Shake It, Girl; Make Sure You Don’t Break It, Girl

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.

5 thoughts on “Shake It, Girl; Make Sure You Don’t Break It, Girl

  1. Christa says:

    Hi Liz, I agree with much of what you are saying and, believe me, it gets even harder to deal with and more serious when you are the parent of an almost twelve year old daughter who loves dance and is watching every move! The recital always leaves me with mixed feelings. We have lots of conversations. It is normal for teenagers to want to explore the world as the sexual beings they are becoming. It’s normal for parents to want to cringe! A few of the dances went beyond my personal comfort zone. It’s a fine line of holding on and letting go and teaching and loving and praying, for sure!!

    This line of yours got me: “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” In my mind, these things are nearly impossible to separate. If it was about dancing for the joy and love of moving our bodies, we wouldn’t have recitals at all! All of our girls are dancing for the approval and admiration of others..right now it may be approval of parents, grandparents, teachers. It gets scary when the approval they seek is the approval of their peers, boys and society! The best we can do is set our limits, hold strong, and talk, talk, talk! These girls are talented, strong, beautiful, and smart. As parents, we can’t make society go away but we can encourage them to look at the world with a critical eye. Believe me, as the mom of three girls who remembers my own teenage years well, I am terrified!

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    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks for commenting, Christa. You make a good point about the intertwining of art and audience. I didn’t mean to imply that the dancers shouldn’t seek admiration and approval–especially when the audience is their parents and teachers! (I was definitely there to give my girl lots of both!) I was thinking, in that line, about the different expressions I saw on the faces of some of the older girls–during a “sexy” dance, they often looked at the audience with beaming smiles; during ballet numbers, they were often not looking at the audience, absorbed in their own movement. I was also thinking about the contrast, in my own life, between frat parties and Zumba–the minute you have a male audience, the game is changed, no? 🙂 This too is natural, and not something that can or should be eliminated from life–but something that I think we have to tread carefully around as parents. I agree that the most important thing we can do as parents is talk, talk, talk–and that we want to encourage our girls in their passions, and to pursue art, and that the admiration of an audience is certainly a part of that. But I think our culture plays up the admiration of the audience–particularly for sexy moves–and downplays a dance for the sake of dance, which you are also performing to be viewed.

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  2. Christa says:

    You know, I keep thinking about this. The funny thing is, at the recital, the whooping and hollering during the sexy dances was coming from other girls. I think teenage boys are terrified of female sexuality! Especially when it is coming across as strong, and confident, and bold. Even with Zumba you have that whooping “You go girl” vibe.

    The difference with teen girls is they don’t know the power they have yet. They don’t know how to channel it. I don’t want to deny that my girls will grow up and become sexual beings (as much as I sometimes wish I could!!) I just want to know how to help them learn to be confident, strong, and in control. This is what I am working on.

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    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Ah, you have hit upon it exactly, Christa! I posted another post, “If I Work It, Who Owns It?” on this day as well, because I was thinking about that very point–owning one’s own sexuality. I think it is an extremely difficult thing to do in this culture, particularly for a young woman. It is easy to believe you are coming from a place of power, when in fact you are setting yourself up as a)entertainment and b)dependent on the reactions you get from others to believe in your own sexuality and c)confusing sexual power with your deepest personal power. All of these lines criss-cross and zigzag and bump up against other people in a million ways, which is part of what makes everything so confusing. I think the sexual revolution was supposed to be about creating bold female sexuality–but I think that idea got co-opted, and what it actually created was a lot of female sexuality used to market things to men, and this is far from an empowered position.

      I keep thinking about this too, and about the audience in the show. My boy, at five years old, was there to see his sister dance. What will it be like when he is thirteen and she is sixteen? He would be uncomfortable seeing his sister dance some sexy dances, not because she’s female, but because she’s his sister. (And what will he say to a boy at school who comments on really enjoying his sister’s moves?) The other females–he might quite enjoy watching them. And what is he learning? When he puts this show together with the commercials he sees and shows like Two And A Half Men, he’s learning that female sexuality is here to entertain him and feed his desires, to the point of gluttony. But he’s also learning–in school and at home–that females are his societal equals. (And, there are no boys in Speedos shakin it like that on the stage, so he learns that only girls have this contradictory status.)

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      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        Two more points that have occurred to me:

        1. Our kids–boys and girls–need our affirmation of their sexuality as they enter adolescence–in other words, they need to know that it is ok that they are sexual beings, with sexual desires. And ideally, they need to know our values about sex as well. I don’t think they need our admiration about their sexuality–we don’t need to watch them move in a sexual way, to a sexual song, and clap for them. I believe that affirmation can happen privately, at home, and over a long time. Admiration–that’s something they’ll have to work out on their own, in their own lives and experiences (hopefully with all of our words of caution in mind!). The girls whooping for each other were giving both admiration and affirmation–but coming from your peers, you’re getting a different message. I believe one of the teens yelled, “Work it, girl!”–not something we would yell to our own kids, or need to hear.

        2. Context is everything. Both the national context–which I’ve discussed some–and the local one. I just don’t think that a dance recital–with an audience full of everyone’s grandparents and brothers, along with their moms and sisters and best friends–is the appropriate venue for a teenager to bust a sexy move. I think it sends the wrong message, to our teens and to everyone else watching–that it is ok for us all, regardless of our perspective, comfort level, or phyical reaction–to clap for a bunch of teens displaying their sexuality.

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