I've discovered dance as an adult, and really it's helped me to be comfortable with my body in much the same way that I think yoga has done for you. Learning to be in control and to use your body for your own activities is highly beneficial, and quality dance troupes require hard work and excellent physical fitness! Dancers really aren't window dressing at all. Both my son & daughter are in dance, and it's been a really helpful - and completely non-sexualized - experience for them. I would put it on par with soccer (which both of my children also play) in terms of teaching them to control their bodies and for the sheer physicality of the activity. I know there are problems in dance (over-sexualization, pressure surrounding what one eats, etc.), but those types of problems exist in pretty much all physical to some degree.
What's odd about my little tirade is that I don't have anything against dance at all. My 13 year old takes a ballroom dancing lesson every week, and both my kids took tap and ballet through our city's parks and rec program when they were little. I agree that dance can be a lot of fun, great exercise, and a lovely way to enjoy being in our bodies.
I don't agree however, that the types of problems related to body image and sexualization that *can* occur in *some* dance programs exist in all physical activities to at least some degree. Some activities, such as dance, gymnastics, cheer leading, and figure skating have high rates of eating disorders associated with them. I think some activities (including competitive dancing) have a greater *potential* to be problematic than others. Here is a quote from eating disorder web site:
• Risk Factors: In judged sports – sports that score participants – prevalence of eating disorders is 13% (compared with 3% in refereed sports).
• Significantly higher rates of eating disorders found in elite athletes (20%), than in a female control group (9%).
• Female athletes in aesthetic sports (e.g. gynmastics, ballet, figure skating) found to be at the highest risk for eating disorders.
• A comparison of the psychological profiles of athletes and those with anorexia found these factors in common: perfectionism, high self-expectations, competitiveness, hyperactivity, repetitive exercise routines, compulsiveness, drive, tendency toward depression, body image distortion, pre-occupation with dieting and weight.
My kids big activity was swimming, and at their peek, they were practicing 2 hours a day, 5 days a week, and we were traveling as a family (with our swim team) one weekend a month. There really weren't any issues with what the kids wore, what they weighed, or what they ate. Competitive swimming requires a cap and goggles, so every body looks dorky. Team suits are selected on the basis of them staying put when driving and doing flip turns and cutting down on resistance. Food issues were limited to what would give you energy during endurance events.
One thing I found with such an intense activity was the that attitudes of the other families had an impact on us, and that my kids looked up to the older kids on the team.
And on a side note, I'm sure that a couple years ago I would stuck my foot in my mouth very similarly about dance teams and yet here I am with a DD that now does competitive dance. Never thought that would be our life but it is now and while some studios are certainly very much like the show Dance Moms, because we live very rurally, our studio can still be good but has people that are more likely to go home and feed cows then to sit there and apply fake eyelashes to small children.
I'm sure that many, many factors play into whether a competitive dance team works out to be an overall positive thing for a girl, or a negative thing. How the team itself functions and the attitudes of the coach have got to be a huge, huge factor. What the other families involved are like is a big factor, and the more hours a week that a child is practicing/performing, the bigger influence the other girls/mom will have. What the mom is like, how she deals with issues, and what kinds of things she says to her DD is massive, and I wonder if it is the most important factor.
Being more immersed in dancing isn't something that flowed for us, and looking back (my kids are now both teens) and I honestly don't know how I would have handled it if they had wanted to go that direction. I let them make a lot of their own choices, and I tend to focus on the positive side of things rather then getting hung up on fears. I doubt that I would have forbidden one of my DDs from being on a dance team (once I had really checked it out and felt that it was OK) if that's what she wanted to do based on statistics and my own fears. It's just not how I make parenting decisions.