“I’m sick of seeing a bunch tricks and turns and crazy extensions instead of actual dancing.”
“Dancers these days are becoming more of athletes than artists.”
“She’s good, but such a competition dancer.”
Lamenting the rise of extreme athleticism at the expense of artistry is a recurring theme for professional and armchair dance critics alike. And while this set of concerns is probably as old as theatrical dance itself, the recent explosion of dance competitions in both training and popular entertainment has provided the dance world with plenty of gratuitous turn sequences and ariels for unamused viewers to roll their eyes at.
I certainly have my own tastes when it comes to athleticism in dance, but I’m not here argue whether these critiques are “right” or “wrong” in whatever case (though it is worth mentioning that the line between “tricks” and “dancing” is subjective and changing over time–let’s not forget that there was a time when 90 degree extensions in ballet were considered excessive).
Instead, I want to point out a common double standard when it comes to these critiques of virtuosity on the concert dance stage–a bias that I realize I have fallen into myself. “Trick shaming” is disproportionally harsh on female performers, even when men as a group are whipping out the most flashy moves.
Consider how a man might be described after performing a sequence containing seven pirouettes, some impressive turning jumps, and a backflip:
“A fearless performer, bursting with unbridled power;””Such raw energy!”
Now consider how a woman performing similar steps would more likely be described:
“That was flashy and distracting;” “She’s an impressive technician, but not a mature artist;” “It’s hard to take the piece seriously with all those circus tricks.”
Maybe those jumps were eye-roll-worthy and maybe they weren’t, but there’s something wrong when the gender of the performer is the determining factor.
So why is she “flashy” while he’s “unbridled?”
The comments about female performers echo standards of femininity which warn that women shouldn’t be “too much:” too powerful, too loud, too confident, too attention-seeking and showy (even while performing in a literal show).
Another factor is that we’re just more used to seeing men dancing virtuosically by default. In standard classical ballet repertory, for instance, there aren’t all that many opportunities for men to explore types of movement outside of big power moves (which also sucks if you happen to be a dude who likes adagio). In a culture which values sports as a marker of masculinity, the athleticism of male dancers is often used to affirm their masculinity, and therefore respectability.
But it’s not just that we prefer to see men doing tricks because of gender roles–we also interpret it as something fundamentally artistically different. Masculine bravado is seen as somehow more expressive, serious, and artistically valid than the female equivalent, which is dismissed as cheap circus tricks, with the performers as mindless “trick ponies.”
There’s a certain language of primitivism we use to describe male virtuosity (that “raw energy”), like we’re so sold on athleticism as an innate male trait that we see a man whipping out a la second turns as expressing some deep primal masculine energy (meanwhile a woman doing the same is an overtrained technician).
And sure, there are some showy moves that come more easily to the average male dancer’s body as opposed to the average female dancer’s (and vice versa), but it’s a big stretch to call any technical dance vocabulary “natural,” regardless of sex or gender.
Just to be clear:
At the core, this is about seeing men as more serious and artistically legitimate than women. It really does matter that female dancers are less easily seen as artistic and mature than male dancers, because they’re also less likely to be given choreographic opportunities or to be offered leadership positions in companies when they retire from performing.
So whether you find turn sequences cool, kind of annoying, or a plague upon the art form, I hope that judgement stands regardless of the turner’s gender. Be as much of a snob or a fan as you wish, but make sure you’re doing it fairly.