The Beauty that Lies in Difference: Performance, Children and Equality Law.
As dance teachers we are all too aware of the beauty that lies in seeing something a little bit different. The dancer who stands out from the crowd. The choreography that brings us something unique, striking and challenging. You only have to step inside the Winter Gardens on competition day to see a dancer’s understanding of the importance of standing out. The wonderful array of eye-catching outfits in so many different colours and patterns; the use of animal print, flower patterns, diamantes and applique showing us, with out a shadow of a doubt that to be bold and individual is valued in our dance communities.
Dance performance and choreography have along and healthy tradition of pushing boundaries and challenging societal stereotypes, from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and his direct challenge to gendered roles through to West Side Story and its commentary on racial and socio -economic discrimination in 1950’s New York the dance world has regularly challenged perception and prejudice.
It is arguable the job of artists to challenge the mind to push boundaries and to shift perception but the way this has been done historically is not necessarily the way we would do it in 2022.When some of our most famous and traditional ballets were first staged the world has very different views about beauty and particularly the beauty found in uniformity. It is the case that the attempt to find identical, uniform beauty was always discriminatory, but that it existed in a time and culture where sadly discrimination was usual. Today we recognise beauty in uniqueness, individuality and freedom of expression as core creative components.
We recognise that by discriminating against an individual who doesn’t meet a particular aesthetic expectation we are damaging the dance, damaging our organisations, damaging the reputation of our profession and above all damaging those dancers.
It is the case that diverse organisations are stronger, healthier more resilient organisations that bring a wider sense of perspective, a broader education and a healthier balance of opinion, there are no circumstances in which embracing diversity, improving representation and creating equity in our organisations doesn’t make things better for us all.
Discrimination on the other hand hurts people.
In some areas of dance, particularly styles such as ballet we have not historically seen a wide representation of different dancing bodies and we have become stuck in an outdated traditional ideal that beauty only lies in sameness and uniformity. We have allowed tradition to govern our approaches inclusive of its outdated and unwelcome aspects.
That desire for a uniform aesthetic is at huge cost to personal wellbeing.
Many dancers feel under- represented in their chosen area of dance, many talk about experiences of not feeling welcome or not feeling belonging as they saw no one like them. Many dancers talk about experiences where not only did they experience a lack of representation but they also faced regular direct and indirect discrimination; in casting, in characterisation and in costume. Where we attempt to create an aesthetic ‘norm’ in our school, in our performances, in our dancers we can alienate and disillusion many.
To create a standardised image, dance teachers and schools may be tempted to specify the colour of make up used or specify a particular hair style or specify a particular brand of tan….. all these ideas are at best indirect discrimination as they suggest a perfect and correct hair type and skin tone which may be unattainable for many dancers.
Not only is this often unattainable or difficult for dancers to achieve, not only does it discriminate against many individuals who have different hair texture or skin tone, those with medical conditions and allergies and those with strong beliefs against the wearing of such products but also by suggesting we have a perfect, correct uniformity we suggest that with out the makeup, the hair and the tan we are maybe somehow less perfect, less correct…… less beautiful.
For professional performers we see the use of stage makeup as an important part of creating an illusion for the stage but when we work with children and young people who through their age and personal circumstances are often already incredibly vulnerable and susceptible to misinformation about body type, beauty aesthetics and self -image we can run the risk of creating something far more insidious.
There is a problem with asking someone to change their body for you, or for another. There is no more important safeguarding message for children that “never let anyone do anything to you don’t want them to do”. It is the start of all good safeguarding practice, teaching all young people to protect themselves and speak out against pressure and harm.
Suggestions that young people should wear a certain shade of make up or even more extreme examples of prescribing suitable styles of hair cuts or requesting the removal of body hair all cross this line. We should be encouraging young people to only do to and with their bodies what they are comfortable with and choose to do. A message that says an adult can ‘make’ you do things to your body you do not choose, is unhealthy for all young people but for our most vulnerable it also sets a potentially dangerous president. To choose to do something is not just about agreeing to do it, it is about having a safe and valid opportunity to say no. If we say a child cannot take an exam or can not do a show unless they do as we ask we are not providing a free, safe opportunity of them to say no.
We are spoken to often about corporate image, branding and marketing. It is important we do not confuse this with a need to protect our students. Yes we want a brand, a unique look, a great advertising tool but our students are unique individuals with unique dreams and responsibilities.
Our website and Facebook page can be uniform, branded and colour coded, our students may not be. Our website helps build our public identity, their childhood experiences are helping them build theirs. It is our role as teachers first and foremost to support our students with that life long task of identity development and building self esteem.
Equality Act Fact Sheet:
The Equality Act has been the main source of UK Equality Legislation since 2010. It is a piece of legislation that it is important for us all to know about. Working in line with the Equality Act not only prevents you from being unlawful in your teaching but also promotes Human Rights. Equality and Human Rights legislation are intrinsically linked, they are both about the preservation of dignity and respect for all. This can also be seen in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Equality legislation applies to those who run clubs and those who provide education or community services, amongst others, and encourages positive action. It requires us to promote the interests of children and young people by working in a diverse and varied way, not to treat everyone the same, but to treat everyone differently to allow them to achieve, to be treated fairly and to have their individual needs met.
The Equality Act protects us from direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation and places an expectation on us of reasonable adjustment to meet peoples needs. It sets out a list of protected characteristics;
Marriage and civil partnership
Pregnancy and maternity
Religion and belief
In most circumstances it is not just the person with the protected characteristic who is protected under the Equality Act, it is also their immediate family: Parents, Children or Siblings.
The Equality Act prohibits direct and indirect discrimination:
• An example of direct discrimination would be if a dance school chose not to offer a place to a child with a physical disability because other parents in the school felt uncomfortable with their attendance, claiming it impacted on the class dynamics.
• An example of indirect discrimination would be to say that all boys who attend class must have short hair or hair cut in a certain style, this would indirectly discriminate against a Sikh boy who may wish to have long hair in a turban in line with his beliefs.
So how and where is the Equality Act impacting on dance schools, here are 3 examples of what we might need to take into consideration on day to day to day basis.
• to differentiate lessons for different abilities and different physical or learning needs.
• For exams we may make application for reasonable adjustment for a student to allow them to demonstrate their exam work to the best of heir ability.
• As business owners we need to consider access requirements and accessible facilities. In addition however there are many other aspects of our business where we should consider whether we are being legally compliant and making decisions that are truly in the best interests of each and every student in our school.
For example – Shows:
Here are some areas you may want to consider from an Equality impact perspective:
Make up: it is common for teachers to stipulate make up must be worn for shows. Make up is a necessary tool for adult professional performers, it is an important part of the theatrical aesthetic and the application of stage make up is also part of the tradition and history of working in the theatre and many dance teachers want to share that experience and that learning with their students. There are a few important things to remember though and the first is that we cannot make any type of make up, tan or clothing 100% compulsory. There must always be negotiation and this is ok.
We are not trying to make everyone the same, sentences like “bold bright make up looks great on stage” are much better that stipulating the colours or shades you want used – they may not actually look that great on everybody.
Hair: Certain hair styles may have ben traditionally normalised in certain dance styles for example the ballet bun, but that may be a tradition that dates back to a time when there was little / no racial diversity in the ballet world. It is widely appreciated that certain hair types do not take well to certain hair styles. Can you provide a rage of suitable options that meet the needs of your school?
Costumes: There are many reasons why an individual may have concerns about a particular costume, for example regarding gender, gender identity or religion. It is important to consider the demographic of your school when costuming, costume for the children you have, not for the performance you have imagined and make sure you have options to accommodate everyone’s needs and beliefs.
Theme: what is the plot / story line, who are the characters? Many of our traditional shows and performances were written in less inclusive, less considerate times, check your plot line, if you use a script read through the script carefully, look out for jokes, characters, parts that may be stereotypes and may cause distress to your cast or audience.
Please also be considerate of complaints. A parent of a child may well come to you and explain that they feel uncomfortable with decisions you have made about a performance, a costume, a uniform. Please listen carefully and see what you can do to support this family. We all have different life experiences and understand issues of discrimination in different ways. They may just be bringing something to your attention you have not yet thought of. We do not all get everything right all the time and a concern may be raised because of a perspective different to your own, this is OK, we can all work together and learn together. Please do not ignore the concern though, as this may change an accidental mistake and unintentional indirect discrimination into a direct act of discrimination and as disrespect.