Why Am I Wearing Booty Shorts? Orthodoxy, Gender, and Agency in Contemporary Dance Culture
“Men act and women appear.”
No other sentence I’ve ever encountered has had as much impact on my worldview as this succinct and chilling statement first posited by art historian and critic John Berger in 1973 in his seminal work Ways of Seeing. This simple phrase has been both an illuminating and frustrating reference point in the last few years of my lifelong journey with dance. At times I wish I could return to ignorant bliss; it seems cruel that my passion for everything dance related (doing, watching, making) could become so complicated and conflicted as a result of five little words.
But the more I watch, the more I do, the more I involve myself in the study and execution of body/movement based forms the more clearly I see the mechanics of Berger’s phrase at work, the more I see how deeply entrenched the constructs of this situation are in the ideologies and sentiments displayed on the concert dance stage and in the bodies of the dancers themselves. Although at its origins modern dance in America was a reactive, female endeavor (some might argue a feminist endeavor) regarding the limited opportunities then available for women who desired to move to express themselves (their choices were between the ballerina and the showgirl- both objectified, sexualized manifestations of femaleness, the difference between the two laying only in the level of perceived bawdiness or polite decorum), the path of engaging in and representing active female agency through dance -through the BODY- remains a difficult one.
My argument (neither highly original nor reactionary) is that despite the happy expansion of roles and occupations available to the contemporary American woman brought about by political, social, and economic change, much of the underlying cultural values regarding femininity have not dramatically changed since then. These values are evidenced in the performance of movement as well as in the relational dynamic between spectators and the performers; John Berger’s axiom can be observed at work in all dance contexts- from music videos to the popular ballroom and contemporary dancing competition shows to the concert dance stage. As a result the current limited position, perception, and self-perception of female dancers is so ingrained in contemporary dance culture (and in Western culture at large) as to be unquestioned and unremarkable.
This embodied, physically learned and expressed orthodoxy is troubling to me because it acts beneath the glossy surface to quietly suppress the agency of women. The desire to conform to orthodox practices regarding gender construction is enhanced for both men and women by the powerful influence on their respective egos-highlighted in the field of dance, where training often encourages different comportment, traits, and roles for each gender. Men act and women appear and are rewarded and accoladed for doing so respectively. Who doesn’t want to feel like a success? Who is unaffected by the attitudes and opinions of others? John Berger’s seemingly prosaic words challenge the normative ways we as a culture judge success and worth in relation to gender identity; values and ideas that are foregrounded in an art form that uses and looks at the human body as representation.
As evidenced in pop culture and reinforced by ever-present media, females themselves unwittingly contribute to the inferior positioning of their gender in relation to agency and power. Both in dance and the culture at large it is glaringly obvious that it is important that women present themselves in a way that makes them attractive and desirable whereas men have less responsibility to adorn or impress others with their appearance. It is through men’s actions that they physically engage in the world. Women engage instead with the presentation of their selves through their physical bodies. These attitudes are so inculcated in the ways by which most people navigate their lives that they go unrecognized and undisputed when we see them. In fact the re-presentation of these orthodox beliefs and practices through the bodies and actions of dancers further reinforces their hold over the culture’s dominant worldview. In order for a paradigm shift to happen, the very ways in which we view and represent gender must be deconstructed and confronted on-stage. The ways, values, and terms through which dancers- especially young girls- are educated must be reassessed in light in female subjectivity. We need to open our eyes to the ways in which we’re seeing each other and ourselves.