When I was a kid, my entire life was centered around dance. I started taking lessons when I was two, and danced until I was eighteen. At one point, I was at my dance studio three days a week for at least two hours. I spent most of my Fridays there, going right after school and not leaving until after dark. It was a lot, no doubt, and it consumed my life and my mother’s until I was a teenager and she didn’t have to take me anymore.
These days, however, it seems that dance is even more intense and time-consuming than it was when I was a kid. Why? Competitive dance.
When I was a kid in the 90s, competitive dance wasn’t really a big thing. Yes, there were competitions, but not on the same scale as today. Now, it’s more than just something fun; it’s a lifestyle — and one that requires a lot of sacrifices for the children who choose to participate and their families.
Unlike dance lessons, competitive dance requires a lot of training, usually on weekends, and usually focused on styles of dance that include hip hop, jazz, ballet or contemporary. These children (usually girls) are often seen as the “elite” of their dance studio, which has teams of girls specifically devoted to competition. Even within the team, certain students are singled out for solos, duos and trios, on top of whatever group dances they may have. These teams have an arsenal of dances to carry them throughout the competition season, which usually lasts from September to July. Each dance has its own costume, which is often an extravagant upgrade to a regular dance recital costume.
This New York Times feature went behind the scenes of one particular New Jersey dance studio’s team of competitive dancers, and it was an eye-opening account of a world that’s a total mystery to outsiders. Even though I had been a dancer for a number of years, with my dancing years long behind me, I had no idea that competitive dance was such a phenomenon.
Since it first started in the 1970s, Showstopper — one of the first competitions — has grown significantly from its modest beginnings when it was operated out of the back of a station wagon. Per the Times, as of 2016, there were approximately 52,000 competitive dancers competing in Showstopper, and it needed a semi-truck just to hold the trophies.
Even though there are no solid numbers on its scope, one thing that’s for sure is that has exploded since the premiere of the Lifetime network show Dance Moms in 2011. Many of the young dancers featured on that show have gotten a major career boost from the exposure, and have fiercely loyal followings. I have to admit, the show does make the world of competitive look appealing, even with all the drama. And it makes sense that so many girls are pulled to want to compete. The girls are without a doubt talented, and their drive is almost intoxicating.
To try and get a better understanding of how this all works, I spoke to two real life “dance moms.” Their experiences are their own, but some things are universal. First off, the cost. Competition season ain’t cheap. Mary B., who has two girls, ages five and seven (some girls start competing as young as four. Four!) is shelling out approximately $2,500 on costumes, competition fees, and private lessons for solos. This doesn’t even include the $2,700 she paid in dance school tuition, or the cost of things like gas or hotel stays.
Another mom, a friend of mine, who has a tween daughter says that she spends between $8,000 and $9,000 a year on competitions, and her daughter started competing at five. Some of these costumes can cost upwards of $400 because they’re custom-made, or hand-tailored, or rhinestoned on literally every available surface of fabric. The costumes are like your average dance recital gear turned up a million notches. You can practically see these fucking things from space, that’s how shiny they are. And every dance has its own costume. If your kid competes in five dances…well, you do the math (and make sure you’re sitting down when you do).
“These kids are like gladiators. The dominating, the mind games, the winning. It’s all strategic,” Jared Grines — tap dancer, competition judge and teacher at the New York City Dance Alliance — told the Times. And he’s right. These girls are putting in some serious work. Competition is the equivalent of a job; some kids can have anywhere between 10 and maybe 30 hours a week of rehearsal, including Saturdays. There can be upwards of seven group dances for one kid, and then add in maybe a solo, duo, and/or trio on top of that. So one kid could be doing ten dances in one competition. Yikes.
The group dances are a beast in and of themselves, but it gets complicated when you throw in the individual dances. The time commitment alone is overwhelming. And this is on top of school and homework.
Which begs the question: when do these kids have time to hang out with their friends? During competitions, girls are packed into small backstage areas at places like hotels and convention centers for 12 hours a day, sometime for several days. There isn’t much to do but practice, sit and watch the competition and fester in their own perpetual state of nervousness.
Because this is some high-level anxiety shit, folks. Even though these girls are a “team,” they’re also competing against each other. One minute they’re in a group, and the next minute Tiffany and Ashley are competing against each other in the solo category. While not every kid is at a cut-throat level of competition within their team, it’s easy to understand where hurt feelings and pettiness can come into play. These are young girls, ranging from 7 to 17, so feelings can easily get hurt. As supportive as they may be, they’re still humans and they’re young. For many of them, much of their self-worth is tied to competing, so naturally, they take things personally.
One mom admitted that drama ran rampant at her daughter’s dance studio. She knew that it was all too much, especially when her daughter was younger, but she also knew that if she tried to deviate from the status quo, there would be hell to pay. She told me that if she pulled her daughter from even one dance she’d be “blacklisted.”
“I should have said no,” she told Scary Mommy. “But it’s all a big mind game.” After taking a year off for a mental health break, her daughter is back to competing, but on a modified course.
That’s not to say all dance studios are like that. Meredith told us that her daughters’ dance studio is a largely positive place to be “even when the teachers are strict, they aren’t mean. And moms never yell. I mean, maybe at their own kid once in a while, but not like [the moms you see on Dance Moms]. Girls do cry when they mess up, but they have so much support from everyone.”
It’s absolutely bonkers to me that a twelve-year-old girl has to take a mental health break from something that should be fun, and it’s disconcerting to know that there are plenty of places where that kind of behavior is the norm.
Should girls who should be dancing for the fun and joy of it be pushed to the emotional brink? Or to the physical brink? And for what? A trophy? Bragging rights? For every Maddie Ziegler, there are literally thousands of girls who never move beyond amateur competitive dance.
So I guess the real question is: Is it worth it?