Gendered Dance: An Unnecessary Illusion – Rebecca Lee

Gender has a pressing role on the art of dance and dancers bodies throughout cultures globally. For something that is socially constructed, dance has put a hyper-emphasis on the importance of maintaining gender roles within classical and concert dance in America. For an art form that is extensively women, the role of dominance still lies in the hands of men when it comes to opportunities, financial assistance, and employment success. Questioning the gender roles and expectations in dance is important to creating the deserving space for women as well as opening up the conversation and creating opportunity for gender fluid and non-binary folk in dance. Defying the societal patriarchy is a necessity for choreographers to investigate in order to reshape the binary culture of dance.

Dance has an intricately codified set of expectations for men and women following its codified techniques in various compartmentalized genres. In techniques such as ballet and modern, the stage has been set on top of the foundational hierarchy that exists within American expectations of a man and a woman. It is important to note the ways in which the woman’s body is used in performance to appeal to a male gaze. In Dance, Gender, and Culture written by Helen Thomas, a woman’s body in dance is recognized as a societal outcome. Thomas states how “underneath the surface of this talk there lay an idea of an ‘ideal’ female body, which dancers, at least to the eye of the (female) beholder, appeared to be more likely to reach than most ordinary mortals”(70 Thomas). There must be acknowledgement that an audiences point of view is rarely androgynous, and when a gendered body appears on stage, there is immediate expectation for what that body can do, what that body represents, and what that bodies societal role is. Thomas emphasizes that “ideas about the body are mediated through society. The body [is argued to be] ‘always in society’ which means that it ‘must be understood in its concrete existence socially and historically’”(70 Thomas). Taking this perspective into the lens of how a woman is viewed socially in America, there becomes clarity of the roles that are placed upon her as an artist in dance. The expectation to exude beauty through a slender body and graceful lines, to have a submissive tone when partnering with a male counterpart, and to partake in heteronormative expectations that society expects of a woman in dance and in American culture. To defy the dense expectations as not only a dancer but as a choreographer and creator, there must exist a strong will to challenge the confining roles of gender in performance.

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Creating from an androgynous perspective can be challenging when bringing into consideration the audiences point of view. It is difficult to erase the socially constructed aspects of humanity when appealing to a society that has revolved their morals, careers, and personal values off of those illusory constructs such as gender, race, class, and sexuality. Senta Driver, a choreographer, mentioned within Dance, Sex, and Gender written by Judith Lynne Hanna is known for capturing an “androgynous attitude” within her work (213 Hanna). She is described as “[rejecting] gender as relevant to using one’s mind or body; either sex is capable of intellectual, aesthetic, and physical accomplishments”(213 Hanna). Various concert dance companies present work that provides a role reversal or androgynous point of view. Dancers within the “Netherlands Dance Theater often have equal dancing responsibilities-athletic, spiritual, musical, moralistic, or humorous. All dancers may be nude or costumed in streamlined leotards and tights” (214 Hanna). In today’s society, it is extremely important to recognize androgynous works as valid, meaningful, and worthwhile to create the deserving space and recognition of non-binary and gender non conforming dancers and choreographers that exist within this field. Visibility is important and can be more heavily developed through the help of cis-gendered people supporting and developing a more androgynous aesthetic in concert dance.

Upcoming artists within the dance world hold a responsibility to help reshape the constructs placed upon dancers and their personal gender expressions. It is important to look at the societal changes around you and evaluate if what you’re creating challenges, supports, or defies what is constructed to be “normal.” In the book, Partnering Dance and Education written by Judith Lynne Hanna, the writer refers to dance as “a medium through which choreographers manipulate, interpret, legitimate, and reproduce patterns of gender cooperation and conflict that order society” (158 Hanna). When taking an authentic look at a choreographers work, it is often a reflection of something that is significant personally or a reflection of societally induced expectations. If what we are creating is equivalent to the changing times of the society we are living in, then works that are androgynous, provide role reversal, or include homosexual themes should be at the forefront of dance culture.

Gender and gender expression through dance is bound together tightly by ancient expectations and unrealistic views on gender roles. However, through the courage of artists willing to challenge norms and expectations, proper space can be handed to women and people who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming. Using the art of dance as a platform to press up hard against injustices and inequality in society regarding gender and gender expression, the expectations of performance can begin to alter to the realized truth that is the now.

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