What is Gender-Fluid Dancing?

Above photo from chittagongit.com The New York Times has a new term to describe a dancer’s style: gender-fluid. As a former dancer, I would take the description as an insult, but the Times uses it approvingly these days.  An example is New York City Ballet’s Taylor Stanley. In a review of his Apollo debut, Brian Seibert wrote that Taylor “…dances with a gender-fluid quality, and that makes his debut a watershed.” The previous week, Gia Kourlas wrote that School of American Ballet men’s classes “…instilled strength in the legs, but also encouraged an airy port de bras, or carriage of the arms. That combination of soft and hard gives him a kind of gender-fluid allure.”

What is a gender-fluid dance style? I have followed dance for over 30 years, but have no idea. Challenging Ballet’s Gender Stereotypes, a Times article by Madison Mainwaring sheds light on this mentality. She argues that the continuing discussion on gender has liberated dancers, allowing women to pursue more athletic feats, and men to pursue more subtlety and flexibility over brute force athleticism.

stereotypes …are being challenged on a daily basis in company studios, as ballet dancers everywhere ask why their gender identity should determine the way they dance. Women can jump higher and compete more turns than ever before, skills traditionally associated with male dancers. For their part, men are training to incorporate the stretch and finesse that has long been standard for female dancers.

There’s a reason choreographers can now highlight male dancers’ bodies in innovative ways. Many are acquiring the stretch and polish usually demonstrated by the female body in ballet, movement qualities customarily used to convey vulnerability and emotional depth.

The Times makes it seem as if athletic women and graceful men are new developments brought on by contemporary ideas on gender. On the news of current day women leaping and turning with abandon and men showing great extension and grace, dancers from years ago probably roll their eyes and ask “What do you think we were doing?” The reality is that the characteristics pointed out in the Times’ articles are not new. For example, below is a video of the late Fernando Bujones, who joined American Ballet Theatre in 1972, demonstrating ballet class steps. Note his elegant line, amazing arched feet, and supple extensions. Any current choreographer would give anything to work with such talent.

There are many examples of male dancers in previous decades that have exhibited great grace, extension, and line, becoming leading lights in the ballet world and serving as role models for younger dancers to emulate. In addition to Fernando, my favorites include:

  • David Hallberg, who started his career at ABT in 2001, has great extension, line, and feet as shown in the photo below.
  • Vladimir Malakhov was a dynamic force in the 1980s through the early 2000s, combining great suppleness and leaping ability. And what great nicely arched feet.
  • Giuseppe Picone danced in the 1990s and early 2000s and had great extension, easily hitting 180 degrees on his jetés.

David Hallberg, Sleeping Beauty, 2010. Photo: Tbonny [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Women displaying razzle dazzle athleticism with stunning turns and leaps has been a feature in ballet for decades. My favorites of women that started their careers over 20 years ago include:

Although there were great dancers 30 years ago that would be stars today, there is probably more depth in current day dancers, particularly in the Soloist/Corps ranks, with improvements in the versatility of dancers. Women are more athletic with greater skills in turning and jumps while the men are more technically proficient than older generations. I attribute improvements to the competitive pressures of the ballet world, particularly in ever more popular ballet competitions. To stand out against the competition at top-notch competitions such as Prix de Lausanne, International Ballet Competition of Moscow/Varna/Jackson, a dancer must turn more, jump higher, extend more. This dynamic is even more present to obtain a very scarce contract in a major company.

Why the Times’ focus on gender as a motivator of change in ballet? I can think of two reasons. Gender is a popular topic these days and the Times publishes many articles on the topic. The Arts page likely faces pressure to push gender narratives even when it is not consistent with reality. Second, some current day dancers trumpet their own virtues to demonstrate gender sensitivities at the expense of previous generations.

The Times Arts page has recently provided readers with a steady stream of gender/race related articles. These articles are apparently at the expense of performance coverage. In the New York City Ballet six-week 2019 winter season, the Times reviewed only two performances, (one referenced above praising Taylor’s Apollo for his gender-fluid style) with five reviews in ABT’s eight-week 2018 spring Met season. This like a sports section that covers player’s personal characteristics such as sexual preference and race/nationality, but doesn’t tell readers which team won the game the night before. Sports fans would not be happy.

Fortunately, there are a number of websites specializing in New York ballet reviews, in addition to balletfocus.com. My favorites for dance commentary include:

Haglund’s Heel
Marina Harss, DanceTabs
Ivy Lin, Humbled and Overwhelmed
Jerry Hochman, Critical Dance
Dance View Times
Robert Gottlieb, The Observer