Like many in the dance world, I was appalled by Good Morning America’s recent coverage of Prince George and the fact that he takes ballet classes. I was sad for George and all the little boys who might feel ashamed because someone says that what they love to do is “girly.” I felt anger that despite dance’s current popularity in pop culture, people still don’t acknowledge the strength, grit, power, and athleticism it requires. But most of all, I felt appalled to hear a member of the national media dismiss a male for his interest in something that is considered by some to be “feminine.” This kind of talk feels unreal to me in 2019, and I truly believe that it can be dangerous. I took to Facebook and wrote the following:
We wonder why many boys grow up to be angry, hateful, violent men. Perhaps it’s because they are told from a young age to suppress their feelings and interests if they are considered in the least bit “feminine.” We mock boys and men who have the courage to push the perceived boundaries of their gender while celebrating women who do the same. It happens on national television and no one blinks and eye. When we let boys and men express their fears and emotions, and live their lives without judgement over how “masculine” they are, perhaps we will come closer to ending the cycle of violence that perpetuates our society today. …. Good Morning America, the next time you ask “Why? How can this happen?” after a violent tragedy, look at how you treat the boys and men you report on.
But once my initial feelings of shock and anger wore off, I began to think about the dance industry’s complicity in misconceptions that are still so pervasive in society. Do a quick Google image search for “Kids Dance Classes.” The results tend to be pretty feminine, and pretty pink. We take advantage of the fact that consumers have a stereotyped notion of what dance is, especially for young children, and we feed it with the way we advertise and teach our classes. Where boys are described or depicted in marketing, they are strong, powerful, masculine, and heterosexual, glorified for their ability to lift women. Gender non-conforming children are rarely to be seen at all.
I’ve been inspired by the many positive and frank discussions I’ve seen online surrounding gender and dance in the wake of the GMA situation. One of the reasons that I am such an advocate for dance education is that I believe it has the power to transcend many of the societal ills that plague us today. But we need to be willing to face the shortcomings of our field. We are not always great at creating an environment in which people of all gender expressions feel welcome and valued. Seeing my colleagues discussing these issues frankly and with compassion fills me with hope.
As a small contribution to the conversation, I offer the following suggestions that can be used to help make your dance studio or program more gender-inclusive:
1.) Create a welcoming space: Think about the first impression that is created when someone walks into your space, whether it is the building’s lobby, a studio, or a classroom. What are the colors used in the space? What does your studio or program’s logo look like, and how prominently is it displayed? Who is represented in photos and artwork on the walls? Are bathrooms and changing areas available for people of all genders? Would your “dance dads” feel as welcome in the space as your “dance moms”? Would a person who is trans or gender non-conforming feel comfortable here? An overly pink and frilly space might automatically signal that the space is only for girls or those who identify female.
- To take an easy first step toward an inclusive environment, consider who is represented in photos and artwork in your space. If all the majority of the dancers depicted are not only the same gender, but also the same race, ethnicity, ability, and body type, consider ways to represent others as well. Not only will this create a more welcoming space for all dancers, it will also show your current student population that dance is for everyone!
- A gender-neutral color palette and logo on your studio gear can go a long way in making all students feel comfortable. If you require students to purchase team jackets or dance bags, it is especially important to stay away from colors and images that might be overtly gendered.
2.) Make your marketing more representative of the dance world: Consider the images and language that are used in your print and digital advertising. After all, your marketing and social media presence is how you represent not only your program or studio, but also the entire dance industry, to the outside world. Of course, you want to be true to your brand and image, but reflecting the diversity of the dance world in your marketing can make your studio feel more welcoming to all.
- Where you are able, be sure that you include photos of dancers of different genders and gender expressions, as well as different races, ethnicities, and body types.
- Use social media to educate your followers about a variety of famous dance figures: Fred Astaire, Vaslav Nijinski, Alvin Ailey, Ann Miller, Maria Tallchief, Katherine Dunham, and Sean Dorsey just to name a few.
- Take a moment to reflect on your class schedule. Is it full of titles like “Baby Ballerinas” and “Mommy and Me”? Consider using more inclusive options instead. “Baby Ballerinas” could become “Little Movers,” and “My Grown-Up and Me” is a great alternative for a parent-child child class.
3.) Choose props and costumes carefully: Do you tend toward classroom props that would typically be seen as feminine, such as fairy wands, princess crowns, and butterfly wings? When it comes to costuming, are your male students always in tuxes and females always in tutus? Are you open to providing dress code and costume alternatives for gender non-conforming students?
- Choose neutral class props when possible. A “fairy wand” can easily be transformed into a “magic wand,” and generic wings can be interpreted by a child as belonging to an eagle, bumblebee, or butterfly. Open-ended prop options allow students to engage in more imaginative creative play and dance, helping them develop skills that will benefit them as choreographers and performers in the future.
- If you do choose gendered props, give your students a choice of what kind of prop to use. Allowing children to use a range of different props will help them develop their own identities and foster empathy for others. Most dance teachers would never tell a female students that she can’t wear a cape and be a super hero. Now, it is time for us to also allow our boys to use princess wands and pretend to be unicorns if they want!
- When possible, give your students a voice in the costuming process. Choose a few diverse costumes options, and allow the students to give feedback on which one they prefer. This process can be empowering for all students, especially for boys and gender non-conforming students who might be used to being costumed in a way that is not comfortable for them.
4.) Use inclusive teaching practices: We can subconsciously reflect biases in our teaching practices, including the language and activities we use in class. This is in part because teaching is an apprentice-based career; as teachers we learned to teach from those who taught us, and pass on what we have learned in our classes. But the world has changed drastically since many of us were students, and it is important that we reflect often on the inclusivity of the language and activities we use in class.
- Shy away from stereotypes: Be sure that your male dancers and boys-only classes are not always described as “athletic,” “powerful,” and “strong,” and that your female dancers are not always described as “graceful,” “lovely,” and “beautiful.”
- Use “Dancers” to describe every group of students, regardless of the gender makeup of the class. This minor change provides subtle reminder to all listening that dance is for everyone.
- Many of us rely on activities that have been directly handed down by our teachers. There can be great value in this legacy, but it can also be problematic. A lot of traditional pre-ballet activities, for example, involve stereotypical gender roles – lots of princesses and the occasional prince to save the day. Choosing activities with gender-inclusive characters, such as animals, is a great way to help all students feel comfortable and welcome in the class.
- Be willing to break down traditional gender expectations. In ballet, for example, you can allow – or outright require – girls to work on tour en l’air, and boys to pas de couru and fouetté turn. Not only is this a great way to improve technique, but it will also help to challenge the gender norms associated with traditional dance forms such as ballet.
5.) Change up your choreography: When you only have one or two boys in class, it becomes easy for them to become the focus of choreography. They often become the center of formations, have featured solos, or are excluded from the “girls’ sections.” This can put a lot of pressure on young male dancers, and it reinforces the idea that they are different from their peers. Consider gender-neutral choreographic practices instead.
- Experiment with untraditional partnering, in which the male is not always the base or lifting party. Introducing students to contact improvisation can give them the tools to partner one another safely.
- Group all students by height or another gender-neutral option when making formations. Boys do not always needed to be featured front and center.
- Choose themes and music that are empowering for children of all gender expressions. Look for inspiration in nature, poetry, science, and visual art.
- Include your students in the choreographic process to give them a voice in, and ownership of, the dance. Check out more on that here!