Tl;dr The craze to get boys and men involved in dance is a product of our society’s confused idea that male involvement increases a “feminine” domain’s value. Instead of obsessing over gender, I’d like to see us engaging with everyone that wants to dance and questioning why being “feminine” causes so much insecurity.
Everybody’s talking about men and boys in dance these days. If they aren’t, it’s probably because it’s a man creating dance about toxic masculinity and gender identity from a “masculine perspective”.
It’s almost as if, in its rush to make feminism more palatable by pointing out that it fought for gender equality, we decided that the best way to challenge misogyny and femmephobia was by only looking at men and masculinity.
Or maybe contemporary dance has gotten bored of its feminine roots. Names like Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan usually get an eye roll, a warning about long scarves and a couple of poorly-executed contractions these days. Maybe we’re sick of little girls in pink tutus reading Angelina Ballerina (although, as someone that grew up on Angelina Ballerina, I highly recommend those books to budding dancers). Maybe the devaluation of all domains that are female-dominated and deemed “feminine” by society is starting to grate on underpaid, overworked dancers whose work constantly go unrecognized.
That’s all probably true.
But what about the fact that the artistic directors of most major ballet companies are still men? What about the fact that the last time I went to see Alvin Ailey American Repertory Theater (a radical, amazing company in its own right), I had to search through both the program and website for a good long while to make sure I went to a show that included work by a female choreographer? What about the clear evidence that most of the decision makers in the field of dance are, despite everything, men?
Maybe dance’s new obsession with men and masculinity is less about valuing the amazing women that are the powerhouse of the domain and more about reframing male interests to appear feminist enough to allow the men in power to keep their power.
I really don’t know.
What I do know is that I am completely uninterested in this new surge of dance classes specifically targeted at boys. On one level, yes, I get the logic – our society deems dance “feminine” and so boys who may very well want to dance may be scared off from it, or their parents/guardians may keep them from it. By creating a space that is specifically for boys, it removes the fear of seeming “girly”, so boys can dance.
Reread that logic. Reread it again. Reread it a third time, just in case you missed something.
This entire logic, the entire concept of creating boys-only dance classes is completely dependent on society seeing “feminine” as bad and “masculine” as good. It’s completely dependent on the assumption that a female-dominated domain would become better with an increase in men. And it propagates the terrifyingly toxic message that boys should be afraid of seeming “girly”.
I am so not ok with that I don’t think ten blog posts could even begin to describe my distaste.
Legitimizing dance by increasing its perceived masculinity is not going to give little boys self-expression or do any good for the multitude of accomplished young female dancers ignored as dance decision makers continue to clamour for BOYS. And this goes right up to a professional career. Overall, professional male dancers start training later and are much less experienced and accomplished when they join a dance company, but the perceived “need” for male dancers means they get positions that they’re not trained enough for. In comparison, highly trained women are competing for positions whose numbers are limited in part because of the positions going to undertrained men. All-male productions of famous dance works lauded as radical while keeping the majority of professional dancers out of work is the horrific result of this system.
I teach afterschool programs for elementary school students. Do you know what’s effective for engaging children of all genders in “feminine” (ie. less important) activities? It’s definitely not redesigning an activity specifically for the boys in the class. That just reinforces entitlement in the boys and worthlessness in the girls.
Instead, I make it an option to do a “feminine” activity together. When we were learning clothing in French, I brought in a girl paper doll for us to color. There was worry, from the other teachers, that the boys in my class would not want to do the activity. But it was clear to the kids that this was the class for the day and they were doing it because of the new, exciting words they had just learned, so they settled happily into coloring their doll and her “girly” clothing, informing me which colors they were using for which clothing to practice their French.
If I had given the same activity to a group of only boys, would it have gone so well? Probably not. Toxic masculinity starts early and a group of boys competing in perceived manliness would never be able to contain themselves with something deemed so “worthless” by society. But because we were all together, there was a clear reason to the activity, and, most importantly, coloring paper dolls is fun, everyone got to take part.
Instead of the fear that boys will never want to do something “feminine” unless it’s tailored specifically for them, I would like dance to take on more of this attitude: not everyone is going to want to dance, just like not everyone enjoys paper dolls (definitely not my students, but I’m sure there are people out there), but, for those who do enjoy dance, we need to make it a valued option. In other words, dance doesn’t need fixing by increasing masculinity, dance’s inferiority complex and society’s devaluation of “feminine” activities needs a shift in perspective. And dance really only needs the boys that want to dance in the first place (that said, I am well aware that adults have a habit of keeping boys from dancing and that is a problem that needs fixing and a very strong argument for keeping boys-only dance classes around for a little bit, if just to get boys that want to dance dancing when their adults may not let them do it otherwise).
Maybe we’ll have less boys dancing for a while. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe it will allow us to properly value the amazingly talented women that make up the domain and support the men that do dance already.