32. I Am A WOMAN In Dance

Happy International Women’s Day! In America, we make up more than half of the population! Across the world, we are present, living, breathing, fighting, thinking, creating, loving, thriving. But we also face violence and extreme injustice in all fields and careers from the minds and bodies of men. Women (and people who identify as female) aren’t silent beings, innocent creatures, lustful beasts, or dutiful mothers; we are whatever we want to be as a person, and we demand the same rights, opportunities, and respect as the other half of the population.  

I want to officially announce that I’ve been accepted to present at the SDHS conference in May at NYU and the Center for Ballet and the Arts! My topic links 20th and 21st century writers and contemporary ballet choreographers, helping expose the issues, and hopefully solutions, for women in both fields. For this personal post/essay I’ll be dipping into my SDHS topic, but with a more personal tone. I am, after all, unapologetically a woman in dance.

woman as person 

During my junior year of high school I decided that I didn’t want to be a professional ballet dancer. Physically, I came in too late and wasn’t set up to follow classical ballet (bad feet, weak back, broken pinkie, wide hips, the list goes on and on and on). Mentally, I would have starved and broken myself to fit a mold I didn’t believe in (give me muscular, fit bodies over pre-pubescent trick dancers). I didn’t take classes in modern or contemporary yet, but already I didn’t have the interest in performance. Being on stage was a bore. Classes and rehearsals excited me but not enough to follow through to the “end.”

So I searched for something I could do in the dance world outside of teaching technique classes or performing. As a reader and writer at a young age, before I even started dancing, I knew I wanted to be part of a community of girls/women. That collective of sisters created from true art and devoted to creativity always fascinated me. I’m the only girl out of 3 boys and many male cousins. I needed sisters in arms.

(As a side note I grew up in the Space City of Clear Lake, in an era where astronauts of diverse range were in full force. Kalpana Chawla was my heroine and her death in 2003 high above us in the atmosphere deeply effected me. I later tattooed her beautiful, strong Sanskrit name on my left forearm as an unconscious homage to her memory.)

I just am fascinated by other female artists, probably because I feel a kinship with them, no matter who they are and what they do. -Shirley Manson

I choose dance photography (read my first post/essay to understand why I didn’t choose writing until later in life). I took photojournalism classes in high school and learned how to process and develop my own film. Later at San Jac I took up digital dance photography (film is extremely expensive; I would later learn that digital is even more so).

I felt like I could follow through with this as a career. I was good at it; I have an unique dancer’s eye and an artist’s touch when photographing dancers in motion, not posed or staged. I wasn’t in it for the money and knew it would take a while to pay off a new camera and lens.

But before I could declare that as my major, potentially moving to a prestigious photography school in California, my father put me down. Not only was it too expensive (yes, that’s always the first thing that I’ve been trained to realize), he said it was also “not worth it” as a career for me, his only daughter.

But for women, I thought, looking at the empty shelves, these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. -Virginia Woolf

My individual achievements and ideas for my future have constantly been belittled by my father, who wants what is “the best” for me aka marriage, children, financial stability, etc. (He’s also a stanch anti-feminist.) This paternal mentality of “father knows best” carries over into many things in life, as politicians think that they know which right can be given or taken away, etc. In the dance world many ADs will act paternally by picking and choosing the season, which choreographers are right for the audience rather than which ones are vital for the art form.

Later in life, a handful of male photographers put me down when I commented on the barriers which female photographers face when compared to male photographers in the same area with the same talent. Not only is the world of photography (and just about anything in the arts) competitive and demanding, it’s also restrictive in terms of training, attention, and opportunity for women and minorities. Talent and skill aren’t really at the top; well-established (white) males equipped with financial means and enough time will always be considered for a job before women.

This has always been a man’s world, and none of the reasons that have been offered in explanation have seemed adequate. -Simone de Beauvoir

Now, I know what you’re thinking: There aren’t any restrictions against women in photography because some of the top dance photographers have been women!  Watch! Martha Swope, Lois Greenfield, Angela Sterling, Rosalie O’Connor. Well, bra-fucking-vo. These are in fact the names of four prestigious photographers who are women in the dance world. And they are wonderful, talented, remarkable women individually as artists!

But–and I want to make this very clear–naming names isn’t a solution to the problem. Being aware, acknowledging, and understanding problems, along with the minor use of naming names of the past and present, is the only way to help the future.

I switched my intentions towards writing shortly afterwards. And I became what I am now, a writer and woman in dance. But I didn’t escape anything; there are just as many problems for writers and choreographers in dance who are women.

woman as artist

In all of my research a resounding lack of tradition for choreographers who are women in ballet is evident. But it’s also hidden. The general public I’ve spoken to when I mention this topic always say something like, “Oh, I never really thought about that.” “Oh, yeah I guess that’s true.” “Oh, I just assumed they were all men.”

Why do general audience members and people of the public lack this very basic education? Well, cause it’s such a longstanding assumption that very few leaders in ballet have acknowledged enough. This is seen again in many art forms: a writer, director, photographer, editor, manager, cinematographer is almost always presumed male in discussions.

And then we get the issue of having to place a gender distinction in front of every single choreographer who’s a woman…

Men put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters -Georgia O’Keeffe

“Women@Art.” That was the title of HB’s twice performed triple mixed rep bill featuring choreographers who are female. The second “Women@Art” bill was 4 years ago; our 2016-2017 season is all male. The past seasons dating back to the 1990s have included choreographers who are female, but not nearly enough as possible or necessary.

Across the country, major ballet companies aren’t doing enough to feature women but instead doing just the bare minimum, because certain audience members or board members or whatever don’t want to be labeled as “feminist” or defer from what they usually see on stage year after year: one male choreographer’s production after Petipa, heavily followed by Mr. B, then peppered with Kylian, Robbins, Tudor, MacMillian, Ek, Neumeir, Wheeldon, recently Peck.

Yes, I know there are some major companies across the world which are exceptions (namely ENB and Scottish Ballet recently), but that’s not enough for the time we live in. We should be living in a ballet world of inclusion, not excuses that come in the form of expectations. And please be aware that the issue isn’t that there are NO women for these ballet roles; asking “where are the women” is stupid.

And yes, I know that classical modern dance was founded by many strong and smart women across the world, whom I admire each and everyday. Various dance forms also have a strong female presence from the creation process to performance to management and training. In higher education, women have also dominated dance programs/divisions with a unique level of diligence and determination and compassion.

The state of female artists is very good. But the very definition of art has been biased in that ‘art’ was what men did in a European tradition and ‘crafts’ were what women and natives did. But it’s actually all the same. -Gloria Steinem

So this is where I am, living and researching a part of my heritage as a human being. Personally, I see myself as a woman before my racial, sexual, economical, social labels. With all of my “otherness” it’s a life I love living, cause I don’t ever want to be simple or plain–though, in reality, no human born today can be entirely simple or plain (except for maybe Ted Cruz).

Along with one of my personal heroines and favorite personalities in ballet, Agnes de Mille’s autobiography Dance to the Piper, I’m reading Wendy Perron’s inspirational Through the Eyes of a Dancer right now. And I’m surprised to learn that she’s been in serious relationships with women! Another connection to proudly link us together! It isn’t common knowledge though, not like her gender.

On top of being an artist, being a proud ANYTHING “other” in this world requires guts and determination. Women make up more than half of the population in America, yet women are constantly unequal in so many ways.

I’m eager to work my way through my SDHS presentation and paper, finding solutions, not just naming names of the past and present, so that the future for all choreographers in ballet isn’t littered with the same reoccurring injustices.

The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing? Here [psychologists] might come to our help, I thought, looking again at the blank spaces on the shelves.-Virginia Woolf





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