The Sexualization of Dance

A little personal history.

I am happy, and fortunate to say that I had a long and prosperous professional dance career. Not many are able to make such a statement, especially these days.

However, there is not a light without a dark.

During a photo shoot, I was asked to do something that was and would be viewed as inappropriate. Not to get into details but I was asked to do something that was tantamount to rape in order to get a certain shot that the photographer was looking for. I never raped anyone in my life so, needless to say, I was very uncomfortable. The person I was dancing with was my friend, why would I ever think of doing such a thing. 

As dancers, we are asked to create poses, dress or undress or devise a subtext all in the name of dance when in fact, it is an advertisement tool to increase the companies visibility and get people to go to the shows.

Many are blind to it or just think its part of the business when in fact its just plain ole sexualization. 

Its everywhere: Images of shirtless male dancers in “macho” poses, women and men in sexually suggestive poses, children dancing in recitals with scant clothing doing little “sexy dances.” For some reason, we have found these images acceptable and yet have condemned sexual abuse. 

Isn’t it the same?

The Fate of Dance

I was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis July 2019. By that time, it had generalized throughout my body, greatly limiting all that I do physically. As a way of coping with this change, I joined a Facebook group devoted to people coping with this illness. Quickly, I realized that I was one of the lucky ones that was diagnosed through bloodwork. Many others on the site have gone through the mill trying to get diagnosed only to be told that their symptoms were in their heads or it’s something else. It seems to me that there are some medical professionals that prefer to pass the buck rather than help with solving the problem…failure of imagination.When I taught dance to the 5th graders at The Paul Robeson School in Brooklyn, my objective was less about teaching them how to dance and more about teaching them how to solve problems as a group. I did this by using the scientific method to solve problems to questions using movement…MOVEMENT, not DANCE. If a form of dance was required through discovery to solve a problem, then it was up to me to provide what was necessary for my students to learn the dance form to solve the problem. It was a living, breathing unit plan that ebbed and flowed based on creativity and imagination.

I’ve discovered that with dance in the public school system, there is nothing that states that we as dance educators should meet every person where they are. Instead, we are expected to treat our students as empty vessels. On the contrary, I believe that we should step into the dance studio with the assumption that our students already know how to dance. Our responsibility is to use what they know, provide them with what they don’t know and guide them on how to use this knowledge for the betterment of their future. Right now, we are just teaching them forms and they are repeating these forms on stage so that their parents and caregivers can be happy, the teacher can earn the coveted highly effective rating, and for the bureaucracy to say that dance is working. When the children graduate…where do they go…what do they do?

Going back to the beginning of this posting, some medical professionals suffer the same fate. They are forced fed information without the ability to take the patients knowledge into account, synthesizing it with what they know and taking it a bit further to see what the cause of illness may be even if it falls outside of the prevue of their expertise…failure of imagination.

In the forward written by Thomas C. Shelling to Roberta Wohlstetter’s book, “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision,” he states, “There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.” In our teaching as dance educators, dance is not taught as a tool that students can take with them through adulthood but as a requirement, something to do, an extracurricular activity. Today, most students that take dance in public schools, non-dance majors taking dance classes in colleges to fulfill credit requirements, and some private dance studios, move on with their lives and leave dance at the doorstep. Dance needs to be viable, meaning that it needs to be, “capable of surviving or living successfully, especially under particular environmental conditions.” In other words, for dance to survive after students graduate from school and into a person’s adult life, Dance Educators, Public School teachers and administrators, The Department of Education, Private Dance School Owners, and whatever entity that will listen, need to imagine another way of presenting Dance Education that may be unfamiliar, but not dismissed as being improbable for the viability of dance.

Before I became disabled in 2019, I created and implemented a movement class that was part technique/strength and part problem solving using the scientific method to solve a problem using movement – I called it Dance Lab. The class was broken up into 4 groups and they initially had the opportunity and freedom to create their own works. I was the Artistic Director and would interject and facilitate where needed. One group that needed some work and at times a referee, was my 5th grade boys’ group. The boys wanted to create a Kung Fu scene. Initially it was chaos – it just looked like a bunch of boys beating each other up (and sometimes it was a bunch of boys beating each other up). After observing the group, we had a discussion and devised a central question, “How do you create a Kung Fu scene that is safe and can be repeated exactly the same each time it’s performed?” I provided the group a few Kung Fu scenes and documentaries on the making of selected action films. They learned how the actors practiced the moves repeatedly and how they can safely perform the scenes the same way each time. With that information through research, the boys were able to repeat their scenes but for a short duration. At the end of their Kung Fu scene which lasted around thirty seconds, they reverted to free form fighting…yikes. I then proposed that we extract some of the best moves that they created and teach them to each other. This resulted in three movement phrases of good length in which to form a dance in which all the movement came from the students. As a result, they learned how to work together as well as how to repeat an experiment to come up with a solid conclusion to a central question, “How do we create a Kung Fu scene that is safe and can be repeated exactly the same each time it is performed.” 

Unfortunately, when the administration learned of this class because it was “unfamiliar,” they dismissed it, deeming it “improbable” so Dance Lab was shut down.

Dance Lab was not, “capable of surviving or living successfully, especially under particular environmental conditions,” which was the failure of imagination from an administration unwilling to see the possibility of how dance could be used to facilitate other subject matter as well as how dance could extend beyond public school and into adulthood. However, I believe that it was going in the right direction in terms of teaching dance so that it is a tool that a person can use beyond school and not as it exists today…a requirement, something to do, an extracurricular activity.

Why Ballet?

The central question of Zachary Whittenburg’s article in Dance Magazine, “Why Do Mixed-Rep Companies Still Rely on Ballet for Company Class,” has been an ongoing question since time immemorial. 

Ok…that’s a bit dramatic.

Personally, it’s a question that I find, as a professional dancer, a no brainer and has no need to be raised unless to continue the division it has caused in the dance community.

Ballet is the perfect form for both strength and alignment. As a former member of Twyla Tharp Dance, we all took ballet from various ballet masters only to get into the studio to rehearse anything but ballet. 

Twyla herself, was adamant about us all taking ballet before rehearsals and we did so religiously. We took classes at Howard Studios, Maggie Black, Finus Jung, The Corvinos, in addition to several others. After the Tharp/ABT merger, I took company classes mostly because they were free, and I didn’t have to commute because we all rehearsed under the same roof.

Why Ballet?

Ballet is consistent, methodical and systematic. Ballet begins and ends the same every class, if it’s taught correctly. The teacher doesn’t indulge in experimental movement exercises that are counterproductive to preparing a dancer’s body for a day of hard physical work. Each exercise focuses on specific parts of the body, especially the tiny muscles and ligaments. The exercises are also designed to align the body in order to protect the joints from injury. A good Ballet class begins at the barre with pliés and ends with grand allegro – it starts small and ends big.

What’s the problem?

I don’t think that Ballet is the problem. I believe that the problem lies within us. I’m sure that many of us, especially in the beginning of our training, have had the ballet teacher from hell…I did. As a matter of fact, I’ve had several. These experiences tainted my understanding of ballet and left me with the question, is ballet even necessary because I knew that I would never be a ballet dancer…stupid question. 

After I dropped out of Juilliard, I began to audition for other schools and companies – each audition began with a ballet barre. This was when I was introduced to Finus Jung. He was the first ballet teacher that helped me to understand that Ballet did not have to be a performance medium, but a steppingstone to other forms of dance. Every dancer in his class expressed Ballet in their own way not like cookie cutter dancers and he cultivated individuality with all of his students.

Before I was invited to dance with Twyla Tharp Dance, her and I met a few days a week in the studio to “workout” and create dance phrases. I didn’t take class beforehand in which case she invited a former company member to lead an aerobics class and yoga. When the company came back from tour, I was invited to perform with the company in which case it was imperative that I took a class beforehand…it was always ballet and mostly with Finus. However, once we were in the studio rehearsing and creating phrases, it was all Twyla. 

It always began with improvisation where she started an improvisational study and we didn’t follow but assimilate…big difference. We were to absorb her weight shifts, rhythm, arm movements, gestures and after a time she would turn off the music and we would go over the phrase in detail in order to get the style and phrasing into our bodies – Twyla was always coaching us and teaching us her style even though we all took Ballet class and were trained in ballet.

Today’s dance companies need to do this and not assume that dancers are going to walk into an audition knowing their style of dance. An audition for a contemporary dance company needs to incorporate a class on their style into their auditions to see if a dancer has the ability to adapt to other forms of dance. This is where it is the dancer’s responsibility to remain active in learning as many different forms of movement as possible. Jez…I breakdanced, studied Eagle Claw Kung Fu, roller blade through NY, soccer…you name it – it all helped me in the end.

Ballet is and should always be imperative for all dancers but should be taught by competent ballet teachers and not teenagers that just graduated from high school and are senior members of their local dance studio. Also, if your goal is to perform ballet, then taking class from a competent Ballet master from conservatory ballet or reputable ballet company is just fine. But, if your goal is to dance for a contemporary dance company specializing in mixed movement forms, then you need to build yourself up so that you can bend and mold to the style that you are confronted with and it begins with Ballet.