circa 1981

By Ian Enriquez

Men used to rule the stages of dance just as they did their governments. This was evidenced by the court dances of France (ballet) and Japan (kabuki) where women were not allowed to perform. A woman in Japan by the name of Okuni challenged these norms and began to perform kabuki, but the government retaliated and officially banned women from the stage in 1629. Meanwhile, women were not brought to the stage in the French ballets until the Romantic era in Europe.

Both ballet and kabuki began as court ritual dances. These were more a part of the lives of the wealthy, but these eventually evolved into entertainment for the masses. This coincided with women entering the performance scene. The male audiences were not as interested in watching other men moving gracefully on the stage, so men quickly took a secondary role. Unfortunately, this did not translate in a victory for women because female ballet and kabuki dancers also served as prostitutes. This phenomenon was not limited to these cultures. The female temple dancers in India who performed the bharata natyam experienced the same fate. Sexuality and spectatorship were intertwined and the aesthetics of art appreciation was lost to the masses. For the male audience to appreciate the image of masculine grace implied homosexuality that doomed the role of men in dance.

Still men dominated the world of choreography despite taking a step back on the stage. Male ballet dancers flourished in Russia where athleticism was emphasized over grace. There was no man that commanded the attention and affections of men and women alike, more than Vaslav Nijinsky. His athleticism literally brought him to heights that defied gravity, but Nijinsjy was not about to stop there. On May 29, 1912 Njinsky scandalized the Paris audiences with L'Après-midi d'un Faune, where unusual movements, postures, and an overt sexuality broke the classical formalism of ballet.

This ballet inspired American ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins to create his own variation in 1953. However, the early 50s brought along a more powerful attack on the male artist. Homosexuals along with many other liberal artists were identified as communists and a threat to the government. Jerome Robbins faced the House Committee on Un-American Activities and saved his career and destroyed his personal life by identifying other artists as communists. This destroyed the careers of many liberal artists, including Charlie Chaplin. Robbins went on to choreograph male gangs in combat in his most famous work, West Side Story in 1957. This was one of many attempts made to redefine the image of male dance to better fit the image of stereotypical masculinity.

Nijinsky in L'Après-midi d'un Faune (1912)

Series of photographs of Ted Shawn by Nickolas Muray

Folk dances from around the world took a new form in the 20th century. Modern dance was developed by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn as they experimented with movements from various cultures. They started the Denishawn school together and modern dance blossomed.

However, the stage still belonged to women. In 1933, Ted Shawn recruited 8 men and brought them to Jacob's Pillow where he began his quest to legitimize the men in the world of dance. Ted Shawn's Men Dancers used their sexuality to their advantage and performed "Tea Lecture Demonstrations" for the public. Many women came to watch the bare chested men perform their dances based heavily on the movement of the working man. Their success led to the opening of the first dance theater in the United States in 1942.

There were many men who followed in Shawn's footsteps. The most famous of which was Alvin Ailey. However, a lot of what followed was the use of aggression to define masculinity, and people lost sight of the positive qualities of manhood.

Master Juba clogged his way to the stages of New York and pioneered clogging as a performance dance. However, the strong African aesthetic in his style evolved into its own form of dance known as tap. Though this dance form developed through the artistry of many great African-American performers, the world was watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The two epitomized the differences described earlier between ballet in France and Germany. Fred Astaire danced in a tux and maintained an image of a gentle and graceful man of the upper class, paralleling the birth of ballet with the men of the French aristocracy. Gene Kelly, on the other hand, performed with an image of the working man and often performed stunts, which resembled the focus on athleticism and skill of the Ballet Russes. It was Kelly, who managed to capture the minds of men, inspiring many to pursue dance. However, these images are few and far between.

Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly taking flight!

Today, there is a new group of guys putting on tap shoes and re-envigorating the audiences, the Barbary Coast Cloggers. We bring to the stage a unique raucous energy seldom seen on the dance stages today. We choose to define masculinity in our dance through a camaraderie of hard-working and fun-loving gents just sharing what we love with those who want to take it in.

So much has occurred in the history of dance and the journey will only continue from here. We hope to spread our knowledge, passion and energy to our audience and students through our shows and various programs, so come and see us soon and join in on the fun!


Last Updated: March 25, 2007