Dance is a cultural form with many variants, but what almost all of them have in common is specific genders roles for dancers – the man leads and woman follows, the man lifts, woman is lifted.
The traditional gender roles of society have been translated and cemented in many forms of dance. And despite the growing recognition that gender is constructed not given – and the consequent movements to break down the difference between expected behaviours for males and females in wider society – dance has been slow to follow suit. Most dance performed in pairs portrays a powerful male and a delicate female, and dancers are expected to perform the role of their gender, regardless of how they identify. Ballet exam boards have always enforced strict rules on gender – trans students, unless they appear to have been assigned their defined gender at birth, are submitted as disabled to perform the role they feel fits their gender identity.
But things are beginning to change. The shift that began with Matthew Bourne casting men as swans in Swan Lake has begun to gain momentum.
The recent pairing of Scott Mill – an openly gay radio DJ – with a female dancer in Strictly Come Dancing, stirred up a debate about whether the show’s insistence on heterosexual couples was behind the times. And a Kickstarter campaign has seen Irreverent Dance – the first gender neutral dance space in Europe – open its first permanent base in London. It runs classes that do away with differentiated gender roles – there is no assumption that men will lead in partner classes, and in ballet classes anyone who is capable and experiences enough to do so is encouraged to dance en pointe, not just women.
What’s apparent, however, is the reluctance of many cultural institutions regulating these practices to change at the pace of those performing. Earlier this year the British Dance Council bid to ban same-sex couples from the ballroom by defining a couple as ‘one man and one lady’.
This is a conflict we see over and over again – a sea change forming from the bottom up, with everyday behaviours and actions by consumers eventually building up to a more visible shift. Whether the world of dance will catch up any time soon will remain to be seen.