The sexification of young dancers: Inside Australia's booming dance studio scene

‘Despite being known for its overtly sexual content and verbally abusive teaching tactics, Dance Moms fever has infected the country’

Jemmanicoll.jpgBy Jemma Nicoll As published at Melinda Tankard Reist 

Eyes shining with delight, Nia twirls and twirls as shimmering pink feathers soar in the wind swelled by her rapid movement. Encased in the fluorescent cage of a burlesque feather fan, she is mesmerised by her imitation of a Las Vegas Showgirl. Adorned in silver glitter-speckled shorts and a nude sports bra, Nia's outfit for her upcoming dance competition fulfills its designer's intention of creating that stark, naked illusion.

“I’m hot! I’m mean! You can’t have me! You can't afford me!" screams her choreographer as Nia endeavours to channel the sensual character; coordinating the fan and challenging dance routine of high kicks, hip grinds and eye winks. She is training to win gold, alongside her troupe of six other mock-topless, feathered friends.

“This costume’s better than all of the other costumes because it makes my body look pretty... it makes me look beautiful," Nia says.

Nia is eight-years-old.

"It is as if contemporary girls are in a great hurry to grow up," says Marika Tiggemann in her latest study, 'Contemporary Girlhood: Maternal Reports on Sexualised Behaviour and Appearance in 4-10 year-old girls' , released June last year. Tiggemann and fellow researcher, Amy Slater, from Flinders University in Adelaide, are the first to document the appearance-obsessed behaviours of young Australian girls. Results show that an epidemic of girls aged four to 10-years-old are prematurely engaging with teen culture, and exhibiting hyper-sexualised behaviours through attention to personal grooming, clothing and bodily appearance.


Are our Generation Z girls too sexy too soon? (

The study of almost 1000 girls has forecast a bleak outcome for Nia's generation, whose earlier burlesque display was seen by millions on Dance Moms: the show tracking the pre-pubescent stars of Abby Lee Miller's Pittsburgh USA dance studio. The show is a growing place of worship for thousands of aspiring Australian dancers, and the wallet swallowing the income of their parents who recently paid hundreds for their daughters to attend classes with Abby Lee, on March 13 at Bankstown Sports Club. Despite being known for its overtly sexual content and verbally abusive teaching tactics, Dance Moms fever has infected the country.

"As a society, we have yet to see the consequences of an entire new generation of girls brought up in a highly sexualized environment." said Tiggemann.

"If the focus on appearance...becomes their habitual way of viewing themselves, then this is liable to have negative consequences for their well-being as a teenager and as an adult woman."

According to Tiggemann's results, by the age of eight, 28 percent of Australian girls are dissatisfied with their physical appearance, 76 percent are particularly fussy about what they wear and are frequently asking: "does this look good on me?" and13 percent are exiting the house with a made-up face.

And out of all the things little girls love to do, there is one common denominator that surpassed all activities listed in the study: 96 percent love to dance.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports that at April 2012 there were 727,000 girls aged five to 14 years participating in an organised sport outside of school. Of this figure, 418,100 were enrolled in a dance school (58 percent), up from 390,400 in 2009. The rate of Australian girls participating in dance lessons is rising by annual increments of tens of thousands; it is certainly happy days for current and prospective studio directors.

The Lolita Effect 

"Come on we've got these good bodies now, and they're not going to last forever so let's show it while we've got it. Come on, put it out there girls, you've got it. Now flaunt it!"

Deborah Watson, primary school teacher and Learning Support consultant, animatedly re-enacts an overheard dance teacher working with the school's lunchtime dance groups.

"How old were the dancers? Eight, nine, 10 years old," she says. "Then there were four girls in this particular school who had more solid builds...they pulled out because their parents said they don't feel comfortable in those costumes, but the teacher wouldn't make allowances to alter the costumes for them. I spoke to a mother whose daughter is self-harming too, since quitting dance group from being teased."

"You fit the costume or you're out, is the idea." she says.

Watson is a serial 'mystery shopper' of Sydney dance studios. The mother of two daughters, aged nine and 15, has spent the last 12 years embarking on a series of 'free trial classes.'

"I heard a parent once ask why the kids did so much abdominal work at the beginning of the class, and the teacher's response was 'because we've all got midriffs for our costumes this year, and the girls need to have flat abs'." She vividly describes the hot pink, sequined equivalent of a string bikini, with fishnet stockings and black jazz shoes.

Social researchers call it the 'Lolita Effect'; a term to describe the imposition of sexualisation through mass media messages, on young girls whom are yet to reach the required development. Watson is convinced that local organisations are flying under the radar in fuelling the Lolita Effect.

"In this other school, nine and 10 years old girls were heavily made up. What struck me was the eyeliner, this is what they chose to wear to class to fit into the group dynamic," she said.

"The girls had crop tops and tiny shorts. There were only two girls that had a full leotard and they were very much over here on this side," Deborah gestures left, "and those in the crop tops were over here. It was very clear who was in and who was out."

The Eisteddfod Battleground 

Dance eisteddfods, hundreds of them, are dotted around the country. They are a magnet for studios to gather, compete and showcase the works of their students.

Sydney adjudicator, performer and high school teacher Melissa Lukins, is disappointed by what she has critiqued at eisteddfod events: "I've observed as an adjudicator the unusually sexual nature of young dancers' facial expressions, their movements, costumes and general attitude towards dance performance."

Lukins lists countless influencing factors. "'Dance Moms' has seemed to propagate this.... as students see other dance schools presenting this type of choreography they pressure their teachers to fit in with the culture. It is alarming," said Ms Lukins.

At the Front Line 

It all became too much for Dodie Wilson, another NSW adjudicator and retired studio director, who is actively opposing the culture she has witnessed in her 25 years of work in Australian eisteddfods.


Dance eisteddfods are a second home. Pic: Jemma Nicoll

"Once it's on stage, it's seen. It's out there. You can't take it back. The minute that child gets on stage in an inappropriate costume... too late, everybody's seen it," Wilson says.

"The minute they're flashing their private areas, it's done. In front of brothers, uncles. And that child...that eight, nine, 10, 12 year old child has been, in a way, violated. They have done what they were told to do."

Wilson is paving the way in the local eisteddfod scene by hosting a 'child safety' competition event that is the first of its kind. With the glitz and the glam, come guidelines.

"They must wear stockings at all times...two-piece costume items must be seven centimetres from the bust, and I have actually banned particular movements," she said.

The syllabus outline distributed to participants spells out the consequences of entering the event, launched in Seven Hills Sydney last October. Immediate disqualification applies to dancers where costumes do not cover seven centimetres of midriff, where lyrics contain sexual content, and if choreography includes the banned movements.

"Any music or movements that seem to be breaking the rules or are inappropriate, a bell will ring, the music will start to fade and we will motion the child on stage to curtsey...the routine will be stopped."

Perhaps teachers should submit their music and costume selections prior to the event, to minimise the risk of humiliating a child onstage.

Wilson says she has had an overwhelming amount of positive support through private messages over social media, however she is disappointed that little public support has been offered to counteract the backlash received from online groups.

"Teachers are scared. They are scared to be part of the change, for whatever reason in case five years down the track it changes back again or it just doesn't work," she says. "Will you lose students? Maybe. But then you'll know you're doing the right thing."


Pic: Jemma Nicoll

Amongst other influences, Wilson attributes the hyper-sexualised studio culture craze to RG Dance, infamous for its former director now facing child sex offence charges. She describes their competition troupes as mechanical in precision with faultless technique, miniscule outfits and adult-themed concepts. They won gold each time.

"Teacher's saw this, they believed they had the secret. So they copied."

How will the sexual messages shouldered by young dancers today potentially affect adulthood? "I believe they will be so brokenhearted, that they will have nothing to do with the dance industry when they're older," she said.

Dance, Sex and Science

According to medical doctor turned sexologist and writer, Patricia Weerakoon, the increase of girls engaging in dance communities, determines the need to assess studio culture in line with documented hyper-sexualised behaviours.

"Everything that goes into the brain, especially during that rapid development of childhood, will influence the brain's wiring. As the child grows, and the more sexualised their culture [is], the more the brain will recognise at building those sexual circuits. It will recognise it as something that is normal or good."

The University of Sydney's Honorary Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences has spent 40 years as a medical practitioner, sexual health educator and sex therapist. Dr Weerakoon's concern for what she calls 'raunch culture’ stems from years of research into childhood brain development.

"It's called Neuroplasticity," said Dr Weerakoon.

"From the time the baby is developing in the womb... the brain adapts based on what is going on. In a child's brain, everything from birth through to teen and young adulthood, that time of quick and rapid growth is a time where [there] is a huge amount of brain wiring and rewiring."

"And what we know is that [the brain] is influenced by social environment, the environment that the child is in.Everything that goes into the brain changes the wiring," she said.

Dr Weerakoon holds grave concerns for the wellbeing of the post-millennial generation, whom she believes will be the most sexualised people to walk the planet.

"They see themselves in a way that empowerment, being powerful, being popular, means you have to make yourself sexual. [Because of cultural pressures], girls are making themselves sex objects, and are willing to give sex, be sexy, dress sexual," she said.

"If you are running a dance studio, you have a great responsibility because the music you play and what you are teaching, everything you say is working into their brain."

Dr Weerakoon urges parents to speak up: "Parents must be parents; parents must say no, parents must say: 'for my child, this is not right'. You have to be proactive... because I guarantee when you stop one avenue of sexualisation others will spring up… But be proactive to do something about protecting kids," she said.

"And teachers need to do the protecting from their end too."

Call for tighter regulation

For dance teacher of 18 years and mother of four, Elizabeth Wever, her experiences within the industry demonstrates an urgent need for improved teacher training.

Wever was subjected to strict dieting and exercise regimes from a young teenager, an endeavour of her dance teacher to assist in achieving the 'correct size' of a dancer.

"I yoyo dieted and struggled emotionally with weight issues as a result until my twenties...when I quit dancing as a result of being told too many times I was not the right body shape for a dancer."

Mental and emotional recovery was a long and arduous road.

"I am long past caring about the judgment of others about my body shape...however it breaks my heart to think that other young girls are being subjected to this type of scrutiny," she said.

Wever and Watson are concerned that dance teachers are not undergoing thorough training or regulation procedures.

"There is not enough regulation in the dance industry," says Watson.

"If we can regulate the fitness industry... if we can regulate after-school care... you can't even work in vacation care unless you have a certificate. But you can go out and open a dance school and teach dancing to all with no qualifications."

"How many dance schools out there have a Working with Children check? Do parents even look at that?" asks Watson.

A number of tertiary institutions across Australia offer Dance Education certificates and degrees, a compulsory qualification for those seeking employment in the public school sector. However this is not mandatory for studio ownership. There are no required certificates or standardised procedures.

The national peak body for Australian dance information is Ausdance. Despite the range of online resources available to encourage the aspiring teacher, on the Question and Answer page of their website, it states:

"Q: Do dance studio teachers have to obtain a dance teaching qualification? A: No.”

Mental Health in the Studio

In May 2014, The Frontiers in Psychology Journal published that anxiety and depression accounted for the highest disease amongst Australian children today. Aside from external stresses of divorce, grief, and life transitions, experts rank internal factors such as irrational belief systems and pessimistic tendencies as high risk factors for mental health issues.

So do dance teachers hold any responsibility for engaging with mental health matters, and the internal consequences of teaching practices?

"Of course," says Jane Cuneen, Principal of Caringbah North Public School, a large primary school in Southern Sydney. Cuneen is also the mother of an aspiring young dancer.

"All adults who have the privilege of teaching young minds have the responsibility to develop the child socially, emotionally and spiritually as well as physically, regardless of their specialty."

Cuneen is saddened by comments of dance teachers regarding bodily expectations and the need to be 'sexy'.

"Is it that these teachers don’t have the training that says comments like these are detrimental and have long lasting emotional and psychological effects on our girls?"

"Most parents don’t even know that these comments are being directed at their daughters. Because most dance classes are closed doors, we don’t know how our kids are being treated."

Watson agrees.

"When those core beliefs have been set up, those things that your parents said was ok and that your dance school said was ok.... well to challenge them is a very hard thing.

What happens when those core beliefs let you down?" "In 10 years time we'll be picking up pieces of these girls that are damaged.

“But it can be avoided."

 #tilttuesday: are girls at risk of being preyed on?

There are 172,311 posts currently under the #tilttuesday hashtag feed. Then there are 3,434 under #tilttuesdays for those who prefer plurality and 324 for #tilttuesdayy for those rejecting mainstream spelling. The list continues of the variations of categories young dancers enter in Instagram when posting their 'tilt' photographs (on Tuesday).

A'tilt' is when a dancer extends their leg up to 180 degrees away, and tilts their torso slightly to one side, or 'off-centre', so the leg reaches maximum height and split. It can be elegant when executed correctly, an impressive display of flexibility and strength. However should the dancer not yet possess the level of strength to execute the 'tilt', they grab hold of their ankle with both hands and push the pelvis forward in order to take the stress off the hamstrings.

This can produce a distorted display of exposed body parts, as girls as young as eight capture, caption, hashtag and post for the worldwide, weekly phenomenon of #tilttuesday. This has become the most popular online fad for young dancers who seek the connection and approval of fellow artists around the globe.

Conversations overhead as a studio director suggest division among dance teachers over the craze, many encouraging their students to participate and even do so themselves. It's ok; they're stretching and having fun, they're not intentionally posting in an overtly sexual way. I disagree.

Open your Instagram application. Click 'explore', type in 'tilttuesday' and start your own search. Among the thousands of young girls, many in sports bra and booty short attire in dance studios, on front lawns or in bedrooms, you may stumble across the image that caught my eye in particular: a girl of around age 16, striking the position in white translucent boyleg underwear; the shadows of her pubic hair and the physical outlines of genitalia clearly visible.

Continue scrolling; aside from the "You're not doing it properly", "Your tilt is normally better than this" and comments targeting thigh wobbles, belly rolls, breasts, lack of visible abdominal lines and attacks on dancers' bodies and skill, you will see comments like this:

"Love to f**k you in that position."

This Instagram handle has posted zero photos and maintains a steady stream of two followers; we can only assume his online activity is simply to peruse and predate.

"Need f**k."


"Do you ever dance naked?"

This user is a Chelsea Football Club fanatic who regularly posts photos of beautiful young girls.

"Are those stripper bruises on your thighs?"

"Close your legs, it stink."

"I'm single, that's all I got to say."

"Wats poppin tonite??" "DM me." Or 'private message me'; repeatedly from the same user on multiple photos on the #tilttuesday feed.

This is, in my view, a pedophile's playground.

Dancers innocently upload images, eyes are drawn to their private areas and men unashamedly publicise their approval. They express their desire to sexually act on the posed dancer, a minor, a child. They are open about their enjoyment of the image.

Comments are not deleted nor images removed. Instagram provides no zero privacy settings.

No blame is to be cast on these dancers. A 10-year-old girl has not yet mastered the ability to assess the consequences of an image. She is simply playing copycat with her peers, her dance teachers, and succumbing to the pressure of what needs to be performed in order to gain the acceptance that Instagram 'likes' provide.

There are 172,311 #tilttuesday images worldwide subject to the scrutiny of perusing eyes. If you check back next Tuesday and see for yourself, that figure will no doubt have risen. It is not until she is well into adulthood after potentially wrestling with body image, mental health issues and more, that she may look back and regret the online broadcasting and exposure of her fragile, precious little body in such a way. She may one day ask her teachers, parents and guides, ‘why didn't you say something?’

Jemma Nicoll is a UTS Journalism graduate and freelance writer. She directs Inspire Creative Arts, a dance school in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire and is involved in mentoring and self-esteem development programs for girls. 

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