Feminist Geographies of Dance

As a child I had always dreamed of becoming a ballerina. From my first pointe shoe fitting, to my countless bedroom dress-rehearsals of Swan Lake, I had every intention of following my passion. But alas, as a 22 year old woman I am not quite on that career path anymore. Instead, however, I do find myself questioning whether growing up as a dancer has created a stronger or weaker feminist, and to what extent feminists can engage in dance without feeling guilty?

Feminist Geographies

Feminism emerged within geographic literature in the late 20th century as a response to the ongoing gender-based social movements and the recognition of the lack of female representation within academia. Watch the video linked below to explore the history of Feminism and its link to geographic literature.

Feminism Explained (Author, 2020)

Feminist Geography is a pathway of Human Geography that implements feminist theories, methods and critiques to investigate geographical concepts, such as space. Within recent feminist studies there has been a move to the questioning of the ‘body’:

“The body is the touchstone of feminist theory.”

The work produced by feminist geographers has been inter-disciplinary with much of the literature overlapping with various external studies, such as Dance Theory and History, all of which have also engaged with concepts of embodiment and bodily practice. To my delight, this has resulted in a wide breadth of research that can offer insights into the embodied experiences of dance from a feminist perspective.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Geographies of Dance

As a Cultural Geographer I have always been interested in the social and power relations produced within society, yet it is only as of recently that I began to question how dance is imbued with these dynamic concepts. Mobile bodies are inherently productive in generating space, power and social relations all of which are key concepts for Human Geographers. The geographies of dance have been considered through a variety of lenses, much of the literature is still frequently emerging, however, a large focus has been on how Spacial Theory is applicable. Not only do performers require space to practice their routines, but they can also help produce new spaces, such as the alteration of the street through Street Performance; therefore, through the study of spatiality we can address varying questions on the geographies of dance. In addition, the cultural geographies of a dancer’s body has been explored and so considerations have been made to how a dancer’s body can help us make sense of society’s meaningful processes. Dances, such as the Tango, are products of national identities and political expressions, therefore, for Human Geographers dance is an important creative output to study.

Within dance, the body is a performance site of pre-existing ideals which are formed externally, and are often a result of social constructions. Feminist Geographers have recently begun to uncover these social ideals that are performed and are beginning to discover how dances, such as Ballet, are necessary to study in order to understand cultural representations. Ballet is discussed as producing, as well as representing, heteronormativity and gendered binaries. The elegant movements of the female body are often representative of femininity, and the female body is often seen as an ‘object’ to be watched or to be guided by their male counterpart. The performers execute these social ‘ideals’, that society has imprinted as important, through their bodily movements, therefore, the body becomes a socio-political agent in the production of normative constructs.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For Feminist Geographers, these heteronormative and patriarchal ideals are not progressive in the overturning of sexist ideologies. Within dances, like the Tango, ‘passion’ is an essential affective quality of the female and male dance couple, this experience promotes a hyper-sexualised engagement between the dancers, as well as the construction of ‘traditional’ gender binaries. In addition, the Tango is imbued with imperialist and ‘exotic’ representations; there has been a process of cultural appropriation whereby Eurocentric dancers colonialised the dance and, so, it became associated with the ‘exotic’ Latino ‘other’. These ideologies represented by dancers challenge the inherent beliefs of feminists as they encourage, rather than oppose, heteronormativity, gendered binaries, and overall gendered inequality.

Although many of the concepts discussed have put forward the idea that dances, such as Ballet and the Tango, reproduce representations of patriarchal and unequal ideals, here I want to consider how these dances are actually following a feminist pathway…

Ballet is largely a female performed dance, with women outnumbering men 20 to 1 in most ballet schools, and is often argued as in fact empowering rather than oppressing dancers. Ballet has been influential in the progression of female representation in dance; the 18th century ballerina Marie Camargo was the first dancer to reveal her feet to the audience and, although this was scandalous, the audience began to recognise the importance of women within dance. What followed Camargo’s ‘shocking’ display was the beginning of the female presence within the public and the appreciation of female performers. The Tango has not been as influential in the representations of female power, however, it has been progressive in queer representation. ‘Queer tango’ emerged in the early 1990’s and involves same sex dancers to perform what has traditionally been a heterosexual couple’s performance. Feminists can recognise this progressive development as crucial to overall gender and sexual equality within the world. Feminism is about the progression of women’s rights and through Queer Tango there is an engagement in feminist ideals as it degenders the performance. 

https://www.fromthesquare.org/queering-tango/

Through the questioning of a dancers bodily representations, it can be assumed that each performance is inherently social. Feminism is a critical ideology that can be used to study the dancer’s body as it can uncover the deeper hidden social ‘ideals’ that are entangled within performances. Although many critics have contested that dances like the Tango or Ballet do not promote gendered or sexual equality, there are continued progressions within these dances. Arguably, through the engagement in gendered alterations and the promotion of female representation, all performances can become feminist.

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