In November 2013, an article in the Toronto Star celebrated the record-breaking male enrollment at Canada’s National Ballet School that year; sixty-five per cent of the entry-level grade six class were boys. In January of this year, New Dance Horizons in Regina, Saskatchewan, celebrated the work of sixteen male choreographers with a Men in Dance festival. And this past July, the Quinte Ballet School, in Belleville, Ontario, was awarded $10,000 through the ADP Small Business Grant Contest to fund three major projects for their Professional and Recreational Divisions. The grant, according to the Belleville Intelligencer, will fund, in particular, bursaries for male students wishing to attend full-time. According to the school’s executive director, Marilyn Lawrie, the school already has seven boys, but “ballet schools always hope to see more.”
Although modifications to dance programs, school policies and festival programming are intended to break down gender barriers, they often reinforce the stereotypes they supposedly challenge. Traditionally perceived as feminine, professional western dance is often purposefully masculinized in an effort to appeal to and include more boys and men. Through this, the dance world appears eager to adapt itself to fit the expectations of culturally dictated definitions of manliness. There are significant unintended consequences to attempting to increase and celebrate male participation in dance. Do dance schools reject female dancers of equal or higher potential in order to increase the number of boys? Do efforts to encourage male students to participate in their programs, by making them affordable through grants and scholarships, economically disadvantage female dancers? In a society where it is difficult for dance artists to find funding and employment opportunities, should gender be a basis for exclusion? Are the dance world’s attempts to include men and boys negatively affecting the female dancers it, consequently, excludes?
Good Intentions: Making Accommodations and Modifications
I recently completed my Master of Arts in dance at York University, in Toronto, where I focused my research on the interactions of gender and pedagogy in a competitive dance studio in southwestern Ontario. Specifically, my study examined how male and female dancers and their dance teachers experienced gender in the dance classroom, through choreography and in performances onstage. The initial focus was an assessment of the programs employed by dance teachers to encourage more boys to dance and to compare these methods with the experiences of the male dancers. The unanticipated findings were that male students frequently enjoy privileges designed to make them feel more comfortable in the dance studio. Teachers and studio owners use these privileges to counter socio-cultural stereotypes that repeatedly challenge the sexuality and masculinity of the male dancer. According to dance scholar Ramsay Burt in The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle and Sexualities (2007), these stereotypes are rooted in the historical perception that dance is an inappropriate activity for men and continue to act as barriers to entry into dance for boys and men today. As a result of these attitudes, discussions with professional male dancers often reveal their experiences of bullying, discrimination and feelings of isolation, both within and outside of the dance studio.
To counterbalance these negative perceptions of the male dancer, at commercial dance studios and in pre-professional training programs, boys commonly benefit from exceptional treatment, including more lenient dress codes and behavioural expectations. Male students have access to greater scholarship opportunities, as many commercial dance studios offer free tuition to the brothers of their female students, in an attempt to entice parents to enroll them. Teachers are more likely to invite boys to contribute to music, costume and choreographic selections and to provide them with greater leadership opportunities, such as assisting the teacher, than are afforded to the female students. Often, boys are segregated into their own classes, not only to focus on steps and movements particular to men’s dance but also to foster camaraderie and a sense of belonging among the male students.
Numerous magazine articles, dance teacher manuals and blogs preach these modifications and methods to private and commercial studio directors looking to increase their male enrollment. For example, one prominent American publication, Dance Teacher magazine (DT), has published at least five articles in the past ten years on topics such as all-male dance programs and tips on “How to Get Boys into the Studio and Keep Them There.” In “Separate but Equal?” (2009), DT journalist Karyn D. Collins encourages teachers not only to “change the perception that dance is feminine” but also to favour the needs of their male students over those of the females. The other articles offer similar suggestions: the necessity of emphasizing the “masculinity” or “athleticism” of the male dancer through costume, choreography, music and even spacing; the benefits of employing male teachers and choreographers so that young male dancers have role models; and, the appeal of boys-only classes geared specifically towards the “needs” and presumed preferences of the male dancing body for jumps, turns and large, energetic movements. The goal, according to a teacher interview by DT writer Mary Ellen Hunt, is to allow male students to “feel like they’re doing manly stuff.”
“Making it Macho”: Dance, Sport and Competition
It is not only in the studio environment that modifications are made to encourage male enrollment. In “Maverick Men in Ballet: Rethinking the ‘Making it Macho’ Strategy” (2009), Jennifer Fisher refers to the ballet world’s desire to include more boys and men through a strategy of “mak[ing] it macho.” To that end, the training requirements, movement qualities and benefits of dance are often marketed to boys and their parents through comparisons with sports. Two of the twentieth century’s most prominent male dancers, Ted Shawn and Gene Kelly, deliberately constructed dance as sport to change the perception that dance was for women in order to appeal to American men. Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, Shawn’s all-male modern dance company, performed works such as Mule Team Driver’s Dance and Labor Symphony that used aesthetically athletic movement to emphasize the productive working male body. Kelly’s televised special Dancing, A Man’s Game (1958) demonstrated how male dance movements mirrored those of athletes in sports such as baseball, football, boxing and basketball, in an attempt to subvert social perspectives of dance as feminine. Popular media coverage of dance continues to reinforce the perceived greater social value of athleticism. Comparisons with prominent sports figures, and a focus on the use of dance as a part of athletic training regimens, become the language through which dance educators and studio owners validate boys’ participation. Television programs, such as So You Think You Can Dance, seek to popularize dance by positioning it to audiences and participants, in part, as a sport. Dance competitions also arguably value technique and execution over artistic creation and emotional articulation.
Such discourses encourage a particular “type” of male dance student to participate, thereby necessarily excluding other “types” of students. Emphasizing its perceived masculine sports-like qualities can effectively restrict any alternative gendered identities made accessible through dance. The modifications to classes, costumes and choreography, and the emphasis on productive male athleticism, reinforce cultural expectations rather than provide a safe space for individual exploration of alternative means of movement. These incentives, aimed at including male students by using language that values masculinity over femininity, can themselves be exclusionary. The perceived femininity of dance is thus constructed as a negative characteristic that ought to be erased. In an effort to include culturally normative boys and men in dance, who is being excluded?
Exclusively Inclusive: How Does it Affect the Girls?
Research demonstrates that this differential or “special” treatment of male students in educational institutions inevitably affects the experiences of the female students with whom boys train and perform. In her 2010 history of Canada’s National Ballet School, Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, a professor of dance at York University, argued that female students of the school in the 1960s experienced different treatment than the male students. Girls in classes taught by the school’s co-founder Betty Oliphant, interviewed by Fisher-Stitt, recollected feeling that Oliphant favoured the boys. Compared with Frank Augustyn, an illustrious early male graduate of the school and a principal dancer in The National Ballet of Canada throughout the 1970s and 1980s, “most of the female [students] would have loved to be Frank, or at least to be treated like Frank.” The girls felt that Oliphant was less likely to reprimand her male students for tardiness, incomplete homework or inappropriate studio dress. Accordingly, “[a] messy girl was not tolerated; messy boys were accepted with resigned smiles. The girls were serious; the boys were funny.” Girls were expected to be more obedient and committed to their studies than the boys were. Despite the boys’ often disruptive behaviour in dance classes, they were provided with equal, if not greater, opportunities than the girls.
These preferential attitudes have changed little in the intervening fifty years. In a 2004 study of private and commercial dance studios in the United States, led by dance scholar Doug Risner, the treatment of male students by instructors and choreographers was found to be significantly different from that of female ones. The participating teachers acknowledged that they often limited and devalued female student input into costume, music and choreography choices. They were more willing to make changes to accommodate the preferences of their male students, whereas the discomfort of female students with studio policies, class structure or choreography was often ignored. Modifications to costumes, for example, were rarely ever made when female dancers voiced complaints about costumes providing too limited body coverage. Male dancers, however, were often given looser fitting clothing to hide their body parts, so that they might feel more comfortable onstage. While well intentioned, such practices of leniency, increased attention and special exceptions or opportunities afforded to male students negatively affect the learning environment for female students.
In my research with female dance students between the ages of twelve and seventeen who performed and trained with the boys in my study, similar feelings of teacher favouritism, insecurity and disadvantage inadvertently surfaced. It became apparent that the studio director and teachers applied many of the methods for male dancer encouragement suggested by articles like those in DT and that these practices sometimes negatively affected the experiences of the female students at the studio. One example is the desire to provide male teachers to serve as role models for boys. Dance students are primarily exposed to female teachers, and are mostly surrounded by female dancers in their classes, which can contribute to male dancers’ feelings of isolation. Therefore, male teachers can and do provide male students with examples of successful men in dance to emulate, and with whom they may develop bonds they might not necessarily have with their female teachers. But, many of the female students I interviewed felt as though they were at a disadvantage in classes with both male students and the male teacher because they recalled feeling excluded from the boys’ “clique” and believed that the male teacher was less comfortable correcting the female students than he was the boys. While the methods of this particular teacher were intended to create an inclusive environment, within which male dance students could feel they belonged, conversations with the female students who also participated in these classes revealed feelings of exclusion and favouritism strong enough to inhibit learning.
Similarly, the students I spoke with felt that boys in competitive dancing regularly received additional points, often referred to as “penis points”, simply for being boys in dance. Across all participant answers, the general perception was that boys “get higher marks because they are boys.” This was coupled with comments regarding choreography and spacing, which, in the female dancers’ opinions, tended to single out the male students and highlight their masculine aesthetic at the expense of the female dancers. Nine out of ten respondents commented on the placement of male dancers in choreographies and the assignment of special characters to boys, instead of girls. More than one student mentioned feeling like “backup dancers” to the male students, and many noted that the boys were often given more advanced flips or tricks to perform than the girls. Accordingly, having a boy in their choreographed pieces made the female students feel less valued, or as though they were not exposed to the same opportunities. A seventeen-year-old female student stated:
The boys get special treatment and exceptions are made for them. Everything seems to be about the boys and they are the best and the favourites … I do feel like they get unfair advantages at competitions just because they are boys … I feel that rules should not have exceptions just for the boys. I also feel that certain dances and dancers should also get some recognition for their efforts and work, and [it should] not just [be] all about the ‘boys’ group because it makes people feel less important, excluded and that they aren’t good enough.
Based on the experiences of the girls and young women interviewed for this study, female dance students are learning that they are not as important as their male peers. They are encouraged or forced to work in a different aesthetic from their male counterparts, an aesthetic that, as demonstrated through their own experience in competitive dance numbers, is less valued.
Women and Men in Professional Dance
This phenomenon is not relegated solely to the world of competitive dance, unfortunately. Research in the United States and the United Kingdom reveals that professional female dancers in both the ballet and contemporary dance worlds experience similar disadvantages. These unequal power relations begin in their pre-professional training programs. In Britain, dance critic Luke Jennings wrote in The Guardian in 2013 about female dancers’ unequal access to choreographic opportunities, an inequality entrenched within the pre-professional training programs. He argued that because “boys see themselves as individuals from the start, but girls learn how replaceable they are, and in consequence can become over-anxious to ‘fit in,’” female dancers generally focus more on developing their technique rather than their creativity, and are thus less likely to pursue professional careers in choreography. The emphasis on leadership opportunities and creative expression specifically included in boys’ dance education appears to also seep into the professional realm, where male choreographers and company directors are the norm and female dancers are often left fighting for their attention. A 2006 article in The Dance Current by renowned Canadian musician/dancer John Oswald highlighted this issue. Oswald examined how Canadian companies begun by women, including some of the country’s most prestigious dance companies, such as Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Dancemakers and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (originally Les Ballets-Jazz Contemporains), were all, at the time, directed by men. Sharon Basco, an arts journalist in Boston, recently argued that this continues to be true of most American professional companies. Basco cites a study by the Cincinnati Enquirer that found that, in the 2012/13 season, the larger American ballet companies staged some 290 ballets, only twenty-five of which were choreographed by women. Thus, although the world of western concert dance appears to be predominately populated by women, it is not immune to the negative influences of the patriarchal society in which it exists.
Dance teachers and studio directors must begin to counteract this inequality through education and training programs. Modifications to teaching practices and methods for inclusion should not be applied solely for the benefit of male students, but for all students, so as to encourage a wider range of participation from individuals regardless of their gender identity. Instead of, as suggested by Collins in DT in 2009, “allow[ing] for the different learning styles and energy that often differentiate boys from girls,” we, as dance educators, must recognize that different learning styles and energy differentiate individual students from each other, and not necessarily just boys from girls. It is our responsibility to encourage our students to develop as dancers, choreographers and teachers without restricting them by incorporating gendered assumptions and stereotypes in our pedagogies. Perhaps then, through truly inclusive dance practices, we may begin to provide equal opportunity for all those who make their lives through dance.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2015 issue.