More than Prince Charming: Equalizing the Ballet Classroom

Good morning America, and welcome to the new semester! A few days ago the dance world woke up to the fact that *shock and horror* people still believe ignorant and harmful stereotypes about boys doing ballet…. I KNOW, right???!!!

… Of course, I’m being sarcastic, we’ve known this for a very long time. To date a lot of our work towards combatting this stigma has often been to provide isolated and safely masculine experiences for boys within ballet classes and dance classes in general. This can look like a boys-only class, it might look like all the boys going at the end of the allegro line to a slower tempo… anything to prove to boys themselves, to concerned parents, to the outside world, that these boys aren’t feminine, or doing anything to endanger their masculinity.

The problem with this approach is that firstly, it tends to reinforce male privilege within the dance world by assuring boys and men a place in the company, a solo role in the show, the scholarship funding, the professional opportunities etc. etc. in a way that’s damaging the overall culture of the profession. But secondly, it’s not really doing anything to break down the notion that ballet is specifically a feminine pursuit, because if you have to make “special ballet for boys” then you’re quietly implying that most ballet is for girls, and traditionally feminine girls at that.

So what do we do about that?

Well, I’ve loved ballet all my life, I’ve been part of a ballet company, and I’ve taught it to two year olds all the way up through to university undergraduates. I’ve supervised ballet exams, I’ve danced ballet solo roles, supervised pre-professional training programs, and been commissioned to present my own ballet choreography. In recent years I’ve done that as an openly non-binary, transgender human. I’ve actually found that ballet is one of the most open and liberating spaces to express a queer, masculine-of-center identity, so long as the balletic space is designed in a way that permits that sort of expression. And as we go into the new semester, I want to share with you ways in which ballet can be treated not as a binary space for the expression of masculinity and femininity – but a place where students of all ages can just… dance, and can chose to imbue that dancing with a wide variety of gendered energies of that’s what they want to do.

Teach ballet history in technique classes
I live and work in the social partner dance world, where teaching the history and culture of the techniques you’re dancing is a normal, if not expected part of classes. Ballet began life as a practice of social standing, and over its life has spent time being performed in ways that celebrate masculinity, femininity, cross-dressing, and queerness. The steps that Louis IVX danced as the Sun King still linger in balletic technique today, as do the innovations of Auguste Vestris, and those figures should be brought into the classroom, as should Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo: the ballerina who was first celebrated for dancing “like a man.” In the 19th century men would step into women’s parts if the dancer cast in the role was hurt and vise versa, and these situations offer a way in for students to dance the vocabulary and repertory roles across genders.

Fix your dress code
Leotards and tights are important, but their also one of the most upsetting, alienating and polarizing elements of a ballet class. Rather than simply forcing students to push through that discomfort (even when they themselves do not), teachers can require “form-fitting clothing,” a leotard and shorts, “whatever you want to wear, but I’ll only correct what I can see.” My ballet teacher for many years, and one of my most influential teachers and friends, Julia Gleich, used to have a policy of “dress-up Fridays,” where we would all come to class audition ready and LOVING our leotard looks. We’d do colour-themed days, we’d do holiday outfits, we’d do SAB day… the whole class got actively behind looking amazing in a leotard, and championed each other in way that felt empowering, rather than as a way of setting ourselves up for judgement. Ten years later and I still use that mindset to love my body in a ballet class, whatever I happen to be wearing.

Group your students
Students huddle together. They do it in friendship groups, and they do it across identity groups. On one level that’s a way of supporting each other, but if you don’t actively also break those groups down then they can calcify into rigid social and cultural divides. One of my favourite ways to do that is to put students in a group to make choreography, or with a buddy to learn material, or with someone who will challenge them as they go across the floor… anything that will get them interacting with each other, sharing the struggles of a technique class, and working together to achieve their goals. We tend to organize ballet classes into rigid and unchanging lines, and as much as I like MY spot on the floor, it’s healthy to look into the eyes of the people around you, and get miniature experiences of what it’s actually like to be in a ballet company.

Scrap “boys” and “girls” stuff
Put young men on pointe. Make young women do tours. Offer a “slow” and a “fast” tempo and talk about the difficulties and skills needed for both of them, without implying that one is harder, or belongs to a particular gender. The norms of the classical repertoire exist, I know, but this is the 21st century and we require dancers to be more versatile than that now. There are so many videos out there of young dancers killing it in a solo that’s usually danced by another gender, and if you had the choice would you hire a dancer who could do everything, or a dancer who could only do half of it? If you want to honour the classical repertoire, actively teach different kinds of gendered stylings and get everyone in your class to try both so that they understand their performative signals better.

Update your music
Dancing is supposed to resonate with who you are, but ballet dancers are consistently asked to dance to music that the have little cultural connection to. Yes, sure, they should learn how to do that… but they should also be given the change to do ballet to the music they love, and which best represents them. Traditional ballet music can give off a very feminine energy, and students should have plenty of opportunities to dance in other kinds of energetic landscapes. Other genres of music will invite a wide dynamic range, choreographic styling, and better musicality, but it will also show them that ballet is a place where they can feel at home, not a dance where they have to constantly model an alien culture in order to ear their place.

Make ballet social
Have a watch party halfway through the semester. Sit down and have a discussion with your students. Actively bring them into the decision-making process that shapes their training. Do something to build the students in your class into a community, regardless of who happens to be in the room. I know that class time is limited, but if your students come in, dance, and leave, and spend the whole class not talking to each other, then they are relying more on stereotypes and preconceived ideas than real information about the people who should be their most supportive peers, if not their friends. Bullying, sexism, racism, transphobia and homophobia arise (in part) from people not talking to each other, and not speaking up when there’s a social or structural problem. Create a space where students will stand up for each other, defend each others’ passions, and make each other feel strong and accepted.

That’s what ballet did for me.

If you have more suggestions about breaking down sexism and building community in a ballet class, please comment below, or send a suggestion using the “contact” links above.

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