Dance has been historically misconstrued to be a female art form. But there was a significant moment in history when this happened.
According to Ramsay Burt, a 19th century lithograph in the Paris Opera reads – “The unpleasant thing about a danseuse is that she sometimes brings along a male dancer”. This lithograph marks a historical moment. Before this, prejudices against the male dancer in the west did not exist.
Ancient sources indicate that male dancers in the west did exist. Edith Hall mentions that Socrates is said to have advocated dance and David from the old Testament is also said to be a dancer. And yet, despite spectacular male dancers flooding the dance floor, dance in the west and more recently in India, does bear signs of silent prejudice against men. In the western Romantic era, due to the increasing acceptability of patriarchy, dance began to be seen as fundamentally effeminate. Increasingly, men were encouraged not to appear soft or emotionally expressive. Therefore, the expressive male dancer could not fit into the power status of men in bourgeois society. A slow decline in the demand for male dancers began.
Similar disappearances of nude male depictions from the sphere of art and sculpture also took place. Further, ideas of homophobia arose from this patriarchy and the prescribed role of the dominant male. One source of prejudice against the male dancer became his association with homosexuality, says Burt. Many male dancers were and are homosexual, but there are several who are not. In any case, using the dancer’s sexual identity against him was probably disguising a deeper insecurity and crisis of identity amongst the male spectators. Pleasures of watching male dancers became, in the mid-19th century, marred by anxieties about masculine identity. Erotic enjoyment by male spectators of female dancers was threatened by the presence of male dancers. Lynn Garafola asserts that men were freer to enjoy the erotic spectacle when male dancers were eliminated. The heterosexual male gaze, therefore, contributed to the stigmatization of male dancers all over the world.
Burt observed that in the 20th century, male dancers did make a come back, but as far as the audiences were concerned, they came back as ‘good supporters’ for the female ballerinas. In the 1970s, as men were returning to dance, a spate of books were required, says Edith Hall, to propagate the idea that dancing is masculine, portraying some of the dancers of the time (Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and so on) as strong, virile, heterosexual and athletic.
Closer to home, the picture was slightly different. Historically, dance was not exclusively reserved for women. Nataraja was advocated as the ancient patron deity of dance – the cosmic dancer – linking men and dance inextricably. The male gurus of female dancers also indicate that men played a significant role in codifying and formatting classical dance forms in India. Moreover, folk dances in India and indeed all over the world, have involved men and women equally and without prejudice. Moreover, male dancers in India have played monumental roles in evolving dance throughout the evolution of dance forms in modern history – Ramgopal, Uday Shankar, traditional Kathakali and Chhau dancers, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Birju Maharaj just to name a few. But the sort of patriarchy that alienated the male dancer in the west, did, perhaps through Colonialism, enter the Indian subconscious. And homophobia also came to be entrenched in Indian society. It is then plausible that the prejudice against male dancers has also seeped into Indian dance.
In the last several decades, male dancers have fought for their place in the world of dance. They have demanded acceptability and well-deserved recognition. But somewhere in the minds of contemporary spectators, centuries-old prejudices still persist. Arising from patriarchal ideas – that outline the dominant role of men in society and prescribe how men should conduct themselves publicly in terms of their feelings – these prejudices are deeply linked to homophobia, and outdated ideas of masculinity and femininity. Male and female dancers cannot hope to be rid of this stigmatization of the male dancer if these ideas continue to exist.