It is my absolute pleasure to feature the Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (Y.P.A.D) organization and its founder and leader, Leslie Scott.
I was just recently introduced to this community, and have leapt into its mission by joining the advisory panel to share what I can about dance injury care and prevention.
Leslie Scott is well known not only for her talents but her unwavering work ethic, contagious positive energy and bold use of movement to spread a positive message! She is on Faculty at the Edge Performing Arts and Millennium Dance Complex, guest faculty on several conventions and the Founder of the E.D.I.F.Y. Movement, a non-profit committed to using dance to highlight social causes. She created “Youth Protection Advocates in Dance” to help build empowered dance communities through education and activism and stop all exploitation of children in performing arts. Leslie is a sought after Artistic Director and well known for the breakthroughs dancers experience in her inter-active seminar “Self-Esteem in Performing Arts”. She had been teaching for 25 years and has traveled to 22 countries and 48 states spreading her unique teaching methods, artistry and shining her “Spirit Swag”, a term Leslie coined to give value to the style of a person’s heart and character, not just the latest fashion or trends in culture.
She has worked with Beyonce, Ciara, Jermaine Jackson and Choreographed Brittany N’s recent video “We’re Beautiful” and has been featured as a guest choreographer on two seasons of Wallbreakers. Her talents have also been utilized as part of the skeleton crew to develop the Tina Turner tour choreographed by Toni Basil, and the Ricky Martin Tour choreographed by Chonique and Lisette. The Industry Voice Awards has nominated her twice for “ Best Class of the Year” and also for “Artist of the Year” for her humanitarian work with E.D.I.F.Y. Movement. Leslie was featured in Nylon Magazine as one of America’s leading forces in Hip-Hop and in Dance Spirit magazine. She was selected as a judge for USA Hip-Hop International Championships hosted by the creators of Americas Best Dance Crew and Hip-Hop International. She also designed a clothing line with inspirational quotes in dance and life called Groove Gear: Wear the Message, BE the Message
KC: Please introduce Y.P.A.D and its mission to our readers.
LS: Our non-profit the E.D.I.F.Y. Movement created our Youth Protection Advocates in Dance division in 2011 as a response to harmful trends we witnessed taking place in our global dance community specifically affecting children. Our mission is to grow empowered dance communities through education and activism and unite to stop all forms of exploitation of youth in performing arts. We focus on three forms of exploitation: 1) hyper-sexualization, 2) inappropriate physical exertion that leads to unnecessary injuries, and 3) sex-abuse and boundary crossing within the teacher/minor student relationship. Through anecdotes from students, parents, and colleagues across the world, and the ever growing popularity of dance, it was clear there was a need to be mindful of trends in culture and to start discussing how entertainment media, YouTube and social networking is influencing the way adults, competitions, conventions, studios, TV and other dance media platforms view and utilize children in dance and the way the youth themselves are using dance accolades in place of healthy self-esteem and identity. I created Y.P.A.D. to raise awareness of the desensitization and normalization of certain trends and their potential consequences so as a community we can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and accountability by implementing safe boundaries and healthy artistry within our dance settings. These children are the next dance leaders and world changers, which makes us the world changers now by how we guide them!
KC: In my opinion, advocating for children and youth needs no explanation. Can you give us some statistics or other data that demonstrates how deep and far-reaching exploitation is affecting our younger generations?
LS: In regard to Hyper-sexualization, research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media states due to sexualized media geared towards children, girls as young as 6 years old are starting to self-sexualize, which means they see themselves through the male gaze, and realize in order to be valued in our culture as a female they must be seen as hot and sexy. This completely invades a young child’s original occupational aspirations. In my inter-active seminars on self-esteem with dancers I see this research come to life. City after city girls are sharing body shame, embarrassment over not being more attractive, disordered eating habits and making decisions and choices primarily off of how attractive they perceive themselves to be. The American Psychological Association’s Taskforce report on the sexualization of girls sites several consequences as young girls start to focus more and more on their looks and body rather than develop their character and intellect: eating disorders, poor academic performance, taking up smoking, and mental illness to name a few. Our cutting edge interview with Dr. Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD who was a part of the American Psychological Association task force sat down with Y.P.A.D. and specifically addressed these implications within our current dance culture.
A child who is in dance can easily misuse the experience for unhealthy praise and affirmation not only through classes and performances but online, by striving to become a viral dance sensation. Bringing a videographer into a classroom setting and selectively pulling out very young children to demonstrate choreography to explicit music with sexualized movement that acts out the song as adults cheer and clap to create a viral video on YouTube has become a cookie cutter scenario used for marketing individual teachers, studios and the young children themselves. This trend is permeating the rest of the world as teachers and children themselves across the globe vy to become YouTube dance sensations. In a recent Y.P.A.D. survey of dance parents, 64% of them admitted to allowing dance scenarios they felt conflicted about to happen but chose to participate in due to the ego inflation they were receiving through their child’s success. In my parenting seminar, parents frequently discuss the pressure to keep up with these harmful trends and many have disclosed being bullied by other parents and even studio owners for speaking up. In our interview, Dr. Roberts discusses the negative impacts of using children as commodities, which includes damaging their healthy development as sexual beings. Educational videos for the above statements and the American Psychological Association’s Task Force report on the sexualization of girls can all be found here.
In regard to sex-abuse, Y.P.A.D. has also gathered a disturbing amount of reports of this type of exploitation within the dance environment. The access to these children through social media and classes has unfortunately created a situation where teachers with talent and celebrity status can manipulate a young dancer and their parents. Many young children have confided they were pressured to either send illicit photos or actually engage in sexual activity. Psychologically, many young dancers have expressed feeling special and complimented that the adult celebrity teacher would choose them to flirt with and pursue what they saw as a “romantic” relationship. We are dedicated to shining light on this form of exploitation and encourage parents and dancers to come forward, share their stories, and most importantly, report the abuse and find healing. Families in this scenario have shared the number one reason they do not report inappropriate advances of a teacher is the fear their child will be bullied and black-balled out of the industry. The second reason they keep silent is for fear of victim blaming.
In regard to injury, recent research proves injuries and even surgeries are on the rise among young dancers. Y.P.A.D. focuses on the WHY? The psychological effect on children and motivation of the adults in charge of caring for these children are the two important aspects we must focus on. When a child is praised for dancing through an injury or told, “You are saving the competition piece! Now we don’t have to restage the dance!,” we are teaching them the dance is more important than their pain or even potentially developing a lifelong chronic injury. Children are not passive consumers. They take it all in so this approach not only deeply effects the injured child but sends a clear message to all those witnessing these interactions. I have witnessed entire ballrooms at conventions clapping for children who performed through an injury and even giving the child an award for it. Through this reward system we are teaching children that in order to be valued members of our dance community they must not honor their body’s’ messages and self-care is considered weak and “letting people down.”
In 2014, Y.P.A.D. conducted a nation-wide of 372 dancers aged 7-17 years of age. We found the top 3 reasons these dancers don’t take time off due to an injury is 1) letting down their teammates, parents and teachers, 2) fear of gaining weight and/or losing their technique and dance skill, and 3) feeling like a personal failure and “missing out.” Taking time off to heal an injury is intertwined with the child’s self-esteem and their body image. Many have shared taking time off means less calories burned and their identity is rocked as they step outside of the performance company, competition piece and training to receive the proper medical care.
Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital examined dance-related injuries among children and adolescents 3 to 19 years of age from 1991 to 2007. During the 17-year study period, an estimated 113,000 children and adolescents were treated in U.S. emergency departments for dance-related injuries. Click on the links for related articles from The Huffington Post, ABC News, and Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
KC: Leslie, you travel across the nation presenting interactive seminars for parents, teachers and dancers on Community Building and Self-Esteem, and dance workshops on Holistic Hip-Hop, gaining inspiration from positive music, and performance techniques centered on empowerment. Our readers can follow these links for more information and videos of these amazing events. I’d love for you to share some of the feedback you getting from the students, teachers, and parents who attend these workshops.
LS: The feedback has been overwhelming. It’s actually hard to share the full spectrum of what is taking place city after city with kids, parents and teachers. I have a curriculum I have developed that asks questions and we go through it section by section and share in between. When given the safe space to share it is amazing how children will open up and be so raw and honest. It is also heartbreaking but motivates me to keep trudging my husband and our baby across the country with me. Some things I am hearing:
– “I hate my stomach”
– “I am embarrassed in my costume”
– “I feel left out”
– “I want to be a YouTube dance star”
– “I saw porn on my phone when I was searching a dance video”
– “I’m addicted to YouTube videos” (he was seven and he was serious)
– “My feet are ugly”
– “I am embarrassed I cannot dance better”
– “I want to be on Dance Moms”
– “I feel good about myself when my posts and pics get Likes [on Facebook]”
– “I choose what I eat depending on how many hours I train a week”
– “I diet down during competition weeks to look thinner in my costume”
– “Nicki Minaj confuses me. She talks about drug use and sex but is on Ellen with kids“
The top three emotions online are 1) jealous, 2) rejected, 3) ugly (my survey covers this question)
After the workshop, dancers say:
– “I am deleting my social media apps”
– “I am fasting from TV”
– “I am telling my stomach ‘thank you’ everyday for being my core”
– “I will do one act of kindness everyday”
– “I will compliment others on character, not talent or looks or swag”
– “I will memorize my Spirit Swag traits and say them to myself when I feel insecure” (Spirit Swag is the style and fashion of their Spirit and they each come up with 3 and stand up and say it out loud. example: I am caring I am honest I am loved )
MANY dancers go home and share the curriculum with their moms and I have several testimonies of incredible talks and bonding and sharing happening between parents and their kids.
Parents share their fears and are overwhelmed. Children as young as 5 are expressing body and face dissatisfaction and can become so upset if they are not perfect in their dances or put in the front. Fashion is a struggle as they want to wear skimpy dance outfits to school and out in public. They share fears regarding eating and bullying and we go over social networking and online safety and injury prevention and care. Very recently, I had a mom come to me the day after a parent seminar and say, “What you said has already changed me. My daughter has been injured in her ankle and I keep telling her to just push through it. She is sitting out today and Monday I will call the doctor. Thank you!” We also talk about self-care with the parents and the temptation to live vicariously through our children’s accolades and how to recognize that in ourselves, not judge it but change it and stop it by fixing some of our own self-esteem issues.
Teachers are across the board but after the workshops express deep gratitude for the guidance and education and safe music lists and resources. Usually they just share their stress and burn out to keep up with the trends. One teacher even shared how a 7 year old asked her, “Can you teach us a sexy dance?” She ignored the request but after the seminar realized that was a great opportunity to actually engage the child, ask questions, educate, and also tell the parents because that could be a red flag for something deeper.
KC: Where have you been teaching most recently? Is there something in particular that is motivating these studios / teachers to call you?
LS: I have been so blessed to be able to travel the country and have studio owners see the value in Y.P.A.D. Each studio around the country has felt something is wrong but felt alone and didn’t know how to tackle what competitions, conventions, social media, TV and sexualized dance and costumes are doing to their kids and have expressed a feeling of powerlessness to intercede. Parents want their child to succeed so they allow them to dance to what is getting hits on YouTube and competition wins and that what is encouraged has become normalized with little thought to consequences. What I find all around the country is the same but also unique to each person’s story.
Y.P.A.D. exists because of the brokenness that stems from the human condition and the traps of chasing love, acceptance and community in all the wrong places. Our advisory panel member Kaelyn Gray wrote a blog called “Scared Silent” and she cited us and the blog went viral. From that Misty Lown of More Than Just Great Dancing Affiliated Dance Studios found us and flew us to Wisconsin and became our first Visionary Sponsor! Misty also had me present Y.P.A.D. to 100 studio owners in Las Vegas at “Studio Owner University.” After my presentation I was at our booth for 6 hours straight talking to owner after owner about their challenges. Six of them have already booked Y.P.A.D. seminars and dance workshops, and are even planning some fundraisers for us. Allowing me to lead outreaches as serving is a huge component of my self-esteem seminars. This past 6 months i have been to 7 cities in California as well as Wisconsin, Montana, Florida, Massacusetts, Missouri, and Colorado. One studio is having me re-choreograph her teen competition piece that had the theme of “Booties.” Now the theme is true female empowerment. We are even shooting a little documentary on the process!
KC: Y.P.A.D. is in the works with a huge and commendable undertaking – the Y.P.A.D. certification for Studios, Choreographers, Teachers, and Competitions. Is this the first of its kind? What is the main goal of having a certification process? What areas are you covering?
LS: To our knowledge this is the first of its kind. We are moving to Colorado for 3 weeks to have Dr. Roberts oversee the process of this curriculum. There is no governing body in dance and there is no one educating the dance leaders or parents on these topics. They aren’t aware that what they are allowing their children to do can be harmful and no one is processing this with the children when they are either exposed to or participating in exploitation. There is no one keeping studios, choreographers, conventions and comps accountable about what they teach so they continue to spread like wildfire. Something had to be done. The goal is to unite studios and competitions to stand together and say “no more” and create a safe environment for their kids. We will also be reaching out to choreographers to be certified as well. Our goal is this will become the new “cool trend” and certified organizations will actually increase participation and thrive as we maintain a healthy environment for kids and families!
KC: Where are you finding resistance to the YPAD message? What is the solution?
LS: The most resistance comes from the entities that are profiting financially and egotistically by either encouraging this trend or flat out ignoring it under their watch because to do so would require change and humility and in their mind a possible conflict or loss of revenue and numbers. Geographically, many dance entities in Los Angeles don’t want to see Y.P.A.D. succeed. The world looks to Los Angeles as the trendsetter but there is a lack of accountability and even humility to sit down with me and be open to education. Some look at this as challenging their freedom of artist expression instead of looking at this as a change that puts kids first and an opportunity to be even more creative by not depending on typical themes of sex, violence, drug use, objectifying women, etc. Many that have changed after becoming educated come up with really unique and incredible artistry and keep the content age appropriate. If you are going to use explicit music and sexualized movement and call your class “adult” when many in the class are youth and you are not being responsible enough to process what all of this means to that child and their parents than there is a lack of accountability. SO many say, “It’s not my job.” I wholeheartedly disagree.
As dance leaders we are an extension of the parental village and we should all unite to ensure no child is harmed under our watch. A sexualized 10 year old more than likely grows to be a sexualized teen and then adult. If we are going to expose them to music and videos like Anaconda than give that child the respect of teaching them about that content and processing their questions and thoughts instead of moving through it like it is “not my job” attitude. Also, ALL these adults watching this and applauding it in class…they need to speak up too. Freestyle is like orgies in classes with children and no one is saying anything because the Hollywood dance industry is very afraid of getting on someone’s bad side – especially a “celebrity” choreographer or “famous” studio. In our opinion, we are ALL accountable for keeping the next generation safe and guiding them into becoming healthy humans before dope dancers. In our industry porn culture is merging with entertainment media and those two things are merging with dance and trickling down to the kids. They are learning sex is intense not intimate and is lust-based not love-based. That is disturbing to me. Healthy sexuality is primal to our core and I want these kids to have a chance to grow up and have an empowered sense of sexuality that is not defined by an industry using them and adult sexual content to make money and gain status.
KC: How can people support Y.P.A.D.? Is there a membership or sponsorship process?
LS: We are completely grass roots. We need donations and sponsors to continue spreading our message. We have had some organizations come on board and we are very grateful to their generosity. We hope companies that associate with the dance industry will stand with us. This is a movement and the right side of history. Dance parents have been our main support too. They are what keeps us going every month. Donation and sponsorship info can be found at our website YPAD4Change.org. We have two levels of sponsorship right now “Spirit Swag” and” Visionary.”
KC: How can dance leaders take steps right now in their own communities to promote a safer and healthier environment?
LS: First, is to read the standards and suggestions on our website. This is our guide to safe and healthy dance. Second, create an environment that allows these suggestions to thrive. We realize this is very scary for many studios and conventions to do, so that is why we travel around the country talking and guiding owners and parents about why change can happen and can be successful. We have story after story of studio owners feeling lost and scared they will lose numbers and business if they follow Y.P.A.D. standards. We have proof it works and it creates a much more loyal following than ever before!
Keep in touch with Leslie Scott and Y.P.A.D. at the following links. Thank you Leslie!
YouTube Y.P.A.D. Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3jFeOYkJdPcM3y5EYaAUE2fLOoLj1h2v
To my readers – thank you so much for following the Gotta Dance blog. I am transitioning from the role of dance editor to alternative health editor for NoHoArtsDistrict.com. This article marks a wonderful milestone, and there is no better organization or person I could have interviewed to mark the occasion! As always, Happy Dancing!!