On Sunday, So You Think You Can Dance Australia returned to Channel Ten, promising spectacular performances from male and female dancers around the country. And yet, in the non-TV world, it seems the men and women are still dancing to a different tune.
While many cultures see dance as an acceptable activity for men, in the West, musical theatre and expressive dance such as ballet is still associated with women. Dancing, when carried out by boys and young men, often rouses cultural anxiety. Because ballet is seen as a feminine pursuit, men who dance run the risk of being labelled feminine, girly or homosexual.
Despite the cliché that dance is a universal language, it’s interpreted very differently depending on where we live.
Mainstream Australian culture still has a problem with male ballet dancers. One preoccupation is the association of male dancers with homosexuality.
Although there are gay men in the dance world (as there are in all “worlds”), it’s only recently that we’ve started focusing on the sexuality of men who dance. The anxiety surrounding dancing men can be found in Australian dramas and film such as the children’s TV show Dance Academy and the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Both include plots in which the male characters, as dancers, battle against homophobia.
Despite the fact not all men who dance are gay, and sexual desire shouldn’t be a problem in any case, homophobia is still an issue. There are a number of explanations for this fear.
The unease and suspicion that sometimes accompany male dancers can be linked to ideas about gender. How we interpret masculinity and how it’s represented in theatre dance is the result of our society’s view of the body. Because the body is the main vehicle for expressing dance, and because gender is performed on our bodies (outfits, haircuts and make-up), gender is made obvious on a dancing body.
If the male dancer is performing the role of a graceful swan, we may associate his body with soft and feminine qualities. This has consequences for men who decide to dance.
The problem with masculinity
Currently dominant ideas about what a “real” Australian man should be include behaviours such as dominance, assertiveness, control and emotional unresponsiveness. In Australian, male-dominated sports such as rugby league, these are often exaggerated through narratives on aggression, body-punishing violence and confrontation. Rugby league is a popular sport where the men often display physical and verbal aggression.
These same men are also hailed as sporting heroes and young boys are likely to model these behaviours. The media helps deliver the message that aggressive sport, power and status are linked with masculinity.
Masculinity is created out of a collection of ideas that together generate the belief that maleness is a stable identity. Of course, ideas about what a “real man” is change over time. Masculinity therefore changes too.
Masculinity must be learned and there are severe consequences for not upholding it. Boys and young men who don’t act masculine can be accused of being sissies, being feminine, attracted to men and not being “real” men. The worry of being seen as a girl, dictates the definition of manhood. This fear perpetuates a masculinity that’s exclusionary and homophobic.
Femininity on the other hand, is made up of ideas that together appear to create an image of a “real” woman. These include soft, gracious movements and passive, genteel bodily expressions. Images such as floral patterns, tights, instrumental music, soft colours and emotion are also linked to femininity.
When a man performs ballet, his body, as the primary mode of communication, might trigger any or all of these images in our minds.
If we want to know a bit more about our culture, we just have to take a look around. Pictures tell a great deal about who we think we should be. A quick Google search for ballet schools around Brisbane reveal advertisements that are predominantly pink. Dominated by little girls in frilly tutus, it’s clear: ballet is still linked to femininity.
Attitudes toward dance vary depending on how we’ve been raised and where we live. In some smaller towns, there’s still a fear that boys who take up dancing will be teased. Here, ideas about masculinity are usually more rigid.
If we hold on to strong assumptions about traditional manhood, it becomes problematic and conflicting for men to enjoy dance or even look at other men dancing. Within Australian heterosexual nightclubs, acceptable ways for men to dance are limited. Dancing often occurs under the influence of alcohol, with a firm gaze, as the uncoordinated “foot-to-foot shuffle” is performed. Here dancing is a serious matter.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Attitudes are slowly changing.
In larger and more diverse cities, many young male dancers are thriving. Because access to dance lessons is becoming more flexible, more men are finding their hearts (and feet) in dance classes. For those who persevere against the negative attitudes, they’ll often experience great personal or public success. There are a lot of positive outcomes for boys dancing. It’s not just a form of self-expression and creative outlet but it offers great physical challenges too.
By encouraging boys and young men to dance, we’re teaching them more unrestricted forms of expression rather than the straightjacket of masculinity.
Homophobia is a fear that men have of other men exposing their vulnerability. The fear of being told that you aren’t a “real” man, of being humiliated by another man, leads to some men trying to outperform each-other with behaviours said to be masculine. Dancing isn’t unmanly. Among many things, it’s an expression of strength against fear.
As parents, educators and media producers, we need to speak out about the damaging effects of masculinity instead of dancing around the problem. We must help change the negative attitudes toward young men dancing.