As I drop my two daughters off at their dance classes, I look around the studio building and see all girls. Today, the overwhelming majority of the student population engaged in dance education and training is female (HEADS 2018). Why not bring sons to dance? What is Western society trying to encourage or develop in females by exposing them to dance? What does dance teach females about their bodies and their movement?
I know what I hope to develop in my daughters by bringing them to dance class. As a professional dancer, choreographer, and educator, I want them to feel the power of their bodies, experience the connection between the body and mind, to know intimately the medium they experience life through, and to tap into the lineage of the strong women who created modern dance technique. Modern dance is one of the few art forms which women have dominated as creative forces. If I had boys, I would want them to dance for the same reasons.
However, I am aware of other reasons to bring your daughter to dance class. One day as I waited outside the studio for my daughters to finish, I overheard two women extolling the type of body that dance produced; long and thin. I had to wonder if this was a part of the reason why they brought their daughters to dance in order for them to have the “correct” female body? Can dance school be seen by some as a place that instructs girls how to be females in society: graceful, obedient, worried about their appearance, flexible, svelte, fluid, and possessing a body that does not go through puberty, get pregnant, or age? With the ever-present mirror in the dance studio, and the body as the medium, the focus can easily shift from what a dancer can do to how a dancer appears. Presently, with the prevalent use of social media, televised dance shows, and the preponderance of competition dance with its rigid gender roles (Schupp 2017), female dancers are judged solely by their appearance. The dancer becomes a spectacle who is all about the surface, and not an artist who is communicating a message. She is visually consumed as opposed to kinesthetically felt. How many times an image is shared will be dependent on whether it fits the industry standard.
Many body types can participate in the myriad forms of dance: tap, hip hop, Flamenco, African, modern/contemporary, jazz; however, the image of a dancer that has been most often seared into Western consciousness is the balletic body type—lithe, small-boned, rail thin, little muscular definition, no breasts, no butt, white, and youthful. This balletic body type has been internalized by many as an aesthetic ideal of what it is to be beautiful and graceful on the stage. This ideal was created by men and perpetuated by male choreographers.
The French King Louis XIV (1643-1715), also known as the Sun King, had an important role in the development of ballet, in which initially only men could participate. Louis XIV developed the first ballet school, the Academie Royale de Danse (Royal Academy of Dance), where the ballet master Pierre Beauchamps created the basic five foot positions. In 1672, Jean‐Baptiste Lully created the Paris Opera Ballet which allowed women to study. Women became muses for the male creative voice. George Balanchine, who created the American Ballet Theatre in 1934 and the New York City Ballet in 1948, had a significant role in establishing the ideal body type for a female ballet dancer—extremely thin, long-legged nymphs. His aesthetic has put immense pressure on female ballet dancers to live up to this extreme ideal.
After years of ballet serving as the predominant style on the Western concert dance stage, women in the early 20th Century rebelled against this aesthetic, beginning with the mother of modern dance Isadora Duncan. Other notable women followed: Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, Mary Wigman, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Anna Sokolow, to name a few. Women in this new form of dance, could feel the earth, give into gravity, show effort and strength, portray more than fairies, sylphs, the dead, or the love stricken, move freely without support, possess curves and flesh, and display sexuality using their pelvis. Most importantly, women could now create their own techniques, shape how their bodies appeared and moved, and possess creative power— telling their stories. They were no longer the instruments but the creators.
Modern dance developed into postmodern and contemporary dance, where the female voice was strong with Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, and Anna Halprin to name a few. However, beginning in the 1960’s the male creative voice gained strength. Presently in contemporary dance, the male voice drowns out the female voice just as it always has in ballet. This fact cuts deep since modern dance was created by women. It has been well documented that males are in the minority in Euro-American concert dance, but they outperform in both financial and creative power (Adair 1992; Garber et al. 2007; Larson 2017; Samuels 2001; Van Dyke 1996).Presently, dance artist and scholar Eliza Larson (2017) finds in her empirical study that “a majority of the most visible and well-funded choreographers in this country[the U.S.] are men” (39). In the UK, male choreographers also dominate the concert stage — Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, Matthew Bourne, Akram Khan, Arthur Pita, and Drew McOnie.
I know as a dance educator that dance aesthetics, as all aesthetics, are learned. It is hard to change body preferences and prejudices. If I do not shave my legs, I am disturbed that my learned aesthetics see my unshaven legs as dirty and unattractive. Even though I consciously rail against the social imperative to shave my legs, I know that I have deeply internalized this aesthetic dislike. How has my Western concert dance background affected how I view the female body? Do I see the female form as ideally never aging, never being a woman with curves and flesh? Does the female dancer stay a pubescent girl forever? Can a female body that is muscular, has large breasts and a short neck, and moves with a staccato power, be seen as having a place on the concert stage? Or on the competition stage? At the local dance studio? Or is she denied the stage because she is “unfeminine”? I have explored finding agency through dance by examining pedagogical strategies that I use to shift the focus from presentation to self-discovery, encourage ownership of the movement, and explore a range of physicalities that embody different aspects of the psyche in my article “Female Self-Empowerment through Dance, Journal of Dance Education” (2019).
In my dance composition class, students create their own choreography. Many of my students monitor their work for not adhering to “feminine movement standards.” They complain that the movement is too choppy, not smooth enough, not fluid. I ask them why their movement cannot show all different qualities, and I explain that as a dancer they should access a full palette of movement expressions, not only what is deemed “feminine.” The studio can be a place to disrupt socialized controls on the body.
One has to be confident and unconcerned about one’s appearance if one is to create. If one is worried about how they look, they will be stuck in front of the mirror instead of stepping out of the studio and making their movement known in the world. Performing your own creation is hard because it means facing the reality that your vision may find rejection or indifference. One must be courageous and bold. The western concert dance field is predominantly female, but the creative power in all disciplines; ballet, musical theater, hip hop, and contemporary/modern dance, is largely in male hands. Why are women not taking creative power? Does the focus on their appearance take away their confidence? With this lack of confidence, men choreograph the bodies of women—how they move, how they appear and what stories they tell.
UK dance critic Luke Jennings (2017) brought attention to the fact that the Royal Ballet has recently produced many pieces by male choreographers that depict violence against women: in Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets (2012) women have passive roles where they are either raped or eviscerated and in his Frankenstein (2016) women are hanged and murdered; in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling (1978) women are raped and shot, in his The Invitation(1960) the girl is raped, in his piece Las Hermanas (1963) the youngest sister is hanged, and in his The Judas Tree (1992) a woman is gang raped and murdered. And all of these performances were followed by a Royal commission that produced Arthur Pita’s The Wind (2017), which focuses on a violent rape. Where are the dances choreographed by women that depict a different physicality?
Now as a dancer, mother of two daughters who dance, and educator, I want to make sure that my daughters are aware of societal pressures that are being inscribed onto their bodies and possibly enforced in the dance studio. I want them to question what is normalized. What costumes are they being asked to wear, what body type is encouraged in the studio, what kind of choreography are they being asked to dance, are their creative voices nurtured, are boys being treated differently than the girls, and are the dancers asked to express a full range of movement qualities? When I take my daughters to see a dance performance, are all the choreographers male?
A female can lose control of her body, worry about adhering to an aesthetic that is birthed out of a male perspective, and see her self-esteem, and thus power fade. What happens when a woman does not own her body? I want everyone to dance, but I want people to be aware of how an art form that uses the body as its medium can reflect societal perspectives of how a female body should look and move. I implore people to ask themselves whether a dance studio or choreography is enforcing rigid gender roles that shape body prejudices and preferences. Dance can break down hegemonic controls on the body and open new modes of expression and being. So please bring your daughter and your son to dance class, and have them move and explore all facets of themselves. Every body should be dancing.
Heather Harrington is on faculty at Kean University and Drew University, N.J. She danced with the Martha Graham Ensemble, Pearl Lang Dance Theatre, and Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, and in 1999, she created the Heather Harrington Dance Company. In 2016, she embarked on a long-distance collaboration with Lebanese dancer, professor, and choreographer Nadra Assaf examining the female body in their respective countries.
“What About Me” http://dancercitizen.org/issue-4/following-up/heather-harrington/
Adair, C. 1992. Women and Dance: Sylphs and Sirens. New York: New York University
Garber, E., Stankiewicz, M., Sandell, R. and Risner, D. 2007. “Gender equity in the visual arts and dance education”. In Handbook for Achieving Gender Equity through Education, Edited by: Klein, S. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Higher Education Arts Data Services, HEADS. 2018-19. Dance Annual Summary, Reston, VA: National Association of Schools of Dance.
Larson, E. 2017. “Behind
the Curtain: Exploring Gender Equity in Dance among Choreographers and Artistic Directors.” In Dance and Gender: An Evidence-Based Approach, edited by Wendy Oliver and Doug <Risner, 39-59. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Samuels, S. 2001. “Study Exposes Dance Gender Gap.” Dance Magazine. March. 35–37.
Schupp, Karen. 2017. “Sassy Girls and Hard-Hitting Boys: Dance Competitions and Gender.” In Dance and Gender: An Evidence-Based Approach, edited by Wendy Oliver, and Doug Risner, 76–96. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.