Shake it, shake it, shake it girl/Make sure you don’t break it, girl—“Pump It,” The Black-Eyed Peas
Last week, I saw the dress rehearsal for my eight-year old daughter’s dance recital. I have seen her in a short recital with her classmates once before—a Christmas program at the local nursing home—but this was her first big show, on the stage at the university where my husband teaches. My daughter, along with several other little girls her age, was in a tap routine at the beginning of the evening (around 7 pm) and a ballet routine at the end of the evening (about 9:15 pm). The two hours in between featured, along with many ballets and tastefully crafted modern dances, the hip-grinding, hair-flinging gyrations of teenage girls, most of whom were between the ages of 14 and 17. The most disturbing of these dances, for me, was a dance by a group of girls who seemed to be around eleven or twelve, shaking and grinding their hips quickly to a hip-hop beat while wearing very short gold pants. (During the actual performance of this dance, on the night of the recital, this hip-grinding, along with that of the older girls, was met by a great deal of whooping from teenage girls in the audience–a level of enthusiam they didn’t evince for the less suggestive dances.)
If I had been watching the rehearsal alone, I would have been writing blogs in my head the whole time. I would have thought about myself as a young woman—a little older than these girls—shakin it like a Polaroid picture on a beer-soaked dance floor in a fraternity house. I would have thought about myself now, shakin it just as hard in my Zumba class at the Y, or, on occasion, during a Zumba marathon in a local restaurant. (If you don’t know from Zumba, it’s what would happen if your favorite aerobics class met your favorite dance songs, invited some African drums and Brazilian castanets, and partied like it was 1999. So, a great way to get your heart rate up.) I would have tried to puzzle my way around how a perfectly natural thing—a woman enjoying the freedom of her body moving rhythmically to a good beat—can become such a constructed thing: a performance, not for art, but for consumption.
But I wasn’t watching this show alone. It was my very good fortune to be sitting next to a friend, a parent of another one of the girls in my daughter’s class. If this friend had been a woman, especially one who knows that I blog about such things, we would no doubt have exchanged a few significant looks and more than one eye roll. But this friend wasn’t a woman—he was a man, a father of fraternal twins. After we sat through the first sexy number together (a leggy song I recognized from the show Glee), my friend made a comment to effect that this was going to be an uncomfortable show for him to watch, as a father and as a man.
And a conversation was born.
We discussed many of the issues I’ve covered in my blog, along with many others I plan to cover. We were speaking as concerned parents and citizens. We were speaking as former teenagers, former college students, and people with spouses and children we love. We both understood why the girls up there wanted to shake their groove thangs to the hottest hits. And we understood why boys and men would want to watch them do it, and why a teenage boy might be confused about the way he should treat women, watching a girl in this show, who, he knows, just might be president one day. We also discussed the impact of the cultural changes in the last twenty years–changes introduced by Madonna, and embellished by Brittany Spears and all of the pop princesses who followed.
While we agreed that there is nothing wrong with a young person discovering his or her sexuality and enjoying the movement of his or her body, that sexuality needs to be given a backdrop, a context of relationships, love, the perils of heartache, disease, and death. Instead, our culture—both on a national stage and a local one—is giving emerging female adolescent sexuality the backdrop of pulsing lights, a pulsing beat, glittering short shorts, and an enraptured audience that includes their mothers and fathers, their brothers, their grandfathers, and the little girls they babysit.
Neither one of us knew what to do about it. But we both want it to change. We agreed that, after Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, Hugh Hefner should not have the last word.
When I returned home, I had this thought: that conversation was rare. And it shouldn’t be. The most amazing thing about the conversation was that we—a man and a woman—were speaking so comfortably about issues that can be extremely uncomfortable to discuss, even when they’re shaking themselves five feet in front of your nose. And you know what helped us talk about it? Humor. We were laughing—not at the girls, who were just performing what they had been taught to perform, with all the passion and verve fifteen-year-old hips can put into it—but at ourselves. I confessed my days of hair-flinging gyrations on a dance floor, and my current love of Zumba. He asked me if I wore one of the schoolgirl outfits currently on display when I went to my Zumba class, and I said, “Hell, no.” The humor got us through, and helped us confront the stuff that isn’t so funny.
We all need that humor, and a lot of nerve, to address the cultural issues that surround us. But our girls (and our boys) need something else: they need us. Not just in the audience, but right next to them. Talking about the confusing lines between sex and selfhood, and what we think goes too far. Our girls need to know that it’s perfectly natural to want to shake it, but if they shake it too hard, or for the wrong reasons, they just might break it (by getting pregnant, getting an STD, or breaking their own hearts). And they need to know what “the wrong reasons” are—they need to understand that there is a difference between dancing for the love of dance, or for the joy of moving your body to a song, and dancing for the approval and admiration of others (which, by the way, is also a perfectly natural and human thing to do—it can just have painful consequences, like thinking the most important thing about you is your body and the desire it engenders in others, rather than your mind and what it can do).
There were some dancers in that recital who were indeed dancing for themselves, and for the art of dance. They were easy to spot—they held themselves carefully, and with dignity. They moved fluidly, with the music but of themselves. These performances were mostly ballet numbers, or modern numbers without a lot of bass and jazz and hiphop pulsating through them. Most of the dancers were girls, but a couple of them were boys. Whenever they were dancing, my friend and I stopped talking and started watching. We both understood, instinctively as well as intellectually, the difference between a dance for others and a dance for art. But I don’t think our teenagers understand that difference—and it’s up to us to make sure they do.