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Behind the Gender Gap in Ballet

Both men and women can plie.

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At 5 years old, I began dancing, taking ballet and modern dance lessons. At one time, I was a dance major in college. I am almost six feet tall, so my height prevented me from becoming a serious ballet dancer. I am an avid fan of all dance forms, and I was surprised to learn that the dance world is also plagued with gender inequities. There is no such thing as equality in ballet: women dance on point, men lift and support women. Women receive flowers, and men escort women off stage.

Ballet is an art form that goes hand-in-hand with tradition. One traditional aspect of ballet is the portrayal of male and female dancers in productions. Ballet began as a male-dominated dance form. It was not until around the eighteenth century that females began dancing ballet, despite males having been performing ballet since its origin in the 1500s. Throughout the Romantic era, ballet evolved into the dance form that we recognize today; ballets were choreographed based on classic fairy tales. Female dancers were cast as princesses while men played heroic princes.

After its creation in Europe, ballet came to America when Puritan influence was heavy; their conservative views and unwavering work ethic discouraged men from dancing ballet, which contributed to its feminization. Throughout the twentieth century in America, male dancers worked hard to gain acceptance from the masses through projecting masculinity in athletic movements. In fact, from my observation of ballet performances, the male dancers are often featured and applauded by the audience for their muscular approach to ballet. Gender roles limit how dancers can express themselves physically, through their dancing, and emotionally through the character they play. Additionally, there is another level of inequity regarding what positions men and women hold in companies.

A recent New York Times article, "Numbers Favor The Men in Ballet," revealed that men rule in the power positions, like in other professions. There are many women in dance classes on stage, but the people in the power positions, such as choreographers, and directors, are primarily men. Elizabeth Yntema founded the Dance Data Project to reveal a stark contrast among the 50 ballet companies in the U.S. 71 percent of artistic directors are men. 69 percent of all ballet programmed during the 2020-2021 season were done by men. Several years ago, Ms. Yntema realized that she had not seen a single ballet company led by women. She had not seen a single ballet choreographed by a woman. She began the organization in 2015 as a sort of kitchen table project. She now employs a small team of researchers to investigate the ballet glass ceiling.

In a recent Forbes article, "A Gender Gap In Ballet, Seriously?" Kim Elsesser concurs with the gender disparity evidence that men outnumber women in leadership roles in female-dominated occupations, providing insight into the sources of the gender pay gap. One common explanation for the gender-based differential in pay is that women and men choose different professions. Men make more money, the argument suggests, because women select less lucrative career paths than their male counterparts. She is a teacher; he is the school principal. She is a nurse; he is a doctor. How do we explain this staggering gender gap in ballet and other female-dominated areas, if that's true? Unfortunately, much of it comes down to bias.

Other art forms, such as movie making, have recognized that women are seldom the director. There has been a concentrated and active movement to rectify these disparities. The Academy Awards is a perfect illustration of implementing change and accessibility for women in traditionally male-dominated positions, such as directors.

In the ballet world, the San Francisco Ballet has selected Tamara Rojo as director. This nomination can be a model of the change that should take place in the world of dance. Women are using the data collected by the Dance Data Project in applying for grants to make the case they should be funded. By putting out more and more research, this effort has the potential to generate interest and sometimes it shocks the dance world. Hopefully, this is only the beginning.