The Age of the Diva: Fallbacks in Dance and Pageants

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...

T(w)een Idols

Are your fingers ready? Voting starts for American Idol this week (with a new option to vote via Facebook, in addition to calling in or voting by texting) and the Top 24 seems to be full of talent.

It also happens to be one of the youngest groups yet.  Thanks to John Kubicek's calculations we know that this is a slightly younger Top 24, on average, at 21.25.  The eldest contestants are 26, so there is a decade between the babes and their older competitors.

AI made headlines this summer when it announced they were lowering the age limit and 15-year-olds could audition.  One of those 15-year-olds is Thia Megia, part of the Top 24 (though she has turned 16 since her initial audition).  Lauren Alaina is also 16, and considered an early frontrunner.

American Idol isn't the only reality show on television with increasingly younger contestants who are top competitors.  Former Idol judge Paul Abdul's recent show, Live to Dance-- which rather quickly came and went-- awarded first prize to 10- and 11-year-old ballroom dancers Amanda and D'Angelo (who are amazing and adorable, check them out).  The first runner-up was 11-year-old Kendall Glover.  They beat out an 83-year-old dancer, along with many professional dancers in their 20s and 30s.

And this year the oldest competitive reality show of them all, the Miss America Pageant, crowned a 17-year-old.  While in the early days of the Pageant there were younger winners, since the introduction of age limits in 1938, Teresa Scanlan is the youngest to take the crown. On one of the beauty pageant message boards I read, posters refer to the current Miss America as "the fetus."

Americans have loved precocious performing children since the days of vaudeville. Historian Gary Cross has written about two different types of kids adults love-- the cute and the cool.  Today's performing kids manage to capture both sentiments.

Given the historical record I'm reluctant to say that young performers, and winners, are a new trend.  What I can say is that these recent success stories are linked to children's tendency to specialize at an early age.  Part of the appeal of Amanda and D'Angelo is that it is rare to see ballroom dancers with such fantastic ballroom and dance technique at age ten.  They didn't get to this level by playing soccer and piano afterschool in addition to their dance classes.  Moreover, this isn't Thia Megia's first time on a reality show; at 14 she competed on America's Got Talent.  I'm guessing she didn't spend her time learning tennis or the violin in between appearing on two of the most popular talent competitions-- she's been singing.  Finally, Miss America Teresa Scanlan was homeschooled until she was 16, which allowed her to devote her time to pageant prep (she started competing at age 13) and develop her musical talent on the piano.  Early specialization, which means more hours of instruction and practice earlier in life, allowed all of these t(w)eens to become better younger.

All of these young people are definitely talented and they have worked for their successes.  Hopefully they won't regret all those years of practice for a singular goal when they are 29-- like another t(w)een idol, Britney Spears.  I'm guessing neither Thia nor Lauren will be singing "...Baby One More Time" on Wednesday night's Idol show.  Will you be voting for either of them?

[PS. I've written elsewhere about the labor laws that protect child performers, and how those laws need to be tightened for kids on reality TV shows, which is very relevant here. If you are interested check out my USA Today piece or my Contexts piece.]

Git it, gurl!

If you have ever attended a child beauty pageant, or watched TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras (aka T&T), you will know this expression. Or, "Yes, MA'AM!" And you definitely will have heard my favorite grammatically incorrect phrase, "You did so goooood!"

Last night's installment of T&T, featuring Texas' Groovy Girls pageants, did not disappoint linguistically, or stylistically (although, I must say getting a glimpse of the infamous Makenzie, but not seeing that "hard working lady NiNi," was a definite disappointment).  We had the usual spray tanning, flippers, etc., and we saw a six-year-old getting acrylic nails.

As someone who has studied child beauty pageants, and who is currently studying the health effects of age cutoffs in organized activities (along with Rebecca Casciano), the most interesting part of this episode was the discussion of "fallbacks" in pageants.  I have long been fascinated by this practice, but never seen it discussed in the popular media.  Basically one of the contestants, Taralynn, was six-years-old the day of the competition. However, she was allowed to compete as a five-year-old, because on January 1, she was still five. So five was her "fallback" age and this gave her a big advantage over the younger girls she competed against.  Fallbacks really matter when you are four and competing in the 0-3 "Grand Supreme" category. Taralynn ended up winning "Ultimate Grand Supreme" of the pageant.

I've studied a lot of children's competitive activities and while many deal with biological age in different ways (i.e. dance competitions average the age of the participants in a routine, or soccer teams use a birth year as a determining factor), I have only ever seen "fallbacks" in child beauty pageants.  Have any of you experienced fallbacks in other activities? Please tell me about your experiences!

[PS. If you've never watched T&T, tune in next Wednesday at 10 to see the return of "pageant supserstar" Eden Wood. Oh yes, the CUTIE PATOOTIE, Eden Wood.]