Do feminism and dance go together? Film, literature, sculpture, paintings and music can all be feminist or reveal a feminist message. Can artists convey feminism through the power of dance? I’ve been mulling over these thoughts when I watch So You Think You Can Dance. Initially, I didn’t think so. But why not? Dancers can portray strength, self-reliance, confidence and power, all elements of female empowerment.
While I’m kinda hooked on the show, I’m not exactly knowledgeable about dance. Well, unless you count my obsessions with the awesome Dirty Dancing and the ballet movie Center Stage. My only experience with dance came a few years ago when my oldest and dearest friend Sarah M. and I took belly dancing classes together. We shimmied our hips and undulated our bellies. The feminine fluidity of the movements put me in touch with my body in a way I had never felt before. I found it incredibly sensual and surprisingly empowering.
After doing a quick Google search of feminism and dance, I stumbled upon an interesting article about the proliferation of women in modern dance and how feminism united famous modern dancers and choreographers Isadora Duncan and Yvonne Rainer. Duncan, and later dancer/choreographer/icon Martha Graham who also explored female identity, railed against what they saw as the tortuous constrictions of ballet and ultimately puritanical society, demanding women’s emancipation, while Rainer combated voyeurism and the sexual objectification of women.
“In an age still dominated by the dictates of puritanism, Duncan dared to dance uncorseted. Dressed in a loose-fitting, free-flowing tunic, she rebelled not only against the corset per se, but also against everything it symbolized: The constraints – both physical and psychological – imposed upon women by Victorian culture. Miss Rainer on the other hand, is the product of a very different time (one inspired in large part by the example of Duncan and others like her): The so-called ”sexual revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s. Unlike the feminists of Duncan’s generation who longed for sexual freedom and viewed puritanical repression as an obstacle to the emancipation of women, many feminists of the 60’s and 70’s eyed the sexual revolution with considerable suspicion, fearful that it hadn’t really liberated women, but had simply made them more sexually available. Many radical feminists began to practice what the social critic Midge Decter calls ”the new chastity.” Thus, Yvonne Rainer’s insistence upon saying ”no” to so many of the voyeuristic and erotic pleasures that dance has traditionally offered begins to assume feminist implications when viewed against this ideological backdrop.”
Despite living in different eras, Duncan, Graham and Rainer all confronted conventions about dance, how women were supposed to dress and behave, and female expression. And therein lies the crux of art: evoking emotions and challenging perceptions. Dance captures what words cannot. Last week on SYTYCD, I watched Sonya Tayeh‘s “combat jazz” choreography of the brilliantly graceful and athletic Melanie and the dynamic and charismatic Sasha. Through this fierce performance, I’m now forever convinced feminism and dance can comprise the perfect pas de deux, pushing boundaries of the mind, body and soul.