Are studios shifting to become gender neutral?
Author’s note: for the purpose of this article I refer to boys, girls, males & females based on the traditional socially normative understanding i.e, their sex as defined at birth, appreciating this article is exploring the shifting categories open to interpretation.
A recent surprising conversation with the head of a major syllabus offering classical ballet instruction in Australia was eye-opening when they explained that they were in the process of shifting to have genderless distinctions for syllabus streams.
That is, no longer would the syllabus, or the studios they work with, identify classes or syllabus categories as either a girls and boys syllabus, funnelling children into them based along traditional gender categories, but instead, children would be allowed and/or encouraged to self-identify the syllabus stream they personally align with.
And so, for example: boys might choose a stream that places more focus on the development of traditionally female focused training e.g., adage and pointe work, while girls would be free to choose a stream more focused on a greater range of allegro work and partnering.
It’s probably a sign of my ignorance and/or age that this never occurred to me as a looming issue, yet as defence, I now tend to teach mostly within the contemporary and drama genres where gender segregation, or specialisation rarely if ever comes up, at least in open classwork contexts.
As I came to understand it from the conversation, the movement is being driven by the university that functions as the ultimate backer of the syllabus, providing their formal accreditation credentials. That is, the university has insisted that normative gender pronouns be removed and so now the Syllabus is working to find pathways forward that will continue to retain the technical and/or repertoire distinctions within the syllabus structure for those wanting to pursue specialisation, while finding the best ways to describe the classes and ask the question, so children or their parents, can make the decision of which stream they’d like to pursue.
For the typical classical ballet syllabus that tend to skew conservative in nature, due in part to their role being as the protector of the traditions and keeper of the history, I found myself feeling some sympathy for their position, as this will no doubt be a challenging, yet hopefully also exciting, new path.
“It is really important, in a world that is often very “either/or”, to remember there can be both, neither and everything – that is, other than the ‘binary’ of male or female.”
Sally Goldner, 2015
And as I thought about their situation, I began to see the many potential benefits beyond the obvious important point of the change, which is to develop more accepting spaces for all those wanting to participate in classical ballet, and to promote dance as an integral part of an important shift in human consciousness that breaks down stigma’s based on simplistic polarisations of race, sex and gender.
Based on my years of working under the Artistic Directorship of Graeme Murphy at Sydney Dance Company, a creative force who loved to bend and play with traditional gender roles, often using the classical vocabulary as his base, I could instantly appreciate the potential benefits to dance creatives.
How incredible it might be as a choreographer to be working in a traditional classical company yet be able to draw on the skill sets of many male dancers with well-developed pointe technique crafted by consistent training from their early teenage years. Or to work with females with developed physiques and skill sets suitable for the intense, sustained and sensitive lifting required in Pas de Deux work and/or the kind of athletic allegro typically associated with male solos.
Or perhaps, many such dancers would choose to become the founders of completely new companies, telling new and different stories that would resonate and develop whole new audience bases for dance; growing the pie.
“Gender diversity is part of our reality. The sooner we can hold space for the complexity of this, the closer we will come to a future that celebrates all genders and sexualities, and cares for and protects all bodies.”
Shannon May Powell, 2021
While this is nothing new for contemporary dancers, and indeed many will look on it and scream, “About time!” – and I acknowledge it’s already been explored to a limited degree within the repertoire of classical ballet companies – this could herald a major shake-up for the classical ballet studio class models, develop a new generation of dancers and choreography within classical ballet and alter the tone of the suburban ballet studio to make it significantly less traditionally female focused, which might have the added effect of attracting more boys that self-define based on the hetero-normative model.
And so, while there’s sure to be some initial disruption and possibly some push back by certain segments of our diverse dance community, it’s a pathway well worth exploring and I hope many other syllabus, that might not have the same motivation to shift based on the prompting of a backing university, will consider having interesting conversations in this direction.
“Though it is increasingly common to see same-sex partnerships in new ballets, it is rare for these couplings to be explicitly romantic, and even rarer for them to be part of a canonical story ballet rather than an abstract one.”
Benjamin Millipied, Director LA Dance project Article link
Article by Josef Brown