A dance studio in Australia posted an ad noting that they would start pole dance lessons for kids as young as 10.
Immediate outrage ensued and a parent noted that pole dancing is “not a sport” and that such objectifies girls.
A feminist-based Australian group took up the cause. Their conclusion: no one should pole dance until they are 18. Where are the parents’ and girls’ voices in this?
I am not a dancer, but I have spent a good portion of my life around dance, and I want to reassure all of you that pole dancing is a sport and has a long artistic history. In fact, many kids start pole dancing much younger than 10. Just do a YouTube search for kids and pole dancers and it becomes clear.
A few years ago, 9-year old Emily Moskalenko wowed people with her incredible pole dance skill. The video has 132 million views, and it is one of the better performances I have seen.
I wonder how it cannot be a sport? Are parents or such feminist-focused organizations that call out “sexualized” performances helping young girls or are they contributing the to stigma and degradation of girls that want to be in “feminine” sports? Are they not the ones assisting sexist men in focusing more on girls’ bodies than their skill levels? Banning girls for doing something they want to do is oppressive.
Pole Dancing is About Skill and Toughness, not Bodies
One thing is clear, Moskalenko’s routine is incredibly difficult, even dangerous; however, there is no recognition of the skill pole dancing takes, only these parents’ and organizations’ obsession with the sexualized body that gets attention.
The argument is that pole dancing is all about the sex industry, so if young girls do pole dancing, then it’s setting them up to be adult entertainers. Such a position is really an attempt to control girls’ bodies and make them fit a moral purity model that dates back a couple of hundred years.
Such reminds me when I was younger. In my community, if we said a girl was a dancer, everyone assumed that she was a stripper. Dance has an artistic history. Classical ballet makes unnatural movement look natural, and modern dance celebrates the body and its movement. Ballet tends to be more conservative; whereas modern dance (or even pole dancing), is more contemporary and revealing.
Are dance and pole dancing sexualized? In short, it can be. We have young people in tight skimpy clothing moving their bodies. We watch dance to watch the body perform. The feminine nature of dance, the girlishness of dancers, and the skill draws many. However, there is a reason for make-up and such clothing beyond sex appeal.
When hanging ten feet in the air twirling, the last thing the dancer needs is her long dress getting caught on the pole. She could get seriously injured or even killed. Less clothing is better. The same is true for a floor dancer. If she is doing a backflip, baggy clothing could seriously injure her. Maybe the real question is why are we so afraid of a girl’s body? When did something so natural, a human body, become shameful?
When watching the body, bulky clothes can be distracting. Often underwear is not worn because it simply looks bulky and ugly under a uniform or in lights. Even a different nail polish under lights can look ugly. Makeup is used by the dancers so that their faces do not get flushed out by bright lights. Dancers almost always use heavy makeup. Such is not to encourage them to have careers in the adult industry but to assist them in playing different roles and performances. Children play at being an adult: it’s called childhood.
Here is another dance by Olivia Taylor, also 9-years old.
Some will feel that such a dance is very sexualized, but what concerns me is that this child is incredibly skilled, the dance is tight, and she has wonderful and mature facial expressions. She, like Moskalenko, is performing in a safe space, not an adult night club.
Why is it that these girls’ skills are never mentioned? If the difficulty is addressed at all, some say it’s abuse. Yet, I always admired these girls for their toughness, beauty, and skill. In fact, dancers are the toughest and most feminist women I know.
Parents Parenting Other Parents is Not Okay
In this way, the critical-parent argument sounds very much like the sexist male argument in that the only focus is on the girl’s body and her “self-image” instead of acknowledging the child’s talent and skill. Pole dancing and dance, in general, involve discipline, making quick changes, working in a group, and performing in front of a huge crowd. Are these not worthwhile skill sets?
Yes, there are drawbacks and dangers: eating disorders, obsession over looking a certain way, and parents trying to live through their children, but any competitive sport has its risks. Simply banning sports because of exaggerated fears, religious moral arguments or political agendas places girls into the same sexist boxes they have struggled with for years. Often, their male peers perform shirtless and also wear tight clothing.
The accusation that such dance encourages girls to be part of the adult sex industry ignores the major reason girls end up in compromising situations, income disparity.
Girl’s Exploitation is Not About Pole Dancing, It’s Economic Disparity
A model scout named Ashley Sabin in the troubling documentary Girl Model notes that many Russian girls can only get out of Russia if they are models, gymnasts, dancers or prostitutes. She explains that prostitution and one of the others almost always come together.
However, it is not these sports that cause prostitution. It’s the desperate situation the girls and these families find themselves in. Agencies like Switch models come along and offer the girls $8000 contracts in Japan. Often the girls come back home $2000 in debt. It’s a labor trafficking setup that can lead to the sex trafficking of minors for “high end” agencies. The girls’ only choice is to go back.
The girls that get exploited through labor and sex trafficking are those that are vulnerable economically. I find it hard to believe that a middle or upper-class parent, male or female, has much understanding of what it’s like to be a poor Russian or South American girl that wants to get out of a horrible situation and help her family. Often, they only have their bodies and nothing else.
And that is the real danger. Are we not, whether we are Australians or Americans, usurping other cultures and traditions in favor of our own? Is our Puritanical moral history not full of oppression, exploitation, and vices? The very economic disparities that many girls face are arguably a result of the free market system the U.S. created and imposed upon the world.
Are the child models of Belankazar on YouTube subjugated or exploited, or is that an upper-class elite view from the West that privileges our own concepts of right and wrong over what we call “third-world” cultures?
Or will a country on the verge of war force such girls in very dangerous situations? Can we celebrate a body and not be abusing the one that owns it? Can men like these videos and not be sexual predators? Often, it feels that our desire for freedom is making all of us bound by chains.
These can be difficult questions, but what is clear is that these dancers and models are very popular worldwide. That popularity plus economic desperation can be a dangerous combination for attractive and vulnerable kids. However, sports, even artistic ones, are not the cause of girls’ oppression and exploitation. Greed and desire are and the men that want them.
For the West, Girlhood, Sexuality, and Trauma are the Same
What is needed, and such is especially difficult in our hyper-emotional culture, is a happy medium. Trying to purify our young girls of any sexuality or appeal is dangerous, and allowing modeling agencies to exploit them freely is also very dangerous and inhumane. Yet, as a parent, telling girls and their parents that kids cannot dance or model until they are 18 is the worst form of oppression.
I cannot help but think that part of the reason we have child exploitation is because of our overreaction to it. In our current political culture to be a girl is to be traumatized, and sexuality equals trauma in the West. We are social and hypocritical creatures, and our interest in others, in what is beautiful and artistic, is not limited to adults only. To see such through that lens is to miss what is wonderful about young people: they can be as artistically beautiful as adults can be.
In the near-decade that I have been studying childhood and YouTube online, one thing becomes very clear. Men and boys sexualize every part of a young girl’s body, and such has little or nothing to do with dance nor with pedophilia.
If we want to change girls from exploitation, don’t ask them to change their clothes, and don’t scold parents and expect them to have other people’s or countries’ values. Help men change the way they treat girls. We should stop over-sexualizing girls in the name of over-sexualizing them.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.