Helping Women Dancers Take the Lead in Choreography

Choreographer Penny Saunders (center left) with DDP founder and president, Liza Yntema (center right, with her arm around Saunders), with the cast of Saunders’ piece, “Testimony” at Grand Rapids Ballet, (Photo credit: Liza Yntema)

While women fill most of the shoes in ballet, leadership positions are still dominated by men, especially in choreography and artistic direction roles. A nonprofit called the Dance Data Project (DDP) aims to help more women in dance keep up to date with choreographic opportunities and ascend the ballet leadership ladder. With this goal in mind, in April 2019, DDP released a report on contemporary opportunities in choreography, along with monthly spreadsheets and calendar reminders of global deadlines. Earlier in 2019, it also published research on salary by gender for leaders in ballet, finding notable imbalances in favor of men, especially in artistic direction.

DDP’s overarching goal is to raise gender equality awareness in ballet through research, advocacy and other programs. It also serves as a resource for other “artists of merit,” including photographers, lighting and costume professionals, set designers, and composers. DDP founder and president, Liza Yntema, is also a personal sponsor of the American Ballet Theatre’s project to support female choreographers called Women’s Movement and a similar initiative from the Boston Ballet called ChoreograpHER.

DDP’s new calendar of opportunities includes ballet choreographic scholarships, fellowships and competitions, which it explains are training pipelines for lucrative choreographer and artistic director positions. As part of its related research efforts, DDP conducted a listening tour of ballet companies in the U.S.

“We heard from ballet company artistic directors and senior staff that women just don’t apply in the same numbers as men, often because they are unaware of what is out there. They do not have the network that men enjoy,” Yntema said in a statement. The directors also said men tend to be more forward and self-promotional during the application process.

“This is a discouraging phenomenon not unique to ballet,” the recent DDP report states. The authors point out that while men will often apply for jobs in which they meet only 60 percent of the listed qualifications, women tend to only apply if they meet 100 percent — a stat also referenced in Lean In, a well-known self-help book advising women how to achieve their ambitions. Along with making new choreography opportunities more accessible, DDP is planning to run confidence-building seminars for women that include application tips and support.

DDP also quotes Alyssa Rapp, a CEO and Stanford business lecturer, who encourages women to “embrace the ‘feminists’ within, support ourselves, support each other, leap versus lean and play to win.” Leaping is a fitting metaphor for the realm of ballet, and DDP aims to help more women dancers make their next career move with gusto. It will be carefully monitoring the results of its efforts and how many women succeed in their applications.

“If we find a continuing trend of awarding the lion’s share of resources to male applicants, DDP will call out the committees making the final determinations,” the report states. Clearly, equity has to be addressed and supported by all players involved and from all sides of the table.

If women in dance, or any field, need support in self-promotion, it makes sense that women must also be encouraged to shine and be ambitious from an early age. Research has shown that strict cultural gender norms about how girls and boys should act can influence and limit the life experiences and well-being of people of any gender, along with trans or gender nonconforming individuals.

“Traditional femininity is understood as a combination of the ‘the three D’s:’ being Deferential, Desirable and Dependent,” Riki Wilchins writes in her recently released book, Gender Norms and Intersectionality: Connecting Race, Class and Gender. Wilchins is an iconic transgender rights activist and gender researcher. She runs a nonprofit called TrueChild that seeks to support youth by “helping funders and nonprofits challenge rigid gender norms.” The “three D’s” align with a persistent norm that girls should not be as ambitious or independent as boys, which clearly accompanies many into adulthood.

Wilchins has also observed that young men often receive the message that ballet dancing is not appropriately masculine. Perhaps if these types of limiting gender norms shift or loosen, future generations of ballet (and society) will be more diverse and equitable at all levels.

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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