Encouraging Male Participation in Dance

By Crawford, John R. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Encouraging Male Participation in Dance


Crawford, John R., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Rather than teaching boys that aggression is their only movement option, educators can teach all students to assert their bodies through the movement in time and space and a confident expression of ideas through dance.

At the 1991 National Dance Association (NDA) conference in San Francisco, during a discussion about future directions of dance education, a question arose: "How can we increase male involvement in dance?" No simple answers to this question exist, and the issue of male involvement in dance continues to emerge when educators address the subject of gender and dance. At the NDA conferences in 1992 and 1993, the topic of gender and dance again prompted fervent discussion, fostering relevant questions about the nature of male involvement in dance. Are historical precedents causing dance to be viewed as an inappropriate endeavor for males in European and American culture? Does dance support the structures of male dominance and patriarchy in Western society which ultimately discourage men and boys from pursuing endeavors associated with women? How can male participation in dance be encouraged?

Dance is traditionally a female-populated field, which society still tends to view as feminine (Hanna, 1988; Kraus, Hilsendager, & Dixon, 1991; Shapiro, 1989). Ironically, although women dancers outnumber men, men obtain dominant positions. Men have traditionally fulfilled roles as choreographers and managers, whereas women have been the prevalent performers or workers (Hanna, 1988). Yet male dominance in dance has not led to an increase in male dancers, possibly because it conforms to, rather than challenges, the very structures that brought about the scarcity in the first place. To understand the status quo, male involvement in dance must be viewed within its historical context.

Historical Overview: Male Dancers in Western Theatrical Dance

Prior to the late 1700s, men were esteemed and respected as the central figures in Western theatrical dance. During the latter part of the seventeenth century, male dancers performed women's roles, appearing in travesty. Women were not respected as performers and men dominated the early stages of the dance profession. By 1840 however, a complete reversal occurred, with women playing men's roles. Male dancers lost respectability when dance became centered on ballerinas. Writers in the nineteenth century such as Jules Janin and Theophile Gautier admonished male dancers as heavy and clumsy. Coming from an influential critic, Gautier's prejudice both encouraged and reflected society's disdain for male dancers. Gautier wrote: "For us a male dancer is something monstrous and indecent which we cannot conceive...." He proclaimed a stereotype of masculinity which would endure for at least another century: "...strength is the only grace permissible to men" (Priddin, 1952, p. 41). As dance became feminized, it lost status as a profession, reflecting the devaluation of females in the larger society. According to Hanna (1987), "...since the French Revolution, dance has been a low-status occupation, not sequestered by the dominant male group". Thus, a stereotype emerged: male dancers were automatically associated with effeminacy. Labeling male dancers as "feminized men" simply became a way to curtail their participation in theatrical dance. Indeed, during the golden age of the ballerina, men were tolerated on stage simply to display the charms of the female.

Within American modern dance, the central figures were founding mothers rather than founding fathers. According to authors such as Adair (1992), Copeland (1990), Daly (1991), Hanna (1988), and Kraus et al. (1991), modern dance exists as the only major Western art form in which the creators and innovators have been predominantly women. The field of modern dance has also dispelled many gender stereotypes by challenging the conventions of the status quo. Between 1933 and 1940, modern dancer Ted Shawn attempted to upgrade male dancers' image and status in America.

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