In the wake of the women’s marches across the globe, the #metoo campaign and the stars of Hollywood creating a storm in the wake of insurmountable sexual harassment scandals, it’s only natural to start to hold the same critical lens up within which we see and understand women and gender within the industry of professional dance. Professional dance in this sense, is an interesting juxta-position between the piloting influence and feminine critiques by choreographers like Isabella Duncan, Pina Bausch and many more, and conversely, the rather ignorant and unquestioning gender stereotypes and industry standard sexual harassment prominent in much of the industry today. Dance, like every other art form is both a creator and a thermometer of the current social environment in which we live; which is why, we as artists would be wise to constantly be considering and questioning the roles we play or rather perform, and whom they are serving. This article is not an academic critique into feminism nor a man-bashing, anti-sexuality, anti-establishment event, but a conversation around what we think of when we look into gender within the artistic platform of dance and how it can better serve us.
Even though feminism is sometimes a hotly contested word, which to some leaves a bit of an unpleasant taste, the dialogue around equality within the industry, I would argue, is an important and much needed one. Whether its fighting for equal pay, equal opportunities or, in this case, simply a more nuanced understanding of women’s representation on stage and screen in the performing arts, these questions encapsulated around the idea of feminism has a huge part to play and purpose to serve in the dance industry today.
Dancer’s are an interesting breed; part artist, part athlete. An art form which premises the body and thus, sensuality, sexuality and all the idioms captured thereafter, as much as it espouses ideology and poetic illusionary ideals. A dancer is in one sense an empty vessel or a piece of clay to be crafted, as much as a solitary artistic unit full of creative licence and agency. So what happens when the images we portray, the stories we tell and narratives we unknowingly subscribe to become so normalised and entrenched in the work we do we fail to see the contradiction anymore? When the ideas and awareness we try to live out in our daily lives run contrary to what we represent in our “9-5”? Or from a more personal point of view, when the ideas I hold about women and their depth and strength and light, run at odds with the characters and one-dimensional person I am asked to be on stage.
The question I every now and then find myself contemplating on jobs (as a freelance professional dancer) is how can I be a feminist, one who wants females to be recognised as minds, spirits, as entrepreneurs, as equals and sometimes even as genderless, but base my life’s work on the female form, on how it can bring beauty and often times sexuality to the stage. And as a dancer, I absolutely love to express the sexy side of my being sometimes. As such, I believe wholeheartedly that there is power and beauty in maturing and owning ones own innate sexual energy and expression; being confident and proud of your own desires and to create that in other people. Nonetheless, we all know how these ideals are easily hijacked and skewed in service to mainstream culture, creating and perpetuating existing structural inequality and violence. Unfortunately at times commercial dance can both filter from and contribute to images of women that are for the service of these existing depleting stereotypes and norms. Thus, despite my love for dancing, I do feel a tension and frustration when certain performances feel more objectified, cheapened and even exploited rather than empowered and artistically defiant.
On one particular job I worked recently, I was dancing for a fairly well known singer in a day-time festival crowd in front of a few thousand, however, the set created in me a sense of cheap-ness, lack of respect and made me feel like a “piece of meat”. This was further intensified by a comment to “take our clothes off” yelled out by an audience member when the bows were happening, leaving a fairly terrible taste in my mouth. This one very acute example attests to the attitude’s which can at times surround dance. To have 20 or so years of training, hard work and sacrifice received in such a patronising and derogatory manner is a hard pill to swallow, and rightly so. What is happening in our culture, and the feedback loop to dancing which makes such experiences so common, and even just general viewpoints on being a “dancer” so disparaging. And while I understand we operate within a consumer culture where sex sells, it is my hope and belief that we can somehow grow beyond that.
For my own professional journey, I believe it is about staying conscious. Being aware of both the structure we as professional dancers are working within as a whole and the social, artistic and professional environments we wish to develop. For example, the advent of explicit and overtly provocative dancing in professional and mainstream commercial dance environments works to further legitimise these ideas on over-sexualisation, leading us to forget to question the nature of such things. Considering how the industry can continue to develop and create an environment that does not need to be followed by articles on how not to over-sexualise an 11-year old are key reasons to work out this tension. And it is not necessarily questioning how we are dancing or what we are wearing, but who for, in what context and what is the process? I hope that the trend continues where professional dance can be holistically empowering for women, without reducing it to stereotyped and one-dimensional images of femininity. And yet, when the time comes to express such ideas on sexuality, how it can be done salubriously and with integrity.
Written by Jaslyn Reader
Jaslyn is a professional freelance dancer based between Berlin and London. Her career began in classical and contemporary before branching out to more genres and mediums of dance. She has performed in the industry for over 7 years on stages, in front of cameras and on screens in Australia, Asia, America, Europe and the UK. She is also currently studying her Masters in International Relations, helping fuel and bridge dual interests of the arts and politics.