Time to Dance: Maddie Ziegler in Sia’s “Chandelier”


Unusual for spotlighting a dancing avatar, pop star Sia’s provocative video for her song “Chandelier” won the 2014 MTV Video Music Award for best choreography—and rightly so. In place of the singer, a prepubescent girl outfitted in a flesh-tone leotard and platinum wig shows off her formidable movement skills in a quirky dance solo that journeys through the rooms of a sparsely furnished apartment.

Ryan Heffington’s choreography is far from “best” in any qualitative measure, but it got my vote for sheer quantity. The amount of actual dancing in the other nominated videos is negligible, while “Chandelier” shows nothing but dance. Granted, two other contenders contain dance sequences, but Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “Love Never Felt So Good” largely presents recycled footage of Jackson. And in “Hideaway,” singer Kiesza so artlessly executes the repetitive choreography that it seems more like aerobics than dance.

Music video fans and serious concert dance audiences are generally not the same population, and although I fall firmly into the latter category, I paid attention to “Chandelier” because it generated so much dance-world buzz. Also nominated for video of the year, it stars 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler from Dance Moms—a sickening reality TV show I follow only out of obligation to keep current with trends in my field. Dance Moms foregrounds vicious bickering by mothers whose little girls form an elite competitive dance team; the moms are an embarrassment, but their daughters, especially Maddie, are great fun to watch.

When music videos debuted, in the 1980s, they were predominantly dance-driven, an apex in the marriage of pop music and dance on television. Dance lovers of all stripes flocked to their TVs to see the latest moves of such talented “terps” as Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul. Sadly, while the backup dancing in live performances has advanced with exciting originality, the dance quotient in videos has diminished. Quick cuts and short dance phrases punctuated by compelling images characterized videos from the get-go, but there was generally also a connective thread of movement drawn from street and stage dance styles. Now it’s all about the images: erotic posing plus short blips of action that don’t last long enough to constitute dance, an art form whose expressive potential absolutely depends upon playing out over time.

But before thinking “Chandelier” signals a return to the good old days, remember Sia is a rarity. More comfortable behind the microphone than in front of the camera, she employs on-screen stand-ins, yet very few recording artists work that way. Most figure prominently in their videos, reveling in advertising their sex appeal rather than relinquishing the spotlight to dancers who can develop content-rich choreography. Also, the choreography in “Chandelier” isn’t remarkable enough to inspire imitation. It starts promisingly, with bold, angular body shapes executed with sassy abandon, but it soon scatters into disjointed tricks—walkovers, speedy spins, an ungraceful split, plopping on a bed, pulling an eyelid up when the camera comes in for a close-up. The stylized movements don’t cohere into a clear choreographic statement.

Why are we watching a little girl dance around in a bare environment and a suggestive getup, anyway? Contemplative viewers may infer ideas about the exploitation of children or receive the message that women are often viewed as little girls (or may harbor a desire to remain so). Others may just marvel at Maddie’s agility and then rush to send their daughters to dancing school. “Chandelier” won’t rekindle serious dance fans’ interest in music videos, though it may up the ratings for Dance Moms. Oh dear.

Photo courtesy of Scott Gries