IF I CAN'T DANCE IT'S NOT MY REVOLUTION
The most famous political slogan involving dance - 'If I can’t dance it’s not my revolution' - is attributed to the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. Apparently she never said it, but the quote lived on, reaffirming dancing as a form of subversion, a feminist legacy and as a statement for freedom and joy.
Today, we consider whether or not ballet is an empowering form of movement and how it contributes to the current conversation about identity, body types and other kinds of diversity.
Most religions include dances in their rituals and ceremonies as music, dancing and singing are powerful tools to create community experiences. But dancing is also considered erotic and its ancient imagery is very much connected to polytheism, Paganistic rituals and temple priestesses who danced and made love in the name of God. So when monotheism came into power, not only were the practices banned, but the priestesses were completely eliminated from spiritual leadership. Women's bodies became carefully controlled though rigid social rules.
Since then, dancing has served as a symbol for women's empowerment. And the topic is closely related to the position of women in the society, as well as the concept of 'feminine' and gender. At the end of the 19th century, the role of the choreographer became embodied by women like Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan, artists who redefined the use of the body on stage, of gender and other norms. Dancing was a physical and sexual liberation, necessary for women’s physical, spiritual and social emancipation, and a way to fight the constraints – both physical and psychological – imposed upon women by Victorian culture. Isadora Duncan designed her dances for 'the highest intelligence in the freest body.' A few decades later, Martha Graham appeared to be her worthy successor as a troublemaker, expressing her own oppression through her pieces.
Ballet has long been synonymous with a slender and graceful physique. Unfortunately, this norm became amplified in the 1960s when Balanchine, a famous choreographer imposed his preference for 'bones' and overall thin aesthetic. With this, ballet became associated with eating disorders, extreme stress and injuries and perpetuating unrealistic body standards. For decades, these psychological and physicals symptoms were mostly ignored in the name of the beauty and dance lost its connotation of empowerment.
The 90s were full of contradictions. And while the Girl Power movement did not have much influence on the dance scene, hyper sexualization translated by frequent nudity and the queerization of dance put the concept of gender at the heart of every major modern dance piece.
But we had to wait for the third-wave feminism and the concept of intersectionality to see dance return as a true tool for empowerment. These days, thanks to the advent of social media, with the emerging body positive movement including more diversity and natural beauty, things are starting to change.
The date to remember: 2015, when Misty Copeland became the first woman of color to become a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. This appointment shook the ballet industry, totally changing the game. Ballet finally had an ambassador perfectly embodying the concepts of body positivity and modern women's empowerment. Copeland addressed racism issues in the dance industries: '[Ballet is] such a traditional and historic art form that people are afraid to change it,' she said in an interview with New York Magazine. 'But I think it has to if it’s going to last in the world we live in today. It’s hard to change someone’s ideas when they might not even really consciously know that they’re being racist, or have racist ideas, just because ballet has been this way for hundreds of years.' Dancers and company directors joined forces with the ballerina, advocating for more equality and a form of strength and creativity on stage where individuality is welcome.
Today, dance is returning to a more healthy form, one where women can express themselves and turn their uniqueness into a strength. We celebrate this acceptance of diverse body types, genders, physical and emotional qualities and the rejection of some disembodied normative ideal.