When I tried out for my high school dance team, my mom couldn’t have been more surprised. It was a big risk for me, a shy 10th grader who was extremely sensitive to rejection. I was a straight-A student, extremely focused on my studies. I hauled a hiking backpack full of books and my French horn around campus. I was tiny, weighing in at 75 pounds and had yet to hit puberty. I still shopped at GapKids and had never used a styling tool on my hair before. So I wasn’t exactly typical dance team material. Fortunately, the judges looked at my dance ability and teacher recommendations and selected me for the following year’s team. I blossomed, even serving as co-captain my senior year. Thanks in large part to dance team, I became more outgoing, confident, and comfortable in my own skin.
You can imagine my horror when I saw the infographic put out by the University of Washington Cheer and Dance program. It’s a list of dos and don’ts for tryouts and features a fit, tan blonde girl. Among its expectations: tan, beachy glow, hair down (curly or straight), and athletic physique. I can understand recommending no jewelry (it’s a safety hazard, especially when stunting) or a particular make-up look (cheer/dance culture is weird that way) because those things are under a person’s control. But requiring a particular skin tone, hair texture, and body type? I don’t think so. And why are the requirements geared solely toward women? Although male high school cheerleaders are less common (due to stereotyping, in my opinion), cheer is a huge sport for both men and women at the collegiate level. The infographic was swiftly removed after allegations of sexism and exclusion. I grew up rooting for the Huskies in the Rose Bowl, have several friends and family who are alumni, and know the amazing diversity of the UW student body, so I was particularly ashamed of and for this prestigious university.
The message of this infographic to minorities and men is that “this isn’t for you.” I have no doubt the program will change its tune, but it’s sad that it was published in the first place and that it took public shaming to make a difference. It just makes me wonder what other opportunities we’re robbing young people of when we send messages like this. As a teacher, I know I’ve been asked to hand out blue flyers for wrestling camps to boys and pink invitations to daddy-daughter dances to girls. My local parks and recreation department was criticized for its Gaming Guys Day Camp. There’s simply no good reason for any activity to be limited by gender. (And don’t give me the “football is too dangerous for girls” argument. My sister-in-law plays for the Houston Wildcats, and she’s amazing.) What we should really worry about is what genius and talent we might be suppressing not only when we flat out don’t allow children to participate in activities that interest them but when we subtly tell them through infographics and advertisements that they aren’t welcome.
I’m so grateful that I was judged by my ability and not my looks and given the opportunity to participate in dance team. I wonder if I would have grown up to be the opinionated, extroverted person I am today without it. And it wasn’t even as big a hurdle for me as some of our kids face! I wasn’t a boy trying out for dance, a girl joining the robotics club, or a minority on an all-white team. But I know how I benefitted and have an inkling of the struggle. All kids should have access to all activities…and they need teachers, coaches, and administrators who are willing to stand behind them.