Performing Gender in Dance – Eliana Krasner


Dance is a form of self-expression, an artistic outlet in which people of all backgrounds can use movement to express narratives and emotions that go beyond words. This is what we have been taught since the very beginning, however, does it apply to everyone? What if yourself expression does not align with cultural expectations that have been placed on you since birth? Dance, while expressive, largely contributes to the ideas of a gendered and binary society. Those who do not associate with the traditional expectations of heterosexual masculinity and femininity are forced to restrain their true selves for the sake of maintaining a “normal” presentation of gender.

While a majority of western audience members assume that the dance world is one entirely composed of homosexual men, it can be seen that the dance world is one that heavily strays away from the idea of femininity or vulnerability as portrayed by the male body. When a male claims himself to be a dancer in America, it is almost always assumed that they are homosexual, or at least that the idea of homosexuality is seen as a possibility. Joseph Carman addresses the stereotype of the “gay dancer” as well as the myth the dancing will convert straight men into gay men in his 2006 article, “Gay Men & Dance What’s the Connection?”. Within the article, Carman explains that the stereotype, while not representative of all male dancers, comes from a real place. He believes that gay men are often drawn to more artistic career paths such as music, dance, and theatre. To support this, Carman references choreographer Tere O’Connor and the term that he coined, “feminilia,” which “describes the feminine creative spirit present in gay (and metrosexual) men and in women” (Carman, pg. 57). It is within O’Connor’s belief that gay men are drawn to artforms such as dance because it allows them to embrace their femininity without outwardly expressing their sexuality.

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On the other hand, Carman addresses that the gay male stereotype is entirely false. He cites Mikhail Baryshnikov as a leading example of heterosexuality in dance, acknowledging that he was seen as “a ladies’ man who made a number of straight men think ballet class might be a good way to meet chicks.” (Carman, pg. 57). While this statement is problematic in the sense that it takes the purpose of dance and converts it into something sexual, and lessens the expectations of straight men participating in art, it is important that ideas such as this one gave straight men the opportunity to participate in an artform that they would have previously been scrutinized for participating in.

While many people, including Carman and O’Connor believe dance to be a space in which men have the capability of expressing their femininity in an artistic sense, it should be noted that the world of professional dance avoids the presence of male femininity at all costs. In their 2010 article, “Dancing Masculinity: Defining the Male Image Onstage in Twentieth-Century America and Beyond,” Deborah Jowitt speaks on the difficulties of establishing dance as a serious and sustainable career within twentieth and twenty first-century America. While dance was largely considered to be a male artform in the eighteenth-century, this attitude has since changed. The more “full bodied” dance forms such as ballet and modern were not considered masculine enough for a western audience explains Jowitt. “The long line from his fingertips to his pointed toes etches designs on the air, and his bearing affirms ballet’s aristocratic origins. This is an image far from the public’s concept of a hardworking guy, a guy in charge, which may be why so much publicity given to ballet over the years has been to show how difficult it is” (Jowitt, pg. 229). Men who danced struggled to find support as they were viewed as being too much of a derivation from the American ideologies of men. Choreographers such as Ted Shawn worked to create dance that would be seen as an “honorable career for men” (Jowitt, pg. 230). Shawn shaped the image of male dancers in a concert setting such that they would be viewed as the epitome of masculinity. Shawn went on to market dance as something manly and powerful, telling a reporter in 1913, “Dance is a manly sport” (Shawn (Jowitt, pg. 231)). In the eyes of American audiences, men were no longer considered artists, and they were then seen as athletes. While Shawn was able to give male dancers the ability to be seen as marketable by a western audience, he also contributed largely to the limitations that dance would place on men in the future.

Since the days of Ted Shawn, the ideology of a male dancer being an entirely masculine athlete has only grown. Men are expected to act as tools for carrying women across the stage, and when they are dancing without a partner, they are expected to rely heavily on flashy tricks and aggressive movement. The presence of vulnerability in male dancers is limited to a handful of romantic ballets and dramatic roles, but even this is limited to instances in which a female love interest dies. Similar to the structure of our cultural expectations of men, male dancers are expected to lack emotion, vulnerability and femininity. If a male dancer portrays too much of any of these concepts in his art, he is seen as less valuable than a man that exemplifies the western expectations of men both by audience members and members of the dance community itself.

In his 2011 essay, “So You Think You are Masculine? Dance Reality Television, Spectatorship, and Gender Nonconformity”, Mark Broomfield explains an instance in which male contestants of the reality television show So You Think You Can Dance have been discouraged from exuding anything but hyper-masculinity. From judge Mia Michaels criticizing a dancer for lacking masculine energy despite executing the technique of the dance flawlessly, to producer Nigel Lythgoe questioning a contestant for not immediately dancing in a masculine way, Broomfield explains that “To be a male dancer is to be dogged by suspicions about your masculinity, sexuality, and gender performance. The brief theorization of my concept “passing for almost straight” implicates the implicit correlation between “straight” and dominant heterosexual masculinity” (Broomfield, pg. 350). Despite Carman’s earlier notes on dance being a space in which gay men could express themselves and be accepted, it is clearly marked out that this idea does not correlate with the Findings of Broomfield. Gay men are given permission to be gay in the dance world so long as they are straight acting or straight passing. Even beyond the dance world, society inherently gives more value towards gay men who appear more in line with the expectations of heterosexual masculinity. Gay men are being drawn to an art form which outwardly appears to be accepting and freeing, however, it is one that is actually very discriminatory towards their sexuality. This is not to say that feminine men are not allowed to dance, just that they aren’t allowed to show it on stage.

On another note, the female gender is the most recognizable and respected gender in the world of dance and like their male counterparts, they too have expectations that must be upheld in order to be looked at as a serious dancer. In a recent class at the Peabody Conservatory, students were led in a discussion about performing gender in the dance world. Students were then asked to make a list of expectations that they felt society tells female dancers they must uphold. Those expectations included: “Be skinny, small, short, fragile”, “Being lifted-never the ones doing the lifting”, “Sexy choreography”, “Expected to do pointe”, “Tights and leotard”, “Eat less, eating disorders”, “More flexible, more advanced”, “Flat everything”, and “Less opportunities and scholarships”. While making this list, many students said that they don’t agree with the expectations listed, rather, feeling like those who view dance from an audience perspective see female dancers as the things listed above.

In a 2015 TEDx Yale talk, Natalie Khosla talks about the body language of genders from a dance perspective. Khosla shares with the audience a common posture shared among women while taking photos. She found that women will most likely tilt their heads and put a hand on their hip. Along with this, Khosla goes on to talk about various male and female stereotypes. Khosla states, “For women, these social stereotypes are things like kindness, friendliness and cooperativity. For men, the culture stereotypes are assertiveness, power, taking a stand.” (Khosla, 3:00). As a dancer, body language is key to communicating with an audience, and the way they choose to present gender in their movement will also play a factor in how audience members view them. Throughout different genres of dance, women are viewed differently than male dancers when performing a hip-hop dance rather than ballet. In hip-hop, a woman is going to stand in a much wider stance along with moving in a more powerful, upbeat way, whereas, in ballet, you expect to see light, graceful movement from women. Ann Cooper Albright writes in her book, Choreographing Difference (1997), “The most obvious is in the more traditional genres of dance such as classical ballet, where the construction of an idealized image of the female body has a long (and tortured) history…” (Albright, pg. 32). Since this art form is heavily based upon moving bodies, dancers need to have a body that allows them to have access to many different movement qualities. Due to the fact that females have been told that they need to be tall, skinny, lean, and strong, many eating disorders and body image problems are prevalent in the dance community. Though ballet has set a standard as to what the female dancer body should look like, in modern and contemporary dance today, we are beginning to see a shift in what a female body needs to look like. Despite this, there is still an expectation that women need to have a fit, contoured body.

Starting in the ballet world, women have been told they must have a strong yet slim body, they must appear light, tiny and never too masculine. Pointe shoes, while intended for female dancers, require a level of strength and stability that aligns more with the masculine ideology than the feminine one. “Lehikoinen (2006) argues that the feminization of pointe work is product of the gendered division of roles in ballet. with little rationale for why men cannot perform such skills that require control, strength and stamina; key qualities for performing traditional masculinity.” (Clegg, Owton, Allen-Collinson, Pg. 133).

Not only do females have expectations in performance and body types but also inside the classrooms. Young girls are typically signed up at young ages to take dance classes, while a young boy would be signed up to play on a sports team. In the book, Research in Dance Education, authors Helen Clegg, Helen Owton, and Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson, explain that due to the fact that girls start dance younger, “Girls may appear more compliant and to have a less powerful energy because they have been institutionalized at an early age into the traditions and expectations of the dance studios etiquette, whereas boys, generally coming later to dance, may resist such norms…” (Clegg, Owton, Allen-Collinson, Pg. 137). Along with the idea that girls are expected to start dance younger than boys, they are also expected to retire from dance earlier. After dance a professional career, not all women, a few, will go on and have a child, resulting in society that their performing career is over, and teaching is the next career to take. From a teaching point of view, female dance teachers will be more commonly found in a dance studio than a male. Female teachers can teach almost every style/genre of dance except for boys/male ballet class. Since men are supposed to be the ones jumping in the air and women are not, a male class will be instructed by a male. In a boys/male class, you will never find a female primarily teaching. This is due to the idea that women aren’t supposed to be the ones jumping, therefore, a young dancer wouldn’t be able to learn how to jump from a woman.

In today’s dance world, we are beginning to see a shift as to what female dancers are expected to be like. Choreographers and dancers in the modern and contemporary genres are starting to stem away from the typical ballerina look, allowing female dancers to look and present themselves in many different ways, allowing them to have room to express individual artist choices.

Although there has been some progression in what it means to be a male or female dancer, nobody has found the space for dancers who identify as anything other than male or female. Dance is supposedly meant to be used as an avenue for self-expression, but it seems this is only true if you express yourself as a cis-gender, straight person. Audiences lack the capacity to separate the movement from the people moving because of societal standards and conventional images of the male/female binary. From experience, it’s clear that all movement is gendered from the way we pose in pictures to the ways we’re expected to sit in a chair, so how can we change that?

Robert Binet, choreographic assistant for the National Ballet of Canada, hasn’t exactly nailed it, but has been working on breaking the typical gender stereotypes of ballet. In his rendition of Balanchine’s Orpheus, entitled Orpheus Becomes Eurydice, Binet challenges the classic Greek myth. In the original story, Orpheus is a man who is married to Eurydice, a woman. Eurydice is killed by a snakebite, so Orpheus, overflowing with grief, ventures to the underworld to try and bring Eurydice back to life. This is the story that choreographer George Balanchine used for his work. In Binet’s version, the Orpheus character is a woman heading to the underworld to find her brother, Eurydice. She wants to bring him back to life, but since Eurydice intentionally committed suicide, he has no motivation to return with his sister. In classical ballet, the man is always leading and rescuing the distressed, virgin woman in an often-romantic way. Binet turns the tables by setting the attempted hero to be a woman who leads the man in the storyline as well as in the physical movement. Binet said “we spent a lot of time in the creation process, trying to understand how to still use these ballet conventions, how to still use the support of the man that allows the woman to do what she does on the tips of her toes while still having her look like the leader, having her look like the rescuer, and how to still use the amazing overhead lifts that make ballet so special and so literally heightened, while still allowing the male character to look weak or vulnerable.” (TEDxToronto, 8:13) It’s a lot to consider when Binet and the rest of the dance community are so used to choreographing for stereotypical male and female roles. Binet did a beautiful job retelling the story and giving the feminine character an empowered image, but this TED Talk made me wonder why the roles had to be completely reversed for it to make sense. It’s easy to ask a man to perform a women’s part or vice versa and call it progressive, but there must be a way to escape gendered movement and just have dancing bodies, not dancing boys and girls.

There is practically no in betweenness in the dance world. Everything is either masculine or feminine whether or not it’s clearly stated. In his article from the Journal of Dance Education, Intertextuality and Dance, Bryant Henderson describes dance “…as a bodily practice centered on establishing an innate and intelligent corporeal understanding of one’s self and movement potentials, a bodily technique (Henderson, Pg. 2).” This goes to show how personal dance practice is. Dancing, at its core, is a somatic, intimate experience that promotes internal satisfaction. Gender means nothing to a moving body alone, in fact, I believe gender performance is established merely through one’s own consideration of their individualized life experiences. The concept of gender only becomes an issue when this moving body is put in front of other people to watch. Henderson explains this in writing that “…the dancing body is also a culturally marked body — one that is written and spoken for by each society and culture prior to writing or speaking for itself (Manning 2004a, 2004b). Therefore, disengaging individuals’ physical markings (e.g., skin color, physical deformities, sex, size, etc.), and the impact of those markings, from an individual’s performativity and artistic performance is likely difficult, if not impossible, for spectators (Henderson, pg. 4).” A dancer, or performer, is quickly judged by all audience members before they even have the chance to move. It’s the nature of the sport; dancers are vulnerable enough to bring their entire selves into public spaces to literally just be seen, and not heard. Because of the previously mentioned stereotypes and aesthetics of a male or female dancer, whoever is spectating will immediately either consciously or unconsciously decide which side of the binary the performers fall under. Whether these judgements come from biological parts, behavioral patterns, or emotional characteristics, performance culture can’t seem to separate the body and the art, affecting the opinions and expectations of everyone involved.

In recent discussions with BFA Dance students at the Peabody Conservatory as part of a Critical Dance Studies course, there have been many questions raised as to why are there so many stereotypes around gender and how can we change them? There seems to be no clear answer, but three students, Elizabeth Chaille, Eliana Krasner, and Peter Pattengill, attempted to turn these questions into action, and see what could be done. By creating a performance piece on performing gender entitled “Dress Up”, we came to understand the challenges that come with breaking boundaries. We decided that Elizabeth, a woman, would dance and dress like a man while Peter, a man, would dance and dress like a woman, and Eliana would fill the space for an androgynous, non-conforming body. Choreographing for Elizabeth and Peter was quite simple. All we had to do was take generally masculine and feminine movement and give it to the opposing gender. On the other hand, choreographing for Eliana’s part, was extremely challenging. After lots of trial and error and pondering how we were going to create non-gendered movement, we decided to take masculine elements from Elizabeth’s part and feminine elements from Peter’s part and mix them together to create two minutes of “in-between” choreography. This process proved that there is unfortunately no place for in-betweenness in dance because every move we make gives off gendered energy that is virtually impossible to change because of cultural and societal norms.

Change is the only constant in the dance world. Stereotypical, gendered movement qualities and specifically gendered roles are beginning to shift. With this, audiences are starting to have more of an open mind when it comes to gender performance, however, there will always be that innate, unconscious, constructed judgement and there are still plenty of people that are only interested in typical male and female movement. The modern and contemporary dance scene has become more accepting of those who do not fit in the gender binary, allowing artists in the dance world to challenge outdated, gendered movement as portrayed through the classic, binary lense. Now, our only challenge as budding artists in the professional world, is to create the space for non-gendered bodies, movement, and expression.

“Dress Up” by Elizabeth Chaille, Eliana Krasner, and Peter Pattengill

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