Where Are the Women?


A year ago, the Joyce SoHo sponsored a panel called “Getting the Gig.” A house packed with choreographers listened attentively as New York dance presenters explained how they picked shows. Then one young woman raised her hand and asked, “Of the choreographers you present, how many are male and how many are female?”

The question electrified the room. These are tough times for women in dance. They have dominated the field historically and numerically, but there is a lot of evidence that they are now struggling with a system working against them.

Here are some statistics:

  • At 12 dance academies and university departments responding to a survey I did last summer, generally three-quarters to four-fifths of the men were on scholarship versus half of the women. There were more-lopsided cases. At one famous dance school, all 20 of the men were on scholarship but only 15 of the 380 women.
  • This year, the NYU Tisch Summer Residency Festival, which attracts a largely female student body, will have six male-directed companies in residence, and none directed by women (Ann Carlson is listed as a “festival extra”).
  • From 1998 to 2000, the leading presenter of established dance troupes in Washington D.C., the Washington Performing Arts Society, did not present a single dance company whose choreographer was a woman.
  • New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project commissioned works by six men and only one woman. Last season in New York, American Ballet Theatre’s repertory included only two works choreographed by women; the 2001 roster includes just one.
  • As of this writing, only one artistic director of a major U.S. ballet company is a woman.
  • Last fall, the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section included 23 feature articles about men, but only eight about women.
  • And in 2000, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creation and Presentation Program in Dance gave 34 grants specifically to hire male artists, and only 20 specifying women. (The other 55 were for both sexes or for general use.) In 2001, the numbers were 36 to men and 14 to women, with 55 unspecified or for both.
  • Why are these statistics so unbalanced? Surveys show that fewer women receive crucial mentoring, fewer are paid for dancing and choreography, and at all levels women get less attention for their work from the press and presenters. Women in dance are raised in a complicated atmosphere of competition, self-hatred, excessive modesty, and conflicting values. In technique class, female dancers learn the values of the past—superiority, not originality, is the goal. Women tend to censor themselves in a way that men don’t.

    As importantly, the field is heavily focused on encouraging men in dance, because of their scarcity. This focus has changed the priorities and values and skewed the playing field. There may be no conscious conspiracy, but the effort to help men in dance has been so intense that women are shortchanged. Few in the field think of themselves as sexist, but the cumulative effect discriminates against women.

    How do we change the situation? Talk about it. If that doesn’t work, complain about it; protest to the powers that cause it. The field is small and sensitive. Small numbers can make a difference.

    Liss, a dancer, choreographer, and former booking agent, is publicity manager for a large booking company.

    Other veterans share their stories in
    What’s Eating the Dance World?