Conservativism in Ballet

Ballet is conservative. It does not like progress, and it does not like people who are different from the people in power.  It purposefully makes sure that people who are different feel like they are out of place, or that ballet is unobtainable. It prefers money, classism, and a body type that typically categorizes as a certain ethnicity.  Because of this, it usually attracts an audience – both as students and as ballet fans – who share similar values. The typical ballet ticket runs on average around 50 dollars across the United States, and can go up to 1,800 dollars for a “good seat.” All of the above is ballet—a world of beautiful theaters, beautiful people, beautiful places, and beautiful music.  But all of this beauty stands on an undercurrent of certain religious beliefs and gender roles that continue to dictate certain values in ballet.

I recently decided to take a poll about my  August Planner Cover, and that poll has turned out to be a more considerable discussion on gender roles and sexuality. What was supposed to be a light conversation about a personal preference of what people would want to see on the cover has turned into a weighted debate about religion, sexuality, and gender in ballet. 

When I started the August Planner, I thought it would be nice to have men on the cover. Like the May, June, and July cover, there are always two dancers. So, I thought it would be a good change to have two male ballet dancers on the cover, just hanging out before class. Apparently, two male dancers depicted on the cover would equate to homosexuality. Forty percent of those voting chose “no” to the cover. Of those who voted against it, 85% include a Bible verse in their Instagram bio. I have no problem with religion; in fact, I was raised in a very religious home, keep a Bible next to my bed, attend mass when I can, and say my nightly prayers.

I then told my followers that if they thought the art implies homosexuality, to unfollow me.  And, in a matter of two hours, a little under 200 people unfollowed me: no big deal, just a part of social media life. 

But to me, the point about this artwork is not about homosexuality. The point is about men in ballet and how they are perceived within our culture and in the context of the wealthy conservative families who support ballet, the politics that come along with those wealthy families.   What is the idea of a male dancer, and what are the widely held assumptions about male ballet dancers? Who gets to define what a male dancer represents and who gets to decide what their sexuality and value is in society?

By our dominant culture’s definition, masculinity is: having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men, especially strength and aggressiveness. (Webster)

This definition and idea of what is “male” can be seen in almost every classical ballet. Prince Desire kisses a sixteen-year-old princess without her consent in the Sleeping Beauty. In Le Corsaire, men sell and buy women. In Raymonda, there is rape. In the ballet Swan Lake, a male falls in love with an animal.  In La Sylphide, there is a male that cheats on his female partner. In Giselle, another male that cheats on his female partner. In La Bayadere, there is a male doing drugs. And the list goes on and on. As a parent, you might  read this paragraph and think, “Why am I letting my child do ballet?” Yeah, trust me. I ask myself the same thing.

Men in ballet are consistently depicted and celebrated for being strong and powerful, and these figures of what modern society says is considered toxic masculinity. On the other hand, we argue that these ballet stories are part of tradition, history, and literature and should continue celebrated and unchanged. This then makes me wonder —  why are we surprised when we hear about men in ballet taking advantage of women in ballet, or male or female students for that matter, or any of that? Aren’t these male dancers just “acting” or “emulating” what they are rehearsing every day, and practicing to portray?  Again, you might be thinking, “Okay, this is not cool. Let’s reconsider this.”

We also have to look at who controls ballet. Most of the directors are men, most of the boards of directors are made of men, most of the donors in ballet are men (who donate on behalf of their family), and most of these men across this conversation are above 60.  Point being, they grew up in a different era. If we learned anything from Madmen and men from that age group, it was that men in the office cheat. Haha, that was a joke. I am currently binge-watching Madmen during this crazy time.

But, getting back to the point.  On the one hand, families of young female dancers often complain that there aren’t enough boys in ballet. Well, imagine the social pressure on a young boy who want to dance ballet, if when we see two boys in ballet attire, everyone automatically assumes homosexuality? On then other hand, some of those same families will admit that they won’t let their sons dance because they don’t want people to “think they are gay” or worry that allowing them to spend time around male dancers will somehow “turn them gay.” And then often, those same families will complain that their daughter doesn’t have a pas de deux partner….

I decided to look at everyone’s feed who voted “no” to the two men in ballet attire as cover art.  Many of these girls are also posting photos in crop tops, booty shorts, posing in crotch shots, and after looking through their followers, it appears that for the most part are not bothering to review their followers closely and allowing plenty of what appear to be perv accounts follow them.  Ironically, girls are attracted to ballet for the frills and “pretty factors” of ballet. Loop this back around to my confusion, I reconsidered my June and July covers, in which the girls are in swimsuits and pointe shoes. I thought, “Well, at least these voters are aspiring to appear like what I draw?” These same girls are also trained by prominent gay male ballet teachers, so I am a little confused about why they are willing to accept homosexual male dancers in that aspect of their lives…. But, to each their own. 

Think about the men in ballet that we adore. The men that we say shaped ballet — many are homosexuals, but as long as we don’t see them being homosexual — as long as they don’t publically “act too gay”, then it’s acceptable.  This logic is what sometimes dictates ballet donors, parents, and others that are otherwise conservative in their ballet support. T here is a teacher I know, a very well respected Eastern European teacher who would always tell the boys, “I don’t care how effeminate you are, or if you are gay. All I care about is that you portray the role you are supposed to portray, you focus on the technique, and you are a good kid.” This man comes from one of the most conservative countries but seems to have this very relaxed outlook on sexuality. 

Meanwhile, in the world of competitive jazz, broadway, and modern dance, the idea of homosexuality has become much more widely accepted. So then,  my focus on why we assume that two men in ballet equate to gay.

If two men were at a cigar bar or a frat party and one put their arm around the other for a photo, would it be considered gay? If the context of assuming my drawing was gay, is it because they were wearing tights, and the body language and shape of hyperextension is gay? Is it because people think that two men should never dance together or hang out as close friends off stage? Is it because we are conditioned to only see ballet as one male dancing, partnering and lifting one female? Is it because we are saying that we are OK with gay men as long as they keep their distance, but we don’t want them printed on our child’s day planner?

This conservatism that fuels and funds ballet is the same conservatism that is holding ballet back from making progress towards a more modern, artistic and accepting view of different body types, ethnicities, or even more modern story lines, etc. You might also be wondering why I am posting this?

This post isn’t about what is right or wrong because everyone is entitled to their belief system…. and, I  am wondering if I am shooting myself in the foot because I am a gay man, and I could be cutting off or offending thousands of followers, subscribers, and customers.  However, I think the questions that I am pondering with my artwork, my poll and this post are ultimately about protecting, inspiring, and accepting young boys who want to dance and explore the various aspects of the art of ballet, and how the world is going to perceive them – regardless of their sexual identity.   If these dancers aren’t allowed to have male friends who support them and hang out with them on and off stage, without being automatically assumed as gay (and having to deal with all of the social stigmas and life challenges still facing gay men) — or even if they are gay — if there is no place for these different ideas and definitions of masculinity and the male identity on or off stage, then how will we be able to continue to recruit, finance and support the next generation of male dancers to be a necessary part of this incredible art form? How will we be able to fuel and inspire a new generation of ballet dancers, ballet story lines that portray less toxic male stereotypes,  men and women to fund, direct, market and buy tickets to watch these talented men dancers?

8 responses to “Conservativism in Ballet”

  1. Bravissimo – thank you for this. These are questions and thoughts I don’t hear talked about nearly enough (if ever at all), and I’m grateful to you for discussing them so openly.

    Another two thoughts to add to the discussion come to mind: #1, why do these same people not just as easily assume that the two ballerinas in swimsuits on the July cover aren’t lesbians…?; and #2, if there are strong, openly gay and celebrated male role models in the ballet world, where are the strong, openly gay and celebrated WOMEN…?

    An inclusive ballet world is the one my daughter hopes to dance professionally in someday, and the one I hope is ballet’s future.

  2. Your post is failing to take into account some big realties that may be driving the responses you refer to…is this just innocent ignorance or willful deception? The realities I speak of is how the lgbt movement has moved beyond wanting mere “acceptance” to forcing social engineering to normalize things that aren’t normal and are, in fact, unhealthy for our youth, both physically and mentally. For example, a recent Dance magazine issue has an article about how wrong and “old-fashioned” it is for ballets to use male and female couples as the central stars and that they should progress to having gay men couples. Also, schools and companies who are being “progressive” by allowing men to join as if they’re women, dressing as the women and learning the parts of women. Not good. If this is your idea of “progress” then that might be why you see pushback. “Conserving” tradition is worthwhile.

  3. Just to expand on my last comment…the discussion of boys in ballet is way beyond the issue of whether it’s fair to stereotype boys who dance as gay (as what happened to Prince George), the issue is one of social engineering in the name of “progress.” Today, in this brave new world, girls have to deal with boys competing in their sports as girls. Track seems to be where it is unfairly happening the most. Boys being allowed to use their locker rooms, bathrooms, and dressing rooms. Ballet companies (English National) and schools are now priding themselves on how progressive they are by allowing men to dance as women (not for laughs), in the corps and such. You can say that is not about homosexuality but transgenderism. No matter, if that continues I think you’ll lose more than just followers on your social account, I think already limited funding for ballet will get more scarce. If that sort of unhealthy social engineering were to happen at my daughter’s ballet school we would quit. If that sort of thing were celebrated in a ballet company, I would not allow my daughter to audition nor would I buy expensive tickets for such a ballet.

    • NKMom you are entitled to your own opinions about whatever you consider to be ‘normal’, however self serving, narrow, discriminating and unjust; you be you. Homosexuality is normal in the sense that it is part of the human species. It is not something newly invented, same sex attraction. You might feel uncomfortable with a concept or notion but that doesn’t determine what is actually normal and what is not. Your personal morality beliefs and social construct patternings (your upbringung) does not make your opinions and judgements some kind of standard or truth; or valid for all people and cultures.

  4. We are a bible following conservative family. I am not shocked at male ballet dancers on a cover of a planner. I think it’s a nice drawing.

  5. David, that was an excellent post, experiment, research effort and findings. You pointed out 1) hypocrisy 2) privilege. The one thing you didn’t explicitly name was homophobia. You allude to a double standard and inequality, so an injustice: it is ok (socially acceptable in America) for girls to dance together and in skimpy, revealing attire, but this is taboo for boys. Those people with power in ballet have evolved ballet to enshrine a binary, heteronormative perspective as the only legitimate and acceptable viewpoint. This is driven by homophobia and Christianity, when you examine the history and development of ballet. Ballet is also very racist. Defenders and preservationists of these discriminatory traditions are part of the problem, not the solution.