A Place for Every Dancer - Gender in the Dance Studio
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This week on Making the Impact, Courtney and Lesley sat down with IDA Judges Paul and Jeanette to discuss the ever-important and constantly shifting topic of gender in the dance studio.
One major theme of the conversation was the fact that it’s impossible to start too early when it comes to inclusivity in the studio. Young children are constantly absorbing information and being shaped by their environments, so the introduction of gender-inclusive language is necessary at all ages. While it might seem difficult for teachers to shift their ways and it might be easier to blame the binary-nature of our classrooms on tradition, we are in the middle of a cultural revolution and now is the time to change.
As Paul explains,
“Lucky for us, we’re living in a time and age of the gender revolution. So it is, I believe, our job as people who share and pass on this joy of this art form to keep up with the times and try and let the culture in the dance studio reflect the culture outside. Part of that is broadening knowledge and awareness of the full complexity and beauty of the gender spectrum.”
This inclusivity starts with education, awareness, and making a conscious effort to ensure that all dancers who walk in the door feel safe.
One place to start is to evaluate your studio or classroom’s dress code. Consider, for example, what options exist besides a pink leotard and tights for four year olds. There are ways to create uniformity without a gendered construct and the required attire for class shouldn’t be restricting dancers from coming into the room and feeling their best.
”I think that within the classroom, teachers can take a moment of introspection to ask themselves, 'Why is it that I enforce a dress code? Is it so that I can see lines of the body? Is it because I’m trying to teach these kids how to exist in a uniform costume environment?’ We can start looking at these things and recognize that those don’t need to be things that are enforced.”
She also explains that even as an adult, her outfit choice for class can totally make or break her experience. It’s important to remember that fashion is a form of self-expression and that ties in closely with gender identity.
Costuming can also present challenges, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can incorporate more costumes that complement each dancer and don’t single anyone out. Working on a case-by-case basis with your students, it’s important to remember that we don’t necessarily need a different costume for a male-identifying dancer in a group with females. The male dancer may or may not want a different costume.
Teachers should always communicate with their students about comfort levels with different costumes and movement qualities/vocabularies. After all, teachers and studio owners are leader figures in their students’ lives and so young dancers are relying on those leaders to guide them. And if it’s tradition that is driving you to maintain certain parts of your dress code, it’s time to reevaluate. We are in the middle of a huge cultural shift and hanging onto old ways for the sake of tradition is neither fair nor equitable.
Paul encourages teachers to impart on dancers, no matter their age, that they are the masters of their own bodies. He notes that from the age of three, we have an understanding of what makes us feel comfortable or uncomfortable and we should be encouraging our students to honor those boundaries.
It’s also super limiting to put people into boxes based on their gender. For example, dancers are often told to dance “more masculine” or “more feminine,” but what do these instructions actually mean? If you, as a teacher, are asking this of a student, perhaps take a step back and try to unpack what you’re asking them to achieve. Do you want them to engage with more muscular effort? Are you asking them to hold onto a certain shape for a little bit longer? Both Jeanette and Paul offer great strategies to help dancers portray certain aesthetic attributes without naming gender as part of that. Not only is this more specific and clear to the dancer in terms of desired quality, but it also puts the emphasis on the moving body, as opposed to its gender label.
All four educators emphasized the importance of giving ourselves grace when it comes to making changes in our own classrooms, creative processes, and, ultimately, lives. There is a massive cultural shift happening right now and it’s not just in the dance world. Shifting our ways will take time, messing up, apologizing, and trying again. We have to give ourselves grace in these situations, but we also have to commit to doing the work. It’s extra complicated when you’re a product of the older system, which almost all teachers and studio owners are.
Notice when you’re falling into old habits and try to reverse them. For instance, if you teach ballet and always tell the male dancers to go last, take a step back and reevaluate. This tradition stems from company ballet classes with live accompaniment where the musicians will slow down the tempo for the men who are expected to jump higher. Paul recalls being in class with a female dancer who was a stronger jumper than the men in class, so the male dancers would have to keep up with her. Instead of using gender to define what a dancer can/can’t or should/shouldn’t do, look at the dancer’s ability and go from there.
Paul leaves us with great advice, warning us to be wary of the words we choose. When talking about gender inclusivity, try to avoid using words like “tackle” because that implies that someone’s identity is creating an obstacle. Jeanette offers using the word “navigating,” as that is what we are constantly doing as we continue to pivot, quite literally, in our approaches to dance education.
Be sure to listen to the entire episode for lots of insight on this hugely critical topic and for tips on how to create more inclusive spaces for your students!