Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques 2013/2
C. Bassetti : 67-90
Male dancing body,
stigma and normalising processes
Playing with (bodily) signifieds/ers
Chiara Bassetti *
Based on a multi-sited ethnography on Western theatrical dance, the article fo-
cuses on the “problem of the male dancer”. Once discussed the historical gene-
alogy of the stigma and its effect on men's participation in dance, I consider
three stigma “antidotes”. Two of them – artistic-professional excellence, mani-
fest in structural inequalities, professional practice and social discourse; and
athleticism, involving discursive and representational strategies – consist of
emphasising the masculinising aspects of dancing-as-art/profession (virtuosity,
creativity), and dancing-as-leisure/body-activity (prowess, self-control). Nei-
ther of them presents as legitimate alternative masculinities; they are normalis-
ing strategies. The third antidote leverages on the choice of the dance style/s,
and the use of the markers of embodied identity that styles as bodily,
kin(aesth)etic sub-cultures provide. The increasing variety of styles not only
changed Dance's representation in the West and thus affected men's presence,
but also provides semiotic resources for expressing gender and, more generally,
for forms of identity construction and self-presentation that may be alternative
to dominant models.
Keywords : Dance, Embodied identity, Masculinity, Normalising strategies, Stigma
“Dance is stuff for queers!”, a sentence we've all heard at least once.
The process of practical and symbolic feminization that Western theatrical
dance1 has undergone since the XIXth century (Burt, 1995 ; Thomas, 1996)
* Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technology. Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche. Department of
Sociology and Social Research. University of Trento
1 Such expression points to those dance forms that have emerged in Europe and (then) North America
since the XVth century and have undergone a process of artification (SHAPIRO R., HEINICH N., 2012).
This involves dance styles – ranging from classical and neoclassical ballet to modern and contemporary
dance, jazz and musical, theatre-dance, hip-hop, etc. – that are socially regarded as art forms, and in-
tended to be represented onstage (differently, for instance, than dancesport).
68 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
has led to the so-called problem of the male dancer (Adams, 2005). On the
one hand, the majority of (aspiring) dancers are women : in Italy (Bassetti,
2010), France and UK (Rannou/Roharik, 2006), US (Risner, 2008, 2009a,
2009b ; Van Dyke, 1996), and many other countries. Moreover, the same
goes for dance audiences (e.g. for Italy Istat, 2008). However, the number
of male dancers has increased in the last decade or so. On the other hand,
the male dancer suffers from a stigma (Goffman, 1963) which appears in-
delible, throwing his primary identity into crisis (i.e., gendered, and thus
sexual, identity). And yet, as I shall demonstrate, this can be downsized at
both collective and individual levels through manifold strategies, normal-
ising and not.
The article analyses the social processes which help to legitimise men's
dancing. What are the normalising strategies for the men-who-dance and
the dance-danced-by-men ? What are the symbolic and material resources
from which one can draw ? What are the bodily and embodied signifieds
and signifiers that one can exploit to express and communicate (hegemon-
ic) masculinity (Connell/Messerschmidt, 2005) ? Of relevance here, are
not only the extraordinary performances taking place onstage – often criti-
cised, especially in classical ballet, for gender role representation2 – but
also the everyday ordinary performances (Butler, 1993 ; Garfinkel, 1967 ;
Goffman, 1977 ; Martin, 2003). The body, indeed, presents itself as sexed,
equipped with specific physical characteristics, dressed and decorated,
used and moved in a “certain” manner, the sub/object of some body tech-
niques (Mauss, 1936) and not others. Though incarnated in the individual
in infinite combinations, properties tied to corporeality and bodily acting
tend to be associated, at the level of social representations, to femininity or
masculinity. They constitute, therefore, semiotic resources for
(de)constructing and (re)presenting gender.
Starting from such considerations, I elaborate on in the third section, the
article will then focus, in the fourth, on the male dancer's stigma, its his-
torical genealogy and its effects on men's participation in dance. In the last
sections, stigma “antidotes” will then be discussed : artistic-professional
excellence, manifest in structural inequalities, professional practice and
social discourse ; athleticism, which involves discursive and representa-
tional strategies ; “wise” choices among dance styles and exploitation of
the semiotic resources they provide for expressing gender.
II. Data and methods
The article is based on the multi-sited ethnography I carried out from
2006 to 2009 on the world of Western theatrical dance – in particular, the
Italian field. I conducted fieldwork and video-based research with two
companies and the related schools – differently placed in the national sce-
2 «Ballet is one of the strongest models of patriarchal ceremony» (DALY A., 1987, p.16). Many scholars
claim this (ADAIR C., 1992 ; FOSTER S., 1996 ; HANNA J., 1988 ; NOVACK C., 1993), whereas BANES S.
(1998) challenged such an argument. See also THOMAS H. (1996, 1997).
C. Bassetti 69
nario in terms of centre/periphery – as well as, though occasionally, about
ten international companies and dozens of national companies/schools.
Moreover, for the first time in my life, I participated in classes and shows
as a full-fledged member – mainly in Italy, but I also spent 3 months at the
Dance Department of the University of California Riverside, attending
theoretical and practical courses. Data also includes in-depth interviews
(n=23) with professional practitioners. Whereas both observed companies
engage in modern and contemporary dance, some schools also offer
courses of classical dance and hip-hop, and most of the interviewees,
though expert in one main style, (have) practise(d) the others as well.
Finally, I conducted secondary analysis of quantitative data concerning
the Italian labour market (Enpals, 2008), and “mapped” the i) institutional
(e.g. companies and academies), ii) commercial (e.g. specialised firms and
editions) and iii) imaginary (e.g. art and advertising) branches of the na-
tional field by surveying their components (Table 1). Some of the latter,
such as forums and blogs, movies, and printed advertisements, constituted
the basis for further document analysis, focused on both content (themes,
characters, plots) and form (discursive, narrative, visual features), and
concerned with both style comparison and historical change.
Table 1 : Italian dance field(s) mapping.
III. Gender and corporeality : normalcy and deviance
In common sense culture, masculinity and femininity constitute two
dichotomic categories, equipped with their dominant models and more or
less appropriate and illustrative bodily properties, bodily doings (move-
ment, gesture, body, techniques, etc.), and activities (e.g. Connell, 1987 ;
Goffman, 1979). There are, therefore, female bodies that exhibit bodily
and embodied characteristics regarded as feminine (e.g. from slenderness
and scarce muscularity to body techniques like waxing or crossing legs),
and other – deviant – bodies which do not, and maybe, instead, present
DANCERS (TAXPAYERS/AUTHOR'S SURVEY) :
SPECIALIZED FIRMS :
SPECIALIZED JOURNALS :
ACADEMIES AND SCHOOLS :
(BOOK, DVD, CD, ETC.) :
ASSOCIATIONS, FOUNDATIONS, ETC. :
BLOGS AND WEBZINES :
SECONDARY DANCE SCHOOLS :
UNIVERSITY DANCE COURSES :
FIGURATIVE ARTS :
MUSEUMS, LIBRARIES, ARCHIVES, ETC. :
FESTIVALS AND EXHIBITIONS :
CONTESTS AND AWARDS :
TELEVISION SHOWS :
70 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
some of the properties that are socially associated with masculinity (e.g.
muscularity, ample movements, shaving). Similarly, male bodies may ex-
hibit or not characteristics regarded as representative of masculini-
ty/femininity. As a matter of fact, each body occupies a specific position
along the axis of the bodily properties and doings regarded as masculine
and, simultaneously, on that of those considered feminine. Women who,
though defined female, are regarded as non-feminine, are generally called
“tomboy” or masculine. This is often the case of women hip-hoppers. In
the same but opposite way, those who are identified as sexually male but
regarded as scarcely masculine are called “wimp” or effeminate. This is
the male ballet dancer's fate.
If we construct a semiotic square (Greimas, 1970) of the male/female
dichotomy (Figure 1) by negating each of the two terms, we then obtain
two more categories, which are in turn in a relation of mutual sub-
opposition : not-male and not-female, that we may identify with what, in
common sense discourse, is defined as wimp and tomboy respectively. We
immediately note the problem of the deixis (vertical lines), which would
presuppose the identity, in (formal) logical terms, of male and not-
female/tomboy, on the one hand, and, on the other one, female and not-
male/wimp. Since biological sex – on which the mainstream discourse
(Foucault, 1971), or socio-logic, that constructs gender as a dichotomy is
based (Butler, 1990) – differs between the two terms of each couple, logi-
cal identity collapses, and reveals the complexity underlying the classifi-
catory abstraction and the distance running between (bio-logical) sex and
Figure 1 : Semiotic square of male/female dichotomy.
Nevertheless, in common sense culture, whilst in the upper cases the
individual, regarded as “normal”, reproduces the hegemonic model, in the
other ones, s/he is considered “deviant”, and stigmatised. Part of the stig-
ma consists of presuppositions and prejudices concerning sexual orienta-
tion : whereas the heteronormative model is taken for granted in the upper
C. Bassetti 71
cases, the inappropriateness to one's own sex/gender displayed by the
lower ones involves homosexuality-related assumptions, to which male
ballet dancers – and, to a lesser extent, female hip-hoppers3 – are subject.
Bodily and embodied properties are sometimes simply associated with the
choice – regarded as morally neutral – of practising a dance style, and
sometimes instead linked to a certain lifestyle – negatively marked in
IV. Stigma : the problem of the male dancer
Concerning men, the relation effeminacy-homosexuality came to be
established in Western common sense discourse through specific historical
processes, in the midst of what has been almost unanimously defined as
the “crisis of masculinity” of the late XIXth and early XXth centuries
(Carnes/Griffen, 1990 ; Fout, 1992 ; Maugue, 2001 ; McLaren, 1997 ;
Mosse, 1996). Similarly, male dancer stigma arose at a particular time and
went through diverse phases, having its foundations in cultural plots and
conceptual dichotomies that were becoming progressively dominant.
The prejudice about men who dance crept in, for the first time in the
West, in the XIXth century. With Romanticism and the invention of
“points”, women became ballet's true stars – and came to personify femi-
ninity's quintessence – and ballet itself became “women's stuff”. Men,
who till then had dominated the (noble) dance world, began to leave it,
and by the end of the century almost completely disappeared
(Bland/Percival, 1984 :12-13). At the beginning of this process, however,
the stigma was not based on male dancers’ supposed homosexuality,
which, furthermore, was not yet regarded as an identity trait. On the con-
trary, the stigma had its foundations in the increasingly dominant bour-
geois culture. First, the dance-danced-by-men belonged to an aristocratic
world which the bourgeoisie was standing up to (Burt, 1995 :17). Second,
the most appropriate leisure activity for the bourgeois man came to be
identified with sport, which underwent a real boom from the second half
of the XIXth century on. Third, and in particular, male dancers were chal-
lenging bourgeois expectations concerning what a man should or should
not do with his body, and they were doing so by systematically occupying
the female/feminine side of the conceptual dichotomies on which gender
was constructed in the society of the time. The male dancer, in fact, uses
his body to expressive rather than instrumental ends. He exploits his body
in order to express emotions and feelings – shame with which a man, as a
supremely rational individual, should not soil his hands. And he does so
publicly. Finally, he displays his own body – this being an aim in itself,
not the consequence of a different end – and, therefore, he makes it an ob-
ject to be admired for its beauty (vs. prowess/utility) – a treatment usually
reserved for the (passive) female body (Bordo, 1999). In so doing, he does
not occupy the position he should, i.e. the masculine, and thus masculinis-
3 On lesbian dancers see MOZINGO A., 2005.
72 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
ing, one of the spectator (Mulvey, 1989 :29), and, perhaps worse, embar-
rasses those who, as such, find themselves looking at male bodies be-
sides/rather than female ones. Such an issue would become even more rel-
evant in the late XIXth century.
From then on, in fact, effeminacy ceased to be connected with luxury,
idleness and lust – till then, effeminate was for instance Casanova – and
came to be regarded as a mark of homosexuality. The latter ceased to be
considered a “mere” matter of sexual choice, just a particular kind of for-
bidden act (Foucault, 1976), and, being entangled with effeminacy, be-
came a popular concept and produced the idea of the homosexual as a
kind-of-person, a “character”4. Once this cultural plot became dominant, it
did not take much for signifiers to be associated to signifieds, for “signs”
of effeminacy-and-thus-homosexuality to become recognisable and de-
tectable – a whole, new horizon of sense making through which to per-
ceive and interpret reality. A fundamental role in this process was played
by the figure of Oscar Wilde and the trial he underwent (Sinfield, 1994).
Wilde's displayed mannerisms and affectation, the dandy attire he shared
with Lord Brummel, and his artistic interests were no longer interpreted as
choices but as physical marks (Adams, 2005 :73), bodily – thus natural –
signs of his homosexuality and, by extension, homosexuality as such.
At the beginning of the XXth century, when artistic inclinations were by
then regarded as a homosexual trait5, the visibility of Serge Diaghilev, his
lovers and his Ballet Russes – with the male bodies he reintroduced among
the ballet stars, made to exhibit onstage in a role different from the por-
teur’s, and celebrated for their beauty and erotic charge – did the rest in
crystallising the equivalence of theatrical dance with the binomial effemi-
That is why engaging in dance may be problematic for men. As the fol-
lowing excerpt shows, an interest in dance, just as such, might be read as a
sign of deviation from mainstream masculinity, not to mention actual
dancing, which leads one to be (regarded as) “a little bit… like that”. Yet,
starting to dance in one's twenties, practicing with a group of male peers,
and choosing the most masculine among dance styles, as well as growing
older, may downsize the problem :
I started dancing [when I was 21] because I had friends who were
dancing hip-hop. Probably, if I had friends dancing modern, or con-
temporary, or tango, I would have done other things […]. So it has
been casual in sum, it's not that hip-hop was my dream, absolutely
not. When I was younger, the male dancers… I regarded them a little
4 The common use of “sissy”, indeed, dates back to the late XIXth century (HARPER D., 2010).
5 Krafft-Ebing (KRAFFT-EBING R., 1903) described the effeminate “type” of homosexual as subject to
neurasthenia and emotional disorders, often employed in “women's jobs”, and having artistic interests.
Art, as a representation of one's inner world, was more and more regarded as feminine. The romantic
idea(l) of the artistic genius is just the exception confirming the rule ; it's precisely the exceptional, ex-
traordinary geniality attributed to the male artist that works as a stigma antidote (cf. BATTERSBY C.,
C. Bassetti 73
bit… like that – to be honest. So I wasn't very pro-dance, let's say.
[…] my mother is interested in dance, she has VHSs, DVDs – yet of
classical ballets, obviously […] but she didn't pass her passion on to
Question : Are you sure ?
I was completely disinterested in dance. Now indeed I'm moving
closer to her, she shows me movies, videos ; earlier I completely re-
fused this idea, of dance, of dancing anyway (M, 31 ; Mar. 20066).
Among male interviewees, this is not a lone voice. Most of them – and
many male dancers I met – started dancing relatively late in life, and in
most of their biographical narratives chance plays an important role7. For
some, like the below quoted interviewee who reached dancing through
acting, this happens even to the detriment of one of the discursive hinges
of dancers’ biographies, i.e., destiny, predestination, natural predisposi-
I started when I was 16 and a half […] Earlier nothing, I had a pas-
sion for dance but I didn't do anything. When I was 15 I attended a
theatre course, and it included dance lessons and I was attracted to
dance. The teacher told me ‘[…] go to this school, do a try-out [...]’.
So, that's how it started.
Question : What does it mean you had a passion ?
I always danced as a child, in front of the television […]. A great
need of movement, following the body, the music, the rhythm ; when
I was very very young too, I had a record player, I took it all around
the house and danced […]
Question : Yet until you were 16 you didn't ?
Well, no. You know, I was really good at school and my parents
didn't want me to be distracted with other stuff. Maybe they had in
mind a sport, or some leisure activity, rather than dance intended not
as sport but full-time activity (M, 38 ; Mar. 2006).
Both a) late involvement with dance, and b) the chance-grounded – thus
de-responsibilising – identity performance of self-narration (in front of a
woman) enacted during interviews, point to a certain discomfort among
men, especially heterosexual ones, with regard to their interest in dance.
Those who started dancing relatively early, more or less explicitly allude
to discrimination :
6 Gender, age ; interview date. The excerpts from interviews as well as field notes are translated from
the original Italian by the author.
7 Recent research on Italian male primary school teachers reports the same chance-groundedness in
biographical narratives (ABBATECOLA E., 2012, pp.366-367).
8 Such a hinge is fully pervasive in woman dancers' narratives, though usually evenly shared with that of
74 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
I was one of those few who did start dancing when they were young,
and I was definitely picked on as a child for dancing up through all
of middle school (Posted 10th Nov. 2012)9.
Someone joked like ‘Should you really dance ? You could be a soc-
cer player! ’ (M, 26 ; Feb. 2006).
What lies behind such a joke is the soccer player being better not only
qua sportsman, but also qua hot-chicks-puller, so to speak. In fact, hetero-
sexual regulations are at play in the dance world too, even if in a particular
way, and they produce a tricky side-effect. Physical contact being very
frequent, and the body being exposed to the gaze of others «at various
stages of undress» (Wulff, 1998 :114), dancers (are taught to) enact what
Federico (1974 :252) calls «occupational minimisation of sexual attrac-
The teacher invites us to “be curious” […] “Paul, don't be afraid of
the breast!” (Field notes 19th Dec. 2007).
Minimisation of (hetero)sexual attraction coupled with maximisation of
physical contact constitute stigma strengthening elements. Traditionally,
the tacit requirement is for men to be sexually attracted by sexually attrac-
tive women, and to be so anytime in their presence, not to mention when
touching them (an action which they moreover should not be afraid of or
embarrassed by). One of the questions male dancers are implicitly re-
quired to answer is the following : How can you call yourself a (straight)
man when you spend hours everyday among semi-naked, attractive young
women and you do not pull them ?
V. Antidotes : normalising strategies and the role of dance styles
On the basis of my empirical research, I have identified three main an-
tidotes. Two of them have been observed mainly at the collective level
and consist of emphasising the masculinising aspects of dancing-as-
art/profession, such as excellence and creativity, and dancing-as-
leisure/body-activity, like athleticism and self-control. Neither of them
tries to present alternative masculinities as legitimate. They are “normalis-
ing” strategies, and aim to (re)present the male dancer as endowed with
(all the) mainstream masculine characteristics. A third antidote, that pri-
marily works at the individual level, makes leverage on the choice of the
dance style/s, and the use of the markers of embodied identity that styles
as kinaesthetic sub-cultures provide. The increasing variety of styles – that
represent gender roles in more or less traditional ways, and present differ-
ences with respect to body movement and decoration – have not only
changed and made the representation of dance in Western societies more
complex, but have also provided semiotic resources for expressing more
or less stereotypical masculinity/femininity.
9 http ://rootshalfhidden.blogspot.it/2012/11/gender-inequality-in-dance.html.
C. Bassetti 75
A. The regime of artistic-professional excellence :
creativity and virtuosity
The relative percentage of men in a given group of practitioners rises
with the increase of the context's degree of professionalism and excel-
lence. I observed that in Italian peripheral private schools it is hard to find
even one boy, while in (semi-)professional, centrally located10 ones, male
presence is higher. As for the labour market, the picture does not change.
In trying to debunk what she regards as a myth, Wulff (1998 :110) claims
that «the majority of women dancers over men in classical companies was
[…] rather small» ; the anthropologist, however, refers to three European
ballet companies of utmost rank – a small part of the dance world, though
central in the classical ballet sub-world. But most of the professionals I
met work outside major institutional organisations, as “free dancers” (of-
ten in diverse sectors, ranging from theatre to television, and in diverse
dance styles) and/or in independent companies : the more prestige and de-
gree of institutionalisation decreases, the fewer men are found11. Wulff's
claim is rather a confirmation of men's higher presence at the centre of the
field (Bourdieu, 1992), in the “contexts of excellence”. As further corrob-
oration, consider Adams' (2005 :66) claim that «athleticism and muscular-
ity were to have brought male dancers mainstream acceptance and respect
[… but] have yet to do so at any but the most elite levels».
Men dancers, furthermore, are favoured in many respects when com-
pared to women colleagues. Awards and scholarships are mostly allotted
to men, in Italy12 and elsewhere (for the US, see Risner, 2008 :109) ; more
generally, as I observed and others reported (Cushway, 1996 ; Risner,
2009b), men receive more attention, positive feedback and rewards during
education and training. As for the labour market, they are systematically
favoured in terms of employment and income13, and tend to reach success
more quickly and easily. They also occupy most of the authority positions
in schools, academies and companies – in Italy and the US at least (Risner,
2008 ; Van Dyke, 1996).
The situation is similar to that in other feminine and feminizing jobs
(e.g. Abbatecola, 2012 ; England/Boyer, 2009 ; Reskin, 1993 ; William,
1992). Choreographers of famous and funded companies14, chefs of pres-
10 For an analysis of the central and peripheral poles of the Italian dance field see BASSETTI C., 2010,
11 On the characteristics and typical uncertainty of the dance labour market, see BASSETTI C., 2010,
pp.124-134 for Italy ; RANNOU J., ROHARIK I., 2006, 2009 for France and the UK. On performing arts'
labour markets, see e.g. BUSCATTO C., 2008; MENGER P-M., 1999, 2005 ; SHAPIRO R. et al., 2009.
12 Consider the prestigious Premio Léonide Massine : each year (considered period : 2002-2010), more
than half of the awards went to men.
13 Enpals' (2008) data on Italy reports average annual working rates of 61 and 51.1 days for men and
women respectively ; average daily income is 96.17 vs. 68.56 euros.
14 See, for instance, BREMSER M., 2011. Consider also two newspaper articles, concerning the UK
(JENNINGS L., 2013) and US (LA ROCCO C., 2007) respectively, that confirm the author’s data on Italy
(BASSETTI C., 2010).
76 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
tigious restaurants15, as well as directors and designers of renowned fash-
ion houses16 are usually men. It is not only that men get higher positions
once a trivial activity or profession becomes a national symbol, thus mov-
ing closer to culture than nature (Ortner, 1974 :20) ; it is also that – when
it comes to activities traditionally assigned, and thus symbolically linked,
to women – precluding the latter’s access to apical positions enables male
colleagues not to get “too” close, nor blend in “too much” with the dicho-
tomically opposed gender ; it is, moreover, also that, at the level of main-
stream, stereotypical social representation, a man should occupy a central
position as long as he engages in such “womanly” activities – and this
works as a normalising strategy.
Apart from the structural elements of gender inequalities, excellence
furthermore takes on different nuances for men and women, both within
the professional field and, in a relationship of mutual influence and rein-
forcement, in the broader society : gender roles «are not only apparent in
the reception dimension of dance, but are constantly part of its everyday
production» (Saura, 2009 :44). Recent research on auditions and recruit-
ment (Sorignet, 2004), as well as rehearsals and choreographer-dancer(s)
interaction (Saura, 2009), shows that, not only in classical but also in
modern and contemporary dance, whereas women are judged by their
beauty and technical perfection – as “aesthetic sub/objects”, might one say
– men, who often spent far less time in training, are evaluated by «less
normative criteria, following their strength, creativity or energy»
(ibid. :40) – as “creative subjects”. The male dancer’s body cannot, of
course, completely evade an aesthetic judgement concerning its beauty,
yet that is exerted on the basis of less strict categories than with respect to
female bodies : similarly in the case of UK actors/tresses analysed by
Dean (2005), the “accepted spectrum” is wider, as well as more nuanced
and varied. This constitutes a stigma antidote, since it distances male
dancers from one of the opposite gender's defining features : sexual
productivity (Adkins, 1995). Technical abilities, on the other hand, are not
at all irrelevant, but might be compensated for by subjective qualities such
as creativity, energy and passion. These, moreover, are generally framed
in terms of artistic geniality or athletic prowess (see also Gard, 2001 :218).
One might claim that whereas the female dancing body is itself regard-
ed as an artwork, as a moving object, so to speak, the male’s is considered
as not just a body but “the body of” a subject – a subject which, with that
body but thanks to his artistic/physical talents, creates and makes art. This
claim is strong, voluntary drastic and carried-to-extremes. Actually, it is a
matter of relevance, of figure-ground relationships in Schutzian terms.
15 In the US, for instance, women fill only 19% of chef positions (BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS, 2010 :
Table 11). Consider, as another example, the case of the restaurant sector in Portugal (CONFEDERAÇÃO
GERAL DOS TRABALHADORES PORTUGUESES - INTERSINDICAL NACIONAL, 2008, p.20).
16 We need merely think of Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Givenchi, Armani. At the Council of Fash-
ion Designers of America’s awards, in 2011, 18 men and 3 women were awarded. The Encyclopedia of
Clothing and Fashion (STEELE V., 2004) includes entries on 36 female and 69 male designers.
C. Bassetti 77
Yet, such a polar tension exists. Now, if a male body as the spectatorial
gaze's object constitutes, as we have seen, a problem, then transforming
such a body into an active subject may be a partial solution : the dancing
man does not display his body, whose appearance is not that relevant in
the end17, but his art. The spectator does not risk looking at the male danc-
er's body as he would a female’s (a legitimate object of gaze and desire) ;
he looks instead at “the body of” an artist who is making art, an athlete
who is testing his capabilities (though to aesthetic rather than instrumental
ends). In other words, the male dancer is legitimated as a virtuoso ; his
genius, the exceptionality of his talent may constitute, as it did for Nijin-
sky (Burt, 1995), a de-stigmatising element, and one capable of compen-
sating for an otherwise inappropriate behavioural exceptionality18.
B. Dance as athletic-sportive activity :
self-control and self-overcoming
Of equal exceptionality, however, the aesthetic/artistic domain remains
more ambiguous and problematic for men than the athletic/sportive one.
Starting from its mass diffusion since the mid XIXth century, sport has be-
come a fundamental site of masculinising practices (Whitson, 1990 :28),
in terms of both the use he makes of his own body and the masculinity
those practices can inscribe on such a body, thus making it “visibly” more
Therefore, as variously noted (Adams, 2005 ; Gard, 2001 ; Risner,
2008), attempts at normalising dance-danced-by-men – and fostering male
participation in dance (Crawford, 1994) – through “sportivisation” have
been numerous. Since Ted Shawn, many “dance experts” have endeav-
oured to present dance as a sportive activity, in stressing its demands in
terms of athletic prowess, bodily challenges and, consequently, the over-
coming of one's own physical limits. Gene Kelly hosted a TV show,
“Dancing is man's game”, in which famous sportsmen were asked to exe-
cute some typical movement of their discipline, and male dancers then
repeated such movements in a full display of self-control, elegance,
strength and effortlessness.
Think, more generally, of the display, onstage and not (cinema, TV,
visual communication), of athletic and muscular bodies, engaged in am-
ple, forceful and energetic movements19, and dressed to increase their visi-
bility and make them visually closer to athletes’ bodies. As time and
dance styles have come and gone, dance apparel has in fact changed as
well : though diversely “conjugated” in each style, men's style has moved
17 It is not selected by participants (whether the casting choreographer, or the attending audience mem-
ber) as immediately salient in/for their practices of appreciation, evaluation and judgement.
18 Virtuosity and geniality have been justifications for artists’ deviant behaviour in both men’s and
women’s cases. However, for male dancers, they serve as justifications for a specific kind of deviant
behaviour, for a gender-related stigma. For female dancers, virtuosity can instead compensate for alco-
holism, for instance, as it does for (men and women) singers.
19 Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Bolle are indeed renowned for their astonishing leaps.
78 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
towards athleticisation/sportivisation. Ideal typical references range from
the gymnast of classical antiquity, to the Greek-Roman wrestler, to the
Olympic athlete ; from the contemporary gym-goer, to the martial arts
practitioner, to the sports champion (simply search for “male dancer” on
Such a normalising strategy exerts leverage not only on categorising
sport as an appropriate activity for men ; nor only on the notion according
to which a strong and muscular body is – or should be – a male one (and
vice versa) ; but also on two cultural themes of utmost relevance in mod-
ern discourse that are symbolically linked to masculinity and can be
brought to the surface of both sport and dance : self-control and self-
As Goffman (1967) noted, controlling oneself and one's own body –
something that dance as well as sport or martial arts can enhance20, and the
dancer as well as the sportsman or the judoka can display – constitutes a
fundamental value of disciplined (Foucault, 1975) Western modernity.
Self-control, moreover, rests on the male/masculine side of the gender di-
chotomy : in modern mainstream discourse, whose legacy is still at work
beneath common sense culture, whereas the woman is enslaved by her
own uncontrolled emotionality (to the point of hysteria), the man is the
one who is able to master himself (and indeed possesses a publicly dis-
playable Self). Therefore, self-control represents a potential antidote. The
underlying tacit plot is the following : by dancing, the man does not so
much express his emotions and let himself go, as the woman is sup-
posed/allowed to do ; rather, he enacts his – exceptional – self-control,
mastering himself and his body.
Secondarily, if, via self-control, one overcomes oneself by definition,
we should also consider that dancers, like athletes, face many bodily chal-
lenges, which all constitute opportunities for overreaching oneself and
one's physical limits. Jumping higher could be a dancer's goal as it is a
basketball player's. Overreaching one's limits and managing the pain that
usually follows constitutes another, definitely masculine myth of Western
modern culture, especially in sportive and performing art’s sub-cultures.
The ideology of pain lying behind the romantic figure of the virtuoso (Al-
ford/Szanto, 1996 :6-12), and the normalisation of injury and pain typical
of both sport (Nixon, 1993) and dance (Aalten, 2007 ; Wulff, 1998)21
symbolically refer, as much as strength and muscularity, to masculinity –
20 Renaissance dance concurred to discipline court society's members (ELIAS N., 1969 ; FILMER P.,
1999). Later, sport took up such a role. We might suppose that, in Eastern societies, martial arts played a
similar one. Perhaps it is not by chance that in recent decades dance became popular in the East as mar-
tial arts did in the West.
21 «Many dancers experience pleasure in pushing themselves until they get pain» ; the counterbalance is
«the pleasure of being able to move and control one's body beyond ordinary motor activities» (WULFF
H., 1998, p.107).
C. Bassetti 79
irrespective of the fact that sportswomen (e.g. Malcom, 2006) and women
dancers too appropriate such an ethic22.
Despite the huge collective endeavour, this normalising strategy has not
fully succeeded. Stigma is still there (Gard, 2006 ; Risner, 2009a ; Wil-
liams, 2003). This depends on the enormous relevance of corporeality and
embodied identity, as we shall shortly see, as well as on context. By fram-
ing bodies, in fact, context introduces further meanings, which in turn are
able to impress different nuances upon the same semiotic resources. If
worn by Yuri Chechi on the springboard, rather than Adam Cooper on-
stage, the same tight suit takes on different meanings. The visibility of the
male dancer's body at the swimming pool needs no legitimisation but that
provided by a context in which the visibility of any and every body is so-
cially allowed beyond common norms. And his body is admired – by both
men and women – as a male one. On the contrary, in theatre, where the
body's visibility is dramatically asymmetrical, the dancer's bodily display,
though legitimised by the ritual occasion, suffers from the absence of non-
merely-aesthetic reasons. Precisely thanks to the framing power of the rit-
ual, furthermore, the muscularity of the dancer's body is primarily regard-
ed as an attribute of the dancing body, rather than of the male body, and
thus loses much of its masculinising charge.
C. The stylistic continuum : in/congruence playing
I define style as the maintenance of expressive identifiability, and con-
sider the in/congruence playing it allows as the key to self-construction
and self-representation. Dance styles provide systems of signs that the in-
dividual dancer as well as the collectively understood dance world can
exploit in order to represent themselves.
As each gender does, each style has its own ways of moving and using
the body. It is about different movements (e.g. fouetté vs. kick) as well as
different ways of doing the same movement (e.g. fluent vs. fragmented
rhythm). For those who dance, therefore, style – which, once embodied,
crosses the thresholds of the dance world and penetrates everyday life in
habitual form – and gender – an early “theme” in socialisation – combine,
and create a complex matrix of kinaesthetic identities, on the basis of
which each dancer negotiates on her/his own in the work of “impression
management” (Goffman, 1959) s/he does.
There is more : each style makes a different use of the male and the fe-
male body, and considers the two more or less similar and interchangea-
ble. Choreography can reinforce or challenge the common sense
notion that there are speciﬁcally male and female styles of move-
ment. If a choreographer believes that they are inherently different,
22 From the point of view of identity construction and, especially, identity performance, whereas for
women to appropriate such an ethic means to demonstrate being a real dancer or sportswoman, for men
it is a means of demonstrating that they are “real men” (despite being a dancer).
80 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
then she or he will design for each sex different steps, which, of
course, will reinforce the original notion (Adams, 2005 :76).
This is the case of classical ballet, whereas contemporary dance “devi-
ates” more often23 : for instance, the soloist role of the famous Bolero (Be-
jart/Ravel), a piece endowed with strong erotic charge, has been created
for, and enacted by, both men and women, with no single change in cho-
reography. This can certainly contribute to “queering” (De Lauretis,
1991), so to speak, gender roles’ representations as produced in the world
of theatrical dance ; more specifically, it can contribute in representing
such a world as less women’s, and can thus work as a stigma antidote for
the latter’s male members.
Clothing too – costume and, especially, practice-wear – involves per-
ceptible differences, and therefore constitutes a semiotic resource able to
mark and produce gender (Barnes/Eicher, 1992) and, more generally,
identity (Keenan, 2001). At the individual level, therefore, such a re-
source, as we will come to see, can also be used as an antidote via incon-
gruence playing. By moving from classical ballet, with its tutus, tights and
the jubilation of pink and other delicate colours ; to modern and jazz, with
colourful leotards, shorts and leg warmers ; to contemporary dance, with
its almost-naked bodies, wrapped in tight, neutrally coloured clothes ; up
to hip-hop, with its vests, low-waist cargo trousers and the prevalence of
dark or bright colours, we also move through diverse ways of dressing and
decorating the body. Such ways may be more or less attached to the social
representations that are dominant with respect to each gender. For men,
tights are, or should be, more embarrassing than bourgeois' (Flugel, quot-
ed in Burt, 1995) dark suits, or “robust workman's” sleeveless shirts.
Whereas someone may choose modern over classical dance, at least until a
certain age, for others wearing the garb of the ballet dancer may be trau-
matic, or at least presented as such :
[…] a series of crises in the dance career have defined me. First,
choosing modern over ballet […] because I did not want to perform
in tights (later performed in tights, but that was another crisis) (R.
Robinson, dance professor)24.
My first dance lesson was super embarrassing. Tights and jockstrap :
dreadful, a trauma (M. 38, Milan, Mar. 2006).
In sum, the ideal-typical Man is best represented by the hip-hopper,
whereas the ideal-typical Woman by the classical ballerina ; vice versa,
the female hip-hopper and the male ballet dancer are regarded as mannish
and effeminate respectively (Figure 2). One can spot a continuum running
from classical ballet, marked by the maximum degree of feminization (and
thus women's presence), to hip-hop, characterised instead by masculinisa-
23 Yet it deviates. There still is a norm(alcy) by deviation from which contemporary dance is, or can be,
defined by explicit or implicit comparison.
24 From the abstract of his presentation at “When Men Dance” (www.dougrisner.com/articles/NDEO07-
C. Bassetti 81
tion (and maximal male presence), passing through modern, contempo-
rary, theatre-dance, and so on.
Figure 2 : Semiotic square of male/female dichotomy applied to dance
As evidence of such polar tension in social representation at the inter-
twinement of gender and dance style, consider for instance dance-themed
advertising. Out of 67 printed advertisements I collected (1959-2011), on-
ly 12 (also) represent men. Among these, 4 refer to classical ballet, 8 to
contemporary dance : whereas the latter show dancing dancers, the former
show watching spectators25.
As for cinema, most of the numerous movies that have been realised in
the US in the last decade or so involving the commingling of academic,
theatrical dance and hip-hop26 tell the story of a girl who wants to become
a ballerina, attends (or wishes to) courses in a famous academy, and then
discovers streetdance by chance. On the contrary, the main male character
belongs to the latter world, and hence only sometimes engages in some
theatrical dance. In one of the rare cases with reversed roles, the young
man is subject to some degree of mockery, which he is however able to
manage thanks to the fact that, in order to please his father, he is taking a
double major, dance and business – the latter being much more masculin-
ising than the former.
Choosing one style over another, therefore, can work as an antidote at
the individual level. If different dance styles socially evoke and actually
stage different masculinities/femininities (Banes, 1998 ; Fisher/Shay,
2009), and demand and everyday reproduce different dancing bodies, with
different habituses, which inevitably are socially characterised in gender
terms, then it is not surprising that a higher or lower men's presence de-
pends on the style. The steady increase in the number of male dancers in
the last decade is largely based on the progressive increase of hip-hop's
25 See also, for example, the August image of Lavazza's 2012 calendar, http ://20calendars.lavazza.com.
26 This is the last “wave” of dance movies that I identified in my analysis (232 movies, period 1949-
2012), and including : “Save the last dance” and sequel (2001, 2006), “Center Stage” (2008), “Honey”
and sequel (2003, 2011), “Step up” and sequels (2006, 2008, 2010, 2012), and this present wave's paro-
dy “Dance Flick” (2009).
82 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
visibility and success in dance schools and theatres as well as movies27, TV
shows, etc. Hip-hop is characterised by jerky and aggressive moving,
roomy and sharp clothes – it is regarded as masculine (Faure, 2007). On
the one hand, the success of hip-hop concurred with “clear through cus-
toms” dance-danced-by-men and male dancers in general ; on the other
hand, men's presence is higher in the hip-hop sub-field.
Moreover, presenting the “choice” of a particularly stigmatizing style as
externally-driven and/or chance-grounded – i.e., as a non-choice – can
constitute another, certainly less powerful, antidote to the stigma. The last
quoted interview continues as follows :
Question : Why did you choose classical ?
They recommended this ballet school to me ; actually, I wanted to do
modern. I got close to dance knowing nothing of classical ballet (M.
38, Milan, Mar. 2006).
Note also that this case is different from that of the hip-hopper quoted
in Section 4 : for the above quoted ballerino, it is not only a question of
choosing to dance, but also one of dancing a specific style – i.e., classical
dance, the most stigmatizing style – that is also presented as chance-
grounded and not fully deliberate.
Finally, it is worth considering that the matrix of wearable identities
overlies that of kinaesthetic identities, with increasing complexity. How-
ever “classical” a pirouette may be, for instance, it will be something “dif-
ferent” if performed wearing jeans instead of white leotards. This
in/congruence playing is enacted by both choreographers in creating dance
and shaping choreographic style within a (or mix of) dance style(s), and
dancers in constructing and creating their – artistic as well as gendered –
At the individual level, in fact, besides style choice, the dancer, engaged
as we always are in identity construction and self-presentation, can exploit
manifold symbolic and material resources, combining and mixing, accord-
ingly to her/his expressive needs and the context, elements belonging to
different systems of signs which are simultaneously related to dance
style's social representation and the dancer's corporeality and bodily do-
ings. The woman hip-hopper who wears pink, the étoile who devours
sweets, the male ballet dancer who wears athletic apparel and avoids deli-
cate or “loud” colours are but some examples of what I observed. It is
about “distancing” (Goffman, 1961) oneself from one's role, and mobilis-
ing various bodily and embodied signifiers in order to communicate spe-
cific identity meanings. From this point of view, styles constitute a re-
source, since they provide an identified ensemble of signs that one can
manipulate and rearrange. Style can be thought of as a classificatory tool :
27 Out of the dance movies released since 2000, about 45% concerns hip-hop (40% ballet, 10% ball-
room), vs. the 10% of the preceding decade (40% ballroom, 20% ballet).
C. Bassetti 83
it applies to dance, but also – as gender does – to the body, and thus to the
The stigma about male dancers crept in, for the first time in the West, in
the XIXth century, and went then through various phases, having its foun-
dations in cultural understandings that were becoming progressively dom-
inant – i.e., common sense. Many male dancers I met or interviewed start-
ed dancing relatively late in life, and most of them present their relation-
ships with dance as chance-grounded and/or externally-driven “choices”.
This testifies to the persistence of the stigma.
As a symbolic marker of masculinity, artistic-professional excellence,
attested to by the position one occupies in the field, constitutes a stigma
antidote. Men, therefore, tend to be either at the centre of – thanks to
structural elements of gender inequality that systematically favour them –
or outside – that is, they choose not to enter or to abandon – the dance
field. However, the increasing variety adds to the picture’s complexity.
One may choose among styles as among sub-cultures, and this introduces
sub-fields, such as hip-hop, that, though not yet central in the field of the-
atrical dance, is characterised by a large male presence. This means that,
in terms of antidotes, what we deem to be a central position in the field –
which is composed of more or less central and marginal sectors, or sub-
fields – must be weighted, so to speak, with the gendered continuum of
Moreover, artistic recognition works differently for men and women, in
a way that a) reduces the male dancer's need to be sexually attractive, and
b) increases the relative importance and social visibility of some aspects
of dancing, namely, those concerned with artistic creativity and/or athletic
prowess, which receive less attention and emphasis, in both professional
practice and social discourse, when it comes to ballerinas. Muscularity and
prowess, connected with self-control and self-overcoming, have been at
the centre of both discursive and representational normalising strategies as
well, in a process of sportivisation whose slogan might be : athletic bodies
mastered by powerful (and creative) selves. Given the crucial relevance of
the context and embodied identity, however, such strategies have not fully
The individual strategies relying on dance style, and, more precisely,
designed on the basis of a kin/aesth-etic (aesthetic, kinetic and kinaesthet-
ic) matrix, inevitably marked in gendered terms, are indeed variously em-
bodied. The in/congruence playing that relies on the kinaesthetic classifi-
cation matrix involves forms of identity construction and self-presentation
that may be alternative to dominant models, more diversified and nuanced.
Further research on such in/congruence playing – especially in other fields
than dance (think of women bodybuilders or bodyguards, policewomen,
male nurses, etc.), the purpose being to find commonalities (and differ-
ences) through comparisons – may deepen and refine our understanding of
84 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
the embodied, seemingly unaccountable yet ordinarily dealt-with aspects
of identity construction and impression management.
Such an endeavour, furthermore, might be helpful in addressing a ques-
tion that the present work makes more or less implicitly emerge but leaves
unanswered. It concerns the change processes that masculinity and, more
generally, gender identity are undergoing – processes which seems to
happen through the multiplication of masculinities (Connell, 2000) and,
therefore, the diversification of the spectrum of accepted-as-normal gen-
der embodied identities (cf. also Abbatecola et al., 2008). However, if
gender models are varying, the changes in direction and intensity are un-
clear. The persistence of the male dancer’s stigma, and the fact that most
of his antidotes rely on normalising strategies, for instance, seem to point
to the endurance, in common sense culture, of a sort of underlying hard
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“Dance is a queers' stuff!”, a sentence we all heard at least once. The process of prac-
tical and symbolic feminization that Western theatrical dance has undergone since the
XIX century (Burt, 1995 ; Thomas, 1996) has brought to the so-called “problem of the
male dancer” (Adams, 2005). On the one hand, the most of (aspiring) professional
dancers are women – in Italy (Bassetti, 2010), France and UK (Rannou, Roharik,
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the same stands regarding dance audience. However, the number of man dancers has
increased in the last decade or so. On the other hand, the male dancer suffers from a
strong stigma (Goffman, 1963), which appears indelible, which throws into crisis one
of his primary identity (i.e., gendered, and thus sexual, identity), which however, as I
shall show, can be downsized, at both collective and individual level, through manifold
The article is based on the multi-sited ethnography I have been carrying out for 28
months on Western theatrical dance, particularly the Italian field. I conducted field-
work and video-based research with two Italian companies and the related schools as
well as, though occasionally, more than a dozen international companies and tens of
national ones. Moreover, I participated, for the first time in my life, in classes and
shows as a complete member, in Italy and abroad. Data also include 23 in-depth inter-
views with professional practitioners. Finally, I conducted secondary analysis of quan-
titative data concerning the Italian labour market, and “mapped” the i) institutional
(companies, academies, schools, associations, foundations, festivals, contests, awards,
university programmes), ii) commercial (specialised firms, websites, magazines, print-
ed and multimedia editions) and iii) imaginary field (literature, visual arts, cinema,
television, advertising). Some of the latter, such as blogs, movies, and printed adver-
tisements, constituted the basis for further document analysis.
On such a basis, and after a discussion of the historical genealogy of the stigma, its
underling reasons and its effect on men's participation in dance, the article analyses its
antidotes – i.e., the social processes which help legitimise men's dancing. What are the
normalising strategies for the men-who-dance and the dance-danced-by-men ? What
are the symbolic and material resources from which one can draw ? What are the bodi-
ly and embodied signifieds and signifiers which one can exploit to express and com-
municate more or less stereotypical masculinity ? The body, indeed, always presents
itself as sexed, equipped with specific physical characteristics, dressed and decorated,
90 R S & A, 2013/2 – Ambivalent Gender Accountability…
as well as “used” and “moved” in a “certain” manner, sub/object of some body tech-
niques (Mauss, 1936) and not others. Though incarnated in the individual in infinite
combinations, the properties tied to corporeality and bodily doings are associated, at
the level of social representations, to femininity “or” masculinity. They constitute se-
miotic resources for (de)constructing and (re)presenting gender.
The article discusses three stigma antidotes. Two of them – artistic-professional excel-
lence, manifest in structural inequalities, professional practice and social discourse ;
and athleticism, involving discursive and representational strategies – have been ex-
ploited mainly at the collective level and consist of emphasising the masculinising as-
pects of dancing-as-art/profession, such as virtuosity and creativity, and dancing-as-
leisure/body-activity, such as prowess and self-control. Neither of them tries to present
as legitimate alternative masculinities. They are “normalising” strategies.
A third antidote, that primarily yet not exclusively works at the individual level, lever-
ages on the choice of the dance style/s, and the use of the markers of embodied identity
that styles as bodily, kin(aesth)etic sub-cultures provide. The increasing variety of
styles – that represent gender and gender roles in more or less traditional ways, and
present differences with respect to body movement and decoration – not only changed
the representation of dance in Western societies and, in so doing, affected men's pres-
ence in dance (e.g. recent success of hip-hop concurred to increase the latter), but also
provides semiotic resources for expressing gender.
As symbolic marker of masculinity, artistic-professional excellence, marked by the
position one occupies in the field, constitutes a stigma antidote. Men, therefore, tend to
be either at the centre of, or outside the dance field – although styles' increasing variety
introduces differences. Moreover, artistic recognition differently works for men and
women, in a way that a) reduces men dancers' need for being sexually attractive, and
b) increases the relative importance and social visibility of some aspects of dancing,
namely, those concerned with artistic creativity and/or athletic prowess, that receive
less attention and emphasis, in both professional practice and social discourse, when it
comes to ballerinas. Muscularity and prowess are at the centre of a normalising pro-
cess of sportivisation whose claim might be : athletic bodies mastered by powerful
(and creative) selves. There are also individual strategies that rely on styles' differ-
ences, inevitably marked in gendered terms. On the one hand, one may choose among
styles as among sub-cultures – and this brought to sub-fields characterised by larger
men's presence. On the other hand, the in/congruence playing that rests on the
kin(aesth)etic matrix provided by stylistic variety involves forms of identity construc-
tion and self-presentation that may be alternative to dominant models.