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The dance industry in Australia: expelling the myth of harmlessness

Exploring the harmful culture of child sexualisation and cultural appropriation in the Australian Dance Industry.

Art by Monica McNaught-Lee

Dance has become a fixed component of the Australian sports industry. Approximately 17% of Australian children participate in this activity, with dance considered a normal and neutral option for children’s sport. Dance has cultivated a social image which portrays studios as a safe space for children to engage in physical activity, whilst conjunctly nurturing social skills, discipline and creative expression. What is obscured is that the dance industry is an unregulated body, from which paedophilia and cultural appropriation are born and normalised.

The majority of individuals engaged with the dance industry are children who participate in after school hours, or junior school training. While the dance industry claims to foster a safe environment for children, incidents such as the 2016 RG Dance scandal (in which Sydney-based dance teacher Grant Davies was sentenced to 24 years in jail for 63 child sexual offences), have blistered this veneer, exposing studios as precarious environments which can threaten rather than protect students’ welfare. While dance schools dispute the claim that they support or engage with this type of behaviour, studios continue to perpetuate the sexualisation of children often, however, in more insidious and concealed ways.

The contemporary dance scene is a hypersexual environment which has normalised the objectification and sexualisation of children. This provocation is most visible in costuming with tight, short and skin baring outfits, which are more often the rule, rather than the exception at dance showcases. These costumes are often accompanied by highly suggestive routines and explicit music, constructing performative narratives within which children are positioned as sexual beings. The competitive nature of these events also exposes a problematic dynamic whereby children are rewarded for highly sexualised performances. When children score highly or win a division with a provocative routine, they are affirmed in this state and come to understand, on some level, that their value is tied to their hypersexual performance and objectification. For many children, it is within the dance scene where they are introduced to hypersexuality as a dominant social and cultural currency. 

This normalisation of hypersexuality extends past competitions and is often still apparent within dance studios, even if companies aim to mitigate hypersexual performances. While dance schools may not claim to outwardly support or engage in the sexualisation of children, their uniforms often demonstrate a compliancy with, and perpetuation of these norms. Recently, there has been an undeniable shift towards dance uniforms that are unreasonably revealing. Booty shorts and sports bras are repackaged as uniforms, and sold by studios who encourage or require dancers to wear such to their classes. While tighter clothing is often encouraged, with alleged genuine reason (it enables choreographers and dancers to better see body lines and movement), these clothing styles offer no material benefit. Rather, they point towards a culture where children’s bodies are being exposed at an increasing rate, including in environments that are generally considered “safe”. This is further complicated by the unregulated nature of the dance industry, which has no overarching framework or regulatory body that oversees the hiring of studio instructors, and no industry relevant systems of justice for dealing with incidents, allowing for such to be covered up and perpetrators to remain within the scene. 

While the individual right to bodily autonomy and sexual expression is indisputable, we must challenge the industries which necessitate or normalise the exposing of children’s bodies. Especially when such spaces are unregulated, and often shared with others who are much older. While no clothing is inherently sexual, the culture which encourages children to wear revealing garments is. If the dance industry claims to be committed to the protection of the children who sustain it, then the incorporation of unnecessarily revealing uniforms, aswell as the normalcy of hypersexualised performances, must be confronted.

In conjunction with issues of oversexualisation, cultural appropriation is pervasive in the Australian dance industry. Most dancers will look back at past performances and be able to pinpoint a routine, or multiple, that was informed by stereotypical cultural aesthetics. Eisteddfods and showcases frequently demonstrate the standardisation of this practice with routines and costumes featuring chopsticks, fans, “tribal print” clothes, Saris and “Arabian style” two pieces. 

Within the dance industry, cultural dance styles, movements and aesthetics are exploited for their entertainment value. When “cultural” routines are choreographed by instructors who don’t belong to such groups or have no relevant training in such styles, they rely upon stereotypical and inauthentic interpretations of these cultures and their movements. Valuable cultural knowledge and aesthetics are de-contextualised from their authentic forms and reappropriated in ways which often retain little to no cultural legitimacy. This often results in a homogenisation of cultural movement and aesthetic into amalgamous and indefinite categories, as is seen in the prevalence of “Asian” or “Indian” inspired routines. This de-contextualisation of movement and its subsequent reconstruction could be considered a form of cultural colonisation.

Within the competitive scene, culturally inspired routines can be advantageous and are seen to give troopes an “edge” over others. This points to a tradition of exoticism whereby cultural or ethnic aesthetics are considered alluring, bizarre and captivating, increasing the value of performative pieces which utilize them. However, this benefit often only operates under the condition that the bodies who are performing the routine do not belong to the culture of which they are performing. When individuals perform a routine inspired by their own ethnic or cultural background, such performances can be critiqued as being too traditionalist, or people question why they are performing cultural routines in a modern or non-cultural competition. 

The choice to choreograph a culturally inspired routine, when one holds no legitimate cultural knowledge, often stems from an exoticised perception of such culture, and one’s opportunistic desire to utilize it for aesthetic reasons. Rarely, does this desire arise from cultural appreciation or respect. The ideological perspective which informs the choice to exploit a culture for personal benefit are the same from which stem cultural fetishization, prejudice, stereotypes and racism. The performance of culturally appropriated routines normalise the ideology that valuable cultural knowledges and aesthetics can be exploited, performed and capitalized for personal use, neutralising to dancers and adolescents the belief that valuable cultural aesthetics are theirs to utilize. 

The prevelance of cultural appropriation in dance is an issue that is rarely discussed or critiqued, despite its ubiquity. While contemporary dance, especially in the professional and international circuit, has worked to expand on dance’s exclusionary conceptions (the dance industry has an ongoing history of racial exclusion and supervaluation of white aesthetics), within the recreational scene, cultural appropriation prevails largely unchecked. 

The dance industry is not a neutral space. Rather, it manifests, perpetuates and exhibits significant cultural challenges. The question now points to how we can work to reform or de-problematize it. As an unregulated industry, the creation of victim-informed guidelines or frameworks of safety could help to mitigate issues related to the protection and welfare of children, especially when related to who is able to engage as an instructor. The rectification of identity based issues, such as cultural appropriation, should have a simple solution; don’t choreograph a cultural dance if you have no legitimate cultural knowledge. This self-explanatory conclusion, however, still seems lost on many choreographers, directors and judges, pointing towards the necessity of formal mechanisms. However, even if dance reaches a point where cultural appropriation in performance is completely eradicated, significant cultural work focused on unlearning, addressing and rectifying will still remain. 

The inclusion of problematic choreographers and studios within the dance industry only continues when such goes unchecked, un-criticised and without reparation. As a community, we have the ability to radically change the dance industry through mutual discussion, reflection, accountability and compensation. It is our responsibility to educate, critique and cultivate environments where individuals are safe. It is our responsibility to engage with and support culturally diverse and marginalised artists. Individuals within the dance scene who continue to harm others have no place. Therefore, it is also our responsibility to boycott, hold publicly accountable and disrupt the individuals and studios which continue to choose harm. The dance industry needs to increase its self-reflection and self-critique. It is only through these mutual systems that dance can ever have the potential to be fully actualized as a safe and nurturing space. 

Instagram resources for inclusive dance

  • Freedomovement.co
  • __humxn
  • Aocinitiative 
  • Bl.ckb.rds
  • Bangarradancetheatre 
  • Bipocdancehealth
  • Hiphop4change
  • Thegoodproject_
  • Danceequityassociation
  • Thedanceunion
  • Thedancesafe
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