Centerwork: Does Gender Matter in Class?
Jennifer Chin recalls this scene from her early days as a dancer: In a class of 40 students, only five would be male. And all five would receive corrections from the instructor, compared to just two or three females.
The disparity didn’t go unnoticed. “I’d be annoyed,” says Chin, who’s now on the faculty at Montclair State University and the José Limón Institute. “Part of me was like, ‘Hey, what about the women?’ Not to put the men down at all, but it felt imbalanced.”
Unfortunately, this is still a common scenario in dance studios across the country. Distributing attention equally in light of the age-old gender gap is an issue that educators continue to face. Chin makes a conscious effort to encourage her male students while not discriminating against the women. “I’m really aware of that as a teacher—trying to give feedback to everyone in class,” she says. “I’m not always successful, but I strive for that.”
To some degree a bias toward boys is inevitable—perhaps even defensible. A few male dancers naturally stand out in a sea of female students. And educators are eager to nurture men since they’re so underrepresented in the art form. “It is amazing, the tenacity of the gender imbalance in dance,” says Wendy Rogers, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has taught throughout her 40-year career. “They are a scarcer presence, so it automatically triggers that.” As Kaitlin Paul, who graduated from Montclair last May, puts it: “It’s the sheer fact of the lack of men in the dance world that when they are in class, teachers want to keep them around.”
But as a result, talented women may be overlooked or have to work twice as hard for the same recognition as the guys. And in some cases, gender overshadows a particular student’s potential or drive. Growing up, Paul had the experience of being in class with boys who lacked commitment but still dominated the teacher’s time. “It’s frustrating for the female dancers who are putting their heart and soul into every technique class, and attention is being placed on someone who doesn’t want to be there,” she says.
Of course, some boys need that extra push to overcome the social hurdles that stand in their way of pursuing dance. “It’s still an unusual profession for a young man,” says Charles Flachs, who directs the Massachusetts Academy of Ballet with his wife, Rose. “If I have any sort of bias toward guys, I may talk to them more about how difficult it is.”
Rogers appreciates “the gauntlet that men dancers have gone through” but notes that women have their own cultural challenges. Girls aren’t always socialized to fight for the spotlight, or to speak up when they feel they’re being treated unfairly. “What we aspire to is freedom from gender roles, but it might not happen in a given class,” says Rogers.
Flachs admits women can sometimes get lost, especially in a large school. But he is also quick to point out that male attention doesn’t necessarily equal positive feedback or praise: “With young gentlemen, I may be harder on them because I know what they’re going to face. There’s a real plethora of excellent male dancers now—that is different than when I was dancing 35 years ago. I can’t overemphasize the skill and preparation you need to compete on the professional level. So it’s not, ‘Let’s give this guy a break.’ ”
Men do often get a tuition break, however, creating another source of resentment for female students. As in many schools, Flachs makes financial accommodations for male dancers so that he’ll have enough partners for the ladies. But even with scholarships, the shortage persists—and that can have downsides for the men as well as the women. Daniel Grzelak, a former student of Flachs’ who now studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, wishes he had more peers to motivate him. “It would be better for my training if I had competition,” he says.
The lack of male dancers also leads to uneven performance opportunities. “That’s where you really see the discrepancy in university settings,” says Chin. “Men get more roles and better roles.” It doesn’t help that many classic works that colleges set, like Paul Taylor’s Company B, require multiple male artists. Montclair’s dance department sometimes has to poach musical theater majors to fill the parts. Chin thinks schools with programs that are 75 percent women should choose repertory that features them, or have separate male and female casts for the same piece—like Montclair has done in the past.
Be it in the studio or onstage, Flachs finds that talent matters far more than the gender of a student. Instructors inevitably gravitate toward the most gifted dancers, he says. His pupil Abby Lieberman agrees: “Dance is a meritocracy. It’s based on what you do, and gender sort of becomes irrelevant.” Teachers also tend to focus on the students who are fully engaged in class and who understand that corrections are aimed at everyone. As Rogers says, “You respond to the ones who take the ball and run with it.”
Chin echoes that sentiment. “Boys or girls, the students who put themselves out there get more attention. I try to cultivate any young person who has the desire and ability to work in the field,” she says. But from time to time, when teaching a class, she thinks back to her own childhood experiences and pauses to ask herself: “Am I doting so much on this student because he’s a boy, or because he has an amazing attitude and energy?” That may not make her perfectly impartial, but she believes it’s a step in the right direction. “The best thing we can do as teachers is just be aware of it.”
A former dancer, Elaine Stuart has written about the art form for The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.
Charles Flachs works with student Liam Saito at his studio in Massachusetts. Photo by Carrie Homstead, Courtesy Flachs.