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Sequins and soul-searching in the competitive dance world
Competitors cheer for fellow dancers in Orlando, Fla., July 18, 2021. Calls for change in this lucrative dance subculture have become broader and deeper, encompassing issues of race, gender and predatory behavior. Zack Wittman/The New York Times.

by Margaret Fuhrer

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In spring, Siara Fuller, the artistic director of Charlotte Performing Arts Academy in North Carolina, brought a group of students to a dance competition in Fort Mill, South Carolina. It was, in many ways, an ordinary weekend within the extraordinary world of competitive dance: Hundreds of young dancers assembled at a convention center, donned glittery costumes and giant false lashes, and presented spit-polished routines for a panel of judges. (Because of COVID-19, the dancers accessorized with face masks.)

But a moment from that weekend nags at Fuller, who is Black, as are most of her students. Nine of her dancers performed a jazz piece set to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” which featured fan kicks and pirouettes — hallmarks of competitive jazz — while also, as Fuller described it, “getting a little funky.” The number had scored well at other events. But this time, one white judge gave it a low score, citing a lack of “technical” elements.

“We had every element you could need,” Fuller said. “But because we were more groovy with it, in the judge’s mind I think it became something more like hip-hop. And I thought: If we’d had nine white girls on that stage, doing the same thing, would we have gotten the same comment?”

Fuller grew up attending dance competitions. Like many “comp kids,” she enjoyed the experience, and now brings her students to several competitive events a year. But she also recognizes the need for change in this lucrative, influential industry, whose bright lights can conceal discrimination, exclusivity and even abuse.

“I see how much my kids benefit from these events,” Fuller said. “But some competitions haven’t evolved at all in 15, 20 years.”

Dance competitions — and conventions, which offer workshop classes with prominent teachers, often in conjunction with competitive events — first emerged in the 1970s. Since then, they have spawned a distinctive, seductive subculture, mixing the hard-driving athleticism of organized sports with the presentational flair of performance art.

“Think of your son’s football league, including the full-body impact, sometimes,” said Jason Williams, an entertainment-industry dancer who attended competitions as a student and frequently returns to teach and choreograph. “Pair that with a beauty pageant. Go!”

For decades, the industry has attracted criticism for its exclusionary costs, high-pressure environments and sexualization of children. Recently, however, the calls for change have become broader and deeper, encompassing issues of race, gender and predatory behavior. And many of today’s critics are young studio directors and convention faculty members — artists who grew up in this world, have witnessed both its power and its problems, and understand how to use social media to sound the alarm.

“We want to hold these businesses accountable for the harm that they are consciously or unconsciously causing,” said Cat Cogliandro, a dancer and choreographer who teaches at multiple conventions. “We want them to put the money to the side, and the humanity at the front.”

If you know the competitive dance world only through “Dance Moms” — Lifetime’s reality show, now a decade old, which favored sequin-spangled drama over sportsmanship — it might feel easy to dismiss. Until recently, many members of the academic and concert dance worlds viewed the big-smile theatricality of competition dancers with a mixture of confusion and derision. “Ten or 15 years ago, there used to be this sense of: ‘You come from where? You did what?’” said Karen Schupp, a former competitive dancer who is now an associate professor of dance at Arizona State University.

But as competitive events have grown in size and reach, they’ve become an important part of the dance ecosystem. They can forge dancers of great versatility and virtuosity, and today, alumni dot the ranks of elite college dance programs, renowned dance companies and buzzy Hollywood projects. New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater star Jamar Roberts, and nearly every winner of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” came up through dance competitions. So did Britney Spears and Beyoncé.

Many competitions and conventions tour to small cities across the country, helping introduce dance to young people who might otherwise have little exposure to it. And they offer ways for students to find community and make professional connections.

“We come from a pro-educational place,” said Joe Lanteri, the founder of New York City Dance Alliance, which runs a respected convention and a foundation offering college scholarships. “Dancers have the opportunity to hone their craft, perform, get to know the peers who will end up auditioning alongside them, and meet the working professionals on faculty.”

Money, however, is a driving factor. Dance competitions and conventions are largely for-profit entities, and entry fees and related costs can run each participant thousands of dollars a year. Though reliable information about this diffuse and unregulated industry is hard to come by, a report by research firm IBISWorld found that in 2012, dance competitions alone generated nearly $500 million in revenue. With new events debuting frequently that figure has almost certainly grown.

During the pandemic, those numbers took a nose-dive. Lanteri estimates some 20,000 dancers attend New York City Dance Alliance events in a typical year; in the 2020-21 season, he saw 50% attrition, despite a partial pivot to virtual events. (At least one COVID-19 outbreak was linked to an in-person dance competition.)

This moment of financial vulnerability coincided with a wave of self-reflection in the larger dance community, prompted by swelling social justice movements. As the competition and convention industry searches for a path back to full operation, and profitability, after pandemic shutdowns, its critics see an opportune moment for change.

Cogliandro, who uses they/she pronouns, is one of the leaders of the Dance Safe, an organization that supports survivors of abuse in dance. They said they frequently hear accounts of grooming and sexual exploitation of students in competition and convention settings, where teachers and judges wield outsize power, and very young dancers are often asked to perform provocative choreography.

Even after a 2010 incident in which viral footage of prepubescent girls performing a suggestive competition routine led to public outcry, you can still find 8-year-olds in bikinis on competitive stages. And the scene’s high-stakes, few-rules environments can foster inappropriate interactions between students and older authority figures. A recent lawsuit accusing a former convention teacher, Mitchell Taylor Button, of abusing young dancers has brought renewed attention to the issue.

“In elementary school, a teacher would never text a child from their class, so why is it OK for a convention teacher to do that?” Cogliandro said. “The lines are so blurred.”

Critics also question the beauty pageant-like way competitions and conventions approach gender. At most events, competitors are divided into male and female categories, and convention classes often split students into groups by gender. Though not unique to competition and convention settings, these are nevertheless complicated scenarios for nonbinary and transgender students.

“They gender everything,” said Hayden J Frederick, a transgender dancer, choreographer and teacher. “The choreography, the costuming, the award titles, even in class — ‘boys do it this way, girls do it that way’ — it’s all binary thinking.”

Some of the most urgent reform campaigns concern the overwhelming whiteness of the industry. Williams, who is Black, has become a leader in efforts to address racial inequities at competitions and conventions. “You go to these events, and most have almost no Black kids,” he said, “and zero Black teachers.”

For students of color, that lack of diversity can be alienating. Christian Burse, a gifted 17-year-old Black dancer who will become an apprentice with Complexions Contemporary Ballet this fall, said she values the skills and connections she has built at competitions and conventions. But she remembers the disorientation she felt at her first convention class: “I was 9, walking into that big room, and I was like, ‘Why am I the only person that looks like me in here? Am I allowed to even be in this space?’”

Faculty and staff members at these events have become more vocal about issues like implicit bias in judging and cultural appropriation in competition choreography. (In Dance Teacher magazine, Broadway dancer and competition judge Richard Riaz Yoder described one hip-hop routine performed by white dancers as “modern-day blackface.”) But voicing their concerns often means risking their jobs.

One of the only people of color in an industry leadership role is Sonia James Pennington, a founder of the National Dance Showcase competition. “I watch studio directors of color come into one of our events, and see that I am African American, and there’s a sense of: ‘I can exhale,’” she said. “If we could normalize diversity at all levels, everyone would benefit.”

Recently, a few established competitions and conventions have taken small steps forward. Break the Floor Productions, which runs some of the industry’s biggest events, started an educational YouTube series highlighting Black dance artists. The trophies for New York City Dance Alliance’s national competition winners no longer mention gender. Large-scale reform, though, feels a long way off.

That slow pace of change pushed Olivia Zimmerman, 23, to develop Embody Dance Conference. Beginning this weekend, the new dance convention — its competition debuts next year — aims to create “a safer and more inclusive dance community.”

Zimmerman grew up in competitions and conventions and worked as a competition director for a dance studio. Embody, which began as her college thesis, is thoroughly ambitious. This weekend’s event at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut will feature seminars for dancers on anti-racism, mental health and gender. (TikTok dance star Charli D’Amelio will discuss social media’s effect on mental health.) Cogliandro’s the Dance Safe will lead workshops. Classes will not divide students by gender, and participants will specify their pronouns. Accommodations will be made for dancers with disabilities.

The faculty will include transgender artists, Frederick among them; several people of color; and mental health professionals, including dance artist and therapist Breanna Myers. And — perhaps most revolutionary of all — though Embody is currently a corporation with a nonprofit arm, Zimmerman plans to eventually run the whole endeavor as a nonprofit.

Only a few hundred people have registered for Embody’s first convention. But Zimmerman hopes to pilot a model other events can then adapt. “This isn’t proprietary,” she said. “We’re not trying to make money off ‘being the change.’ I want everyone to follow suit, so that in five years, we’re just another convention.”

That evolution might take more than five years, and will require the continued efforts of a coalition of reformers. Williams believes it’s worth it.

“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘Are you mad at the dance competition world?’” he said. “I’m not mad at it. I love it. I love all these creative people making this big gumbo of dance and sports and art. And it’s my duty, as someone who loves it, to let it know that it needs to change.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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