At a very young age, that was the message introduced to me as a dancer. I even remember as a middle schooler struggling to rationalize how someone could call my dancing “sexy” or “sensual.” Somehow, the fact I was a child no longer mattered, and my body was no longer entirely my own.
Dance falls under the realm of performing arts, which means I am inevitably a spectacle to the audience in front of me. Whether lamenting in group cohesion or commanding the stage with solo vigor, there always existed a feeling of honor to know a sold-out show of audience members cared for the profundity of dance and my performance. The most intimate moments were born from feeling not only seen, but also heard and understood across the chasm between dancer and spectator.
But hearing and understanding weren’t everyone’s goal. I learned this when compliments for my artistry became catcalls for my body and videos of my dancing became someone’s pornography. These messages were relayed to me too loud and too clear, and none of them embodied what my dancing tried to say.
Validation of my vehemence for dance often grew through performing. If someone wasn’t witnessing how vital this source of movement was to me, how would I communicate the rhythm of my entire being?
There are days I wish this question never existed.
When I brought dance outside of the dance world, I made the assumption that others would understand the art behind my body. Instead, most perceived only my body — and my art shrank under the expectations of society’s male gaze.
Dance as an institution follows other imbalanced systems in the way It champions men throughout history. Despite the current industry appearing to consist mostly of women, I could name multiple choreographers and the composers behind the dancing — and nearly all these names would be those of men.
Undoubtedly, the male presence is indispensable to the remarkable essence of dance. What is entirely inessential and toxic, however, is the determinately male gaze that decides rigid, heteronormative roles in this performing art. The very nature of this way of perceiving the body breeds an environment void of consensual exchange between mover and viewer. Left unchecked, this lack of consent endangers beyond the dance floor.
In the past when I’ve told someone I’m a dancer, there have been two common responses: “You must be flexible” and “you can dance for me anytime.” Whenever these phrases were uttered, they came from the mouth of a man with the societal male gaze in his eyes and in his mind.
These comments take my body as their own and sexualize me against my will, before I can even express how dance has saved my life more times than I can count. Even worse, the commentators didn’t have to see my dancing to deem it their personal provider of pleasure.
With more sexual assault lawsuits being filed against men in the industry, I can’t help but ache for the dancers who constantly fight against what feels like an immovable hierarchy. As long as the male gaze dictates how performers should be received, the frequency of grooming and harming artists remains. As long as I pretend not to hear the objectification forced my way, I sacrifice the autonomy of my movement and surrender my body to those who only wish to control it.
It’s all too easy to forget how the male gaze also decides what doesn’t deserve to hold power and presence. When my brother first pursued his passion for various styles of dance, the resounding response from his peers came in the form of homosexual slurs and degradation of his validity. Dance felt like a world performed by women for heteromasculine pleasure — and his presence didn’t fit that sexual fantasy.
In many ways, my brother reminded me that the male gaze does not need to rule straight men with unassailable power. His presence as a dancer honoring the work of other dancers saw past the physical and into the depth of rhythm, movement and muse. Surrounded by bodies that very easily could have become sexualized until minimized, the heart of the art prevailed.
The blessing and privilege to dance have always been my empowerment and my expression. What the male gaze instead attempts to convince me of is that my body only exists to be bought for its power. Anytime I dance, my movement reminds me I’m not for sale.
One of the last times I was on a stage was in front of an audience who didn’t know much about dance and didn’t know very much about me — an easy recipe for them to see my body and nothing more.
Even so, the music I danced to resoundingly lyricized that “no grave could hold my body down.” With final movements in my choreography, I couldn’t resist smiling to myself under the stage lights. If a grave couldn’t hold me down, a gaze couldn’t either — and I would fight either one if it tried.