The Male Dancer Stigma of Men’s Ballet
One of the first things that comes into a lot of people’s mind when they think of men in ballet, seems to be about sexuality. I want to discuss this topic for that reason. In current American society, along with some other Western countries, this unspoken assumption is probably the number one thing preventing there being more men who take ballet classes.
If we rationally look at the origins of this “male dancers” stereotype, it loses much of its power. Allow me to get a bit social psychology here. In our society, there is not much of a definition of a real man. We do not have any cultural rule or practice that says what is expected of a boy in order to become a man. As a culture we base our definition of masculinity on what is presented through films, television, famous celebrities, rock, rap, and sports stars, and other media sources. I enjoy popular culture, but what does it give us as a definition of what a real man is?
It tells us that a ‘Man’ is a doer, a leader, he can get the job done. Give him a task, and he will do it. He’ll score a touchdown and win the game. He’ll beat the bad guys and save the day. He’ll go to work and pay the bills. And he can do it all by himself, because he is a ‘Man.‘ Something we don’t see a real man do is express his emotions. He will not express fear, or he has failed. He will not express a need for someone else, or he has failed (unfortunately, one of the only culturally acceptable male expressions of emotion is aggression). And the real ‘Man’ definitely does not express beauty.
You can see how male dancing and men in ballet do not fit into this definition of a ‘Man.’ But in reality, that definition of men is far from the truth. It is fun to watch Bruce Willis kick around some bad guys, and you want him to win, but that is a myth and we live in a reality. It is a reality where men are human and have human emotions to express. And many of us find that we want to express those emotions through dance and art. Because a man has the capacity to express himself, does not make him a failure.
It is easy to recognize this when it is broken down, but still the stereotypes or assumptions continue to either push males away from dance, or to just not offer the opportunity for men to dance. Many more men feel the need to dance than actually fulfill that need.
The assumptions of sexuality and dance are very strong, and I was not spared from them. When I first thought of taking ballet classes, I slightly worried about what people would think of me. What would my dad think!? Even one of the most feminist women I know commented to me that the men in the New York City Ballet were obviously all gay. I don’t see that as obvious, but somehow someone quite versed in sexual politics did see it? Even when I did get over my worries, I wondered to myself if I would be the only straight man in ballet.
Fact: There are straight men in ballet and there are gay men in ballet. Deciding to take ballet, does not actually make a statement about your sexuality.
Many have tried to boost the amount of boy ballet dancers by promoting that it is really macho and athletic to jump around and lift girls up in the air. Yes, ballet takes a lot of strength and endurance, but it is not macho. It does not fit the skewed definition of masculinity described earlier, nor, by its nature will it ever. Some try to say that it is worth it because you get to be around all of the ladies. While it is nice to be around women for the amazing energy they give off, this is detrimental on two points. First, many men who want to do ballet are just as scared of being thought of as a creep as they are of being thought of as gay. Second, it marginalizes homosexual males who want to dance. Making ballet as an art and form of expression available to heterosexual dancers should not be done at the expense of homosexual male dancers.
The best solution I have seen to this dilemma comes from an article by Jennifer Fisher in Issue 1, 2007 of Dance Chronicle. She provides a solution that does not have to redefine dancing for men or men in ballet in the article titled “Make it Maverick: Rethinking the ‘Make it Macho’ Strategy for Men in Ballet.” Fisher points out that “Boys and men who do ballet must be either exceptionally brave or foolhardy, or both…because of the art form’s strong associations with a super-feminized world,” (45). Most importantly, Fisher explains that the male dancer is someone who is a bit of rebel and doesn’t care what everyone else thinks. She identifies some examples:
“The athletic boy who finds he is good at ballet accidentally and likes the unique and secure position this usually gives him;
The boy in a large family who stakes out unusual territory because his brothers and sisters have already claimed a lot of other professions;
Gay or straight men who do not worry about putting a macho reputation at stake;
Gay or straight men who find the arts a welcoming environment for many kinds of people;
Secure men who do not worry what people think” (Fisher 64).
Maybe you worried a little bit about what people would think if you took dance. But what do you care? Shake up their world, welcome them to reality where men dance and you can’t do anything about it.
I’ve ended up saying a lot about what people say so little.
In short, go ahead and dance. Men have every right to just as much as anybody.
Fisher, Jennifer. “Make it Maverick: Rethinking the ‘Make it Macho’ Strategy for Men in Ballet.” Dance Chronicle. 30.1 (2007): 45-66.
For more on Men and masculinity see The Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity.