By Helen Owton & Helen Clegg
Dance is generally considered to be more accepting of gay men and research (e.g. Risner, 2009) shows that gay and bisexual men comprise 50% of the male population who dance in the US compared to 4-10% in the general population. However, whilst the dance world may acknowledge the presence of a larger proportion of gay men there remains an implicit homophobia in terms of a demand for heternormative performance (Risner, 2007). Ever mindful of the audience male dancers are expected to conform to a narrow concept of the masculine ideal that perpetuates the heterosexual “norm”. For example, in Risner’s (2009) study one participant, when being encouraged to dance with more strength, was told not to dance “like a fag” by his dance teacher.
As Strictly Come Dancing start their rehearsals, we consider ‘the silent voice’ in dance and ballet. Whilst dance is considered more accepting of homosexuality, the majority of this association is regarded towards the acceptance of gay men in dance, not women. Even discussions about inclusions of a same-sex couple in Strictly Come Dancing only involve gay men. Whilst homophobia in dance exists in different ways in dance (compared to sport) with masculinist comparisons and heterosexist approaches means that there seems to be a kind of quiet internal “acceptance” that obscures larger social issues that makes encounter. However, what strikes us is the lack of visible lesbians in professional dance.
Whilst the sexualising of dance and lesbianism for the purpose of the ‘male gaze’ exists in a pornographic sense, there seems to be a silent voice in professional dance about lesbians. Black Swan received the most complaints about the lesbianism portrayed in the film being pornographic and distasteful; an “overtly sexualised ‘hot-but-non-threatening’ feminine lesbian.” (Dixon, 2015, p.45) In Black Swan, a heterosexual woman was represented as experimenting with other women and seemingly “functioned instead as a kind of ‘sexy’ addendum to female heterosexuality.” (Dixon, 2015, p.45) However, when feminine lesbians are portrayed in this way, “Girl-on-girl action is presented as exciting, fun, but, crucially, as entirely unthreatening to heterosexuality.” (Gill, 2009, p.153)
“It may well be tempting to think that lesbians have equality, recognition achieved, on the basis of the supposed tolerance of the kinds of images made visible and perpetuated through the medium and marketing of films like Black Swan, which are then replicated to convey a similar sentiment in the promotion of places like Sitges as ‘cosmopolitan’. What I am arguing, however, is that whenever and wherever this does occur, we have to be completely and utterly certain that inequalities are not simply being reiterated at the exact moment the opposite is being said to have been achieved; to be certain that is, that in perpetuating and celebrating such representations we are not all simply hiding behind the faces of white masks.” (Dixon, 2015, p. 52)
Lesbians have been more connected to sports (Griffin, 1998) and there is a long standing connection between homophobia/heterosexism and women’s participation in sport (Iannotta & Kane, 2002). Women’s team sports are sometimes seen as an environment that promotes the expression of homosexuality. Does being a female dancer/ballerina render sexuality inauthentic because they are more feminine?
Boulila (2011) describes her experience at an LGB salsa class where one of the women believed that the very fact that she was a lesbian meant that she embodied the very “antithesis of elegance in dance”. This may be linked to the intertwining of the stereotype of “butch lesbians” which has been associated with sports and the idea that female dancers are there to embody heterosexual fantasies of the audience. Such binary categorisations of heterosexual and homosexual women in dance, particularly in ballet, encourages the belief that lesbians just don’t dance. Indeed, when asked to estimate the number of lesbians in their dance company across 36 companies only 1 dancer (a participant of the study) was identified as gay (Oberschneider & Bailey, 1997). Whilst this paper is nearly 20 years old more recent work (see Boulila, 2011) and blogs suggest that the idea of lesbian dancers continues to be believed to be a misnomer. We argue that lesbians do dance they just aren’t “coming out”.
So where does this leave us moving forward for women and lesbians in dance? Whilst it is not their sole responsibility to ‘come out’ it does question why there is such a silent voice of lesbians in dance and also an association between femininity, lesbianism and authenticity. Ballet and other forms of disciplined dance appear to be a closet for lesbians which is why it is so important to have ‘queer’ spaces in dance (e.g. Matthew Bourne) that disrupt gender binary frameworks; Firebird (by Katy Pyle), Ineffable (by Lohse) and the Queer Tango Dance Festival 8-12 July 2015 held in (anti-gay) Russia continue to challenge binary frameworks (e.g. male-female, feminine-masculine) for gay women as well.
Boulila, S. C. (2011). You Don’t Move Like a ‘Lesbian’: Negotiating Salsa and Dance Narratives. In 18th Lesbian Lives Conference, University of Leeds.
Dixon, L.J. (2015). Black swans, white masks: Contesting cosmopolitan and double misrecognition in a gay tourist town. Sexualities, 18(1/2), 37-56. Available: http://sex.sagepub.com/content/18/1-2/37.full.pdf+html
Gill, R. (2009). Beyond the ‘sexualization of culture’ thesis: An intersectional analysis of ‘sixpacks’,‘midriffs’ and ‘hot lesbians’ in advertising. Sexualities, 12(2), 137–160
Oberschneider, M. & Bailey, J.M. (1997). Sexual orientation and professional dance. Archives of Sexual behavior, 26(4), 433-444.
Risner, D. (2007) Rehearsing masculinity: challenging the ‘boy code’ in dance education, Research in Dance Education, 8(2), 139-153
Risner, D. (2009) Stigma and Perseverance in the Lives of Boys who Dance. Lampeter, TheEdwin Mellen Press.