At what point does art stop being just art, and start becoming accountable for issues outside of itself? Specifically, at what point does a contemporary dance duet become representative of paedophilia? Well, based on the internet’s reaction to Sia’s music video for Elastic Heart, it starts when 28 year-old Shia LaBeouf and 12 year-old Maddie Ziegler don flesh coloured suits and start to wrestle, play and cry together in a giant cage. Now, if this doesn’t sound inappropriate to you, you’re not alone. But if it does… Well, you’re not alone either.
I spoke to Catherine James, Program Director and Assistant Director of Dance for South East Dance, to try and put this controversy into perspective.
- Firstly, do you think Sia’s video is portraying an inappropriate relationship between a man and a girl?
The relationship between the two protagonists can suggest a number of different relationships that are less to do with a sexual relationship and more about intensity. It seems to have a meta-theme of a person’s relationship to their creativity/future/ potential.
- Do you think it’s a lack of familiarity with contemporary dance that’s causing this video to be misinterpreted, or do you think it’s critics have some right to be concerned?
Although contemporary dance is not something we see a lot of in mainstream media, perhaps it’s not so much a lack of familiarity with dance and more a lack of equipping our audiences with the tools to look beyond the surface of things and to understand or interpret the underlying themes of the video. This could be as a result of the way society views popular culture, ie the easiest way of looking at artistic work and pop culture, without enquiring into the underlying themes that the artist is addressing.
- What do you think about the portrayal of younger girls in the media, or other dance- based music videos?
It is pretty well established that there has been an increasing sexualisation of young girls, not just in the media but also within society at large. I realise that what I am about to say may not be well received, but I think that the argument that women have the ‘choice’ to participate in porn, or other sexually explicit dance videos, and are therefore ‘liberated’, feels too easy an answer and doesn’t address the objectification it promotes. This perpetuates the idea of woman as cypher and undermines their confidence as individuals and leads them to value their bodies more than themselves. It’s insidious.
- Do you think that the female dancer, Maddie Ziegler, has been sexualised in this video, be it through costuming, choreography or direction?
I don’t feel that she has been sexualised in this. It could be said that her costume is revealing but it’s a unitard, something almost every dancer wears, and that shouldn’t be ‘sexualising’, especially not on a child. The fact that it’s a neutral colour allows a myriad of interpretations as to her ‘nature’, rather than being revealing. The choreography clearly demonstrates a challenging relationship between the two protagonists but it doesn’t appear to be a sexual relationship to me.
- Have you noticed an increase in the number of women joining ‘empowering’ dance classes, like pole or belly dancing, given the new interest in feminism in the media?
There has been an increase in pole and belly dancing, but I think that’s down to women wanting exercise in a way that’s more fun than circuit or weight training. Dance classes are more social than gym situations, and mostly involve music, which is enlivening and engaging, making the exercise into a more fun way to fitness. Plus it’s a way of reclaiming something that’s objectifying as a way to improve their health.
- How do you think shows like Dance Moms influence people’s perception of dance, particularly in relation to children’s dance?
It probably has the same influence as children’s beauty pageant shows. Entertainment more than anything else. But it also trivialises the activity, and has an adverse affect on participation in these activities.
- Do you think this will raise the profile of contemporary dance, or do you think it will have a negative impact on its public perception?
I’m not sure it will raise the profile. There have been videos since the 70’s with contemporary dance choreographers creating dance for pop music, and it has had little or no impact from what I can tell. I remember a video that Michael Clark choreographed back in the 80s and whilst it certainly raised his profile, it didn’t necessarily raise the profile of contemporary dance.
For more information about South East Dance, you can go to their website: