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A Dream the Size of Nashville

As the 44th Annual Country Music Awards approach this fall, the nation is searching for the shining star of the upcoming Nashville award show. Last year, Taylor Swift swept the competition, a young talent with heart who likes to hug. Yet, there’s another teen on the country music scene whose dreams are as high as this megastar.

Chatting with Christine Marie was like catching up with a friend. Her kindness and modesty were like a breath of fresh air as she gushed about her music inspirations from the Little Mermaid, to Taylor Swift and Keith Urban. Who knows maybe Christine Marie will someday take the CMAs by storm…discover more about 17-year-old going from “California to Country.”

Where Inspiration Meets the Road

Originally Published By, August 2010

If you’ve ever dreamed of singing like the Little Mermaid, 17-year-old country singer Christine Marie can totally relate. We caught up with the San Diego native after a 28-day school trip to Europe. Marie chatted with us about her fun trip abroad, passion for singing, recording in Nashville and starting her senior year of high school. And really, who doesn’t want to know more about a girl who wants to belt it out like Ariel?

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Inspired by the “Under the Sea” Disney princess, Marie’s music career began at six, when she joined a local musical-theater company. By the time she was 10, she’d found a new inspiration on land. “I wanted to be Kelly Clarkson,” Marie said in a phone interview. She enjoyed singing pop for a few years, but she didn’t tap into her own creativity until she began playing guitar and turned to country music.

“I felt when I was doing pop, I was trying to be Kelly Clarkson,” she said, “but when I switched to country, I felt like I could be my own person.” Since then Marie has been writing songs and recording music. Her parents have helped every step of the way, especially her mother, who is also her manager. “They are my support,” she said. “It’s a crazy dream to have and their support is really great. I couldn’t do it without them.”

Marie has won several singing competitions, including Hollywood’s Best New Talent competition in 2008. She counts LeAnn Rimes and Carrie Underwood as influences, but she adores the classics. “I was raised on George Strait, Garth Brooks and Keith Urban,” she said. “Keith Urban has been my biggest inspiration.”

Marie is not only on her way to becoming a country star, she’s also a good student. She serves in her school’s student government and is getting ready to apply to colleges. She hopes to attend Belmont University or Vanderbilt University, both in Nashville, so she can pursue music along with her studies.

With brains, talent and a voice that will surely rock the radio, don’t miss this 17-year-old’s video blogs, concert dates and more on her website In fact, the first 25 people to sign up for Marie’s email list will get an autographed copy of her CD! Visit her site today to get the details and see what else Christine Marie is up to this fall.

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The Misconceptionist: Bristol Palin

May is National Teen Pregnancy Month and the Candie’s Foundation has several public service announcements and campaigns “educating” youth about teen pregnancy. As the child of teen parents, I feel very strongly about sex education and teen pregnancy awareness, but I completely disagree with the approach the foundation — and many American schools — have taken recently.

The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate in developed nations, despite today’s 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. “In 2006, 750,000 women younger than 20 became pregnant,” reports the Guttmacher Institute. With all the access to birth control methods and freedom of speech we have, it’s absurd that we do not provide better sex ed resources to tweens and teens.

To top it off, young celebrity moms like Jamie Lynne Spears and Bristol Palin glamorize the problem. Bristol Palin is not a valid spokesperson… for anything. She needs to focus on taking care of her child and getting an education, not doing public service announcements for the Candie’s Foundation (then going clubbing after the premiere).  She shouldn’t be exploiting her son Tripp on People covers repeatedly, while talking about abstinence and then making appearances on the Today Show and The View as a role model for young women.

As you may have seen, she tells teens to “Pause before you play,” in the Candie’s PSA. “Play” what? Play house in a condo paid for by parents, like you? Play sex games? Foreplay? What exactly is she talking about? She never even says, “sex.”

My other problem with the PSA (please see below) — aside from its vague message — is the organization’s choice of Bristol Palin as the face of their advocacy. She makes it look fun and easy to be a teen mother, yet she has more help than the average mom — at any age — let alone teens in poverty who need education about sex, STDs and pregnancy.

Candie’s plays off the fact that she DOES have things easier and it sounds like she’s bragging about being better off than other young moms. She might as well said: “Hi, I’m Bristol Palin and if you aren’t rich and famous like me, being a teen mom would really suck. Thankfully, it doesn’t for me, but it could for you.”

Plus, there are behind the scenes videos that make Palin look like a movie star at a photo shoot as she smiles happily for the camera and her cute baby coos.

In my experience, people, especially young adults, do not like being treated like they are less than anyone else, or like they are stupid. Bristol Palin is as far from the average teen as they could imagine in the first place. The white T-shirt and pared down room at the end of the PSA aren’t believable.

Plus, what’s the message? They don’t even say the word “sex,” let alone useful terms for preventing pregnancy like “condoms,” or “birth control pills.” You know what’s really scary? STDs. Or giving birth. Or a crying baby that won’t stop screaming because he or she is hungry, tired or cranky. That’s a real message.

Also, Palin advocates abstinence — she’s the biggest hyprocrite. Especially since studies have shown (Palin included) abstinence is not an effective method of preventing teen pregnancy. You know what does work? Condoms!

When I was in school celebrities proudly talked about safe sex, displayed condoms in music videos and increased awareness about HIV/AIDS. In fact, the topic of intercourse wasn’t taboo and in school — we learned about reproduction, STDs and all the methods of birth control. Putting a condom on a banana was a rite of passage for freshman!

Sex makes a baby, Bristol! We know you know that — so why can’t you just be honest to teens and make an educated statement your situation, instead of exploiting it for media attention.

Here’s what Candie’s should be saying:

“If you’re going to have sex, wear a condom because you could get pregnant, or contract a highly contagious or incurable STD. Go to the Candie’s Foundation website, or your local clinic to get some free condoms or to receive a birth control pill consultation. Please see our list of resources on sex education. Think before you have sex and be responsible.”

That’s a public service announcement.

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A Glee-ful Moment in the Sun

Glee Girls in Glamour

Yesterday after a long day’s work, the subway gently rumbled up the tracks as the D train chugged into the light of evening on the Manhattan Bridge. I was on my way home to Brooklyn as a view of downtown came into view at sunset.

Crazy For You,” by Madonna began playing on my iPod as I felt a surge of happiness and honor to be a woman. The feeling surprised me. Where did it come from? Coincidentally, a week ago the show Glee reminded women everywhere to believe in themselves, and who they are as individuals, through the power of Madonna’s music.

With songs like “Express Yourself,” and “What It Feels like For a Girl,” I felt strong, I felt empowered and I felt proud that such a pop culture phenomenon could connect with young women in a feminist manner. Even the young women’s feature in Glamour this month, spoke of the power of personality and confidence, in “Glee Gets Glam.”

This week’s episode — which I later watched after that shining moment on the bridge, as the verses of Madonna’s ballad reminded me to cherish what I have — explored the issue of self-esteem among teens in a simple, but effective way.

The character Mercedes felt like she should be thin to fit in as a cheerleader. Feeling pressured to lose weight by coach Sue, Mercedes no longer appreciates her body for what it is, until ex-cheer captain Quinn, shares her insight.

By the end of the episode, the entire misfit cast sings “Beautiful” in an unorthodox pep rally where everyone joins together acknowledging their own insecurities with comradarie. Though this is far from the reality of teen life, I rejoiced in the positive message and attention to women’s issues like sexism, misogyny and (less heavy-handedly) eating disorders.

Last week’s “The Power of Madonna” episode was even better. The young men and Glee Club teacher, Mr. Shu, admitted to treating women poorly, professing their need to change. Part of that change came about when the women took a stand for who they wanted to be: strong, independent and bold about their talent.

To quote Madonna’s lyrics in “What It Feels Like For a Girl”:

“Strong inside but you don’t know it

Good little girls they never show it”

By going against what it means to be a “good little girl,” Glee showed real teens that they don’t have to conform to the standard gender stereotypes and restrictions forced upon them. Over the course of the week the Twitterverse was rocked by this feminist movement, people loved the it. I think Madonna’s music made such an impact because she lives to be unique, tenacious and unafraid to be herself.

If we could all be so brave, even for a moment, to see the bright shining star in ourselves, we could feel good about the women we are, and will be.

Take your moment and hold onto it.

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What About the Girls?

Image by bass_nroll via Flickr

There are two very important topics relating to girls’ self-esteem weighing heavy on my mind lately.  Both deal with the fate of young women and how they think of themselves and each other.

Cyberbullying and Teens

First, I’d like to call attention to the recent surge of suicides among teen girls due to cyberbullying.

In Massachusetts, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hung herself two months ago after repeated verbal assaults by classmates on social networking sites. And, horror of horrors, the nine bullies who are being charged with harassment, stalking and rape, mocked her death online after she passed.

According to an article in the New York Times, “two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Three younger girls have been charged in juvenile court, Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the Northwestern district attorney, said at a news conference in Northampton, Mass.”

There’s a similar case underway in New York regarding 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington and the harassment she experienced on Facebook that also drove her to commit suicide. Both of these incidences show the intense need for intervention among teen interactions. In both cases, boys and girls were involved in the torment of these girls.  And, given how easy it is to verbally attack someone on Facebook or Twitter, we need to find ways of protecting girls’ self-esteem — and their lives. Even bullying among boys is often related to gender issues, specifically the notion of being more “masculine.”  Blogger Kelly Croy talks about his experiences with bullies and what he thinks people should know about it.

Not sure what cyberbullying is exactly?

  • Sending mean, vulgar, or threatening messages or images via email, text, instant message, or by posting on social networking sites.
  • Posting sensitive or private information about another person (this includes sexting).
  • Posing as someone else to make that person look bad online.
  • Intentionally excluding someone from an online group.

In an article I wrote for Channel One News you can get a closer look at cyberbullying and its affect on teens, including very interesting studies about teen behavior online and information about the psychological effects of bullying:

Women’s History Month: What Girls Need to Know

One of my other concerns for girls and young women involves self-esteem and pride. I was thinking about Women’s History Month.  I haven’t seen many tributes to women in the media. Have people forgotten about the rich cultural history women’s rights has brought to the world? Shouldn’t we be teaching young women to take pride in their accomplishments and honor those of other women?

I read this article by Allison Kimmich, about how women’s historical achievements should be incorporated in school curriculum better.  Kimmich is right. Much of what is taught about women leaders, revolutionaries, writers and activists ends up in the recycle bin after the month is over. We need to move beyond creating poster boards and find ways of including women in the classroom.

Kimmich makes another great point, women also need to be encouraged in the fields of math, science and technology. She recounted an anecdote about her daughter that reminiscent of the classroom gender dynamic many experience growing up.

“When my daughter was 5, she announced after school one day that ‘girls don’t do science.’ And in a recent meeting, her third-grade teacher praised her for helping a male classmate keep his desk neat.  So my daughter learned quickly that girls are not ‘supposed’ to excel in certain subjects, but teachers reward ‘feminine’ behaviors such as caretaking and neatness — sometimes more than, or in place of academic performance.”

Though these two aspects of you gender culture among youth seem disparate — they are not.  The subjugation of young girls and the pressure to be “feminine,” which can include taking abuse, not standing up for one’s self and even being tidy in the classroom, are all gender norms we impose upon young girls. We must teach them to defend who they are and their interests in order to preserve and encourage self-esteem among girls and women.

Until we are willing to accept that these problems are gender related and the roots lay deep in the stereotypes females grow from — we will continue to see young women suffer from problems like cyberbullying, low-self esteem, depression, suicide and even a disinterest in more “masculine” studies like math and science.

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Sugar, Spice and Made to Entice

Diesel Be Stupid Ad

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, young girls and women are wearing more revealing clothing in an attempt to look sexy at earlier ages than ever before.  Though the bellybutton-look from the nineties remains covered by longer, layered tops, preteens and teens are finding other ways to showcase their bodies with darker makeup, low-cut tops and shorter skirts.  Looking slutty, unfortunately, is officially in style.

With the media horror over the news that Miley Cyrus’ 9-year-old sister, Noah, was launching a lingerie line for kids (that turned out to be false) after she was seen wearing fishnets and patent leather platforms, we must look at how our society is encouraging young girls and women to dress this way — and why we are allowing it to happen.

Many feel that the pervasiveness of porn culture and sex slogans has led to an explosion of pressure on women and girls to be more overtly sexual — making femininity more of a performance with influences from the bedroom (Heidi Montag’s 10 plastic surgeries are an exaggerated example of this trend).  A new study by Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, a clinical psychologist at London Metropolitan University suggests that the problem lies in the availability of porn to preteens and teens, along with the overuse of sex slogans in advertisements.

Dr. Papadopoulos said: “It is a drip, drip effect. Look at porn stars, and look how an average girl now looks. It’s seeped into every day: fake breasts, fuck-me shoes … We are hypersexualising girls, telling them that their desirability relies on being desired. They want to please at any cost.”

This study was released about the same time as Diesel launched their new “Be Stupid” campaign that I’ve seen papered on the subway and walls of buildings across the city. Kids can see nipples on their way to school — and it’s not for the Nature Channel. One particular ad, (shown above) shocks and disgusts me every time I see it — not only does the ad promote exposing one’s self in public, it also suggests that women who look and act that way are hot.

If you look at every single ad in the campaign, women are made out to be sexual objects who should “Be Stupid,” to deserve attention and be considered beautiful. The slogan also says, “Be Stupid. Smart listens to the head. Stupid listens to the heart,” telling women that smarts do not equal with fun.  This overwhelming need for women to be sexy and pretty with less of an emphasis on intelligence, individuality, modesty and character also leads to men think this is how women should be, thus, perpetuating the cycle of women wanting to fulfill that role.

How does this affect young girls’ value of who they are as people?  The proof is in the lip plump.

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Teen Dating Abuse

Given all of the ways teens can connect with cell phones and social media on the internet, the threat of harassment has increased. With the growing rates of teen dating abuse, many organizations are reaching out to help young adults in violent relationships.

This morning, Channel One News covered one teen’s story. The teen, who wished to remain anonymous, had a normal relationship until her boyfriend started behaving obsessively by calling and texting her repeatedly. Later, he stalked her and became physically violent. Luckily, she sought help, for others, it can go too far … costing them their lives.

Many teens fall into abusive relationships without realizing what happened because the process can be gradual. For a complete list of resources, check out Channel One News’ suggestions. To find out more about the rise in teen dating abuse, watch the segment below. Remember, love is respect and if you, or someone you know are feeling threatened or hurt, don’t wait, get help now.

The Fire Within

Fanning the Flames

Eight kings gather around a fire conjuring sacred hymns in hopes of bringing forth a divine child.  Complex beats thump in tune with their sharp steps.  Their faces focus on the flames as they squat down towards the fire with elegance, strength and poise praying to be blessed with an heir.  The heat of the moment fuels their devotion to this practice as an infant is born from the flames.

Ramya Ramnarayan, Image By NRI

“Do you get mad – like feel angry at the fire?” a girl asks from within the circle of kings.  “Yeah, I do feel like I look a little mad because of the way my hands are,” replies another student.  The dramatic tone fades away from the mythological.  The kings revert to their teenage girl personalities by giggling and chatting about the way their hand positioning and facial expressions alter the audience’s perception of their emotions on stage.  They discuss how a sharper flick of their hands affects the centuries old story they are portraying from Southern India.

“Are you ready yet?” asks their dance instructor, Ramya Ramnarayan as she restarts the music.

Eight young women dance together in a studio at the Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance, where they are portraying a story about a king and queen who long for a child and finally receive one from the gods.  Each student acts out each part of the story.  From the king who comforts his forlorn queen to the heroine who excels at archery, sword-fighting, and singing, their movements and facial expressions bring this ancient fable to life.  Ahead of the classroom, Ramya, the choreographer and artistic director of the dance institute, sits cross-legged on a woven rug, swathed in a royal blue with a red and orange shawl.  As she turns her head towards the stereo to adjust the volume, her gold earrings sway back and forth, ticking in time with the complex beats flooding the room.

The scene is a familiar one, a teacher posed elegantly in front of her students as she snaps her fingers, providing encouragement and pointers to the rhythm of classical music and dance postures.  But this is not ballet – it is Bharathanatyam, a centuries old dance form from Southern India.  And Ramya is a renowned performer in India and the United States who teaches this expression of music through dance to students as young as six years old.

For Ramya, dance became a part of her life when she was only four years old.  Living in Chennai, India with her mother, father and older brother, she was encouraged by her parents to pursue Bharathanatyam.  Her mother’s extensive knowledge of classical music inspired her love of the arts.  Ramya observed many disciplines of traditional Indian dance, but her mother also exposed her to dance troupes that visited from Russia and Europe.  When Ramya was five, she studied with the Russian Embassy Ballet for three years.  But by the time she was eleven, she was already performing full length Bharathanatyam concerts thanks to her eight years of hard work and dedication to the practice.

From 1975 to 1993 she received intense dance training from two well-respected and coveted gurus, S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai, and Dr. Padma Subramanyam.  And when she returns to India once or twice a year to perform, she continues her studies with her guru, Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan.  In addition to her dance training, Ramya is also well educated in Classical Carnatic Music and Sanskrit.

This deeper knowledge about music and classical language has enabled her to strictly adhere to the South Indian traditions while making the art forms relatable to contemporary audiences.  Ramya often chooses social themes she thinks people will connect with like love and the difficulties of war, “Even though some of the songs were written hundreds of years ago, the language doesn’t need to be constraining,” she said.  “The message gets across to the audience through the dancers’ expressions and emotions.  Music is universal.”

But being a choreographer is more than choosing themes.

There are two things Ramya seeks to accomplish with every performance: The piece must convey a message and provide exposure to something new.  “Everyone must feel inspired and take it to the next level,” said Ramya.  For example, right now she is preparing for her upcoming hour long performance on November 23 in the Thanksgiving Festival for the Newark Museum’s exhibition, India: Public Places, Private Spaces.  She is performing a piece about the fundamental element of Indian culture – the sacred relationship between student and teacher.  By sharing this aspect of Indian culture, she hopes to open doors to new interests whether they are in dance, music, language or scholarship.

“Choreography needs to come from inside you,” she said, “It has to be the spark.”

Ramya’s role as an instructor began in 1990 when she and her husband moved to New Jersey from India only a year before.  At Madras University in India she earned her bachelor’s degree in Accounting, but her love of performance, dance, music and story-telling led her to teaching Bharathanatyam in the States.  “I was totally scared because of the shock between the different cultural experiences,” she said with a laugh.  “But I was surrounded by people who wanted to help and support me.  Arts advocacy groups and universities were open and interested in giving exposure to Bharathanatyam.  I was nurtured so beautifully in this country by them, performing in many festivals right here in New Jersey.”

The Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance opened in 1990 and now has 6 instructors.  In addition to her own dancing, being a mother and wife, Ramya teaches 5-7 days a week for at least an hour a day.  She admits that the work can be both frustrating and rewarding.  Since most students begin at only six years old and spend five years learning basic techniques, the first three years function as a filter.  “If a student makes it through the first three years, they will continue to pursue it,” said Ramya.

Dancers begin at a young age to gain the strength and flexibility necessary for poses.  Unlike ballet, where students can perform in a recital six months after their first lesson, Bharathanatyam takes years, but many dancers perform well into their 70s because it’s not as hard on the body as ballet.  By the time students are 12 or 13 years old they can perform a two hour concert.  This is also when they begin their emotional education, which continues to enhance their performances as they mature into adults.  Like the lessons that build their knowledge of Bharathanatyam over the years, the relationship between teacher and students becomes stronger too.

Ramya welcomes her students into her spacious North Brunswick home she shares with her husband and two sons.  Inside the warm and orderly home, the walls are painted sea foam green and decorated with Indian carvings, paintings and family photos.  Shining wood floors reflect the light of a five-tiered shrine of small statues in the living room.

As students enter, they walk in and remove their shoes at the front door as if it was their own home.  “They’ve practically grown up with me.  I’m like a second mother to them,” says Ramya as one of her students closes the door.  They walk barefooted downstairs into the dance studio giving a wave to their instructor, “Hi Auntie,” they say.

Downstairs, the girls help each other tie their outfits properly as they chat about their day.  Their conversation moves to Bharathanatyam and rehearsal begins.  They discuss different movements with their teacher.  From the snapping sounds their feet make against the floor, to the angle of their elbows, Ramya talks them through the precise choreography of the ten minute king fable the students have been practicing for six months.

After the divine child has risen from the fire, she becomes a beautiful and talented woman.  The heroine’s ambitions to conquer to world abound in the girls’ simultaneous depiction of her.  They begin with sharp stances holding a bow and arrow, or sword-fighting, to the delicate poses of the heroine finding her true love.  Through every expression, Ramya is there to fuel their passion for the story keeping them in rhythm and in character.  At times she will tap small cymbals or sing along, drawing out the students’ emotional connection to the story.

When they finished, they looked peaceful and content.  Ramya casually quizzed them on the difference between specific hand movements, or Mudres, held during a performance.  Like the characters they portrayed, the students have matured and become a part of a rich cultural history by learning Bharathanatyam.  Led by their instructor’s passion for tradition, after nearly eight years of training, they all knew the answer to her question about Mudres.  Ramya’s fingers fan into position, “What is this?” she asks.

Her students reply in unison, “Fire.”

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