Gender:  my initial thoughts were:  are we still talking about this? Isn’t it a bit overdone? I think it’s fair to say that it is a bit passé in academic circles. I for one, definitely overdosed on feminist texts at University, indulging in the likes of Simone De Beauvoir and Judith Butler, who talk about gender as fluid – a social construction which shifts with cultural change. It’s hard to know where to go from there… That said, it is true that there has not been anywhere near as much written about men and masculinity as there has about women and feminism.

Dance is a good place to start when addressing gender. It is a body-based art form which can flirt with boundaries and has an ability to transform bodies in space and time. In dance academia, it was Ramsay Burt’s seminal text The Male Dancer (1995) which really brought questions of masculinity to light, challenging representations of men in twentieth century dance.  With Burt’s text in mind, When Men Dance takes the conversation further, around the world in fact, looking not only at the West but the Middle East and Asia in particular. It also looks at representations of the male dancer through history, from the ‘Beau’ in eighteenth-century England, to the cross-dressing ‘Juba’ in early blackface minstrelsy.

The book is composed of a series of essays from scholars in the field and personal accounts from male dance practitioners. The most interesting essays include ‘The Performance of Unmarked Masculinity’ by Ramsay Burt which suggests that the performer-spectator relationship is key to understanding the complexity of the body performing gender – what is present and absent in the moment of performance. Another is: ‘Ausdruckstanz, Workers’ Culture and Masculinity in Germany in 1920s and 1930s’ by Yvonne Hardt, which explores the role of dance as an emancipatory act for male workers in the Weimar Republic. The stories from male dance practitioners across the globe provide relief from the denser essays. It is these personal histories which make the book come to life, because gender as a concept is only really understood when practiced by real people. Their struggles with sexuality or notions of manliness as a dancer are discussed honestly. I enjoyed Seth William’s blasé approach to men dancing baroque ballet: ‘I play dress-up and do flamboyant ballets to old music: big deal.’

When Men Dance covers a lot of ground and is comprehensive in its global and chronological approach to men and masculinity; however it does not necessarily offer anything new or radical in its content. I wanted to reach beyond dance to other movement forms such as the martial arts, what of their understanding of masculinity? What about the internet, You Tube, all this shared information of the digital age which democratises dance and performance, taking it away from the stage, to just about anywhere you could move, from the street to the phone screen? This collection is a step forward, but there is more to say, much further to go.

Rachel Gildea

23 February 2014

Fisher, J. and Shay A. edit. (2009)  When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinity Across Borders  Oxford University Press USA

Available in hardback, paperback and eBook