Art forms are always political in what they choose to explore and what they don’t. Even the lack of making an active choice – is still a choice. Bodies especially, carry this weight of political choice because it is difficult, I would argue impossible, to separate the actions and emotions of a performance from the physical body in performance. In this way, the bodies you use are indeed political statements, the movement itself is a political statement, and the genders of the bodies you use are also political.
One of my biggest disappointments with the format of SYTYCD is the idea of Male/Female partnerships. While I understand that many styles are often best served with Male/Female partnerships in smaller groups and that the format of duet story-lines tends to revolve around relationships, there are several disconcerting connotations with this kind of coupling.
First, it’s very heterosexually oriented – excluding other kinds of relationships and sexualities. Secondly, it’s very gender normative – in that the roles of traditional “men” and “women” are reinforced through story, movement and the comments of judges. Finally, it’s limiting – not only in scope, but it limits the voters’ choices, it limits the choreographers, and it limits the audiences’ comprehension of dance as an art form.
It isn’t that choreographers can’t work with same sex couples…its proven every year in the final 4. They can and do make amazing work. Further, the introductory work for the top 20 this season was a cornucopia of great dances with same sex, opposing sex and groups without a perfect balance of men to women.
So what is it with the rigid gender roles of the dancers? And why do only the men lift the girls? I’ve yet to see any same sex lifts in the group numbers or any women lifting men. While there has been some supportive work from the ladies (being a back to push off of or a frame to support weight), the active role of lifting has been entirely relegated to the men.
Further, what about the gendered talk with regards to the women and men in the competition this season? It’s started to become a major theme in several of the choreographers’ work since the season began. Domination of men by women, poisoning men with goblets, revenge on men by scorned lovers or memories, punishment. I’d venture to state that Hip-Hop and Ballroom styles are the only exemptions from this theme thus far. It is a disservice to the talented men in the show, to the relationship between the sexes, as well as the overall dynamic of the show.
I also find the judges use of the terms “strong dancer” and “strong woman” curious. It seems that a “strong dancer” refers to the power of the movement and the strength of performance while a “strong woman” refers to sexuality and dominance over the male partner. I’m a feminist and while I think women can be strong and powerful – that strength is not derived solely from sexuality and that power should never be derived from the active submission of another.
Then there is the talk of “real men dancing” that went on during the audition rounds. As if there is a singular correct way to dance “like a man”. I can understand a certain aesthetic that they may prefer, but that can be quantified with stylistic or qualitative vocabulary not referencing gender. Or the previous negative remarks with regards to the homosexual ballroom couple. Even Mary was very dismissive of the style, but at least she gave them critique they could use with regards to clarity.
The dialogue has been focused on “men who dance like men” clearly glossing over the vast array of other ways a man can dance “like a man” in a performative context. In this day and age, with understanding growing about gender identity and various sexualities, is it really necessary to make such an active choice as to keep the couples heterosexually oriented and traditionally gendered?
My point is that not every dance needs to shout your gender, sexuality, or appropriated gender roles. Sometimes dance is about the concept more than the individual dancers. Sometimes the dance is strictly about shapes and lines, repetition and pleasing movement. Sometimes dance pushes our understanding of what gender means, or even what a body means. But it is hard to explore this within such a narrow construct as Male/Female duets.
The use of Male/Female partnering limits not only the dancers’ abilities, but the choreographic process as well as the education of the audience. Duets are almost always going to be seen as a relationship. It’s hard to avoid the natural tendency to put a man and a woman in a relationship, usually romantic. By breaking up this traditional partnership you challenge the choreographers to create outside that narrow window and encourage the audience to accept something different. The dancers too will have to stretch their performance abilities as well as their own physicality through the different choreographic demands.
While there is a greater amount of group works this season, I’m hoping we will see more diversity in the pairing, more awareness of difference and how challenging long standing ideas can create the opportunity for more…from everyone.
Contributor Kimberly Peterson is a transplant to Minneapolis from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. She has received her Bachelors and Masters of Arts degrees from Texas Woman’s University’s prestigious dance program.
Her graduate research entitled: B-Sides: Independent Record Labels and the Representation of Dancers explored the parallels between the independent music industry and current methods of dancer representation. This research has produced a vision of a for-profit system of representation for the arts based largely on the institutional structures of independent record labels, for profit businesses, and the unique atmosphere of her time at Texas Woman’s University. This research is still developing and Kimberly continues to develop her research for future presentation and publication.
She has taught as a substitute teacher for Denton Dance Conservatory, a pilot after-school program with the Greater Denton Arts Council, a master class series with Dance Fusion and a number of personally choreographed works. She has also served from 2000-2004 as the assistant to the coordinator of KidsDance: Rhythms for Life – a lecture demonstration on the principles of dance to area second graders that is now in its 11th season.
Drawing on her experience with producing dance works, Kimberly has served as a lighting designer, stage manager, event coordinator, volunteer and as an advisor in various roles: most recently RedEye Theatre, The Soap Factory, Minnesota Fringe Festival and MNPR’s Rock the Garden in collaboration with the Walker Arts Center.
She was also a featured choreographer, representing her university at the American College Dance Festival Association’s South Central Region’s informal concert series in 2002. Her work has been commissioned by Tarrant County College in 2006 and has been set upon Zenon Dance Studio’s scholarship dancers as a featured choreographer in 2010.