Category Archives: gender

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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Dear Male Dancers Who Follow… an Open Letter.

I am currently social (swing, blues, fusion*) dancing on a sprained wrist, and as a result, I caught some of my own bias around role selection and gender. Then I wondered whether all of it was really coming from me. Having discussed the phenomenon with dancers from all over the spectrum, this is my response…

 

Dear male dancers who follow,

Thank you. Thank you for knowing the value of both roles, thank you for learning the unexpected, thank you for being some of the best dances I’ve had on the social floor and some of the best students in classes. Thank you for starting discussions about gender in social dance and then going out there and practicing for change. Now, let me help you with something.

I’ve noticed that when I’m out social dancing, and I know I’m not the only one who does this, I usually switch/lead women and I follow men. I have a lot of fun with people who don’t fall under that particular binary, but that’s another letter for another day. This isn’t because the men on my scene don’t follow, in fact I’m really proud of how happy the majority of our dancers are in either role, but the pattern still remains. A year ago I was asked by a lovely male switch dancer why I usually ended up in the follow role with him, and I came up with a couple of suggestions. Now I return to the question, I’ve boiled it down into three main ideas of how leads, follows and switches of all genders create, and could help address, these lingering threads of disparity.

 

State a Clear Preference

Early in my leading career, I remember being asked to dance by several male leads who wanted to show me that I wasn’t as good as they were, so they could play teacher. I was also asked to dance a lot by very nice dancers of all the genders who thought it would be most polite to give me the “lead, follow, or switch?” option, when they really only had one option that worked for them. Side note: it is, really really, ok to have a favourite role that you prefer to dance socially; whether that’s in general, on a particular night, or to a particular song. It’s ok to take only one role in classes. I’d encourage you thinking about why a particular role is your favourite, and what you could get from the other, but human beings have preferences, and dancing is all about enthusiastic consent.

Back to the social floor. What this behaviour leads (hah) to, is a bunch of switches who don’t actually know whether you are really giving them the option to lead/follow/switch, or not, and who will default to offering you the role you are statistically likely to want to assume. If you switch later, all well and good. From the best of intentions, we are trapping ourselves in roles in ways we might not intend.

The obvious answer to this is to state a clear and honest preference for what we want to do. “Would you like to dance?” “Yes, I would love to follow.” Tells me instantly how to make a dance work for you, and means I don’t have to listen so hard for the subtext of “but I meant I wanted to lead.” It also means that if you tell me you want to follow and I don’t have lead energy, I can let you know where I stand too. If you’ve agreed to a switch dance, and you start off leading, take a little but of initiative when it comes to transitioning to a following role. The happier you are with your choice to follow, the happier I will be about leading you!

 

Create Connection

A general failing of the social dance scene in general, at least in my own experience, is that we don’t spend as much energy teaching follows how to follow as we do teaching leads how to lead. I say energy rather than time because even in those scenes that ask everyone in the class to try every role in every class-section, the information being given to leads is usually clearer, more mechanical, more active and more accessible. Follow information tends to be sense-based, intuitive, passive, and esoteric. I mean I get it: you don’t want a load of follows who anticipate, but it does mean that transitioning from lead to follow is difficult to get the hang of.

The most common issue I notice when leading a male follow is that they don’t know how active a follow has to be in creating the connection. As leads, they feel a follow move in response to their suggestion, but not what the follow did in order for the suggestion to get through in the first place. This is particularly the case in move-based classes, where the work of the follow is not always made explicit.

On the dance floor this tends to go one of two ways: The first option is that you sit and wait for me to move you, which, with me being all of 100lbs, just isn’t going to happen. The second option is that you attempt to relax completely – jelly-limbed and frameless – and drift out from under my attempt at connection.

In case you haven’t been in a class where this has been said: the connection in social dance is created by both dancers. As a lead, you use intention and frame to offer suggestions to your follow. As a follow, you use intention and frame to respond to those suggestions. I call the intensity of that mutual intention tone, and it usually works best if the follow’s tone is under, but only slightly under, the lead’s. Posture/placement of limbs is also important, but varies enough from dance to dance that I’m not going to go into it here. As leads you know this, and you do your part. As follows, you don’t have the information/don’t have the brain space/forget.

This is something much more easily explained in practice rather than words, so if you feel like you love to follow but it’s really just not working for you, go find a dancer you like and ask them to give you some feedback on how you’re creating connection. Acknowledge the work of the follow, and learn to love it.

 

Balance the Fun Equation

Unless you are dancing with your social doppelgänger, who has been to every class and dance you have, and danced to all the same songs and took all the same breaks you did, one of the dancers in a partnership is going to have more experience leading than the other. One will have more experience following. It might even be the same person who has both! This is all ok and wonderful. What is does impact, however, is something I refer to as the Fun Equation: which dancer needs to go in which role(s)** in order to maximise the enjoyment that both dancers can get out of this dance?

Sometimes the Fun Equation makes a choice of roles seem obvious, but it also creates pressure for people to stay in the role they’re good at, rather than trying something new. We’ve all struggled through being a beginner at some stage of our dancing lives, and we all want to keep that awkward, flailing time to a minimum, especially if we know that in another role we could be having smooth, beautiful dancey fun times.

So my final invitation to all the dancers reading this, is to think about how you can re-balance the fun equation when one, or both of you are in your less-comfortable role. Are you going to talk? Not talk? Keep it slow? Make it silly? Have a spontaneous rock star breakaway session in the middle? These are, of course, all tricks you can employ when one or both of you is an absolute beginner in any role… again, dancing is all about enthusiastic consent, however long you’ve been doing it.

 

So male dancers who follow, thanks again for all the work you’ve put in to your dancing. Keep dancing! I hope this letter helps you have more, better dances, whichever role you happen to be in at the time.

 

*There are so many more social dances out there than swing, blues, and fusion, but it’s so much easier just to type “social dance” each time. Forgive me.

 

**Switching can also be the most fun. The most fun.