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Exploring Gender Stereotypes Through Dance

When I took the opportunity to co-teach a mixed-grade level coed dance class, I expected some of the boys to be reluctant to participate in the ballet portion for fear of being seen as gay or at the very least feminine. To cut this off before it started, I used a Teaching Tolerance lesson plan that allows students to explore gender stereotypes. I put labels on each student’s back with the name of a profession. I assigned traditionally male careers to girls and traditionally female careers to boys. Students had to figure out their profession by asking yes or no questions of their classmates. Afterwards, they reflected on their reaction to the assigned profession. This activity set the stage for breaking down stereotypes as we also introduced ballet as a dance form.

When I took the opportunity to co-teach a mixed-grade level coed dance class, I expected some of the boys to be reluctant to participate in the ballet portion for fear of being seen as gay or at the very least feminine. To cut this off before it started, I used a Teaching Tolerance lesson plan that allows students to explore gender stereotypes. I put labels on each student’s back with the name of a profession. I assigned traditionally male careers to girls and traditionally female careers to boys. Students had to figure out their profession by asking yes or no questions of their classmates. Afterwards, they reflected on their reaction to the assigned profession. This activity set the stage for breaking down stereotypes as we also introduced ballet as a dance form.

More than a few girls were dissatisfied with their assigned careers in manual labor. For example, one young woman, assigned to be a plumber said, “That’s such a gross job because you have to work with toilets.” No one directly rejected a job because it was associated with a particular gender. Students unhappy with jobs cited reasons of class. They wanted to do better for their family than “just wait tables.” After hearing from several students, I finally asked the young man whose assigned career was ballet dancer to share his reaction. With unexpected enthusiasm he said, “I’m excited. I love dancing.” To my surprise, no one snickered.

One of the senior boys chimed in and said, “I know what you are trying to get us to say. You want us to say we don’t want a job that should be for the opposite gender, that being a male dancer makes you less male.”

Of course, I didn’t want that to be true, but I was trying to uncover the assumptions I imagined some of my students held. And with that, the students brainstormed all of the stereotypes they had heard or thought in regard to male dancers: weak, feminine, gay, unathletic. There was no shortage of stereotypes to add to the list. We watched clips of Sokvannara (Sy) Sar, a ballet dancer from Cambodia and Mikhail Baryshnikov. After each clip, I asked students to cross off stereotypes from the list that just didn’t mesh with what we’d seen. They also read an essay called Don’t Judge Me By My Tights and continued to erase the stereotypes from the list. And finally, I asked them to try dancing ballet. For a group of urban students more comfortable with hip-hop, punta, and even bhangra, I knew it would be a stretch.

I’m not sure how it would have played out if I had not taken the time to explore the students’ discomfort with ballet in general and male ballet dancers in particular. But when our ballet instructor asked them to follow her in the basic ballet positions, every single boy tried it. In fact, the only defectors were a few stubborn girls who just couldn’t see the value in pointing their toes.

I’m left with many questions: Does my students’ openness to male dancers mean the stereotypes have disappeared? Is this merely a sign that students know they are supposed to mask or hide stereotypes, and, if so, does bringing stereotypes to the surface help students remove their biases? Most importantly, if there is no evidence of bias, should I assume that none exists? I may not get all these answers right away, but this opportunity was a way to at least start the conversation.

Thomas is an English teacher in California.