Community Dialogue: Women in Dance

By Dancers' Group


In developing this issue of In Dance, Dancers’ Group hoped to gather and share an array of perspectives on a topic as complex and open-ended as “Women in Dance.” Thank you to all who responded to our survey questions, sharing experiences and perceptions.

What are the challenges and/or opportunities facing women in dance today?

I am a 20+ year dancer of Argentine tango who has worked for over 12 years in tango-modern fusion largely focused on women partnering women (almost 11 of them as a co-founding member of Tango Con*Fusión). I have experienced doors opening by degrees. As recently as 2007-2008 there was a dearth of support for women partnering women in tango in Buenos Aires. The idea was that a man must be in the equation for it to truly be tango, so if you had two men partnering each other – OK. Two women – not so much. 2016 marked the 4th year that my colleague Christy Coté and I were featured teachers and performers at the annual Congreso Internacional de Tango Argentino (CITA) in Buenos Aires, the 2nd year that we were given a spot in the CITA Theater Show at the Teatro ND, and the 1st year that we were granted the opportunity to teach not one but two (!) classes in Lead-Follow Exchange. In 2010 we were the first female pair to teach, and to present Lead-Follow Exchange as a topic, at CITA. The backstory being that just prior to 2010 – we had nearly given up hope that we would ever be granted the chance to teach such a class at CITA. Today Buenos Aires and the tango world at large are much more accepting of women partnering women, and of gender-neutral lead-follow, than was the case when I began dancing Argentine tango back in 1994.
Chelsea Eng

I believe that there are certain stereotypes that surround women who dance. Whether it is the objectification of our bodies, especially in commercial art forms, or the expectations of what a female body is supposed to look like and move like. Gender stereotypes do seep into the world of dance as well because after all art is but a reflection of life.
Ishika Seth, Mona Khan Company

A new opportunity facing women in dance today is to step away from limited thinking about what is an appropriate aged and sized dancer’s body. This opportunity invites women to embrace the idea that any aged or sized body can express the essence of movement. As this opportunity creates a new paradigm, there is no longer a need to retire from dancing when one reaches a certain age. Likewise, if and when one’s body changes from pregnancy, illness or sudden disabilities, dancing can remain a valid path towards fulfillment whether it is expressed in a class, a performance, in one’s living room or at the beach.

In this new paradigm, the size of a woman’s body is not going to limit her from participating in the world of dance. There will be a reduction in valuing women’s dance abilities based on her body and shape. She can express her truth through movement with whatever size body she may be inhabiting at any given time. The path to freedom is through that very body.
-Lucia August

Women are challenged in dance (as in society at large), by navigating financial and logistical steps to achieving all their career and family goals. When gendered cultural norms place a heavier burden of caregiving and domestic management upon a woman, this can affect her ability to focus on career goals or to be seen by her superiors as competitive or committed at work.

A recent tide of interest in diversity and female representation in arts leadership has inspired large-budget and prestigious dance companies to invest in women choreographers and directors. However, female dancers struggle to be cared for and paid at the same rate as male dancers, and women dance makers fight to have their work recognized at the same pace as men in choreography.
-Lauren Hamilton

As an intersectional feminist and an artist, I seek to provide voice to the struggles of my communities and myself: working class, queer, dancing women of colour. This is a position that I carry in and out of the studio and plays an imperative role in the development of my artistic voice. As someone who lives within the shifting landscapes of diaspora, yet again I see myself as a foreigner: Women’s work has historically been co-opted by men, and those men are more often represented. This is especially true in the field of dance. I believe that we are at an incredible precipice for change right now. There has been a trend of women, though outnumbering men in the field, not surpassing men in the field when it comes to taking on leadership and directorial leads. We have the opportunity for this to shift now. Akram Khan recently wrote that he doesn’t “want to say we should have more female choreographers for the sake of having more female choreographers.” How easy to state when you benefit from the systematic privilege of men in your field and fail to recognize the greater obstacles that women face in their journeys to notoriety. What’s more, emotional processes that dance is meant to address are often consigned to the “feminine,” and never was composer Alex North more wrong when he stated that “[Anna Sokolow’s] ideas about what was going on the problems in society were emotional rather than intellectual.” To which, scholar Mark Franko suggests, “emotion was fundamental to radical culture and foundational to the radical ethos.” Emotional landscape is the basis off of which we create radical dance. And after all, isn’t all dance radical?
-Bhumi Patel

In a girl’s early training, girls are not empowered; and because of the disproportional number of female dancers versus male dancers, many women feel like that they are easily replaceable.
-Milissa Payne Bradley, The Milissa Payne Project

Age…think that is true for woman in general but especially in dance when your body ages out just as your creative prowess begins to peak. basically, a feminist look at dance reveals many of the issues with the added complication of loss of work because of the body aging out.
Deborah Slater, Deborah Slater Dance Theater

Feminism and the aging Baby Boomer wave have helped women (and everyone) broaden their ideas beyond traditional models of dance and dancers. Awareness continues to grow that dance is a practice that can inform a lifetime of art making and serve communities of all kinds, not only dancers.
Greacian Goeke, Impromptu No Tutu Elder Movement Ensemble

I hope that institutions and individuals will reflect on the choices, attitudes and behaviors that promote elitism in dance culture. While we might be able to thank recent TV shows for keeping dance in public consciousness, those shows also promote the idea that dance is inherently competitive. Dance artists need to consider ableism, access and privilege in the myriad ways that we connect, train, teach, create and produce. With fewer spaces and resources available to share, we need thoughtful collaborations and innovative solutions to the challenges we face in this place at this time. For women, especially, this is not a time to put each other down. This is a time to lift each other up, connect and evolve!
-Natalie Greene, Mugwumpin & USF Dance Generators

What do you hope will change in the dance world?

I rue the condescension I have sometimes felt directed towards teaching as ‘selling out’, as somehow ‘less than’ pursuing the path of ‘pure’ art. I often feel at my most joyful when engaged in the art of teaching.
-Chelsea Eng

I hope that the conversations about equity and diversity will begin to ACTIVELY include and embrace disability and the huge community of people with disabilities. I hope that access will be more enforced in the dance world. We wouldn’t operate in places that LGBTQ or people of color or people of different religious beliefs can’t come but there are still inaccessible venues–more than 25 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Judith Smith, AXIS Dance Company

I would like to see less heteronormativity, less gendered casting and character development, and more complex, humanizing roles for women in dance artistic content…I hope the dance world, and the rest of the world, will move away from seeing female bodies as passive objects and instead embrace their power, radiance, and rich potential for uncovering truths about the human experience.
-Lauren Hamilton

As a female choreographer I experience disproportionate opportunities daily. The creative world seems to still, be largely, male dominated. In ballet, women have been discouraged from being the creators of works so many young female dancers seem to think that if they can’t make it as a professional dancer that they have no future in the dance world…Opportunities in dance can ripple out in waves like a stone thrown in still waters. Opportunity is available it just has to be given fairly and consistently.
-Milissa Payne Bradley, The Milissa Payne Project

That women will continue to call out patriarchal abuses and biases. That women will work with other women as allies in creating and supporting opportunities for each other. That men who are similarly en garde against sexist policies are welcomed to work with us. That we read our dances as objectively as possible for the gender politics embedded in them and own what we are putting forth. That we continue to hold as unacceptable institutionalized sexism (what is it .78 to the dollar women are making now?) and advocate and vote only for elected officials who are committed to disciplined gender equity.
Christy Funsch, Funsch Dance

Hidden gender bias – which is a function of the world in general, but oddly prevalent in the dance world in terms of who runs successful dance companies. (nationally, internationally) particularly odd when you consider the matriarchs of contemporary dance. i think SF is a bit unusual in that in the modern dance world, the ‘tough broads’ are hanging in…
-Deborah Slater, Deborah Slater Dance Theater

More recognition (financial and otherwise) for the powerful messages of dances created by and for elder women.
Greacian Goeke, Impromptu No Tutu Elder Movement Ensemble

Are there additional questions or ideas you would like to add?

I would also like to see the dance world become more trans-inclusive.
Lauren Hamilton

Who are your role models for financially and artistically successful women making dances?
Zahava Griss, Embody More Love

The question of “where are the women ballet choreographers” can create frustration. We’re here, we’re creating, but we are not getting the opportunities on the country’s main stages or with the big budget companies. Our work is not supported to the same financial degree, which means the work is often denied the strength of a strong collaborative creative team. For example, I’ve been in situations where the company is commissioning an evening of women choreographers, but presents the work at their studio theater with a condensed creation time and no access to costume or lighting designers. While the creative work might be excellent, what could it have been with solid resources supporting the process?
Amy Seiwert, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery