When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinities across Borders

March 4, 2010

Juxtaposing scholarly essays with personal histories, When Men Dance probes the impediments (and, occasionally, the advantages) faced by male artists in a discipline plagued by "choreophobia, homophobia, and effeminophobia".

That terrible triumvirate respectively encompasses negative attitudes towards dance, prejudice against homosexuality, and the "general fear of effeminacy" that continue to impact on the reception of Western concert dance (namely, ballet and contemporary dance, although the volume also pays some attention to dance forms originating in the Middle East and Asia).

The sectional arrangement - "Issues in the Pink and Blue West", "Historical Perspectives" and "Legacies of Colonialism" - somewhat awkwardly curtails the concept of "historical" (a piece on German expressionist dance is, but references to Nijinsky are apparently not), and the final section could be usefully augmented with commentary on African and Caribbean experience. Yet When Men Dance can hardly be censored for lacking amplitude or insight: its 29 texts offer quite a bustling concourse of voices and perspectives.

Jennifer Fisher initiates the discourse by unpacking the strategic machismo adopted by ballet in order to be acceptable to men ("Maverick Men in Ballet"). Ballet, she argues, has promoted itself as resolutely brawny (and thus seemingly hetero), notwithstanding the "gay elephant in the room". From Ted Shawn's paeans to sinewy toil (The Dance of the Threshing Floor, Mule Team Driver's Dance) to Edward Villella competing with football players on an episode of the 1970s TV series The Odd Couple, ballet spin (so to speak) has steadfastly implied that sissies need not apply. Maura Keefe complements Fisher's argument by casting sports-themed works by Shawn, Gene Kelly and Twyla Tharp as would-be stays against anxieties about effeminacy and dance ("Is Dance a Man's Sport Too?").

Lest one suspect (in thinking, say, of work by Michael Clarke, DV8 or Matthew Bourne, to name but a few) that the scholars doth protest too much about dance's wilfully he-man bent, Jill Nunes Jensen's analysis of Alonzo King's aesthetic illuminates his empowering re-envisioning of traditional gender tropes ("Transcending Gender in Ballet's LINES"), while Ramsay Burt expands upon his seminal book, The Male Dancer, by highlighting Joe Goode's 29 Effeminate Gestures and Dominique Mercy's solo from Pina Bausch's Der Fensterputzer as disrupting normative gender ideologies ("The Performance of Unmarked Masculinity").

Several strong essays foreground the intersections of masculinity, race and political power. Stephen Johnson, for instance, explores the fascinating career of Juba, an African-American minstrel show performer who toured extensively in England in the mid-19th century, dancing amid young white males in blackface ("Gender Trumps Race?"). Juba's unique presence (especially as the cross-dressed "wench dancer" moving to the misogynist lyrics of Lucy Long) encapsulates Johnson's depiction of the genre as simultaneously "racist bile", a "purveyor of skills" (among them clog, tap and American folk songs) and politically volatile satire. Similarly absorbing is Anthony Shay's exposure of the choreophobic subtext of the "hypermasculine" dance styles emerging amid postcolonial precepts in Egypt, Iran and Uzbekistan ("Choreographing Masculinity"), and Stavros Stavrou Karayanni on "the imperial gaze" intruding upon indigenous traditions of Middle Eastern male dance ("Native Motion and Imperial Emotion").

The personal histories intriguingly elide the particularities of sexual preference and self-identity within dance, albeit from a plurality of sight lines. Michel Gervais recounts growing up in northern Ontario, Canada where studying dance and being gay were interchangeably taboo. In contrast, his partner, David Allan, was never "tortured" by questions of masculinity, and comments that he prefers to cultivate friendships with both gay and straight dancers rather than positioning himself within "gay culture".

Dancer, dance film-maker and former US Marine Corps member Aaron Cota advises straight men to have lots of gay friends because "they know a lot about women, they know how to party, and they always have really hot female friends". For hip-hop-influenced choreographer Rennie Harris, dancing was so embedded within his community that, growing up, he didn't think of himself as a "dancer". Whereas Harris cites house hip hop as a form that "allows you to be feminine and masculine at the same time", folk dancer Namus Zokhrabov recalls dance in Azerbaijan as "no different for boys than for girls. It was shameful for both."

Fred Strickler eloquently affirms that he is not "a representative of gayness; rather, I am an instance of gayness", and his concise exegesis of the intricacies of gender and tap rivals the critical acumen of any of the essays.

With a format that refreshingly accommodates plenty of interest for dance academics and the non-specialist alike, When Men Dance is a multifaceted, largely thought-provoking survey of "masculinities" and dance.

When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinities across Borders

Edited by Jennifer Fisher and Anthony Shay. Oxford University Press. 432pp, £65.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9780195386691 and 6707. Published 19 November 2009

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