Won’t Look Down, Won’t Open My Eyes

I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a competition dancer. I put on more make-up than is probably socially acceptable for children in most of the United States, I put on an outfit with more sequins than your average stripper uniform, and I pranced about to pop songs, songs from musicals, and twee classical music.

I have somewhat mixed emotions about the experience in hindsight. When I was in it, it didn’t seem as pageant-like as it really was. I still can’t wear eyeliner as a result of it. I appreciate the love of dance it fostered in me, but it was only after I moved on from that type of dancing that I felt a sense of artistry really began to develop within me as a performer.

Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated with Sia’s video for her catchy song, “Chandelier”. The  vid features Maddie Ziegler of “Dance Moms” fame, an 11 year old girl who is constantly renowned on the show for her incredible dance abilities, but always seems to be a little too artificial when it comes to the emotion that is supposed to accompany her various performances. This artificiality is something that gets pointed out a lot in competition dance, so it isn’t surprising and it isn’t even Ziegler’s fault.  She was likely taught this is what it means to emotionally connect with music. Plus, she is 11, so come on, we’re obviously gonna cut the girl some slack.

But this video…this video struck me as really powerful. I think a lot of it is the song itself, while most of the credit goes to Ryan Heffington for his remarkable and striking choreography. Ziegler though deserves a lot of love here, because, I mean, just look at her: 

 Some people find the video creepy. Others suggest it sexualizes the girl, which, if you ask me, seems more like your problem than the video’s problem, not gonna lie.  Most people find themselves really struck at how this girl, to borrow a phrase from Center Stage, dances the shit out of it.  This is some really complicated and emotionally charged choreography and she handles it deftly. Personally, my favorite sequence is at the kitchen table, where she lifts herself up by her hair and offers a sideways, longing glance, propping her chin up on her hands.  The look is perfect, as anyone who has ever had a sense of longing will recognize it right away.

What I am wondering though, is how the heck this 11 year old knows about longing looks. Sure, at 11, I longed for Christian Slater or for my fifth grade crush Jacob to talk to me, but did I really understand the emotion enough to manufacture a look like that? When I was 11, I was dancing a duet to “Polka Dots, Checks, and Stripes”, which is not exactly a song that runs the gamut of intense emotions. Mostly we were instructed to “smile big” and the awards came rolling in.

Being the obsessive person that I am, I went on a search to learn more about this video and quickly learned that Ziegler basically got the same type of instruction. Instead of “smile big”, it sounds like the directors would tell her, “Great job, again, this time crazier eyes, mmkay?”

I’m not really sure what I was expecting. “Oh yes, the director and I sat and discussed my character for hours. I spent a couple of days living with young addicts and alcoholics, and, because I am a Method dancer, I even experimented with alcohol and cocaine.”

Yet, there was a part of me that was disappointed this gal wasn’t some sort of secret artistic genius. I think it might be for selfish reasons. After all, I watched two seasons of her “Dance Moms” performances and always felt like I saw right through her. Then, she duped me.

Dupe might be a strong word. There is still a piece of me that believes she is starting to channel that inner artist now that she is being exposed to new choreographers and more challenging choreography.  Or, that maybe she is downplaying the conversations between her and the director because they are probably a little uncomfortable and embarrassing that just saying “more crazy eyes” seemed like an easier response.

Mostly though, I try to put it out of my mind and not think too hard about it, perhaps because it is too disconcerting to believe an 11 year old can emotionally grasp that feeling us big girls have of trying to hold it together and fake it until we make it. Those dance competitions may not have taught me much about eyeliner application, but, like little Maddie Ziegler, they started to condition me at a very young age to always put on that “big smile” and convince people I am doing just fine, even though I may be on the verge of bursting, longing to swing on that chandelier.


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