Review: The Thrill and Horror of Dance Nation

Barnard Theatre’s spring semester show brought Dance Moms to campus.


Last week, Dance Moms came to Barnard’s stage in its full kitsch, glitz, and glamor. The very first scene set the tone for the rambunctious performance that was Dance Nation – a competitive dance troupe, in sparkling patriotic dresses, dancing to “Yankee Doodle” in front of a silver curtain, mouths opened wide into gaudy smiles. 

Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, directed by Tea Alagić, and performed between February 29th-March 2nd at the Minor Latham Playhouse, was over-the-top, campy, and provocative. The play, set in Liverpool, Ohio, follows six teenage dancers in an obsessively competitive studio, navigating relationships with their parents, each other, and with themselves. 

With a strict (and abusive) dance coach, Dance Nation is eerily reminiscent of Lifetime’s Dance Moms – and the hierarchical, destructive environment that young girls who operate in a competitive dance world live in. The stage set, which was beautifully intricate, even included its own dance “pyramid.”

The storyline follows the development of an acro-lyrical piece entitled Gandhi, reminiscent of a well-known Dance Moms episode entitled “The Apple of Her Eye.” In the reality show, the white mothers fight for their daughters to play the lead character of Rosa Parks, although there is only one Black dancer in the group. Similarly, the characters in Dance Nation vie for the role of Mahatma Gandhi (“he was all about love”), although there is only one brown dancer (Connie, played by Anoushka Agarwalla). 

Connie does eventually receive the role of Gandhi, but the following choreography is off-putting. The first version of the dance is deeply sexual and animalistic, as the dancers twerk, crawl around and claw at each other. The dance is on-the-nose with its message: the evident cultural appropriation and racism within the competitive dance world. Yet, Dance Nation never reckons or re-examines these exotified tropes later in the script, which can be seen as problematic. Barron’s writing conversely lends itself for the audience to sit with their unease.

These uncomfortable, provocative tropes extend throughout the rest of Dance Nation. During the performance, the dancers hold incredibly sexual conversations, from enactments of sexual fantasies, to conversations about periods, to scenes about masturbation, to an almost constant barrage of “dick” and “pussy” jokes. These lines, which are often performed with over-the-top,  campy expressions, are a clichéd representation of relationships between pubescent girls. As Alagić writes in her Director’s Note, “I love this play because it is fearless and allows female characters to own who they are and be vocal about it.”

Yet, Dance Nation’s throughline is darker. At the beginning of the second half of the play, Dance Teacher Pat (played by John Hawley), assaults Amina (played by Shea Rodriguez). It is this pivotal moment – which received gasps from the audience – that highlights the both emotional and physical abuse endured by Dance Nation’s dancers. In solo monologues, the dancers reveal their internal struggles – from dealing with a mother who has cancer, to undergoing suicidal ideation. The script seems never to reckon, or attempt to further unpack these more unsettling themes, similar to the Gandhi plot. The actors, however, were brilliantly committed to their roles.

Dance Nation reveals the objectification and sexualization of young girls’ bodies, while simultaneously leaving space for the dancers to vocalize their ambitions, fears, and internal dilemmas. It is a story about puberty and girlhood, and the thrill – and horror – of the competitive dance world.

Dance Nation’s characters ultimately ask the question – is dancing really all that life is about? The answer may lie in a sentence written boldly on the wall next to the stage: “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, it is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

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