021) who gives advice for trying out for college dance teams on her YouTube channel. She later explains that make-up and hair are part of your appearance score, and that you should try to look like the members of the current dance team. You want to blend in, not stand out as an individual. If a male basketball team required an appearance score based on hairstyle and make-up, sprinkled with a warm smile, what would people think?
When a swimmer receives a time, there is objectivity in that number; that number states how fast the swimmer swam, ranking them against others. Numbers can say how high a person jumped, how many baskets they scored, but a score for artistic impression is a number that is built on aesthetic likes and dislikes. Aesthetic sports and activities including dance, cheer, ice skating, synchronized swimming, and gymnastics (including rhythmic) rely on some degree of subjective judgments, with some of those judgments scoring appearance. How one looks becomes just as important or more important than what one does.
John Tiller in 1910 discovered that female dancers could execute a precision kick if they linked arms. These dancers were meant to look and move the same— one unit, no individuals. Weight and height were precisely measured. They even lost their status as women; they were called the Tiller Girls. German writer and cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote an essay about the Tiller Girls, “The Mass Ornament (1927)” which viewed the dancers as a machine in an industrialized, commercial world focused on making products. Kracauer, however, did not disentangle gender in his examination; why were all the dancers female? When visiting the Archimedes Museum in Olympia, Greece, I saw the first robot created by Philon of Byzantium in the 3rd century BC, a life-sized woman who poured tea when a cup was placed in her hands. Is there a connection between being objectified and depersonalized and being female?
Drill, dance teams, cheer teams, and synchronized movement are popular in 2022. As competition dance continues to grow in popularity in the US, it’s mostly female participants seek out college dance or cheer teams where they will find similar routines in movement vocabulary, choreography, and performance quality. Members of a college dance team can continue competing at Universal Dance Association (UDA), United Spirit Association (USA), and the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA). The routines for the dance teams can vary from pumping hip-hop dances, jazz, high kick, lyrical, to more cheer-oriented movements with pom poms. Young people are exposed to the college dance teams through clips shown on social media, and promotions for training clinics geared towards middle school and high school students. Being on one of these teams can be exhilarating—you move as a unit which can create a sense of camaraderie, belonging, an identity, and new friends. And, you are seen. However, when people are moving and dressing the same, a pressure develops to not stand out— one must appear and move like everyone else. Here the disciplinarian actions come into play; weigh this amount, wear your make-up, hair, nails this way, pluck your eyebrows, smile, gesture this way, wear this costume and fit into it. Any discipline that is defined as an aesthetic sport invites surveillance of appearance. When a person is judged on their appearance, the potentiality for body control and abuse increases. Adults are playing with a vulnerable growing ego in children and young adults; they want to be accepted and wanted. Rejection is hard and the fragile ego in an activity that honors conformity and uniformity is acutely aware that any misstep away from the norm can mean dismissal. When one’s individuality is not honored or respected, a person feels a danger of being replaced. Personhood is hard to achieve with objectification, but feeling like a product is easy.
Chinese figure skater Jessica Shuran Yu (2020) urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to address the abuse of ice skaters in China before the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. She says, “There is a toxicity that plagues aesthetic sports like gymnastics and figure skating, which both have environments in which adults can easily exploit young girls with big dreams. I genuinely believe there’s a correlation between the two sports. In both cases we are judged on our appearances. The costume, the makeup, the body image.” The Los Angeles Times (2021) reported that some women on the University of Southern California’s dance team, Song Girls (note not Song Women), experienced bullying around their weight and appearance. The LA times obtained the contract signed by the dancers that stipulated that the dancer must stay within five pounds of their audition weight and must approve any changes to their appearance with the coach. The New York Times (2021) reported on the psychological abuse by coaches of synchronized swimming (referred to as artistic swimming as of 2016). A former Olympic champion Myriam Glez said, “If you’re not tall and super skinny — basically if you don’t look like a model — with light skin, you have no chance to get to the top level.” In the gymnastic world, the sexual and mental abuse of young women has been well chronicled in the case of Larry Nassar, who was the team doctor of the United States women’s national gymnastic team for 18 years where he had the opportunity to sexually assault hundreds of young women and girls. These are examples, and do not represent every individual’s experience in an aesthetic sport or activity, but the emphasis on appearance and uniformity creates an opening for abuse.
When you think of yourself as an object that must conform to be accepted, you will not stand up for yourself, because you live in the precarious state of being replaced. College dance and cheer teams do not hold the designation of being a sport by the National College Athletic Association (NCAA), therefore they do not receive funding, protections under Title IX, access to physical therapists, guidance on how many hours for training and how many days they should have off (the NCAA provides these guidelines for sports), or scholarships. Dance team coaches may not have anatomy or injury prevention training since they are not required to have an advanced degree like a dance professor who will have an MFA or a Ph.D. The “Catastrophic Sports Injury Research Thirty-Sixth Annual Report” (2019) found that cheerleading has the second-highest rate of catastrophic injuries in both college and high school with football being number one.
Colleges do not support many clubs and activities, however, dance teams are engaging in an activity with another sport that is supported by the college, which might mean that the dance team needs to find transportation to a game where the sports team receives buses. The dance team is not the main event; people see the dance team because they are supporting the main event— the football game. Maybe for a person on a dance or cheer team, the dream pinnacle could be dancing on an NBA or NFL cheer team. NFL cheerleaders make on average $22,500 a year, NFL waterboys make on average $53,000 per year and NFL players make millions per year; from $2 million to $50.3 million (Conti 2022). NBA cheerleaders make between $15,000 on the low end to $35,000 on the high end (Alikpala 2021), while a NBA player could make up to 48 million per year.
Aesthetic sports and activities should not end, but the people who participate in them should resist exploitation and objectification by respecting their personhood— they do, not just appear. Each person is an individual, not part of a monolithic whole. Personality can be encouraged by parents, teachers, coaches, and judges so that a participant learns to see her self-worth and pushes back against people who want to take it away. These dancers will not be on the sidelines, but instead center. They will have power, agency and ownership of their body.
Alikpala, Gidget. 2021. “NBA 21/22 season: How much does a cheerleader earn?” Oct. 18. Diario AS. https://us.as.com/
Babel, Kayleen. 2021. “How to make a college dance team.” YouTube. Mar 14, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34JmzU2BlmA&t=4s
CATASTROPHIC SPORTS INJURY RESEARCH. 2019. https://nccsir.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5614/2019/10/2018-Catastrophic-Report-AS-36th-AY2017-2018-FINAL.pdf
Conti, Kristen. 2022. “Do NFL cheerleaders get paid? Here’s how much the average salary is.” 2022. Sept. 11, 2022. Sports Boston. https://www.nbcsports.com/boston/patriots/do-nfl-cheerleaders-get-paid-heres-how-much-average-salary
ESPN. NBA Player Salaries. 2022-2023. http://www.espn.com/nba/salaries
Ingle, Sean. 2020. “’It was dehumanising’: Jessica Shuran Yu condemns training abuse in China.” Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/jul/21/dehumanising-jessica-shuran-yu-condemns-training-abuse-in-china-figure-skating
Kracauer, Siegfried. 1995. The Mass Ornament, edited by Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kartje, Ryan. 2021. “USC’s Song Girls project a glamorous ideal; 10 women describe a different, toxic reality.” Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/story/2021-04-22/usc-song-girls
Kucera, Kristen L. and Cantu, Robert C. October 3, 2019. CATASTROPHIC SPORTS INJURY RESEARCH THIRTY-SIXTH ANNUAL REPORT FALL 1982 – SPRING 2018
Bio: Heather Harrington is a dancer, figure skater, choreographer, educator, and researcher. She is on faculty at Kean University and Drew University, N.J. She danced with the Doris Humphrey Repertory Company, Martha Graham Ensemble, Pearl Lang Dance Theatre, and Bella Lewitzky Dance Company. In 1999, she created the Heather Harrington Dance Company, performing nationally and internationally. Her artistic and scholarly collaboration with Lebanese dance artist and professor Nadra Assaf has led to performances and conferences across the globe. Through their use of research and virtual connection Assaf and Harrington, have continued to create work that speaks against the violence that hauntingly remains embodied in female bodies. Her scholarship has been published by Choreographic Practices, Dancer Citizen, Research in Dance Education, Dance Research Journal, Nordic Journal of Dance, Journal of Dance Education, Beauty Demands, and Dance Education in Practice.