My invitation came in the form of an ad for the DVD Dora’s Ballet Adventures, sold exclusively at Target.
“Et tu, Dora?” I thought, holding the video at the store a few days later. Dora stood dressed in a tutu and showered in a rainfall of roses.
“When had she crossed over to the pink side?”
Back at home and twenty-five minutes into the episode, however, I was shouting, “Hooray, Dora! You did it!”
What did she and her creators do?
They stayed true to Dora’s prosocial theme and made an episode about ballet a story about problem solving, helping others, and finding joy through activity, in this case, dance. They took the heart of what’s made the show exceptional and applied it to a theme that could have been reduced to fancy clothes and audience adulation.
The show gets off to a quick start when Delivery Duck brings a box of scuba flippers to Dora’s dance troupe instead of ballet slippers. Dora volunteers to run back to the dance studio and get the right box in time for the show. Backpack and Map help her make the right turns (in this case every turn is metaphorically and literally a right turn) and they lead her to bunny hop hill and a barn where she joins the animal hoedown and flaps her arms like a chicken. Further down the road, she beats out Swiper the Fox, and in a display of glorious, plot-driven, ballet know-how, she executes a grand jeté just in time to save a set of singing keys.
Boots reminds us that dancing gives us strong muscles and Dora sings about the joy of movement, saying that with music and dance “you’ll find you can’t be sad anymore.” But, it’s the arrival of the Dance Train, in all its funky, groovy style that is the show’s musical highlight.
When Dora stands center stage at the end, you feel she’s earned it. She is singular; she is the star. But she is a leader, not a diva.
Does any of this matter?
I’d say it does. In my essay on Slate’s Double X about Dora’s 10th Birthday, I mentioned the studies about prosocial messages in children’s television. Kids can, after watching such shows and with reinforcement, display more altruistic traits in their own lives.
But, there’s another thing to consider when it comes to Dora donning a ballet outfit instead of her trademark shorts and t-shirt.
It’s a change.
And Dora is, above all else, a brand, not a best friend.
Waiting in the wings, to follow her dance performance, is an entire chorus of new Dora merchandise.
You may have only recently noticed it this spring, but the rest of the toy lineup is due out in the fall. There’ll be a steady release of several new toys made by FISHER-PRICE and MEGA brands. In a press release this February, Nickelodeon described the new products, all for kids 3 and up, and many designed to “mirror what today’s girls are wearing themselves.”
The Dora Dress-Up Collection Doll with “beautiful long hair and life-like eyelashes.” This Dora comes with a bow in her hair. And for about fifteen dollars, you can dress the doll for all her pressing engagements including: Rainy Day; School Day, (a velvet jacket, skirt, striped shirt, matching headband, and ballet flats); Beach Vacation; and the Party outfit, (a satin and organza party dress, matching purse, ballet flats, and flower hair clips.)
There’s also the Flower Girl Dora which come with a hairbrush and the Suds and Style Fairy Dora which allows you to use “warm or cold water to reveal surprise designs on Dora’s face and bathing suit and to magically change her hair highlights.”
There are more toys, and the one featuring “Dora’s Most Treasured Adventure” reminds us that Dora does “the opposite of what pirates do...return treasure instead of taking it.”
But, it’s clear that Dora, even little Dora, not her pre-teen alter-ego, is undergoing a makeover.
You could argue that the girl from Nick Junior is no longer ceding the territory of parties, ballet recitals, and beach vacations to the girly-girls of Mattel. If her creators can infuse such themes with her distinct displays of kindness, exploration, and perseverance, then it’s a good thing.
But you could also ask why Dora is moving in this direction.
I imagine the consumer product division at Nickelodeon knows what it’s doing. There is probably more excitement and demand for the Dance and Sparkle Ballerina Dora than there might be for an aviator Dora, or zoologist Dora, or habitat for humanity (dressed in sweats and work boots) Dora. And, fantasy and frilly dresses are part of the childhood I remember and embraced.
But, in the balance of things, Dora was once distinctive because she helped offset the pink and frilly.
I don’t know if the current metamorphosis in the product division has been slow or sudden, brilliant or disappointing, but I know this: the explorer in sneakers is now wearing ballet flats. And when three year olds start talking about highlights, they might not mean the magazine for kids.
Photo: Ballet Adventures: Pictured: Boots and Dora in DORA THE EXPLORER on Nickelodeon. Photo: Nickelodeon. Copyright 2011 Viacom International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.