Western stereotype of the male ballet dancer  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Since the early 1800s, Western society has adopted a negative view of male ballet dancers, or danseurs. Danseurs are stereotyped as weak, feminine, or unnatural. The very essence of ballet is expressiveness, which directly contradicts the strict Western picture of masculinity: strength, dominance, and stifled emotion.

This belief began in the early 1800s at the emergence of Romanticism. The stereotype was not derived from homophobia, though the former is often confused for the later.


History and origins

Female dominance in Romantic ballet

As the Romantic movement erupted in the early nineteenth century, ballet's focus shifted towards the ballerina, and the danseur gradually faded into the shadows. Romanticism was a revolt against the Age of Enlightenment. According to dance scholar Carol Lee, nineteenth-century ballet was "the perfect expression of Romanticism". Ballets turned to folklore, legends, myths, and superstitions for inspiration. They told stories of nymphs and sylphs, innocent maidens and Satanic witches. Composers and choreographers were inspired by pure human emotions and a fascination for the macabre. Ballets such as Giselle and La Sylphide emerged during this time.

The heart of this new content was the ballerina. The danseur was demoted to the position of carrier for the star ballerina. He was only there to emphasize her beauty and talent. Women dominated the ballet for the first and only time in history. The Romantic content focused on the ballerina, pushing the danseur into the background. Audiences wanted to see the ethereal, airy grace of the ballerina.

Training and technique turned to ballerinas as well. Fewer and fewer men were being trained in ballet. By the mid nineteenth-century, the number of men enrolled in professional ballet schools in Western Europe dramatically decreased. This scarcity forced ballerinas to being playing danseurs’ roles. This practice of taking on roles meant for dancers of the opposite gender was called dancing en travestie

Distaste for danseurs in Romantic ballet

Around this time, the French artist Charles Edouard de Beaumont drew a lithograph entitled “The unpleasant thing about a danseuse is that she sometimes brings along a male dancer”. The piece depicts a male and female dancer. The ballerina is lithe and petite. Her partner has a distorted face, large hands, and thick legs. He appears to be off balance. He is an embarrassment in his attempt to be graceful. The piece embodies the negative undertone dancers implied to the bourgeois audience of the time.

According to dance scholar Ramsay Burt, the audience was put off by “his resembling the rude prowess of the working classes”. Romantic critic Jules Janin stated, "..I know nothing more abominable in the world than a danseur. Under no circumstances do I recognize a man’s right to dance in public".

In the Romantic Era, watching ballet became a sexual thing for many men. The focus shifted to the female body and while the choreography was meant to create art, it also provided a more exclusive way to objectify women discretely. Having men on the stage disrupted the male audience’s sexual evaluation of the performance.

The danseur also presented another problem for male viewers. The ballerina now had sexual connotations, which leaked into one’s appreciation of the male dancer. Burt explains the dilemma, "...the ways that male dancers appeared on stage became a source of anxiety to bourgeois male spectators. To enjoy the spectacle of men dancing [was] to be interested in men”. Thus the “pleasures of watching men dancing became ... marred by anxieties about masculine identity." Much of the audience now wanted the ballet stage rid of male performers.

Additionally, since the focus on the ballerina was so heavily associated with the new ideals of the time, the danseur with his stiff dominance was a reminder of the pre-Romantic ballet, and thus, Ramsay Burt asserts “the aristocrats who had been its patrons”.

Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and The Ballet Russe

With the opening of Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet company, The Ballet Russe, in Paris in 1909, Western society saw a powerful reentry of the male ballet dancer. For several decades now, the pas de deux (‘dance for two’) had been danced by two ballerinas, one en travestie. Included in the premiere show of The Ballet Russe was the Blue Bird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty, danced by a ballerina and a danseur. One of the ballets performed in the early years of the company was Le Spectre de la rose. This ballet’s content was revolutionary for its time—the main character is male, with the female playing the supporting role.

In 1911, Diaghilev formed a permanent company. One of its members was Vaslav Nijinsky (1889–1950). Nijinsky played a large role in the danseur’s return to the stage. Nijinsky was a principal danseur in The Ballet Russe. His performance in Le Spectre de la rose, launched him into stardom. He became the poster boy for male ballet dancing.

The Ballet Russe was successful and continued performing in Paris in addition to touring other countries, though the company never performed in Russia.

Male dancers began to be better accepted in their choice to perform, but by this time society was too pervaded with the dislike of men displaying qualities deemed ‘effeminate’. Audiences again desired to see male dancers perform, but society still felt uncomfortable to a certain degree.


According to a study done by the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, approximately 50 percent of male dancers in the United States are either gay or bisexual.

Response of male dancers

In a 2003 sociological study, male ballet dancers reported several stereotypes they had been confronted with including "feminine, homosexual, wimp, spoiled, gay, dainty, fragile, weak, fluffy, woosy, prissy, artsy and sissy".

In preparation for their 2009 anthology on masculinity and dance, Jennifer Fisher and Anthony Shay interviewed several male dancers from different age groups, ethnic backgrounds, and sexualities. In the interviews, the men were asked questions pertaining to the biased Western picture of male dancers such as “Do you think you’re now surrounded by any stereotypes about men and dancing?” and “Are there perceptions about men who dance that you think need changing?

One of the dancers interviewed, Aaron Cota, came up against unfair prejudices but helped dispel them. He took some time off to enter the Marine Corps. He tells of his fellow Marines’ reaction: "When they found out that [I would be earning a] dance degree, they were like 'What? You’re what?'. They were kind of confused. You just have to explain it to them. When the guys in my unit would see some of the things I’ve done, or they see videos of other people dance, and they’re like, 'Holy crap, how can they do that?' ... and they’re like 'Wow, that’s amazing,' and 'That’s kind of opened my eyes ...'".

Another dancer, David Allan, experienced very negative effects of the stereotype growing up. He tells of the time he performed in his school’s talent show at age eleven, “I was so excited about doing A Dance from David, my first choreography. So, when I came out in my pretty white tights, there was a big roar of laughter.... Later I met some guys in the hallway of my school who were making rude comments ... 'You’re that dancer guy' would turn into being thrown down the stairs."

American-born Texas-based danseur Walter Patrick Bissell mentions that he was horribly ridiculed as a boy for taking ballet classes. He did his best to keep it secret, but it eventually leaked out and he was in fights with the other children every day for the rest of school days.

Effect on participation

In a study done on peer attitudes of participants in “gender specific” sports (i.e. ballet and American football), teens ages 14–18 were found to have strong stereotypical views. Males who frequently participated in a “sex-inappropriate” athletic activity were perceived as more feminine than those who did not. The study also suggested, “This stereotyping of athletes may have an important impact on the willingness of athletes to participate in certain sports. Likewise, these stereotypes may tend to filter out certain types of potential participants — e.g., macho males ... in athletic activities which are 'inappropriate' for one's gender." Victoria Morgan, a former principal ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet, relates "... I feel there is a stigma attached to ballet in America that doesn't reflect the reality.... This makes it difficult to attract some audience members and boys for ballet companies".

Appearances in media

In the 2004 movie Shall We Dance, the main character, played by Richard Gere, asks his friend why he hides that he is a dancer. The man tells Richard Gere’s character that he was teased, called gay, and beat up as a kid because he danced. There are various examples in the media of men being teased or persecuted because of their choice to be involved in dance. The media teaches that if a man is involved in dance, he must justify his actions or face his masculinity being questioned.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Western stereotype of the male ballet dancer" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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