Gender Norms in Dance

Dance, Gender

Let’s talk about gender roles in dance.

All styles of dance have traditional gender norms. Ballet showcases the women, while the men in ballet have been teasingly called the “tote and carry,” just there to lift. Social dances have the men leading the women, while once again showcasing the women and making sure they look good. Nowadays, the contemporary styles have begun to stray from the norm and have challenged the status-quo of the older styles. For example, Fosse had his male and female ensemble members dance the same choreography with the same stylistic intentions. Look at this video of dancers from Chicago doing All That Jazz and see how every person on stage was dancing exactly the same.

Seeing this change has helped me start to think about and challenge gender norms in dance. But an important lesson while teaching has made me think differently.

A few summers back I was teaching introductory ballet and tap combo classes for 4 to 7 year olds. One week it was Prince and Princess themed. The boys were given capes and crowns, the girls were given wands and tiaras. The boys were marching, the girls were skipping. The boys were bowing, the girls were curtsying. Nothing was out of the ordinary.

Before class the next day, the mother of one of the boys came up to me. She said that her son was torn up after class the day before because he wanted to wear a tiara but was too embarrassed to ask. He was experiencing confusion around what was expected of him and what felt normal. I was dumbfounded. I had never once considered this as something one of my students would be battling.

Now I teach all my young students how to march, skip, bow, and curtsy. If we dress up, I encourage mixing and matching, even dressing up myself to make others feel more comfortable with it. I want to encourage dancers to become their best selves.

However, you have to take all of these things with a grain of salt. If you want to dance in classical ballets, you will have to learn to embrace those typical roles. If you want to dance in Chicago on Broadway, you will have to learn to let go of your preconceived notions of what your gender should dance like and learn Fosse’s style.

I don’t see these norms changing anytime soon, but as teachers we should prepare students for anything. — J

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