I have been dancing since before I was two years old. I joined a competitive dance team at age four, and other than a 10-month sabbatical in fifth grade, I’ve been in the competitive dance world since then. Growing up in all of that craziness, it hardly registers as odd. But now, as I start crawling towards end of my senior year of high school and my final season of dance, I have taken a more reflective position. As I continue to train and compete, I’ve started to take a step back from this dramatic, glittery world I grew up in.
In my studio, there’s a plaque reading, “I’m so glam I sweat glitter.” That is the life motto of serious competitive dancers and crazy dance teachers. It’s perfectly representative of the superficiality of this world.
Dance competitions take themselves way too seriously to start with. Somehow, the people who run dance competitions have managed to scam thousands of reasonably intelligent parents into paying sixty to one hundred extra dollars, to enter for the chance for their daughter to win a plastic tiara and glitter-painted sash. This phenomenon is called entering to win “title.” Somehow, the retired dance teachers that run dance competitions have convinced people that being chosen to be “Junior Miss Elite Dance Challenge,” or “Miss Headliners,” is one of the most important things for a young dancer to aspire to.
Abby Lee Miller, the psychopathic, verbally abusive dance teacher that threw dance competitions into the equally crazy world of reality TV, has been known to throw this question around when auditioning new members for her team: “How many titles have you won?” Now, this is where competitive dance starts to differ drastically from professional dance. As professional as Abby Lee Miller thinks she is, no casting director on Broadway is ever going to ask an auditioning dancer, “How many competition titles have you won?” And why not? Because it’s stupid, that’s why.
Speaking of dance teachers, my dance teacher used to be normal. I’ve known Ashley since I was a baby. She owned the preschool I went to and she owns the studio I’ve spent so many years at. She used to be a sane, normal, sweet woman. Then our team got good. For years our even our most proficient dancers were mediocre at best. But about three years ago, something changed in several of us. We suddenly started to fix all of our technical mistakes and got to be pretty decent dancers. And it drove Ashley mad.
I haven’t heard a gentle criticism in three years. Now, Abby Lee Miller’s screaming and terror tactics didn’t seem so far-fetched. As my mom observed yesterday, several of us have learned the warning signs. You know how animals can tell there’s a forest fire before they see it so the run to a river or something? It’s a similar reaction on the dance floor when Ashley starts to get mad.
If we are in two lines, moving one at a time in some technical exercise across the floor, For a while, Ashley will make the occasional correction to the people who are really struggling. She will make the same correction to someone twice, three times, maybe four if they’re lucky, and then she will get very quiet. First she tucks her lips in and pops them every once in a while in a loud smack. A few of the older girls, the A-team (myself included), who have been here forever take this as a warning. We check our technique and pay extra attention to whatever little mistake we might be making to upset her. Next, she will sigh loudly and shift her weight from one foot to the other, back and forth, crossing and uncrossing her arms. The small few of us check our posture, pull in our stomachs, and brace for the explosion. You know you’re in trouble when she starts biting her lips. Although the few of us that know these warning signs wouldn’t dare make a peep at this point, the new kids, the B-team, and some of the cockier members of the A-team who think they can’t make mistakes, are still chattering away as if nothing is wrong. We do one more pass across the floor in this state. If enough people still aren’t performing adequately, she will march right over to the stereo and turn off the music right as someone is in the middle of the exercise. And then she will yell. She will shame everyone in the room for making her repeat the same corrections over and over, even if only one or two people didn’t fix their mistake.
You see, when our team got good, Ashley got frustrated. She saw the potential was there. She kept saying “you are so close!” We just needed to fix a few more of our mistakes, but then we’d be “so close!” Close to what? Close to winning a title. This world and these people take their competitions so seriously. Every sequin must be carefully arranged; hair must be slicked back. Not a split end out of place to distract the judges from your (hopefully) flawless performance.
These competitions, with their plastic tiaras and their “Miss Headliners 2014” sashes in glittery type, make people take themselves way too seriously. They make people scream at children about the way their legs sit in their hip sockets. It’s insane. In all of my college essays where I mention dance, I talk about how I learned practical, meaningful skills like teamwork and dedication. That’s all true, but recently I’ve found something else to add to that list. I learned not to take my self or other people too seriously. If a hair is out of place, the world will not end. If my legs don’t turn out exactly the way ballet technique says they should be, I will not necessarily die alone. These things are not related. These things that cause life-threatening explosions that make me want to hide under my bed, will not matter in ten years. The things that matter so much to Ashley and Abby Lee Miller will not ruin my life. It’s taken me months of reflection and purposefully removing myself from that environment to realize this. It’s such a relief.