Have you seen the movie, “Billy Elliott”? If you haven’t, please rush out and do so because it’s simply awesome. It is a film about a boy who desires to become a ballet dancer in England during the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike. It sets up a brief historical account of those events as a parallel to the struggle of Billy Elliott to affirm his own identity during a time when “come as you are” was not yet a movement nor had Nirvana made it on to the music scene. The struggle for Billy to assert his desire to train in ballet is one facet of the story while the other is the struggle of his father and brother (there is no mother) to accept a shift in consciousness; one that denounces the stereotypes of “boys will be boys” for an alternate reality. At times, this struggle is felt most acutely by the father, whose work at the coal mine (a generational undertaking) is pitted against the freedom of a son who chooses to cross the line (real and imagined) of gender expectations and do what he wants, not what he has to do. There’s so much in this movie to love and to be conscious of even as we turn to look upon a 21st century view of gender expectations, especially with regard to dance. Has much really changed?
In the course of opening the studio, the assumption that all of our dance clients will be female still simmers on the surface of gender expectation. It is so pronounced that even as I look around for various media images to promote a blog or an element of the dance segment, I am hesitant to use one that paints dance as being predominately female-centered. Admittedly, it’s a struggle because most image selections generally depict the beautiful lines of a slender female en pointe, in contemporary pose, or airborne in a perfect leap on the beach. Although there are some stunning images out there, I keep thinking, “Is this what we want to convey? Do we really want to reinforce the stereotype that dancing is predominately a female activity?”
Judith Butler (1990) called this conundrum “performativity.” It is the act of “performing gender” for the sake of fitting in to whatever reality is being imposed upon an individual (or group of individuals). Any circumstance that reinforces a stereotype such as only girls dance, pushes us to perform to the expectation of that stereotype and disallows room for the opposite gender to participate. Gender roles become prescribed to us, as is the case with dance, and we constantly reinforce them in our language, communication of ideals and values, and through media. (This also happens a lot with academic subjects such as math, physical education, science, and language arts.) Remember the idiom, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? The single act of an image selection to convey the word “dance” can be inviting or limiting, and the choice we make in deciding what that image is can truly dictate the gender expectation of who is or who is not deemed “a dancer.” In the end, we chose a floor in the Studio Offerings page, and believe me, that took a lot of time to think about.
While it is pretty common nowadays to see the biggest dance studios in LA and NYC filled with instructors and students of both genders, there aren’t many boys heading over to their small, local studios to sign up (especially for classical dance forms). Why is that? Are we communicating the wrong message about what it means to be a dancer? I, for one, hope not. It is our desire to be a space for anyone to have a go in one of our dance classes no matter what age, ability, gender identity, or gender expression of the person. We need to abolish gender expectations and re-message what it means to be a dancer. To the Billy Elliott’s of the 21st century, we welcome you.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1st ed., vol. 36, Routledge, 1990.
Photo: Havilah Galaxy