Roger Copeland once described dance as “the art of pure physical presence in which women are most fully reduced to and equated with their bodies.” The founding mothers of modern dance knew this all too well. Together, women such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, Katharine Dunham, and others courageously rejected the constrained nature of classical ballet. Rather than torturing their bodies into the restricted constructs of a male-designed paradigm, these women embraced self-expression. They tore off their corsets, danced with bare feet, and allowed emotion, gravity, and breath to fuel their movements.
Outstanding male choreographers and dancers also participated in this movement. Yet, as Copeland highlights in his article “Why Women Dominate Modern Dance,” modern dance traces its roots to the efforts of some founding fathers and several founding mothers. The foundations of modern dance thus depart from the male-driven, male-dominated traditions of most other art forms.
Unsurprisingly, feminism and modern dance inherently intertwine. Women played a key role in the movement at the time of founding, and the post-modern and contemporary dancers of today continue the female legacy. Feminist concepts and ideals, whether intentional or not, influence the developments of modern dance and make their way into the repertoire of this art form.
Many of the early modern dance companies were comprised solely of female dancers. Consider, for example, Martha Graham’s company. The company began with several working women who attended Graham’s dance classes after work. The company remained all-female for over a decade. Graham also addressed common human experiences through pieces featuring women such as “Lamentation” and strong female characters such as the pioneer woman in “Frontier” and Joan of Arc in “Seraphic Dialogue.”
Modern dance choreographers also explored the sameness/difference aspects of feminism. Graham—a powerful, intimidating, yet warm character—invented an almost radical, sexual technique centered on the natural concept of contraction. In Dance Magazine, Marnie Thomas described the contraction as "essentially an exhale that curls the pelvis under and allows the chest to hollow inward. The body shapes itself as if embracing an enormous bubble, while allowing the audience to sense the completion of the circle." In contrast, choreographers such as Twyla Tharp created un-gendered, intellectual pieces that focused the audience on the dance rather than on the sexual aspects of the female figure. Over time, just as many female members of society began to re-embrace femininity, choreographers such as Tharp created pieces reflecting a realization that the same stage could showcase the differences and similarities of the genders.
These inspirational women most definitely played by their own rules
However, an inherent irony exists within the female-influenced, explorative world of modern and contemporary dance. Rejecting the confines of ballet failed to change the reality of the dancer’s self-sacrifice. Dancers are often required to reject their personal preferences and identities in order to successfully portray the character envisioned by the choreographer.
In the inclusive, non-judgmental environment of the 2003-2007 UC Berkeley Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies Department, dancers met daily to study modern dance technique. These dancers included individuals of all genders, shapes, sizes, cultures, and politics. The space fostered a community dynamic characterized by respect, trust, acceptance, and inspiration. Within this environment, I fearlessly flung my body into the trusted arms of fellow dancers; improvised with males, females, and transgendered individuals; and grew to appreciate the beauty of movement from vastly different body-types.
Yet, in 2007, I was reminded of the commonly submissive, restricted role of a dancer—even a modern dancer. A well-respected choreographer selected a number of dancers to perform in her final piece with the department. YLC, an LGBT individual; myself; and a few other dancers were chosen to perform the piece. At the first company meeting, the choreographer asked us to agree to the terms of an American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (“AFTRA”) contract. This particular contract included a term stating that the dancers must agree to wear the costumes, make-up, and hair styles selected by the choreographer. None of us anticipated any issues that might require the enforcement of this contract.
After the first on-stage rehearsal, though, the choreographer decided that all the women must shave their legs and underarms for the performance. This struck a chord with YLC, for she was struggling with gender identification in her personal life. In fact, today “she” now goes by “he.” YLC’s hair was central to the outward expression of her self-identification. Subjected to the contract, and respectful of the choreographer’s vision, YLC—albeit reluctantly—removed the hair.
Thus, modern dance frequently represents a female-driven realm that breaks boundaries, embraces freedom, and reflects changing societal mores. But, nothing is perfect. The modern dancers may still need to wear pink dresses, apply fake eyelashes, and shave their legs to achieve the choreographer’s vision.