Watching Dance Moms and Toddlers & Tiaras is always interesting for me– both because the shows are often entertaining (if only in a horrifying way, like the recent T&T episode that featured Heaven, a modern day Violet Beauregarde with her incessant gum chewing, and Honey Boo Boo child and her TLC crossover extreme couponing momma [who made this deeply disturbing appearance on Anderson Cooper]) and because they bring to life to a broad audience many of the issues I think about in my research on competitive afterschool activities.
I find the similar “scandals” that occur across a range of activities especially interesting, as I’ve written about before. One of them, age manipulation, has been the focus of several episodes in the most recent seasons of both shows. One mother mentioned in the fifth season premiere, the episode with Heaven and Honey Boo Boo, that it is harder for competitors when they have to “move up” in an age category (say from 3-4 to 5-6). The fourth episode showed how some parents try to give their kids an advantage by using their “fallback” age when they have to move up in an age category. Adriana’s mom explained that while her daughter is five she would be competing as a four year-old because the pageant used a 30-day fallback. This means that because Adriana had her birthday within thirty days of the pageant she could compete as a four-year-old. This also means that she might have been competing against someone who was 3 years and 31 days, while she was 5 years and 29 days– a big difference at that age!
Fallbacks are also used in competitive dance, as the second episode of the new season of Dance Moms revealed. Brooke, one of the featured dancers, was able to compete in a younger age category due to her later birthday in January. That was legal. But one of her other competitors, from a rival dance studio, actually competed under a false age– which obviously led to her disqualification. This explains why dance teachers are always supposed to have copies of their dancers’ birth certificates readily available, in case anyone questions a competitor’s age (like the dance competition owners, as pictured below).
Even when complaints aren’t formally filed, adults often gossip about the age of competitors. And, lest you think this is behavior reserved for a group of women who I think are looking for media attention, take a look at this quote from a newly released book called Dance Divas, about a group of middle school-aged girls who participate in dance competitions: “The competition here is really fierce and you just never know. I saw a girl out there that looked like she was twenty competing in your thirteen year old category. Who knows what’s going on?”
In my research for Playing to Win many of the parents and teachers I met had learned to manipulate competitive activity systems in order to maximize the chance of winning– even in chess. This was harder to do with travel soccer, which was particularly strict when it came to verifying ages through birth certificates. Soccer teams had to always have age verification handy and all ages were checked at the beginning of each season. I guess there are fewer divas in soccer. With a new show featuring figure skating moms, Ice Moms, in development (along with a Dance Moms spinoff set in Miami), I’m guessing we’re going to see more diva behavior and not less on our television screens though…