As dancers adorned in glitter and rhinestones command the spotlight, judges whisper their praises and critiques through microphones. But in the background of the performances, simmering questions about what is appropriate for young dancers cast a shadow across the stage.

Welcome to one of the great debates of the competitive dance world.

There are hundreds of dance competitions across the U.S. Dancers as young as 3 years old and as old as 19 can compete against each other for awards. Some competitions offer titles, cash prizes or scholarships. 

Some events also have workshops or conventions where the dancers can learn from professional dancers during the competition. 

Every competitive studio works differently. Some have elite competition teams and attend competitions every weekend or every other weekend, while others compete less frequently. 

But most studios are working toward the same goal: making it to the national level. Regional competition season typically lasts from January to May, and national competition season starts in June and ends in August. 

Competitions such as Showstopper, KAR Dance Competition, Spotlight Dance Cup and Starbound have clauses in their rules about costuming, music choices and age-appropriate choreography. 

Most competitions have score breakdowns for judges to use for each routine, usually out of 100 points. A typical score sheet will have points allocated for costumes, musicality, choreography, difficulty level, sportsmanship, performance and, most importantly, technique. 

Each competition is a little different, as is each judge. Dance is a subjective sport. 

As the dancers vie for judges’ attention and points, people familiar with dance competitions say it’s not unusual to hear others in the audience utter things like, “I would never let my kid wear that,” or “I would never let my kid dance like that” when they see a costume or routine they consider inappropriate.

Jamie White is a dancer, teacher, choreographer and judge from Oklahoma, working primarily with competitions that don’t typically score on costume — a new phenomenon in the competitive dance world.

But White recalled one dance where the costume choice of a sports bra and short shorts, adorned with cutouts and chains, created an overall picture of “selling sex.”

“They were early middle schoolers, so we kind of came to a consensus, as a judging table, where we said, ‘We’re not gonna score this very high, no matter how well they danced.’ We didn’t want the picture that they were selling to be a representation of, ‘Yeah, this is what everybody should be going for,’” White said. 

However, the routines that some parents find provocative or inappropriate often have the dancers with the best technique, according to White. 

And technique is everything. 

“I hate to say it, I hate to admit it, but a lot of those teams, their technique is good. ... So a lot of times they’re winning, and it has nothing to do with their clothing and what they’re doing and their dance per se,” White said. “It’s just, you can’t ignore how good of dancers they are. So a lot of times it gets kind of muddled. And it’s like, well, ‘How did they win when they went on stage and did all this provocative stuff?’ But as a judge, you’re just looking for the technique.”

Jason Pickett, a dancer, teacher, choreographer and judge based in Utah, said when he judges routines and has doubts about the appropriateness of something, he relies on the female judges to determine if there is an issue. 

“I am always going to have a male perspective when it comes to dance in general. So for me to kind of make a statement about what a female dancer is wearing isn’t something that I’m necessarily comfortable with the majority of the time,” he said.

But he still thinks costuming and choreography choices need to be talked about on some level.

“I think that the more teachers and studio directors (need to) … just kind of do their own research and really kind of establish what their studio values and ethics are,” Pickett said. 

Cece Vanderwoude danced in Grand Junction and Parker, Colorado. She grew up going to dance competitions and remembered being shocked the first time she went to one. She said she thought it was weird that 10-year-olds were wearing a full face of makeup with their midriffs showing. 

“I was in Catholic school at the time, so we were required to wear uniforms. … The makeup thing was also weird for me. Having a kid who was around 10 years old, wearing full blown stage makeup, like I thought that was weird too,” she said. “But now as an adult, I feel that all of that was a little bit unnecessary.” 

Vanderwoude often felt two steps behind other teams because her studio had stricter rules on what costumes and music they were allowed to dance to. 

“If you didn’t have acrobatics in your solo, you got a bronze. And if you didn’t go up and twerk you also got like a bronze. So certain competitions would absolutely judge differently on how you dress, on what materials are put in the choreography,” Vanderwoude said. 

There are social and cultural influences, too. Pickett, White and Vanderwoude all recalled the reality television show “Dance Moms” and its influence on the competitive dance world.

In the second episode of the series, TV personality and dance teacher Abigale Lee Miller choreographs a piece, “Electricity,” for her competition team. But on the show, the costumes, music choice and choreography spark outrage with the dance moms who find the whole concept inappropriate. 

Pickett said he believes the “Dance Moms” series highlighted issues that had been happening in studios for some time — Miller’s studio, Abby Lee Dance, just had cameras on. 

“Because there was this kind of traditional, old school approach to dance that is a lot more brash, it’s a lot more ‘my way or the highway’ when it comes to teaching — I think that that opened the door and sort of allowed in and … just created sort of a pathway for other teachers to kind of follow similar things, even if they didn’t quite agree,” he said.

White said costume choices aren’t inherently wrong. 

“I think it’s the stuff that kind of goes with it. It’s not the booty shorts, the crop tops, it’s the sexualized moves ... and the accessories, knee high stockings, ratty hair, like the kind of picture that’s painted with it has definitely, like, ramped up,” White said. 

Vanderwoude said she felt like Miller and “Dance Moms” had an impact on the sport. She remembers attending workshops with dancers from Miller’s studio and wondering why they wore certain clothes. 

“(Even) the older ones have full faces of makeup, and crop tops and little tiny shorts with no tights, at workshops, and I was like, ‘Why? What are you doing? Like, why are you wearing ruby red lipstick to go to a workshop for eight hours and have your hair in a French twist?’”

Brandy Mustoe, from Grand Junction, Colorado, is a dance mom herself. She has three kids who have competed at various levels and age divisions. 

She recalled when her 6-year-old showed her an outfit from a costume catalog. It was a green two-piece top with sparkles and a hair bow with a printed money design on it. Her daughter was dancing to Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

“She felt so sassy and so excited about it,” Mustoe said. “It would have been hard for me to place my adult ideals (on her). … It would be almost too much of a burden to put on a kid.”

Mustoe bought the costume and her daughter loved it. 

“If I had been like, ‘Oh, no, this shows too much of your skin,’ I don’t think she would have even understood the context of, ‘What do you mean that shows too much skin? Why? What’s wrong with my skin?’”

Pickett, White, Vanderwoude and Mustoe all agree — it’s the parents’ decision. 

“I think if someone has a problem with another person’s personal choices, that’s their problem,” Mustoe said. “And their opinion of my kid or my choices for my kid doesn’t really affect me or bother me.” 

White said these conversations need to be happening at home, but they’re not, so maybe the studios should step in. 

“I think that’s one of the things that, as a parent, instilling whatever values you have into your kid and then standing up for your kid as well. If choreography does happen that you’re uncomfortable with, or that could potentially be seen as something a little bit more raunchy, something a little bit more sexual, not being afraid to address that,” they said. 

Pickett said because he is a male judge, his perspective will always have that lens on it.

“Because at the end of the day for me, my bottom line is always going to come down to the parents’ judgment,” he said. “I’m never going across that line of what I feel like is appropriate for a kid versus what the parent thinks is appropriate.” 

Vanderwoude is a bit more wary of how the topic should be handled. 

“It could be up to the parents, I guess. Because at the end of the day, like, it’s their kid, but I don’t think that kid needs to have their entire stomach showing,” she said.