Category Archives: accessibility

Boys in Dance – Too Much of a Stretch?

A few months ago a colleague sent me a flyer for a dance conference, and I sat with this post and that flyer for a long time before I decided to write about it. The Male Dancer Conference was advertised as:

…a groundbreaking, educational and social event designed exclusively for male dancers. It features education, connection and conversation all designed to improve the present skills and future lives of male dancers. It stands as one of the only large-group, multidimensional events for male dancers to gather, learn, share, and connect. MDC participants leave as better dancers who feel enriched, empowered and connected to a community.”

Focusing on conversation, connection and education, the conference held supervised discussions, panels, classes and workshops for male dancers and the community around them, there were social activities, and a visit to the pop up shop boysdancetoo [sic]. Testimonials speak to how inspirational and empowering the experience was:

This conference filled a void in the dance world. Instead of summer intensives where our boy is the only male dancer or one of a few, this conference was all about them. It spoke to the emotional and physical demands of being a boy dancer. It was a much needed safe space for them to be their authentic selves. It was a community of friendship and support, for the boys as well as their parents. It was a nurturing and empowering four days and they all left stronger dancers (physically and emotionally) when it was over.”

…. The thing is, I’m not sure there IS a void in the dance world. Or at least, I’m not sure this attempt to address the gender imbalance in the dance world was quite the way I’d have wanted to center the conversation. This conference, and others like it, and the literature advertising boys dance classes (of which there are many) focuses on a problem of numbers:

“The male dancer has been present throughout history, but the significant lack of male dancers in the field has been and continues to be a question and a challenge. From early childhood dance and movement classes through secondary education and beyond, the dance world is faced with the question of how to attract more boys and men to the field. This problem is not limited to one genre of dance, age group, or country; the dilemma is global. This symposium seeks pragmatic solutions to address the dearth of male dancers in our studios, schools, and companies as students, professionals, and educators.” – Men In Dance: Bridging the Gap Conference

The common strategy for addressing the problem seems to be to design events for boys only, and for classes to focus on fitness, flexibility, and dance forms outside of feminine stereotypes. A dance created by men, for men, separate from “girl dance,” where (or so it seems) different skills are being learned in a way that will isolate, intimidate, and otherwise alienate the next generation of Baryshnikovs, Poulins, Wheeldons, and McGregors.

At the same time, the professional dance community is speaking out strongly about the lack of female representation all over the dance world, especially in creative and managerial roles. The appalling lack of female choreographers, and the disparate opportunities and funding offered to those who do try and make a name for themselves in contrast to their male counterparts is striking. The narrative of the oppressed, isolated male dancer who needs to be given resources and a chance might be sweet, but rippling up the field it becomes the same old glass ceiling, the same old grandfathering system, the same old privileging of male authority and creativity.

So what’s to be done?

The first question we HAVE to ask is: do boys need safe, isolated spaces, and is that the best way to make dance equally attractive to dancers of all genders?

Consider a world where dance was more about what you do than who does it. Consider classes that focused on skills like dance story telling; dance making; high energy, athletic dance; or fundamental dance technique, so that students could choose the outcomes, rather than the settings that interested them. Consider a dance class in which you weren’t immediately considered to be unique or different because of your gender – it happens in other clubs and classes all the time. While most codified, examined syllabi continue to differentiate students by gendered dress and vocabulary, other forms of dance are leading the way in terms or normalising mixed groups. In what ways could more codified dance forms address the divides in their teaching, rather than doubling down on the separation?

This ideal doesn’t take into account the cultural reality of homophobic attitudes to men in ballet, and the pervasive attitude that certain parts of dance are only for men and women – but isn’t that a belief we’re supposed to be working against? Alexei Ratmansky went on a particularly vicious screed this week along the lines of “men have the strength to lift and women have lines,” which is worth answering despite how beautifully and completely it was deconstructed by other dancers, because it shows some of the quieter, nastier beliefs at play in this logic: I have met a number of female dancers who could quite easily lift me in a full press, but the effects of that training on their bodies gave them a shape outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic. Are we ok with bodies outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic, and if we are, why can’t we teach them in a way that builds the development of muscle? What about adopting lifts from techniques that aren’t strength dependent, or lifts with more than one base? Why is so important that one man lifts one woman anyway? As to the belief that men don’t have lines… I invite my readers to post their favorite video in the comments that disproves that old chestnut.

Secondly, I’m not flat out opposed to Male Dancer conferences, or Boy’s Dance classes, especially as dance works to change its image in public consciousness. What I find appallingly absent is a discussion of male responsibility in a world where men hold a shockingly high degree of power and privilege, as well as (frequently) control over the physical safety of their partners’ bodies. If we are teaching boys that they hold a different position in the dance world, what are we teaching them to do with that position, and how are we teaching them to view those it’s not offered to?

Here are a few examples of male dancers taking responsibility in my life:

  • Seeing my love of flight, and deliberately going across the floor with me so we could enjoy a mutual challenge of strength and power.
  • Insisting I be allowed into “boys” classes.
  • Offering to teach me “male” repertoire.
  • Creating pieces where the repertoire wasn’t gendered at all.
  • Letting me base them.
  • Showing up to pas de deux classes and learning how to dance both roles.
  • Seeking my advice on how to do both roles better.
  • Inviting me to give my perspective in classes they were teaching.
  • Comparing contracts with me so we could check we were being hired for the same wages.
  • Recognising and speaking openly about their advantages as male dancers.
  • Telling people who reached out to hire them “Actually, Fen has more experience.”

Yes, you read me right, I have had male dancers in my life turn down work because they felt it was being offered to them unfairly over their female colleagues, and in some cases over me. It’s weird, but that behaviour meant that institutions and companies had to take a step back and think about why they were offering that job in the first place. I’m not telling people to turn down jobs they’ve worked hard for, or that they’re bad if they don’t. I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to have one man lifting one woman. But we do have to think about how dance reflects wider patterns of gender discrimination in the professional world, as much as it holds the potential to subvert those patterns.

The dance communities I’m part of work hard to challenge the notion that gender defines our role as dancers, and the kinds of opportunity that are offered to us. There is a massively long way to go. But if we are going to create isolated spaces for boys and men to learn what it is to be a dancer, we ought to be taking a long, hard think about the kinds of dancers, and people, we’re teaching them to be in those spaces, and how they relate to the rest of the world when they come out.

 

 

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Ask a PhD Dancer – Dance in Schools

Happy New Year everyone!

I’m glad that so many of you liked my holiday post, I hope some of you also found it useful. A lot of us are going back to school right now, so this month’s question is for all of the teachers out there. Just to remind you that if you would like to ask my a question to be answered on the blog, you can submit it here.

Name: Bennett

Age: 27

Occupation: Teacher

Dancing is part of the curriculum here in the UK, so it’s something all kids have to take part in. How would you recommend encouraging kids who are embarrassed by their dance skills or lack thereof? Their embarrassment tends to lead to shy, unfinished movements, which look worse than if they just flailed wildly but got the movement wrong. Thanks, and love the blog!

 

This is a a great question, and one that never seems to go away, whatever age group you have to be teaching, including professional dancers! I’m going to break down the problem a little bit first, and then I’ll move on to some exercises and examples that may help in your lessons.

Firstly: there’s a ton of cultural baggage around that tells us that only certain people are supposed to dance, or that some kinds of dance are better than others. Even really young kids have probably come across some kind of hierarchy of dance, and have placed themselves inside it, even if that place is as rebelling against it (whoop!). This means that when you show kids examples of dancing, it’s important not to go with videos that reinforce those false stereotypes of who can do what. Stop showing videos of Swan Lake and saying “this is ballet.” Sure, it’s one kind, but this is ballet too, and you don’t need to say that it’s “contemporary ballet,” or “modern ballet” or any of the other little qualifiers that suggest that the only REAL ballet is white and 100 years old. Show them Hip hop. Show them DV8. Show them Bharatanatyam. Set up a world in which virtuosity comes in a million different styles – because that’s the truth.

Secondly: But wait! Slow down! I just want kids to dance, and I don’t want them to compare themselves to professionals of ANY kind in case I intimidate them!

Yes, totally valid point, but I still believe in the power of examples. There a a ton of people out there making work on dancers with little to no professional training. If you want to show your kids that you can make a dance like that, then this is one of my favourite exampes, and also something you could replicate in your own classroom: have kids make up just two seconds of movement. Any movement. What happens when they string them together?*

* That’s not at all how this film was made, but it could be the basis for that kind of exercise very easily.

One last point before I get onto actual exercises: what do you mean by skills? There are so many different kinds of dance out there, that it’s totally possible to get two professional dancers together and have them have NO overlapping skill sets bar the rich desire to move. Rhythm. Balance. Flexibility. Performing for the audience. You name it and I will find you a kind of dance where you don’t need it. This doesn’t mean to say that having a set of skills you’d like to teach is a bad thing, it just means you should decide what those skills are and make them really explicit. Otherwise, your kids are going to imagine that you’re playing into those terrible false hierarchies that we mentioned before: I can’t dance because I’m not bendy, I can’t dance because I’m not thin enough, I can’t dance because… no, you just have to find the ways you can dance and learn how to kick butt with them.

Skills you might want to inculcate:

  • Listening and responding to music.
  • Sharing movement with others.
  • Transforming images and ideas into movement.
  • Moving with lots of different parts of the body.
  • Being able to plan and execute a series of moves.

So how do you set up that kind of classroom? Here, in no particular order, are some ideas you might like to try. As always, I welcome suggestions in the comments.

  1. Let kids people their own moves. One of my favourite warm ups is to get people in a circle, put some music on, and let them take turns suggesting moves to do. You can go round the circle and get everyone to try it: dance back the move that someone suggests, get people to make it bigger and smaller, do it in slow-mo, or really really fast – show that whatever they do is valid, and suitable material for making dance with. Encourage whooping and cheering.
  2. Rather than prescribing shapes, moves and poses for people to follow, get them to experiment with ideas. One very wonderful class idea is just get people to find all the ways that they can draw circles with their body. Or straight lines. Choose your three favouite ways and string them together into a dance. Other ideas (and I’m stealing from some other great teachers here) might be: how can they hide bits of themselves, or show them; what is the smallest thing they can do, or the biggest; can they draw a picture in the space without using their hands…. the thing all these ideas have in common is that they don’t ask you to BE something i.e. to represent a thing, because that tends to make people think of right and wrong ways to do it. Instead, they are tasks and problems that can be solved in an infinite variety of ways.
  3. Start small. Yes, gross body movements are easier for people to see and replicate, but they’re also the furthest outside a lot of people’s comfort zones. Can you make up a dance just with facial expressions? Just with hand gestures?  Sit on the floor and show them to your friend. Show them that details are great.
  4. Learn to share. Mirror each other, swap moves and string them together, play the telephone game where you take someone’s move, adapt it and pass it on to the next person. Make it less about performing for an audience than about collaborating and working together.

Resources:

Bring in someone with dance training whenever you can. Someone who knows the breadth of dance well enough to pull out an exercise to suit your kids, rather than the person who will try and make them do what they know.

William Forsythe has a great series of Improvisation Technologies, although if you’re teaching young kids then you will need to watch them yourself and parse them out with much simpler language. There are some great visuals in that play list, and underneath the complexity are some basic tasks that even little kids can use to make movement easily, and which I use all the time.

Wayne McGregor also has a series of Choreographic Thinking Tools with a few sample lesson plans. The language is simpler than the Forsythe, but I found that you had to have a chunk of movement to work with before they became really effective.

 

I hope that somewhere in here is something you can use for your classes, and I wish all of you teachers a wonderful spring term!

Dragons on the Road…

… A Slightly Fantastic Discussion of Trigger Warnings

“There are things that upset us. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, though. I’m thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming. Our hearts skip a ratatat drumbeat in our chests, and we fight for breath. Blood retreats from our faces and our fingers, leaving us pale and gasping and shocked.

And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this; the past is not dead. There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corners of our lives. We think we have moved on, put them out of mind, left them to desiccate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong. They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practicing their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches into the gut, killing time until we came back that way.”

Neil Gaiman – Trigger Warning

It’s the beginning of a new term, and I’m thinking about triggers again. Background information: a trigger warning, or content warning is a message on a text to indicate that the material that comes up might be disturbing or distressing. This piece in itself may require a trigger warning, although I’m not entirely sure as I start writing how it’s going to come out.

Trigger warnings have been the subject of debate in academia for a while now: should we put them on our syllabus? Should we offer alternative readings? Are they a way to protect students or are they simply a way of coddling an over-protected student body? Do students gain more from feeling safe then they do from discussing uncomfortable subjects? Are those two ideas mutually exclusive anyway?

I’ve quoted Neil Gaiman at length because of all the discussions of trigger warnings I’ve read his is, well, the best, quite simply; it’s empathetic, considered, and well-balanced. It accepts that we can need protection and yet still be capable of dealing with fear. I will take Neil Gaiman by the hand and walk into dark places because I know that I was given a reasonable choice NOT to go, and because I trust that the journey has both worth and purpose, whatever my emotional reaction to the monsters and madness I encounter along the way. For others, the value of the journey may just not be enough… and that’s ok.

There seems to a basic misunderstanding of trigger warnings in other discussions, particularly among those who advocate for their removal, in that “triggers” are talked about as if they were specific words, concepts or ideas, which may be avoided by the removal of the subject from the discussion. These words are big, obvious, red flag words. They cannot be approached from any direction, but must be absolutely eradicated so as to avoid the possibility of distress. There are whole concepts which some people simply cannot deal with addressing at any time – or at least claim they cannot deal with, the poor, sheltered millennial generation.

But as someone who can get triggered, and as someone whose friends can get triggered, and who has spent a large number of years working with all kinds of people affected by various triggers, I have to say that this is NOT how triggers, and trigger warnings work.

Let’s think of a common trigger that’s not too terrible; let’s try loud, sudden noises. It is fairly common to be triggered by loud, sudden noises. But here I am, saying it again and again:

Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises.

…does this make me some kind of monster? I don’t think so. But if I creep up behind one of my students while they’re getting on with their work and pop balloon behind them… then I am the kind of teacher who doesn’t get invited back for the next term. My point being that triggers can be more about HOW things happen than a blanket avoidance of a given idea.

Point two is that triggers are not all common, neither are they verbal, specific or obvious. It might be a smell. A particular intonation of a particular sentence. A repetition of part of a dream can send you spiraling irrevocably into the pit of panic. No-one’s fault, but unavoidable. It is absolutely impossible to control for the number of things that might trigger someone in any given discussion… which is not an argument against trigger warnings, as you will discover if you can bear with me a little longer.

Point three is that a lot of the things that people get triggered by (and I’m disagreeing with Gaiman here) are because of more overarching issues that are under consideration or mentally present ALL THE TIME. It’s like being a woman walking home alone at night: you may be thinking about the way you’re going, the brilliance of the stars, the fun you just had. But you’re also bearing mind your escape route, whether or not you can run, where the nearest populated area is… you’re conscious of the worst that could happen, because you’re cultured to consider it. People with triggers are cultured to be on the look out for things that might trigger them; wobbling the loose tooth of trauma, reminding ourselves that safety depends on acknowledging the part of ourselves that might, without warning, fall out.

So now we know a little more about triggers, what can we DO about them? I’m glad you asked! We can provide a topical outline of things we’ll be discussing on a given day. We can work out what areas might reasonably be difficult, and take responsibility for discussing them in an empathetic and well-balanced way.

We can be the kind of teachers who, when a student says: “Can I be excused?” will let them go without demanding a public explanation. And when that student comes back and says “I’ve got a problem,” will listen to them and believe them and be generous about making things work. We will know that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, for everybody, and trust out students to responsibly manage the silent days… we will be as kind when we manage the “over-speakers” as when we manage the quiet ones, because not everyone manifests emotions in the same way. We can tell our students publically that they can expect from us not the unquestioning acquiescence that some things are “just too much,” but instead that we will listen, and learn, and work with them to make sure that they can do the same. If we’re dancers in a class where we touch people, we can let people know that opting out, or asking for things to be explained verbally first, is ALWAYS ok.

The content warning is not: “WARNING, WARNING, we will be discussing these DANGEROUS and HORRIBLE ideas, and if you are the intellectually heroic type then RUN WHILE YOU CAN!!!”

It looks like this: “We will be discussing these ideas, in order to explore these topics, and we will be approaching them in these ways.”

And later: “If you have issues concerning the material in the class, or require certain accommodations to maximize your participation, please contact me either in person or by email so that a solution can be found and instigated as soon as possible.”

A trigger warning is not about blanket protection, the eradication of ideas or the inability to cope with danger. It is about offering a reasonable choice as to whether or not the value of the journey can outweigh the physical and mental onslaught of walking a particular intellectual path. It is about offering short cuts, benches, crutches and flying dragons (as steeds or bodyguards) to anyone you ask to walk with you, and being grateful that they chose to come, rather than churlish about how they get there.

Gaiman suggests that we label all fiction of a certain maturity: “Enter at your own risk.” I have to say that it’s never put me off. Every dancer knows that each class carries the risk of injury, but it doesn’t stop us dancing. A trigger warning is not a way of letting people decide to sit out, but a way of letting them come prepared to the table, with all that they can bring.

This is what a dancer looks like… Why not a ballerina?

There was a bit of a furore in the UK press this week: a young girl named Pollyanna was entered into her ISTD ballet exam, and came out with a Pass. Her parents were disappointed because the rest of the class had achieved Merits and Distinctions… but then the rest of the class weren’t dancing on an artificial leg. Parents Sarah and Christopher had asked the ISTD in advance to make “reasonable adjustments,” and felt that they’d been let down, and they had… but not by the examiner.

The comments on the article in The Telegraph ranged from the deeply empathetic to the misunderstanding to the deliberately spiteful. Most focussed on the politics of disability: accessible spaces, adjusted grading, giving everyone a chance… or not as the case may be. A couple of people even went so far as to say that ballet is a particular thing and that particular thing was unobtainable by a disabled body. So first of all, let’s clean that up before it goes any further, and then we’ll look at what the main problem was with Pollyanna’s ballet exam.

No-one’s sure what ballet is. Literally.

I have recently returned from a conference of the world’s top dance scholars, and we had arguments and debates and history and culture and FAR too much coffee and all along we KNEW that we don’t know what ballet “is.” We know the history of ballet (although most people get it wrong), and we know that ballet has some no-good-very-bad problems with imposing an aesthetic standard on the body and what beauty looks like. We also know that there’s a large number of people doing a kind of ballet that’s not tied to a stereotypical body, to narrative, to “classical” music or to a set vocabulary of steps. To give an example, Irreverent Dance, a queer, a-typical-bodied dance studio has just found the funds for a permanent space to teach ballet classes (and other things). So there is ballet out there that doesn’t give a toss what people THINK that ballet is, ok? Get thee to google.

Moving on.

I’m going to make the assumption that at least some of the people reading this blog have never taken a UK-style syllabus-based ballet exam, or even know what one is, and explain first of all what it was that Pollyanna walked into. While some studios offer independent, free-form dance classes by age group, where material might change from week to week or show to show, with children progressing by age/experience/ability, the majority of teachers follow a syllabus of graded examinations. The major boards in the UK are the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) and ISTD (International Society of Teachers of Dance), and let me tell you now that I’ve taken an awful lot of exams in both.

To take these exams, you go into a room in a group of about four (ish, less-so at the higher grades etc.), without your teacher, and perform a series of set exercises. You are marked on how well you do the exercises: technique, performance, general presentation and accuracy. You get marks for politeness, for curtseying at the right time and for having your ribbons done up right, “A polite and well-groomed candidate” was a standard phrase on the reports of my childhood. But back to those exercises.

You have to get them right.

You have to do the right steps in the right order at the right time to the specified music, which means that what teachers usually do is teach only those exercises, particularly in the run up to exams. This is at the heart of why the ISTD didn’t make adjustments for Pollyanna: their whole grading system is based on the performance of a set of exercises, from which any deviation results in a decrease in marks. When your leg is “frozen” (her father’s words) and you cannot do certain things involved in your exercises, the most suitable accommodation to make is to change the exercise in order to demonstrate your technical understanding and performance quality another way. But THAT’S the accommodation that the ISTD just doesn’t make.

This is the heart of what’s wrong with syllabus training overall: it promotes one very particular way of stringing together steps, the technique necessary to perform those steps in that order, and very little understanding of the variability inherent in ballet and performance. Over history, time and place the performance of ballet and the ideals of technique have changed according to bodies and fashion. Individuals have danced a revolution in what it means to perform ballet, driving forward the possibilities for what we can do and how we can put it on stage. Syllabus training does not truly accommodate the fact that everyone’s body does ballet differently, whether they have a disability or not, and as such often produces dancers who cannot adapt to the fluidity and choice-making needed to succeed in the professional dance world.

America is another story. In the USA, syllabus training is only just beginning to get a foothold, thanks to lobbying from the School of American Ballet and the creation of their own training syllabus. Ballet in America is driven by choreography and performance, by mastery of the skills required by a piece, rather than the checklist of steps and sequences needed to pass an exam. This approach produces very different dancers – of course with their own habits and issues, but with an attitude as well as a physicality that’s worlds away from the syllabus based model.

I wholeheartedly urge parents looking for an accessible ballet class to find someone giving a class that your child wants to take, and which puts no limits on their possibility for achievement. There is someone out there who will choreograph classwork based on your child’s physical capabilities; who will structure their training to enable them to learn, and provide standards of assessment that facilitate their need for evaluation and progression. What’s more, they’ll be engaged and enthusiastic about making that happen and be passionate that what you’re doing is really, ballet, yes really. Don’t let anyone tell you what ballet “is,” go out and find the ballet that’s right for you. I hate to share a soppy video, but sometimes that means having to go out and demand it.

That sounds like I think Pollyanna’s parents were lazy, or have an obligation to do the work, I really, really don’t. I think the teacher should have explained the exam system, and how their daughter would be graded before they decided to subject her to that system. I think the ISTD should be transparent about the fact that they will only make certain kinds of adaptations. I think the dance community should be pro-active about directing potential students to a class that will keep them dancing, even if it means giving up on some class fees. I’d like a moment here to point out the incredible work of Cando 2, and others working to provide exceptional training to young dancers with disabilities but also to ask why the ballet world hasn’t really stepped up to the plate in that regard to provide sustained, accessible training for children and young people at both a hobby and pre-vocational level. Come to think of it, let’s get more ballet classes available low-cost and for free, so that we can get over that nasty class barrier while we’re at it, and don’t get me STARTED on the whole racial divide thing…

I’m a ballet-lover, in case you couldn’t tell. I’ve also spent nearly a decade working with children with various disabilities. I see absolutely no reason that Pollyanna should have felt forced to stop doing the ballet that she loved, and I’m saddened she felt that there was no space for her in the major balletic institutions of the UK. No space for people with disabilities is a common problem, and one that’s only going to get worse if current austerity measures go ahead. With such a powerful media platform at his disposal, I URGE Christopher Hope to keep demanding that space, and those fundamental human rights that are being persistently removed and denied. I also urge the dance world to work a little harder at making that space for the next generation of artists, and to think long and hard about what dance class ought to be for.