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Norvald Nilsen

Dancing: An activity just for girls?

Nilsen, Norvald: "Dancing: An activity just for girls", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

Dancing holds an important place within Norwegian and Scandinavian education and has appeared in the national curriculums during the last couple of decades. The school system generally has compulsory lessons in dance, frequently integrated into lessons in music and physical training. But dance is significant in after-school classes in the fine arts, and even in cultural activities run by volunteers. It is expressly stated in the Norwegian National Curriculum that all types of dance should be represented.

The intention has been that dance should be performed by both sexes. Boys and girls should experience that dancing, participation in movement to music and structural use of the body together with others, is a good and positive activity. One of the aims is to teach boys and girls to meet in a natural and suitable way. This is in recognition of the fact that neither girls nor boys benefit from being kept apart or segregated by separate girls’ and boys’ activities.

My observations during the last decades show that dance as an activity is becoming more and more a girls’ arena. Women want to dance; they attend dance courses, and they participate in voluntary cultural activities such as dance clubs. Also it is the female teachers who take part in dance courses so that they can teach their own pupils, whether it be in school or after-school classes in fine arts or in cultural activities run by volunteers.

1. The reasons

In my opinion, to search for one or more reasons for this development is rather useless. It is likely to be so over-simplified that people involved in dance education would merely reject it. It seems as though we have entered a vicious circle that has led to fewer and fewer men in the Nordic countries participating in dance. This cannot have something to do with lack of talent or willingness to engage in physical activity. I think it suffices to refer to boys’ and men’s participation in sports, activities which often require even more body control than dancing does. I think it is wiser to look at what types of dance we have, and which of these types are represented in education.

2. What is dance?

Dance is made up of so many different activities, and there are likely to be many opinions about criteria to describe what we should include under the heading of “dance”. We could set up some broad categories like: a) group occasion - social experience. b) movement to music – physical experience. c) culture – cultural experience. d) music – musical experience

But most of these are common to both sexes. We have to try to find other ways to split up the concept of “dance” that are more suitable with a view to finding the reasons why boys refuse to take part in many types of dancing. Many people might say that my classification below is too simple and rough, but I choose to do it this way in an attempt to enter into a dialogue with those who are interested in this field. Dancing is also this: 1. To be “clever”. 2. Exposition. 3. The art of dancing.

2.1. To be “clever”

Applied to dance, the word “clever” can have many different meanings to different people. I will maintain that the word “clever” has its greatest difference in meaning between men and women. In the world of women, being “clever” at dancing is to perform the correct steps and movements in an aesthetic and attractive way (so say my female dance students). It is acceptable to learn and to become “more clever” as the training proceeds. However, in many dances, the female is placed in the role of the person who has to be directed. In folk-dance clubs, “clever” can also be applied to being able to remember long sequences of movements, i.e. long and complex fixed choreographies performed at high speed (as demonstrated in many choreographed dances from the Balkans taught for members of international folk dance clubs). This is a way of showing good control of body movements, and is a challenge that suits many girls and women.

In the world of men, being “clever” means nearly the same as it does for women: Correct steps and movements carried out in an aesthetic and attractive way. Furthermore, it means greater demands are made on a man to cope with the dance situation from the beginning, and even to be able to lead his female partner in a proper way. Men have also had a more playful attitude to dancing (so say my male dance students) as we can see in their willingness to improvise and experiment. In this context, managing has another meaning; it represents another way of controlling body movements and it also presents a challenge.

2.2. Exposition

In all types of dance, participants express themselves to each other. This is common to both sexes, and throughout history, dance has of course been a way to show yourself off to someone you like, or want to have contact with. We find that men to women put a different form of expression into their exposition. Female dance exposition will of course be a display of femininity and gracefulness, and use ways to move that focus on feminine qualities. This is illustrated in their mode of expression. My statement is that this has to do with women’s sense of “being”. Male exposition in dance will contain other elements than those that are found amongst women. It will be important to show strength and vigour, body control and suppleness. In addition to expressing “being”, it will become important to exhibit “doing”.

2.3. The art of dance

Dance on the stage, and “free” dance that springs out of dance on the stage, has always shown a great difference in the mode of exposition between girls and boys. Some of the same differences as were mentioned earlier will be present also in this matter; dance roles and forms of dance for men and women clearly have separate traditions. We will find this in the tradition of classical stage dance, and in the newer, “free” stage-related tradition. Both these two branches are strongly dominated by female participants.

3. Choice of dances, and types of dance

When it comes to education, the choice of dances, and also types of dance, will be strongly influenced by the person(s) who select them. This is the case in state schools, in after-school classes in the fine arts, and in cultural activities run by volunteers. If there were both men and women in the groups making these choices, the situation would be different. But for many years now, we have been in this vicious circle where dance and dance education is more and more an area held by girls and women, so the selection of dances will necessarily suit girls more than boys.

When dances originating from ballroom dancing or traditional dancing are used in education, they will very often be dances with fixed choreography, danced with graceful movements, and the challenge will be to remember long sequences of movement at a high tempo. There will be very little room for dances presenting a physical challenge, or dances containing elements requiring leadership and improvisation.

Finally, what is done in dance lessons in the school system, or in after-school classes in the fine arts, is strongly influenced by the fact that we are in a situation where many ballet teachers are educated at our colleges in Norway and north-west Europe. So, even if curriculum plans tell us to use many different types of dancing in education, clearly “free” dance and ballet take up most of the time. We have the same situation at our university colleges; as most of the people studying dance there are women.

4. Is it possible to turn this trend?

Of course the answer to this is not that the girls should dance less. But if we think it is crucial that both girls and boys should obtain cultural experience of dance during their adolescence, it is necessary for us to change these practices.

4.1. First of all, plans for obligatory and voluntary dance education must be designed by both male and female dance teachers to guarantee that both male and female culture are represented.

4.2. Further, the choice of dances must be made from the point of view that secures both sexes an opportunity to be “clever” in the way they desire.

4.3. Last, but not least, male participants must be used as role models in lessons where female teachers are working with dance or dance exposition. These male assistants can be models for boys – and convince boys that movement in dance and rhythm can also offer something for them.

Prof. Mr. Norvald Nilsen



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