Formal-Aesthetic and Ethical Implications of Underage Dancers in Contemporary Choreography
In debates over the ethics of art, the visual arts, literature, and film have been at the fore. Performing art forms such as dance and music, on the other hand, are less frequently talked about, possibly due to their comparatively more abstract nature and the resulting larger gap between works of music and dance and everyday human life that concerns ethics. However, dance, by its very nature of using the human body as the medium, offers a plethora of material for discussing the interplay between ethics and aesthetics. The politics, ethics, and form of the dancing body, therefore, directly affect the aesthetic merit of a dance piece, choreographed work in particular.
Berys Gaut’s theory of ethicism argues that “if a work manifests ethically reprehensible attitudes, it is to that extent aesthetically defective, and if a work manifests ethically commendable attitudes, it is to that extent aesthetically meritorious.”1 This statement may be more applicable in evaluating narrative and commentary works such as literature, paintings, and film, as these kinds of media are more often the conventional way of delivering opinions and attitudes that more readily lend to ethical debates. While this is an insightful way of describing the relationship that ethics has to art, it is by no means the only way or a particularly relevant way, especially with respect to dance. The ethical evaluation of dance is complex and difficult in particular because the aesthetic value of a dance is more often attributed to its formal elements, such as gracefulness, complexity, and athleticism than to its expressed attitude on a topic.
There is a significant nuance in evaluating dance due to its dependency on the beauty of the dancing body: From a purely formal point of view (that is, disregarding the sociologically-based ideas of body positivity), how aesthetically pleasing a body looks directly affects how aesthetically pleasing the overall choreography will be. The age of the dancer and the corresponding physical development from child to adult, then, becomes a determining factor for the aesthetic merit of the work. Simultaneously, the age of the dancer also introduces an ethical dimension for evaluating the work, especially in the case of underage dancers coming in contact with explicit content in a piece of choreography. In the current age of pop culture, commercial dance has found inevitable ties with sexuality (due to its appeal to the mass public) but at the same time retained the doctrine of training dancers starting from a young age. Such a combination often results in the phenomenon of exposing minors to sexually explicit content that is inappropriate for the dancers’s age.
In order to discuss the ethical implications of commercial dance pieces, it is imperative to first establish them as art works, especially given the increasing gap between “high art” and “low art” and that commercial, pop-culture dance is often grouped in the latter category. While it is true that dance as mass-produced entertainment, especially in the current media age of hypersaturation, tends to lose its artistic merit, pop-culture dances are nonetheless bodies of creative expression and are measurable by aesthetic standards. To quote Tolstoy, “the presence in various degrees of . . . individuality, clearness, and sincerity . . . decides the merit of a work of art as art,” and “if all these conditions are present, even in the smallest, degree, then the work, even if a weak one, is yet a work of art.”2 The two works of pop-culture commercial dance examined in this essay, Matt Steffania and Josh Killacky’s 2018 choreography to Kanye West and Lil Pump’s “I Love It” and Yanis Marshall’s 2019 choreography to Normani’s “Motivation,” represent unique artistic expressions by the choreographers and successfully convey the formally abstract affects and energy with which the viewers perceive and empathize with.
In September 2018 choreographers Matt Steffanina and Josh Killacky collaborated on a piece of choreography set to “I Love It” by Kanye West and Lil Pump and taught it in an open class at the Millennium Dance Complex studio in Los Angeles, California. The resulting piece was released as a dance video onto YouTube that featured several dancers from the class, including three underage students. A social media uproar from seasoned industry choreographers and the general public erupted at the time of the video release protesting and condemning the choreographers’ choices to feature the three underage students in a piece of work whose form depends on the highly vulgar and sexually explicit music. Following the public outcry, the choreographers released a version of the video using a censored edit of the music.
Less pertaining to the ethics of the choreographers from an educational standpoint of teaching their pieces, the current debate is more about how the underage dancers and the related artistic decisions as a result affect the overall aesthetic merit of the piece. With that said, Steffanina and Killacky’s piece can be argued as ethically defective firstly by their choice of music. The lyrics of “I Love It” blatantly display a derogatory attitude towards women in its lyrics:
I’m a sick f**k, I like a quick f**k
I like my d*ck sucked, I’ll buy you a sick truck
I’ll buy you some new tits, I’ll get you that nip-tuck
How you start a family? The condom slipped up
I’m a sick f**k, I’m inappropriate
I like hearin’ stories, I like that ho sh*t
I wanna hear mo’ sh*t, I like the ho sh*t
Send me some mo’ sh*t, you triflin’ ho b*tch (b*tch, b*tch, b*tch)
You’re such a f**kin’ ho, I love it (I love it)
You’re such a f**kin’ ho, I love it (I love it)3
Underage dancers’ involvement aside, the choice to use “I Love It”—as opposed to a non-misogynistic song in the pop and hip-hop genre—indicates the choreographers’ indirect condoning of such the attitude expressed in the song. Viewers’ negative reaction toward the music choice may have an overpowering affect that prevents them from appreciating the creative artistry of the dance. The piece’s aesthetic merit, partly comprised of the music, which is an artistic choice of the choreographers, is thus decreased.
The inclusion of the underage dancers has a similar effect in that it opposes the viewers’ preexisting concept of morality, which condemns exposing minors to explicit sexual and derogatory content. The contrast brought by the censored version of the video, in which the curse words of the song are digitally manipulated such that they don’t sound like the original words, only complicates the matter. Such a manipulation has little to no ethical effects—that is, does not redeem the ethical merit of the piece—because the sentence structures and context of the lyrics still make apparent what the altered words were. As much of the audience noted following the edited video release, the choreographers’ effort to render the work non-explicit for the sake of the underage dancers is futile, especially considering how they most likely learned routine with the original, uncensored version of the music in the first place. What is even more interesting in this case is that the censored version actually decreases the piece’s aesthetic merit on the formal front as well. If one looks past both the derogatory attitude of the lyrics and the fact that underage dancers were involved, the choreography could be regarded as formally commendable because of the creative musicality, i.e. a particular movement texture or body part corresponds to a certain instrument in the music or the timing of certain syllables in the lyrics. Due to the way in which the lyrics were censored, however, the rhythm of the syllables were either altered or completely taken out, and as a result the musicality of the movements and therefore the formal aspect of the piece suffer. In this particular piece of choreography by Steffanina and Killacky, the inclusion of underage dancers prompted ethical debates of the inappropriate exposure to sexual content on a linguistic front, and in their efforts to redeem the ethical merit of their work through censorship, the choreographers actually hurt the formal artistry of piece.
In the same debate regarding ethics in dance works with respect to sexuality, the inappropriate exposure of underage dancers can also take physical, as opposed to linguistic, form. More recently in October 2019, Los Angeles-based choreographer Yanis Marshall created a routine to Normani’s song “Motivation” and taught it in Chengdu, China. Highly sensual in nature, the choreography was created and intended to be performed in stiletto heels and incorporated sexually explicit movements, which is typical of Marshall’s style as a whole. The resulting video publicly released on Marshall’s personal Instagram account featured eleven-year-old Amy, who clearly learned the routine with the other adult dancers. Perhaps foreseeing public backlash, Marshall justified his decision in teaching and featuring a minor by stating in the video caption,
“Fun fact, I don’t allow kids to take my class cuz I don’t think I’m appropriate for kids!!!!! But I know Amy for 3 years now and I used to say no but she would literally make a sad puppy face if I didn’t let her take class […] so now I let her because SHES JUST TOO SPECIAL. But I make sure the [routine] is appropriate enough for her… and no heels!!!”4
In comparison with Steffanina and Killacky’s piece, Marshall’s case has much more to do with the physical body of the underage Amy and the ethical and aesthetic relations between Amy and the sensual choreography. The choreography is clearly intended to feature the dancer’s body as sexually enticing: As seen in the unaltered version of the work with adult dancers, the piece is abound with sensual movements such as grabbing the crotch, touching up the glutes, tapping the chest, and posing in ways that accentuate the conventional feminine figure. As performed by adult dancers, the piece conveys a strong sense of celebrating sensual allure with the upbeat music and powerful, confident movements, but the effects are drastically different when the choreography is performed by Amy. Noting that Marshall altered the movements to be less explicit but still suggestive (in an effort to retain as much essence of the original work as possible), Amy’s body is still featured as sexual by the choreography, which is clearly unethical given her age. The issue of consent also comes into play in this instance: Much like how Sally Mann’s children were unaware of how and therefore did not consent to their naked bodies to being viewed as sexual in her famous photographs, it is possible that Amy did not intend to showcase herself as sexual, did not understand how her figure is sexualized when performing the choreography, and therefore could not consent to her body as portrayed in the way that it is.
Marshall’s decision to feature Amy decreased the aesthetic merit of his piece in two ways. Firstly, similar to Steffanina and Killacky’s case, the changes in the movements of the choreography took away from the piece’s intention of sexualizing the body, which is the essence of the work. Such a decrease in intensity of the message lessened the overall impact of the piece and therefore reduced its aesthetic merit. More important is the fact that by setting the choreography on a child’s body that has not undergone puberty and matured, Marshall’s movements lose their implications and value. The movements that clearly referred to a grown person’s breasts, genitals, and curved body lines can only deliver their message when those body features exist. The essence of the piece, with the message of celebrating the sexual body, is then lost when set on Amy who does not have the physical form needed to adequately deliver the message.
The ethical debate with regard to contemporary commercial dance may also take another form, one concerning public appeal and the artists’ notoriety. As a performing-art form, dance has long carried the expectation of delivering a spectacle to awe and impress the audience with virtuosity; the more extraordinary and difficult a piece is to reproduce, the more acclaimed it may be. This can manifest in technical skills (such as dancing en pointe in ballet), synchronicity among dancers (such as the massive production of Riverdance), or, in the cases at hand, the dramatic contrast between a dancer’s skills and the dancer’s age, which defies audience expectations. This is becoming increasingly prevalent in the dance entertainment industry as underage dancers gain attention and popularity, which is crucial for their potential professional career. At the same time, the choreographers that choose to feature accomplished young dancers also gain traction in influence, using the skill–age contrast of the underage students to highlight the difficulty and therefore impressiveness of their choreographic works. But as the above examples demonstrate, this mutually beneficial relationship, though able to produce aesthetically impressive and meritorious performances, can easily spill into the unethical realm due to the particular nature of and intentions behind the art pieces choreographed by adult artists.
In discussing the ethics of dance, many are inclined to focus on the art form from an educational perspective and debate about topics such as the duty of a responsible teacher and exploitation within dance as an industry, especially within the larger context of entertainment. But ethical implications with respect to choreographic works as stand-alone entities are seldom the center of attention; more specifically, there is rarely close consideration of the ethically condemnable artistic choices within a piece of choreography and effects of such choices on the overall aesthetic merit of the work. The above analysis of the two case studies, then, is not intended to focus on the broad ethics of underage dancers in the dance entertainment industry, but rather how the fact of the dancers’ being underage affect the aesthetic merit of the choreography in which they are featured. In Matt Steffanina and Josh Killarcky’s case, the censorship of profanities in the music—as an attempt to adhere to the conventions of ethical treatment of underage dancers—has a detrimental effect on the piece as a whole because it took away from the creative, commendable musicality such that movements no longer artistically correspond to the music. On the other hand, Yanis Marshall’s case of altering his sensual choreography in order to ethically feature Amy also negatively affected the art work because it took away from the essence and message of the choreography, which is further enforced by how Amy’s body, by the very fact that she is underage, is not an adequate vessel through which the choreography can deliver its meaning. While it may highlight the formal impressiveness of particular pieces, the choice of incorporating underage dancers may lead to both ethical and aesthetic debates of dance works’ overall merit.
- Berys (Gaut, “The Ethical Criticism of Art,” Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, edited by Steven M. Cahn (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 589.
- Leo Tolstoy, “What Is Art,” Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, edited by Steven M. Cahn (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 240.
- Kanye West and Lil Pump, “I Love It,” Spotify, Getting Out Our Dreams II, LLC and Warner Brothers Records, distributed by Def Jam, 2018.
- Yanis Marshall (@yanismarshall), “Fun fact, I don’t allow kids to take my class…,” Instagram Video, October 2, 2019.