Terpsichore Was Female: Why Are Dance Leaders Male?

Martha Graham Google Doodle. Artwork by Ryan Woodward.

The American Dance Festival, which opens this month, has always been peripherally in my life. I grew up in and around Durham, NC, in and around the places where the ADF has performed. As I became involved in theater in the same region, though, my ADF awareness grew as volunteer schedules became trickier to navigate due to a crossover among volunteers as well as audiences. Later, I researched ADF’s performance spaces as part of my Master’s thesis on large-scale performing arts centers: much of the documented rationale for building the Durham Performing Arts Center was because of ADF’s need for a new home.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]8 male-led companies versus 3 female-led[/pullquote]The Marbury Project has focused on gender parity in theater for awhile, but we’ve always planned to expand that focus to all art forms. So I was looking at this year’s American Dance Festival performance line-up with my parity glasses on and saw a similar ratio of male artistic leaders to female as we see in much of contemporary theater. In an art form that is typically described as “feminine” and featuring so many female dancers, this particular disparity struck me as both odd and sad.

As my CFR colleague Ken Tabachnick reminded me: modern dance was arguably founded by women. They did so partially as a resistance to all things Victorian, puritanical, balletic and male. So why is it that in contemporary modern dance (not to be confused with modern contemporary dance, post-modern, new wave: dance form variations boggle my mind), most of the artistic leadership is male?

I realize this is not the only gender-parity issue in the dance world, perhaps not even the most pressing. From a lack of young male students, to perceptions of quality and ability between genders, to disapproval of male teachers in studios, the list goes on and on. If anyone would like to tackle any of these areas for The Marbury Project, please, drop me a line.

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“Ask a difficult enough question, and you will need more than one discipline to answer it.” wrote famed choreographer Liz Lerman in her book Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer. Jim Collins, in his seminal book Built to Last, describes how building a lasting organization, one that will transcend a single leader, takes focus and a downplay of leadership ego. Most performance artists are busy working on their art rather than the organization. That modern dance as an art form was founded by women is important: as creative leaders, they were groundbreaking; as business leaders, not so much. I don’t think that is true only of women: I think this building-capacity leadership skill is lacking in most artists who decide to also be entrepreneurs.

So what happens when the founder quits — through old age, infirmity of spirit or death? Some dance companies dissipate. A few continue on, either with the luck of a trained artistic leader or a formal search committee finding someone who can mesh with the company’s artistic vision and values. When companies die, it opens room in the field for new companies to arise. And here is the crux for modern dance: women hold back from leadership or entrepreneurial positions because they aren’t sure their voices are welcome, whereas men just go do it.

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Are there exceptions to this rule? Absolutely: Lerman herself is one; Michelle Dorrance is another; both are MacArthur Fellows. But the lineup for this summer’s ADF performances feature eight male-led companies versus three female-led, not including three companies or performances that are duos or collectives. Compare that to ADF’s own teaching roster: nine men versus 18 women. Great disparity, from either direction. How can we get more female-led companies and more male teachers in the school?

choreographers. Derek Hough. Dance leaders.
A bunch of SYTYCD choreographers. And Derek Hough.

The other summer dance happening — the one more people will be familiar with — is So You Think You Can Dance?, now in its 13th season. The gender ratio of the show’s Western, classical-style choreographers breaks almost evenly: nine men, seven women. I can’t help but consider that SYTYCD is a for-profit organization, one which realizes hiring, casting and promoting a diverse collection of choreographers, contestants and judges makes good sense for the bottom-line in both advertising and viewership. For the choreographers, the promise of fame and a steady paycheck doesn’t hurt, either.

In the end, much as in theater, in order to achieve parity at the top of dance leadership, women have to take their own voice and agency seriously; help raise those coming up through the ranks; and actively seek other ways to close the gap wherever they can.