Not Your Muse, Not Your Pawn, Not Your Babe

(Note: This post often addresses gender as a male-female binary, which is a wholly limited and incorrect scope of gender and I fully acknowledge that there are more than two genders; the gender binary is referenced here to address the ways in which much of the mainstream dance world addresses gender.)

Here’s what I’m tired of: gender roles in general but specifically at this moment, the male-centered narrative that allows men to wear women as their accessories, to see them as vessels to the man’s desired end.  You see this in movies, in how roles in a household are constructed, in the workplace, and, to my eternal disappointment, very blatantly in the dance world.  Many factions of the dance world, and particularly the mainstream dance world, love to care a whole lot about centering men.  And not just centering them, but idolizing them.  They are the creators, the curators, the writers of bodies.  And women are often, at best, resigned to being their muses.

I once caught a glimpse at the notes of a choreographer I was working with about the formations of the piece that was being set on us at the time.  This particular portion of the piece was a duet that the choreographer wanted to be between a man and a woman.  The note about this particular formation read, “John* + extra girl.” “Extra girl” has a name, and you didn’t bother to learn it.  I happen to know “extra girl” quite well, and she is a phenomenal dancer, with incredible talent and work ethic, but you wrote her off as disposable, as nothing more than a pawn to showcase John.  The piece was sculpted around being able to put John in this section, because his maleness was deemed essential and irreplaceable.  I got to watch this section of the piece from the wings when we performed it, and I can guarantee you that “extra girl” was integral to making that movement happen.  She is inimitable.  But all the choreographer saw was the necessary male in a sea of supposedly interchangeable females.

On a separate occasion, I was in ballet class with a room full of (very talented) women and one (also talented) man.  We were doing a jump combination across the floor, and every single woman in the room did a phenomenal, applause-worthy job.  So did the man.  The only one applauded was the man.  Valued for his maleness, praised for his masculine embodiment of movement that was at least as beautifully executed in a perhaps more feminine manner by a room full of women.

I once took a class that was taught by a woman half of the time and a man the other half of the time.  I watched all of the students in the class, but particularly the male students, frequently exhibit a gross lack of respect for the female teacher and a rather standard amount of respect for the male teacher.  Both were incredible (and, two of my personal favorite) teachers, both certainly deserve copious amounts of respect.  Only one got anything resembling an appropriate amount of respect.

A male choreographer told me more than once during my (short) time working with him that I needed to smile because my smile was the most beautiful thing about me.  He also told me I should smile for him.  I wanted to say I’m not your babe.  I wanted to say I don’t need to and don’t want to be beautiful, I am powerful without your conception of my physical appearance.  But I was silent.  I smiled a bit.  And I watched, and very tangibly perceived, everyday sexism eat its way through my confidence as a dancer and a woman.

I could go on and on.  These anecdotes aren’t anything special, nor are they anything surprising.  They stem from a long history of the dance world loving its men.  Starting in the old European courts, ballet has been a way to write social standards onto bodies.  This antiquated ballet form helped create what western dance looks like today, and as such its writing of social standards (and antiquated social standards at that) onto bodies in space is woven into western dance now.  For a very long time, as a result of dance being a way to use bodies and movement to talk about social status, men have been viewed as the writers of bodies and women as the things being written on.  And so men were, and often still are, uplifted as choreographers, and women are (often still) at best labeled as their ephemeral muses; the vessels for their somehow inherently worthwhile creative intention.  It’s almost a poetic representation of misogyny: a man telling a room full of women what to do with their bodies, and it being called beautiful.

There is a long history of male choreographers having female muses – the embodiment of the creative intention of the man, the woman whose body could be molded to fit the male choreographer’s intentions.  While choreographer is often seen as a high point in a man’s dance career, muse is often seen as a high point for women.  They get to be the vessel of creativity for “one of the greats”.  As though that’s the best a woman in dance could reach for – to be a vessel for someone else’s embodied artistry.  It’s a way of crediting a man for what a woman’s body produces, and a way of men using women’s labor to further their own careers.  Furthermore, the concept of the muse has historically privileged the white, thin, cisgender, traditionally attractive female body.  And when muse is the high point, a pawn on stage is a step down.  So many talented, hardworking, powerful women in the dance world are perceived as nothing more than bodies for their (likely male) choreographers to move around the stage.  Often, and particularly in ballet, there is a uniformity to these women (the corps de ballet).  They become interchangeable and disposable pawns for their choreographer, not unlike “extra girl.”

I’m tired of a narrative in a dance world comprised largely of women that so adamantly privileges men.  I’m tired of and angry at a dance world that empowers men to choreograph and create and tells women their bodies are meant to be choreographed on.  I challenge you to think about the household choreographer names you know.  Probably what comes to mind in the way of ballet is something like Petipa and Balanchine.  Probably what comes to mind in the way of modern is something like Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Robert Battle, and Martha Graham.  Female choreographers exist slightly more prominently in modern dance, but anywhere is up from not existing at all, which is the case in ballet.  Now think about the dance performances you have seen.  How many performers on stage have been women? Likely a majority, and almost certainly at least half.  These ratios don’t match up.  The act of dancing is a highly feminized thing, and as such a large percentage of the dance world’s participants are women.  But almost all of the well-known creators are men.  This is not to say that there aren’t female choreographers out there; on the contrary, there are a host of incredible female choreographers who create inimitable work.  But it is so often the men who are more commonly and universally known and acknowledged.  Even within a feminized activity, men are privileged, empowered, and uplifted.

So as a female dancer and choreographer, I’m saying I’m not your muse, I’m not your pawn, and I’m not your babe.  I’m ready to push back on the narrative of male choreographers and their female muses, and I’m ready to create and facilitate work that uplifts female narratives: those of women of color, queer women, trans women, and certainly also nonbinary/gender nonconforming folks’ narratives.  These people are powerful and important and deserve to have their stories told.  There are ranks of inspiring female choreographers who are working to create a more diverse narrative within dance and choreography and to empower people through movement.  I hope that this becomes the more mainstream narrative of the dance world.  I am so much more than a vessel for someone else’s creative intention.  And while executing someone else’s creative vision is valuable and necessary (and probably should be valued much higher than it currently is), it’s important to acknowledge that bodies have value in their own intentionality and don’t require an outside creative vision to produce something worthwhile.

Once (read: many times), someone told me my body was wrong for a particular dance.  I told them my body was exactly what I needed it to be.  And I’m still proud of that.

*Name changed for anonymity

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