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Getting Urban Girls into the Game: Dance First?

June 16, 2009 – 12:08 PM

By Lauren Taylor

It is the quiet story behind the high-profile victories of women’s athletics:  After thirty years of Title IX, after the superstardom of Mia Hamm, Michelle Wie, and Venus Williams, even after the advocacy of groups like the Women’s Sports Foundation, girls – especially in urban communities – are playing sports in lower numbers than boys.

There are many reasons for this and we heard about some in the Sunday New York Times and, more poignantly, in a short video on the NYT website.

As an athlete and a recent Yale School of Public Health graduate who just completed a research project in which I focused on this very issue, I can tell you it’s frustrating and disappointing. Why do so many sit on the sidelines – or in public health terms, why do so many girls express feelings of low self-efficacy towards sports?  The problem is particularly prevalent in urban and African American communities where residents have below average health, are low-income, and come from less educated households.

What do girls in just about every research study say? “I am self-conscious about my looks when I exercise” or “I am not motivated to be active.” Such feelings reflect a youth sports culture in which girls join later, play less, and quit sooner than their male counterparts.

So what has been done about it?

For years there has been a focus on trying to get girls to change the way they perceive their place in relation to sports. (In my world of lacrosse, sticks, gloves and goggles aimed at girls are ubiquitously pink). Some populations of girls have responded (When Title IX was enacted in 1972, 1 in 27 girls in high school played sports, now it’s one in three!). But other groups remain obstinately unchanged. This is, to some extent, unsurprising in a market saturated with images and messages aimed at bolstering female sexuality. (See FGN post)

Rather than try — and fail — to change girls’ attitudes, some of the newest interventions side-step the low self-efficacy issue all together. Instead, new strategies promote non-sports physical activity to prevent these children from becoming disinterested in or unable to participate in exercise all together.

The first of its kind, the Stanford Dance for Health intervention, for example, substituted dance classes for traditional physical activity classes three times a week in a mostly low-income middle school population.   In a randomized control trial, girls who had been assigned to the dance intervention significantly improved their fitness and reduced their BMI gain compared to girls in the control group.

Hip Hop to Health Jr. is a 5-year randomized intervention conducted in 24 Head Start programs where each site is randomized to either a 14-week dietary/physical activity intervention or a general health intervention. These approaches capture the attention (and it seems, enthusiasm) of an audience that will seem (at the moment, at least) unlikely to be captured by classic youth sports such as gym class dodgeball or Saturday morning soccer.

The big question remains, though: Do these programs miss the point that girls need to participate in sports? How you answer may depend on what you think sports do for a child (there is much more, many might suggest, than fitness to be gained).

On the other hand, might dance-based interventions give these girls safe time and space that might otherwise be lacking?  And if young girl gets that body confidence first in dance, whose to say it can’t be guided onto the field, court – or into the pool?

Lauren Taylor, assistant coach of Women’s Lacrosse at Yale, graduated from the Yale School of Public Health earlier this month, and is now working for the Yale Global Health Initiative.

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