Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Male Ballet: Is it Masculine?

Good morning followers. Before I get into today’s topic, I want to pose a question.  What defines masculinity? Is it a man’s build? Is it having that “athletic” look, or is it how he displays his body in sport? There is no simple answer to this question. Masculinity is a term used to describe men (or women). The term has been constructed by society, representing the ultimate normality for men to follow to be socially accepted, marginalizing those who do not fall under its description. Masculinity is especially typified in sports, and as a society our ideologies regarding masculinity in sport have been so ingrained by socialization, they have become normalized. This blog will discuss male ballet dancers, and how over the centuries they have become marginalized because they do not fit the socially constructed norms, and therefore are equated with effeminacy.
Dance writers argue that the similarity between a “sporting” body and a dancer’s body is enough evidence to consider male dancers “manly”. If male athletes are considered masculine, and dancers look like athletes, shouldn’t dancers be masculine? (Adams, 2005) This should be the case, however in society this formula does not hold true. Male ballet dancers have been marginalized based on society’s socially constructed ideas of masculinity. The human body is recognized as a cultural form that carries meaning with it. When we look at bodies, we don’t just see anatomy at work, but instead “values and ideals,and differences and similarities that culture has ‘written’, so to speak, on those bodies” (Adams, 2005). I have confirmed this through a simple survey. I have asked a number of people to vote on the polls (first the left poll, then the right). Take a look at the figures in the left poll. Each athlete’s face has been blurred for anonymity, and each photo has been cropped to mask the sport that would otherwise be displayed.  As previously mentioned, when we look at these bodies, we clearly see exquisitely conditioned physiques. If either the face or the sport were revealed, automatic biases would be made. According to the results of the poll, fifty five percent of people who have voted thus far think that both athletes are equally manly. I asked the same people to vote on the right poll, where the identity of the individuals and sports were revealed. There was a significant change in the collected data once people saw the identity of the person and their respective discipline. Crosby, an NHL star was deemed manlier. If both of these athletes have the same physical attributes, why are they not viewed as having equal masculinity? The data suggests that after being given additional knowledge pertaining to the athlete's profession, the participants in the survey reverted to their socially constructed ideas of the degree of masculinity of each sport. This supports the idea that people base their ideas of masculinity on not only what men’s bodies look like, but how they utilize them. Masculinity is associated with strength, dominance and aggression – ideas that alienate one’s relationship with one’s body. “Manly” athletes often use their bodies as a force or a weapon against other people whether it is tackling or pushing it to extreme limits (Coakley and Donnelly, 2009). Male ballet dancers have exquisite control over each movement their body makes, but uses it to express feelings, desire and affection (Adams, 2005). There has not always been a stigma attached to male dancers. Society and cultures change, as does the face of sport and the way in which individuals perceive them. 
6 pack abs… Broad shoulders… Rippling biceps… Legs of steal… A male ballet dancer? Most people viewing this would not come to this conclusion. The reality is that our society has created a set of stereotypical attributes that define masculinity. It has not always been this way. In the 1700’s, ballet routines were performed by all-male dance groups. In France, the king himself would even initiate and take part in performances (Adams, 2005). In this era, male ballet dancers were a common sight and where not considered feminine. It was not until the 19th century that women came to define the finesse of ballet. Thus began the idea that men where supposed to conceal and hide their emotions, to be tough and strong. In Death to the Prancing Prince, it states, “The worry was not that boys were finding their way into each others beds, but that they were too soft and weak and that they were spending too much time in the company of women.” (Adams, 2005) Now I pose the question how did the views of male dancing change so dramatically? What caused the shift in perception? How do we get this dying art form back to the way it was? The answer is simple. As society and culture change, so does the face of sport and the ways in which individuals participate in them. Just before WWII, standards of masculinity were changing. With less labour and an increasing corporate culture, urban life was perceived as “soft”. As a result, American males felt emasculated, and consequentially our society became normalized to new ideologies regarding male masculinity. Ted Shawn, founder of the first all-male dance company in 1933 states in his misogynist view that dance will not go back to the way it is as long as women were in the forefront. These changes marked the new era of males in ballet (Adams, 2005).
As the polls state, being macho is masculine, but showing your emotions through dance is not. Our ideology, and perception of masculinity, especially in the world of ballet, has been altered dramatically. The term has been reconstructed by the society of our time. In order to be “manly” you must be tough, strong, and be able to hide your emotions. Being aware of what has happened in the past will hopefully allow our society to realize its misconceptions and be ready to change for the future.

Works Cited

Adams, M. L. (2005). “Death to the prancing prince”: Effeminacy, sport discourses, and the salvation of men’s dancing. Body and Society, 11(4), 63—86.

Coakley, J. and Donnelly, P. (2009). Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited. Print

Written by: Meaghan MacDougall and Victoria Milne