Is It Sexist To Be Sexy?

June 22, 2008

Dance is, by its very nature, a sensual art form, one in which the body becomes an instrument for channeling emotions and ideas. Indeed, it is precisely this physicality that gives dance the transcendent power to seduce, beguile, and fascinate an audience. Whether one finds innocence in the tilt of a chin or the swan-like flick of a wrist, or blatant allure in a shoulder-shimmying salsa, a leg-entwined tango or a hip-grinding Bob Fosse move, dance is decidedly the body talking.


But in today’s politically correct world, what happens when the body not only talks, but seemingly shouts? In other words, when the female figure has, throughout history, been sexualized, fetishized, worshipped, and, in some cases, derided, is it cool to be sexy onstage these days—or is it sexist?


When the renowned post-feminist critic Camille Paglia calls the striptease a “sacred dance of pagan origins,” you know that women—or at least the thinking about them—have come a long way.


In our quest to shed light on what it means to perform with a consciousness of your sexuality, Dance Magazine spoke to five dancers from different genres, each of whom has been provocative onstage as part of her repertoire.


Giving new meaning to the word sexy, perhaps, is Linda Celeste Sims. A member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 12 years, she was the poster girl for Ailey’s 2007-2008 season. Captured in an impossibly high jump, her muscled legs in full-throttle second position, Sims, hair flying and face in yearning mode, is pictured with arms crossed as though caressing her upper body.


But it’s all in a day’s work for Sims, whom The New York Times recently hailed as “a dancer of spellbinding authority and flexibility . . . astounding in her versatility.” In truth, the notion of embodying sexiness doesn’t enter her mind.


“I never really think about it. I hope that every woman has a sense of confidence and femininity,” says Sims. Not that you try to use it to get roles. But if you happen to be sexy—and I don’t try to be—then so be it.”


While she considers Billy Wilson’s The Winter in Lisbon particularly sensual, as well as Ulysses Dove’s Episodes, if the role requires her to be sexy, she says she can pull it off. “Just like if it requires me to be a drunk—it’s the acting part of dance, and I don’t feel it undermines my artistry. I’m very confident with what I do. I’m never going to make myself look low in my art.”


Her aim, she continues, transcends any viewer’s age. “I’m trying to reach your heart and show the artistry of dance as opposed to playing myself. I think everybody can relate to that, no matter what age group you’re in. Onstage I’m someone else, I’m not really me, Linda, the normal girl from down the street.”


San Francisco Ballet principal Lorena Feijóo may also be the “normal girl down the street”—if that street happens to be in Cuba. Having danced leads in The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and Don Quixote, Feijóo believes her Cuban roots have given her DNA a shot of sex appeal.


“It’s one of my strengths,” says Feijóo, 37. “Cuban people love music, we love dancing. There’s always a lot of hip movement, and since Cuba is a warm country, people tend to exude a little more sensuality. If you’re a true artist,” she adds, “you understand the roles where that’s not called for, such as Giselle. Kitri, on the other hand, should be hot-blooded. You should be able to transform from one role to another. I love that stretch.”


Feijóo also says that sexiness, instead of undermining a role, is an asset, one not limited to age or gender. Above all, though, Feijóo maintains confidence is key. “A pas de deux that is lyrical can be very sensual and very sexy if it’s done with self-confidence—how secure you are in yourself—how you enjoy the moment.”


In the commercial world, where sex is used to sell everything from cars and cigarettes to deodorants and drinks, dancers are strutting their sensual stuff in music videos, pop concerts, Broadway musicals and reality TV. Lacey Schwimmer, 20, one of the final four in season three of the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance, excels in Latin dance, swing, and ballroom; she’s got moves that most of us can only dream about.


Schwimmer, 20, says learning different routines every week was grueling. Instead of “trying to be sexy,” she concentrated on mastering the choreography, which, she adds, was sexy in itself. (For many fans of the show, her samba with runner-up Danny Tidwell ranks as one of the steamiest numbers on prime time TV.)


Does sexiness come naturally to Schwimmer? “I feel like I am a little pop-rocker girl, somebody who plays Guitar Hero and sings in the shower. But,” she adds, “it depends on the piece. I feel there are different ways to be artistic, sexy, funny and unique, but sexy dances should come from the inner feeling of the dance.”


Los Angeles–based Tara Avise, 28, straddles the commercial and concert dance worlds. Having recently performed in music videos for Lenny Kravitz and the B-52s, Avise has also been with the contemporary troupe Hysterica Dance for the last seven years. On the cutting edge of L.A. choreography, Hysterica is known for fusing modern dance with elements of pop culture.


Like Feijóo and Sims, Avise believes sexiness comes with confidence. “You can tell when someone’s comfortable in their own skin,” explains Avise, “and that’s what is sexy. Any good dancer is one that’s being herself.


“There was a time when people were super-feminists,” she adds, “and girls couldn’t be this way or that. But if you think about it, there’s power being comfortable with your sexuality.”


Because, Avise notes, jobs done for money aren’t generally high on artistry, she also dances with Hysterica. “That gives me the opportunity to do what I love most.”


Also doing what she loves most is Yeva Glover. At 22, the blond Canadian-born dancer is a member of the new dance theater troupe, Company XIV (see “Dance Matters,” page 18). Although she’s played a prostitute, a can-can dancer, and a bombshell under the auspices of director Austin McCormick, whose fusion of Baroque dance with ballet and envelope-pushing contemporary styles is creating a buzz, Glover says she’s never felt like a sex object onstage.


“The way we approach these roles or characters is from the inside out. We take an archetype and explore why this character is sexually motivated, how she breathes or walks or uses her limbs. We become the character, explore the circumstances, and ask the audience to look at it this way.


“I think it can be sexist,” Glover continues, “if you’re using sexuality to sell dance—putting on a façade—and not exploring it as an art form. If I am genuinely expressing myself onstage with the full force of my abilities, passion, discipline, if that is compelling to the audience, I don’t feel it undermines my artistry.”


No matter the movement vocabulary or genre, today’s dancers, who work harder than ever honing their craft and staying fit, vying for jobs and remaining true to themselves, are not only proud of their sexuality, but embrace it. What, after all, is more glorious than a supremely confident dancer looking radiant and amazing with every swivel of the hip, arch of the back, or bend of the torso? It would, no doubt, be sexist to think otherwise.


Victoria Looseleaf contributes to the
Los Angeles Times and other publications.


Photo by Andrew Eccles, Courtesy Ailey