You’re going across the floor in ballet with a Grand Allegro. The teacher stops to explain the combination and makes a variation for the men and women. She tells the men to go last and adds a fabulously daring tour for their finale. The women are instructed to do a simple glissade pas de chat off. Some of the women look jealous but continue to line up. Ballet has been around for centuries, which can only mean that the majority of its development occurred under a patriarchal society (more so than it is today.) But does that mean we shouldn’t challenge it?
I truly believe that we act the roles we are taught. Perhaps our adherence to gender coding in ballet encourages the supposed femininity of dance; thus making young boys less inclined to pursue it. As a kid, I was often deemed a “tomboy” (though I don’t know how I feel about the institution of that word at all.) Regardless, I began taking dance after my school principal advised it to my parents. I remember sitting in art class when Ms. Giovanni asked who took some form of visual or performing arts. All the girls with their bows and jumpers raised their hands excitedly at the mention of dance and I sheepishly lifted a finger in my baggy pants and ponytail to admit that I too, was a dancer.
Today, I’m not ashamed of my gender or my profession. I’d given up my valiant attempts at joining the Boy Scouts and in Girl Scouts I only opposed our cliché homemaking activities under my breath. However, I still think a stereotype is assumed by being a woman and a dancer. Women are taught to be excited to try on their ephemeral pointe shoes and are rarely given the opportunity to perform vocabulary historically intended for men. One could argue that tradition is to be maintained in its entirety. However, ballet is not a dead art form. I believe that because it’s very much alive, it’s important to pay homage to past works while reinventing and challenging the image of women in dance through both classical and contemporary work. Sure, there are companies like Ballez who completely defies traditional gender roles, but they remain few and far between. Dancers are often taught gender roles and as they develop into choreographers, they create what they know.
Just the other day I was at an audition and the choreographer separated the men from the women. He taught the men an athletic floor-work combination and joked that women were welcome to learn it in the back. Of course I did because if there’s an opportunity to question the archaic idea of women being weak and fragile, I’m going to give it a shot. He asked if the women wanted to show him the combination and a large handful of us stepped up. He was hesitant and kept making comments like, “don’t hurt yourselves girls.” (Why the guys are called “men” whereas the women are mere “girls” is beyond me.) Regardless, after finishing the combination, none of the girls hurt themselves. Ya know who did…a lot of the guys.
Seriously though, as an art form we’re expected to be progressive in our ideas and notions. Instead I feel like I’ve been thrust back into Muller v. Oregon where women are deemed physiologically unable to work certain hours or perform tasks due to the effects of childbearing. Contrary to historical belief (and Fox news for that matter), women are not limited by their supposed purpose in life, fertility. We are not dainty creatures, inept at performing steps or participating in laborious work. People claim the female role is justified because while they’re different, they’re equal. Plessy v. Ferguson made the same argument only to realize the fallacy in the statement later on.
Until connotations, like the gender-coded steps in ballet class lose significance, I fear that women and men will comply to gender roles because they’re what’s taught. Now it’s time to redirect our energy towards making dance more universal so that it can attract a wider range of participants and encourage the redistribution of roles in society. People shouldn’t be confined to a bubble to reiterate norms and roles. Norms exist so we can question them. Art is about raising uncomfortable questions and challenging their institutionalization. It’s time for us to explore the uncomfortable.