Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1)

The Wild Reed series “The Dancer and the Dance” continues with the first of three excerpts from Ramsey Burt’s book The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities (2007). All three excerpts are from chapter one, “The Trouble with the Male Dancer . . .,” which explores how the spectacle of men dancing can challenge, undermine and/or redefine notions of masculinity.

Burt’s fascinating book explores three important and interrelated topics: “the reintroduction of the male dancer to Western theatres by the Ballets Russes; the virile image of the male dancer that developed in American modern dance during the first half of the twentieth century; and the ways in which avart-garde and post-modern choreographers have been able to adapt, react against, or reject the legacy of existing ways in which masculinity is conventionally represented in theatre dance.” By “theatre dance” Burt means “dance that is performed on stage rather than dance activity occurring in social situations.”

Throughout The Male Dancer, Burt maintains that “masculinity as a socially constructed identity is not a stable entity, but one made up of conflictual and contradictory aspects.” He notes in the introduction to his book that: “Representations of masculinity in theatre dance over the last 150 years (more so in some ways than other cultural forms) have threatened to disrupt and destabilise masculine identities.” Burt is also concerned with “identifying key issues and strategies that offer the radical dance artist potential sites at which to trouble and subvert the conflictual and contradictory aspects of dominant notions of masculine identity in order to create possibilities for representing new, alternative, non-discriminatory perceptions of the differences between men and women in theatre dance.”

See what I mean by fascinating? Anyway, here, with added links and images, is the first of three excerpts from chapter 1 of The Male Dancer. Enjoy!


For much of the twentieth century, the dance world tended to appear to be predominately a feminine realm in terms of audiences, dancers, and teachers. The fact that, for example, in Britain and the US ballet and modern dance teachers have been predominately women has been cited as one reason for male dancer’s ‘effeminacy.’ But for many people, a key source of contemporary prejudice is the association between male dancers and homosexuality. It is certainly true that there are a lot of gay men involved in the dance world. Although by no means all male dancers are gay, this is what prejudice suggests. One consequence of this, I suggest, is a particular form of hyper-masculine display which sometimes naturalises aggression and violence as dancers try to show that they are not effeminate, where ‘effeminate’ is a code word for homosexual.

Until comparatively recently there has been a profound silence in the dance world on the subject of male dance and homosexuality. Commenting on the fact that the early American modern dancer Ted Shawn [right] was gay, Judith Lynn Hanna in her book Dance, Sex and Gender points to the irony in the time and effort he and his company of male dancers “spent trying to prove that they were not what Shawn and many of the company were.” What she fails to recognize is that for gay men in the US at that time, “coming out” was not an option. With the trial of Oscar Wilde as a terrible example, and with fear of blackmail, it is not surprising that so many in the dance world have, in order to protect individuals, taken the line of denying any knowledge of homosexuality among dancers.

By no means all dancers are gay, and the belief that they are is not itself an entirely satisfactory explanation of the prejudice. If one takes a historical perspective, I have not seen any firm evidence that the general public were aware of and concerned about gay involvement in ballet before the time of Diaghilev and Nijinsky at the beginning of the twentieth century. The prejudice against the male dancer, however, developed during the flowering of the Romantic ballet, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Examination of attitudes towards the male dancer during this earlier period suggests that what is at stake is the development of modern, middle class attitudes towards the male body and expressive aspects of male social behaviour. I am not arguing that, prior to Nijinsky, all male dancers were heterosexual, merely that their sexuality was not an explicit issue. Gender representations in cultural forms, including theatre dance, do not merely reflect changing social definitions of femininity and masculinity, but are actively involved in the processes through which gender is constructed and norms reinforced. What concerns us here is the way that the socially produced parameters of, and limits on, male behaviour are expressed in representations of masculinity in theatre dance. At stake is the appearance of the dancing male body as spectacle.

What Rosalind Coward has commented on, in relation to contemporary film, in many ways sums up a modern attitude to the gendered body:

Under the sheer weight of attention to women’s bodies we seem to have become blind to something. Nobody seems to have noticed that men’s bodies have quietly absented themselves. Somewhere along the line, men have managed to keep out of the glare, escaping from the relentless activity of sexual definitions. (Coward 1984: 227)

Over the last two centuries, however, it is not that male dancers have quietly absented themselves, but that, in many instances, they have been nervously dismissed. When the male dancer gradually disappeared from the stages of western European theatres during the period of the Romantic ballet, his place, in some cases, was taken by the female dancer dressed “en travestie.” There is a similar disappearance of the male nude as a subject for painting and sculpture, and male forms of dress underwent what J.C. Flugel (1930) has brilliantly characterized as “the great male renunciation” – the abandonment of the more flamboyant styles that the aristocracy had popularized in favour of the plain, black, bourgeois suit. What became conflictual and, consequently, repressed was anything that might draw attention to the spectacle of the male body. What one should, therefore, be looking for to explain the mid-nineteenth century prejudice against the male dancer, is the development, during this period, of modern attitudes to the body and gender, at a time when bodies in general were a source of anxiety. It is these attitudes that brought about a situation in which it seemed “natural” not to look at the male body, and, therefore, problematic and conflictual for men to enjoy looking at men dancing.

Masculinity, as a socially constructed identity, was rarely stable. Rather than enjoying a secure autonomy, men have continually needed to adjust and redefine the meanings attributed to sexual difference in order to maintain dominance in the face of changing social circumstances. Because the body is the primary means of expression in dance, and because gender is an attribute of the body, dance is a key area through which gendered identities are revealed. The kinds of gender representation that choreographers and dancers create and perform are partly determined by their individual histories and experiences. History and experience also effect the kinds of interpretation that audience members make of the dance work they see performed. How they see it is also, however, conditioned by the way in which the work is framed and presented to them – the way the work negotiates the traditions and conventions of theatre dance. Dominant gender ideologies are not, therefore, imposed without resistance through dance. The moment of live performance is a privileged one in which these ideologies are represented and contested. Indeed dancing bodies can become sites of resistance against them. The spectacle of men dancing on stage can, therefore, sometimes expose some of the tensions and contradictions within masculine subjectivities. The unease that sometimes accompanies the idea of the male dancer is, I suggest, produced by structures which defend and police dominant male norms.

NEXT: Part 2: Homophobia and the Male Dancer

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Church and Dance
Dark Matters
An Ideal Vision
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake Returns to New York
Oh! What’s This, Then?
Whimsical and Edgy
Istanbul (Part 4)
Scaling the Heights
An Evening with the Yuval Ron Ensemble
Love, Equality and the Rumba
Oh, Yeah!
The Potential of Art & the Limits of Rigid Orthodoxy to Connect Us to the Sacred

Recommended Off-site Link:
Dancer Versus Spectator
– Ian Enriquez (, March 25, 2007).

Image 1: Eddie Oroyan by Photogen Inc.
Image 2: Mikhail Mordkin, Ballet Russe dancer, by Nickolas Muray (1922).
Image 3: Chris Nash.
Images 4-6: Ted Shawn and dancers by Nickolas Muray.
Image 7: Iyun Harrison by Khalil Goodman (2008).
Image 8: Subjects and photographer unknown.
Image 9: Eddie Oroyan by Carlos Gonzalez.

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