Dance’s dark side under scrutiny

ON a quiet public holiday afternoon in Chiswick, in Sydney’s inner west, shop No 15-17, the headquarters of dance school The Next Step Performing Arts, presents a shuttered facade to the empty street. A stone’s throw away, dog owners unfurl Frisbees and joggers pound a running track with the Gladesville Bridge shrouded in smog in the distance. But on narrow, semi-industrial Bibby Street, lined with an unremarkable mix of warehouses, storage units and apartment blocks, there’s nary a sign of life. A year ago, a different dance school occupied these premises, its name emblazoned in big, bold, red letters out the front. The glass and red brick two-storey building was the headquarters of RG Dance, co-founded by siblings Grant and Rebecca Davies and celebrated as one of Sydney’s, and arguably Australia’s, most successful and high-profile dance schools.

Known for its distinctive brand of technical virtuosity (“Their precision was ridiculous,” recalls a dance industry insider) and acrobatic flair imported from American dance’s flashy, razzle-dazzle culture, RG Dance produced students who blazed trails and set trends at dance competitions across the nation, particularly in NSW and Queensland. Aged mostly between eight and 14, the school’s elite dancers appeared in major mainstage productions such as The Lion King and Billy Elliot, on national “RG Famous” tours with American dance stars, and overseas. These pint-size stars had their own highly popular fan pages on Facebook (more than 30,000 people reportedly followed the company on social media), their rehearsals documented on RG’s YouTube channel, Twitter and Instagram accounts. They shaped local dance culture, sparking copycat trends in choreography, music choice and costumes — and, even, according to some dance watchers, a certain thin and muscly body shape complete with what was known as the “RG six-pack”, evident on some former students as young as eight.

The company figurehead was Grant Davies, 39, a pudgy, charismatic figure with a toothy smile and a trademark porkpie hat. Insiders describe him as one of the most influential figures in the Australian youth dance industry, an award-winning teacher, an author and a motivational speaker dubbed “Mr Media” for his pioneering use of social media to market and cross-promote not only the company and its dancers but his bestselling books and DVDs, holiday workshops, master classes and “mind and body” seminars.

The implosion of the company, when it came, was sudden. In May last year, Davies was arrested at a North Strathfield bowling alley and charged with multiple child abuse offences. He was denied bail. A week after his arrest, RG Dance ceased trading. In September, a Sydney woman, 42, was sentenced to a minimum of 18 months’ jail for producing and disseminating child abuse material involving her own daughters, aged 10 and 13, who were students at the school, with a judge finding she had done so in pursuit of “the promise of fame”. The court heard the woman sent at least 30 videos and 100 sexually explicit pictures of the girls to Davies. She is reportedly the second mother convicted of child sex offences after a West Australian woman was given an eight-month suspended sentence earlier this year following interactions with Davies. Davies, meanwhile, is facing 63 charges of sexually assaulting, grooming and taking naked photographs of 10 students going back to 2004. He awaits trial and will appear on Monday in Sydney’s Burwood Local Court for a hearing.

Sydney dance teacher Dodie Wilson says Davies’s arrest “hit the industry like a bomb”. The fallout ranged from “scores” of male teachers being fired, Wilson claims (“straight, gay, brilliant, it didn’t matter”), to alarmed parents pulling their children out of dance classes, to teachers second-guessing the use of physical contact in correcting students.

Reflecting on the repercussions of the scandal, Dance Australia’s Karen van Ulzen wrote that “the RG Dance scandal has cast a poisonous shadow over the dance teaching profession. This is a great shame, as most teachers are honourable people with nothing but their pupils’ welfare at heart. However, unfortunately accusations of sexual abuse are not unknown in the dance world. Whether false or otherwise, the fact that dance is a physical occupation, with the body as its main object of focus, makes teachers vulnerable to such charges.”

Questions were raised about the rise of age-inappropriate costumes, music and choreography as part of an emerging “raunch culture” in sections of Australian youth dance, and the lack of regulation and requirements for formal training in large swaths of an industry that caters to almost half a million children in Australia.

Shortly after Davies’s arrest, leading dance industry figures convened meetings to explore the need for better industry safeguards, while eisteddfod committees issued new rules tackling skimpy costuming, inappropriate lyrics and suggestive dance. (Queensland’s Sunshine Coast Dance Eisteddfod sparked headlines when it announced competitors in future “must wear a pair of flesh tights and avoid the overextended (turned in/inverted) mount with the crotch facing the audience”.) Among a raft of measures, the NSW Office of the Children’s Guardian ran 14 specialised child-safety seminars across NSW with more than 100 dance organisations.

From new, stricter social media codes of conduct and dressing areas banning males, to the use of surveillance cameras, viewing windows in studios for parents and other onlookers, and so-called “modesty clauses” in the rules governing a growing number of dance competitions that proscribe skimpy attire and certain moves (Bendigo eisteddfod convener Danielle Cook says they have given ­previously intimidated judges the confidence to publicly ­address their concerns), it was all on the agenda as the industry scrambled to repair the damage.

Eighteen months on, however, Peter Oxford, founder and national director of Showcase Dance, billed as Australia’s largest dance competition, tells Review the industry remains “completely unregu­lated” by the government nationally. He says three weeks after Davies’s arrest, he and former RG Dance teacher and whistleblower Tracie-Marie Seipel called a national meeting with key dance groups, studios and representatives of Ausdance, the peak body for dance in Australia.

On the agenda were proposals to establish a national governing body, a comprehensive child-safety training program and an accreditation scheme. This would be targeting the vast number of dance schools in Australia that operate apart from the major dance-syllabus organisations, schools that have their own rules, exams and accreditation ­procedures.

Also high on the agenda was addressing the fact anyone can open a dance school in Australia. This is in stark contrast to children’s sports in Australia, says Wilson, who points to the comprehensive accreditation required for coaches as well as the rules and codes of behaviour that govern teachers, participants, media, administrators, parents and spectators in everything from junior gymnastics and martial arts to swimming (which has policies on everything from gender and change-room access to child welfare) and rugby. “Why is dance different?” asks Wilson, who, like many Review spoke to, would like to see the introduction of new guidelines modelled on the codes of behaviour for junior sport developed by the Australian Sports Commission and put in place by individual sporting associations.

The lack of formal dance training requirements for many in the dance industry is particularly glaring given the strict requirements in junior sport. Australian swimming, for example, has a four-tier system of coaching, according to the Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association. Coaching licences are issued “recognising a combined theory knowledge and practical competency with an agreement to a code of behaviour, a nationwide criminal record check, Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association membership and ongoing professional development”. The coaching pathway usually begins by gaining a Swim Australia Teacher of Competitive Swimming accreditation or similar.

Oxford says those at the meeting voted to get Ausdance to take a leadership role in setting up a national regulatory body so, as Seipel said at the time, “we can run a preventative industry, not a reactionary one”. The idea drew wide support across the industry, with the artistic director of Sydney’s Brent Street company, Cameron Mitchell, telling Review the company would welcome a “regulatory authority for dance schools”. But Oxford is furious about what he perceives to be Ausdance’s laggardly ­approach in creating the conditions for change. “They receive government funding as the peak body for dance in Australia but they have done absolutely nothing. Nowhere in the dance industry is the government stepping in and saying you need to be regulated. I would say to parents, would you take your child to a childcare centre or physiotherapist that wasn’t regulated? So why not the same standards for dance studios?”

The chief executive of Ausdance, Roslyn Dundas, says Oxford’s claims of inaction are unfair, and that it takes time to enact change in a “very diverse” dance industry that encompasses everything from folk dancing to suburban jazz and tap schools. Ausdance has created guidelines on a code of ethics for dance teachers and child-safety protection, among other things, and is in regular talks with the industry on issues of regulation, training and education, she says.

“We understand the concerns cases of this nature will undoubtedly raise for dance teachers and for the parents of existing and future dance students … Ausdance is committed to providing resources which help to facilitate the highest possible quality of dance education and training in this country.”

Regulatory matters a-side, the industry is also grappling with a growing concern over issues ranging from the perceived rise of an inappropriately sexualised culture on the national com-peti­tion circuit (think a 10-year-old gyrating in fishnets, stripper heels and hot pants to Ke$ha’s Blow at an end-of-year jazz recital at an RSL club) to the rise of too many “tricks” at the expense of artistry. Maxine Chalinor, secretary of the Association of Eisteddfod Societies of Australia, which represents about 100 groups in Australia, says that “at my own eisteddfod, we had a sponsor threaten to pull out his sponsorship after a particularly suggestive routine was performed”.

Recently on popular Australian Facebook dance page Dance Debrief, a lively forum for thousands of dance parents who swap tips and advice on costumes, training and choreography, and post alerts for upcoming auditions for big shows (Matilda and so on), a senior adjudicator decried the rising prevalence of offensive lyrics, swearing and junior dancers “aping” older ones and focusing on “the commercial contemporary style craze” at the expense of ballet and other dance training.

Also deeply concerned is Chalinor, who says that “at several meetings, we have also had reported a rise in voyeurism at eisteddfod competitions and we put this down to the costumes and routines now being presented”.

Then there’s the spread of a largely unsupervised social media culture among young dancers, with dance insiders highlighting the potential for abuse in the proliferation of students online (many well under Facebook’s age guideline of 13). Also under examination is the perceived rise of overly tough training, excessive hours of classes, and dietary regimes involving “fat shaming” and food diaries.

Dance insiders say the high-profile RG Dance helped pioneer many of the more contentious trends, including certain moves such as the vertical leg mount, skimpy attire and an unrealistically thin body aesthetic.

Gold Coast studio owner Georgia Canning says “they came up here with eight, 10-year-olds with abs, and in my opinion it was inappropriate and unnecessary”.

Facing commercial pressure, many studios copied them as they were losing students to RG, says Wilson, who says she’s taken a stand by instituting a rule that requires crop tops be 7cm from the bust in her new competition: “Sadly we have a lot of sheep in the industry. A lot of it is about money and keeping parents happy.”

A former RG Dance parent, Mandy Toa, provides a spirited defence, however, telling Review she never saw a food diary used in the five years her daughters danced at the studio, and she still strongly believes “RG Dance was a positive experience for most of us … It was a strict studio in terms of rules [and] respect. You called teachers ‘Miss Rebecca’ or ‘Mr Kris’, you wore a bun for every class, you wore correct uniform. The kids worked hard but were always smiling. They had fun.”

She adds that “it is true that RG in Australia adopted the American-style ‘razzle dazzle’ dancing, with moves such as the leg mount, the kick turn, fouettes and multiple pirouettes — moves which in earlier years RG was polarised for, but are now adopted by the majority of dance schools. I clearly disagree that any of those moves deserve the tag ‘raunchy’. To me raunchy is a ‘slut drop’ (a dance move involving standing with legs bending at the knees, squatting until the buttocks almost reach the floor and standing back up with a body roll) or pelvic thrusting, such as years ago where I saw a troupe, no older than 12 and under, performing to Maneater and the sole boy thrusting sexually at his female partner. That was inappropriate. A leg mount is not.” (Many, such as Victorian dance teacher Brian Nolan, agree, saying these are normal dance elements used to demonstrate flexibility; Dance Australia editor van Ulzen says it is not much different to the ballet move developpe a la second).

Part of a vocal, highly engaged group of dance parents, Toa is not opposed to some degree of regulation, but does not want to see the introduction of rules requiring compulsory stockings or one-piece costumes in eisteddfods. She says inappropriateness has not been a serious issue in her 12 years as a dance mum, and that skimpy attire is no more attractive to pedophiles than “a kid in a Target catalogue”. Veteran adjudicator Rebecca Dwyer disagrees, saying she has spotted scores of “pretty dubious older” men on their own in audiences across the years; men who, she believes, regard these dance competitions as “cheap pole-dancing shows with children ... it’s sick”.

When contacted by Review, former RG Dance co-director Rebecca Davies, who is now working as a freelance dance teacher, initially is open to the idea of discussing the issues but her lawyers later email to say they have “advised (her) that she cannot, at this time, answer those questions prior to the court matters relating to Grant Davies being finalised” and that she will respond upon “finalisation of Grant Davies’s court matters”. Others have been willing to speak up on her behalf. Melbourne dance studio owner Cathy-Lea Smith, who has employed Davies as a teacher this year, vouches for her “personal integrity and ethics … I am aware of many of the claims that have been made against her. I know she can defend all of these.”

Dance critics stress that the vast majority of dance parents are sensible and supportive, seeing dance as an enjoyable recreational activity for their children. But there has certainly been an upswing, say many dance watchers, in pushy stage parents with unrealistic ambitions.

Eisteddfod judges tell Review of the rise of a win-at-all costs stage-mother culture and speak of being verbally abused as “prudes” or “cows”. One says she was ostracised for voicing criticism; some say they’ve been intimidated into self-censorship. Dwyer says she was confronted by an angry mother and then featured negatively on the front page of the local paper in Rockhampton after she criticised an eight-year-old competitor’s attire — “stripper heels, fishnets, a unitard with a vee cut from the bust to the pubic bone. There had been a murder overnight, but there I was ... almost run out of town.”

Toa says she was horrified by comments made in court by the husband of the recently sentenced RG Dance mother claiming the school was a “cult” and his wife had been brainwashed. “So many of us (former RG parents) are offended by this as we would never have done the horrendous things she did.”

Canning is perturbed by what she says is a small core of parents who “over-post” and “overshare” an “unhealthy” amount of imagery, breeding a culture of hyper-competitiveness among schools, parents and students. Nolan speaks of a curious parental “blindness” or lack of concern when it comes to oversexualised routines. Insiders testify to the rise of a new breed of aggressively fame-focused stage mother, with Chalinor reporting some bringing in hairdressers and makeup artists and engaging in “one-upmanship” with evermore expensive costumes. Wilson says there’s a sometimes vic­ious culture of slander and abuse on dance blogs targeting those who criticise.

AMERICAN dance star Hayden Hopkins, 17, who has an almost 190,000-strong Instagram following, is aware how difficult it is to make the leap from amateur youth dance competition to life as a professional dancer, and cautions parents to keep this in mind. Nolan says many parents fail to realise there are “very, very few” jobs down the track: perhaps one in 400 dancers in ballet, and one in 100 in theatre, will make it professionally, he says. Most have little or no chance of landing permanent slots in the Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company or any of Australia’s mainstage companies. The lucky ones land some work on the big show circuit (Dwyer cites dancer Steven Grace, “the boy in the original Strictly Ballroom movie and (who) is now the dance captain for the current Strictly Ballroom musical”) or become teachers and choreographers.

Dance watchers say the so-called raunch culture in dance is being fuelled by everything from music videos and pop idols such as Miley Cyrus and Beyonce, to hip-hop culture and television dance shows such as Dance Moms, the hit US reality show depicting students from the Abby Lee dance school. Van Ulzen cites the creeping influence of pageantry culture exemplified by shows such as Toddlers and Tiaras and teachers “over-anxious” to present students in professional-looking pieces that ape Broadway. Brent Street’s Mitchell says: “Kids like to emulate their favourite pop icon such as Beyonce or Rihanna, but unfortunately some of their material is inappropriate for children. As teachers we must be aware that there is a very fine line between what is considered cutting edge and what is too adult.”

Critics say young Australian dancers are highly influenced by the glitzy culture of American dance, with its reigning pint-size stage super­stars, including Abby Lee star Maddie Zie­gler, who has 2.2 million followers on Instagram and is famous for dancing in Sia’s Chandelier film clip; Asia Monet Ray, 9, a YouTube star with her own reality show; Sophia Lucia, 11, a special guest with the RG Famous tour of Tasmania last year; Hopkins; and Autumn Miller, 13, star of an infamous Dance Precisions routine involving a troupe of seven-year-olds whose gyrations to Beyonce’s Single Ladies went viral with two million views.

But Hopkins, a highly influential dance industry figure who will be doing master classes in Australia next month, says fingers are being unfairly pointed at American dance. “Dance Moms is a TV show. It is not the reality of dance … The skimpiest costumes I have ever seen are from Australian dancers. In my experience, I think Australian dancers are trying so hard to live up to this false sense of what the American dance world really is.”

Smith points to the influence of shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and says that “before “blaming” Rebecca for some of the things I have seen her accused of, perhaps the media should be asking parents to take account of the choices they made for their children and consider the role of television, YouTube and social media in trends in the dance world”.

Oxford is so concerned by the seemingly unrestrained use of social media among young dancers he is instituting a new social media code of conduct policy at Showcase (“I’m jumping up and down trying to educate kids that you can’t take photos in dressing-rooms and post them online, but it’s very difficult”). He also has staff and parents monitoring the use of mobile phone cameras among the audience. Van Ulzen says bluntly that parents “should not be opening Facebook pages for their children”. New Eng­land dance parent Jan Shepherd is amazed by the “cyber naivety” of parents who upload videos of their children to YouTube. “I used to run a five-day competition in rural NSW and it seems bizarre to me that we do spend an inordinate amount of energy protecting children from unauthorised photography and videoing and yet we let them go on stage and ‘sex it up’.”

Canning finds it deeply frustrating trying to protect her students. “They all have Instagram accounts and Facebook pages and Tumblr, and they copy their dance idols and post pictures of themselves without realising what’s appropriate.”

There is also growing concern over what many say is a culture of overtraining and harsh dietary restrictions. Insiders speak of young children training up to 20 hours a week. Says Nolan: “It is strange that the focus is on one individual — Grant Davies — and not on the bigger problem of untrained, unqualified teachers who can open up a dancing school and teach, unlike aerobics, personal trainers or gym instructors. In some cases these students are so poorly trained that it borders on child abuse as some children are almost physically deformed.”

Canning says this abuse also encompasses “eating, nutrition, food diaries, putting weights on your legs to make sure you’re more flexible and all sorts of things that are not best for a developing body”.

Wilson says some dancers have a certain look: overtraining, she claims, results “in their growth being stunted, they are short, ridiculously thin, overtoned, the shoulders are shrugged forward”. But Toa says she was aware of only one injury in five years at RG Dance, and a healthy eating policy was in place: “Children couldn’t eat chips in the studio.”

SO where to from here? In the matter of national regulation, Lisa Maloney, secretary of Australian Dance Adjudicators, says each eisteddfod sets its own guidelines or code of ethics and adjudicators make comments on appropriateness as individuals — “but acceptance of those views is not always positive”. Dwyer and many others want national guidelines, saying it would take the pressure off judges.

Toa says, however, that a general consensus on appropriateness is highly difficult to achieve; in addition, there are regional differences to contend with, with Queenslanders tending to be less liberal than their southern counterparts. She cautions against overly proscriptive legislation, as does van Ulzen, who, while seeing the practical need for a national governing body, warns of overreacting with “draconian” legislation. She says dance culture has traditionally had a more liberal approach to the presentation of the body. Toa supports instead practical “safe dance” practices such as open-door policies in studios, security cameras, mandatory police checks and accreditation.

Others are not as laissez-faire, saying regulation is more needed than ever. Chalinor said earlier this year that the growing sexualised stage culture was “becoming a child protection issue”. Canning, 24, says it’s become rapidly worse in the few short years since she was performing and studios are under increasing commercial pressure to adopt dubious dance tactics.

Mirroring the views of many dance organisations, Stephanie King, general manager of Brent Street, says it “would support a move for it being compulsory for all organisations which work with children or provide services to children to have a well-developed child-safety policy that is monitored by the Children’s Guardian”.

Oxford says he will keep pushing for a national governing body to provide guidance, particularly for all those who aren’t members of the major dance-syllabus organisations. He’s heartened, meanwhile, by a slow swing of the cultural pendulum to a climate of greater awareness and restraint: “We’ve been really monitoring it this year — we say, if it can’t be shown on the Disney channel, it can’t be shown at Showcase.”

Canning stresses “that for every teacher doing the wrong thing, there are 10 good teachers doing the right thing. I just hope everyone sticks to their guns and slowly we can change the culture.”

Hopkins, too, is optimistic. “I believe the dance world is filled with creative, talented people and I hope that the focus will turn towards [them] rather than the few who are tarnishing the image of the dance world.”

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