Choreography and Gender: Still Looking for the Female Choreographers

ODC/Dance; photo Andrew Weeks. Courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Whether familiar with the dance world or not, it probably won’t come as a surprise to most readers that the majority of the dance industry work-force is female. In fact, according to Data USA12, as much as eighty-five percent of the workers in the dance industry are women. However, when examining the past seasons of some of the most important presenting venues in the Northeast region of the United States it becomes clear that gender numbers shift dramatically when looking at successful choreographers. 


The numbers:

The gender imbalance in high scale dance companies is not new. In 1976 Wendy Perron and Stephanie Woodard wrote a study called ‘Is there a bias against women in the dance world?’. The article showed clear data by which male choreographers were getting more opportunities and grants, and therefor enjoying more success than their female counterparts. Perron revised her article in 2001 to find that little had changed in nearly thirty years10

The early 2000's seem to have been an era of re-awakening to the gender issue in the dance world. This was the time in which several female choreographers including JoAnna Mendl Shaw14, Janis Brenner15, Ellis Wood16 and Heidi Latsky17 formed The Gender Project: a collective that gathered data, participated in panels and created work geared towards changing the face of gender preference in the dance world13. In 2001, Scherr from the New York Times accused the Endowment for the Arts of favoring male choreographers (as for the last five years, the Endowment for the Arts has given balanced grants to male and female choreographers for the production of new work). 

So, did the awakening of the early 2000's work? Is the situation more balanced now? “I don’t think so” says Heidi Latsky and she may be right. After examining the past seasons of some of the most important presenting venues in the Northeast it is clear that male choreographers still dominate the high-scale performance world. 

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), for example, only three works by female choreographers were presented in the 2017 fall season compared to ten male choreographers. One of the female choreographers presented was Pina Bausch, a world famous and frequently produced BAM artist.

The Joyce Theater did not manage to produce a more balanced program: in the spring-summer season of 2017 only one third of the choreographers showcased were women. The current season has seen a slight improvement with eight out of nineteen choreographers being female. The American Dance Festival (ADF) continues the trend with nine female choreographers showcasing work compared to nineteen men. 

The only stage that was examined for the purpose of this article that has a majority of female choreographers in their program was Jacob’s Pillow upcoming festival. Pamela Tatge, artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow as of 2017, says that diversity is indeed something she considers when creating the festival program. While she does not look at gender at the first stages of selection, she does look at gender, nationality and internationality when making final selections. Whilst authenticity, intention and the relevance of the work in question to the present times are the main factors for her choices it is important to Tatge that a diverse program is presented. 

It would have been interesting to understand the process for selection at BAM, The Joyce and ADF. However after a short e-mail correspondence with all three establishments not one of them managed to make time to share their thoughts. 

While the imbalance between male and female choreographers represented in important venues in the United States is startling, things look even worse across the ocean5, 6. Tamara Rojo, former principal dancer of the Royal Opera House (ROH) and current artistic director of the English National Ballet has curated a triple bill, She Said, entirely dedicated to female choreographers. Rojo states that she was compelled to curate the evening after noticing that in the twenty years she had danced with the ROH she had not once danced a piece created by a woman. 

The research scope of this article is limited. However a more extensive research was conducted by Eliza Larson8. Larson states that “though dance classrooms and studios are filled with women, the […] study indicates that a majority of the most visible and well-funded choreographers in this country are men. Men receive prestigious choreographic opportunities at a rate disproportionate to their numeric minority in the field.”


The disappearance of female choreographers

A factor contributing to the imbalance between male and female choreographers in the ballet world may have to do with the male roles within the ballet companies themselves, where “[t]heir workload is lighter, the competition is nowhere as intense as it is among those ethereal women in tutus. So the men in ballet have time to develop their creativity, to experiment with choreography, to get out into the non-ballet world and develop other skills.”3 Kourlas adds that “[m]ale dancers simply aren’t as busy as their female counterparts, who, on top of everything else, are trained to be obedient and not to step out of line.”7

While these explanations might shed some light on the imbalance in the ballet world, it does not explain the disappearance of female choreographers in the contemporary dance world. Often the gender distribution of members in dance companies are even and roles are rarely decided upon through gender.  

Mendl Shaw believes that part of the problem is women’s discomfort with aggressive ambition: “I think that women are uncomfortable with competition. They are masters of being polite and they have been raised to be indirect. And in the highly competitive world of who gets recognised you actually need a robust ego and a tremendous willingness to promote yourself.” Or, in some cases, you might be one of the chosen few – which she calls “just being very lucky.”

Latsky has also noticed her tendency to be apologetic through her career: “I believe in my work, I really do, but I am not very good at selling it”. 

Psychologist Alice Eagly has investigated the connections between gender and leadership and she emphasizes how one’s gender affects his or her perceived leadership success. Eagly and Karau claim that women are known for their “primary concern with the welfare of other people – for example, affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, interpersonally sensitive, nurturant and gentle”. Men, on the other hand, usually pose “primarily assertive, controlling, and a confident tendencies – for example, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, self-sufficient, self-confident, and prone to act as a leader.”4

Latsky however believes that the new generation of female choreographers are more assertive as they have been taught to speak up for themselves. Choreographer Kate Ladenhaim from The People Movers18, who has been voted 25 to watch by Dance Magazine and is fast advancing in the dance world, says that she is indeed often perceived as “pushy”. 

Eagly’s claims resonate when reading the writings of dance historian Lynn Garafola, who has noted that while women are prominent in the fringe of dance, particularly in projects that require exploration and innovation, once their endeavor proves successful, men step in: "[i]n smaller companies, in newer companies, in companies that have an experimental dimension – you'll find women choreographers there. But once ballet is institutionalised, it becomes a man's world."5

In fact, there is no lack of female choreographers in the contemporary world. The issue is that while there are many small and mid-scale projects and companies led by women most of the high-scale, heavily funded and well-presented companies are led by men.

Another factor to consider is that of the child-bearing years which, just like in most other professions, seems to lower the priority of the career for woman, at least for some years. Those years are usually critical years for a career. 

Child-bearing years have a great impact on men’s relationships with their careers as well. In most industries, these are the years in which men are promoted and make big leaps forward at work. We cannot ignore the social pressure that exists, even in 2018, for men to financially provide for their families. It is possible that this pressure is beneficial for a man’s career as it motivates men to push their vocations further and succeed enough to step into the role of the traditional main family provider. 


The importance of female choreographers

People respond differently to male choreography than they do to female choreography. This is usually also true for books written by man and films led by male directors. 

If we live in a world of supply and demand then it only makes sense that male choreographers enjoy greater success than their female counterparts. After all, as Tatge mentioned in our conversation, subjective, personal taste is involved in work selection. Perhaps male choreographers are successful simply because their work is better received by audiences. If that is the case, is there anything active that really needs to be done to balance the gender representation in the dance world?

I believe that it is important to take action. The audience’s preference to male work is not coincidental. Our culture and media have been dominated by male voices since their inception. Audiences have been experiencing a male point of view for such a long time that it has now become their preference, their understanding of what good dance looks like. It is only natural that audiences will find female choreography hard to relate to. If female choreography is not something that is being widely experienced, those female sensibilities will feel alien to most audiences.

In addition, Artists of course create work based on personal sensibilities. When a man creates a dance, it is created from a male perspective; those male perspectives become the dominant lens through which audiences see created work. Audiences are then only experiencing half of the expressivity of the human condition that exists in real life. This creates a distorted perception of reality that leads to serious implications on the world’s everyday way of living.

Another reason female-led work tend to be less noticeable is that female choreographers do not get the same financial opportunities that men do, so they have fewer resources, and as a result possibly less motivation to push themselves forward: opportunity creates quality. 


Bringing female choreographers to the front

Choreographer Heidi Latsky opted out of The Gender Project because she felt her voice “was being compromised” due to her being a choreographer herself. It was hard to fight for more visibility for female choreographers in general being a female choreographer herself. She felt that this agenda should be pushed forward by an objective body. 

Dance / NYC is such an objective art entity that has recently conducted a research project on the workforce and demographics of dance19. The study included looking at fiscally-sponsored dance artists and projects21. One of the outcomes of their research was to establish. Part of the recommendations of their research has been to establish the Dance Advancement Fund20 that aims “to address the inequitable distribution of resources in the dance field […] Through its strategic support of small-budget dance groups (with budgets of less than $1 million), the initiative will not only advance the segment’s artistic development and delivery but also contribute to the field’s overall diversity, sustainability, resilience, and health.”

While the research mentioned above did not focus solely on gender it is a great example of how entities like Dance / NYC and Dance / USA can have a positive impact and help promote equal opportunities to diverse artists. 

But funding opportunities are not enough. Choreographer Kate Ladenhaim believes that presenters must take some of the responsibility as they are the gatekeepers of what is seen by audiences. She also believes that educational institutions are not helping the current situation. She remembers coming back to the Boston Conservatory as an alumni to watch a graduate show and discover that all dances performed were choreographed by men: “that is what I was taught to believe is good dance”. Continuing to teach male’s repertory in disproportion to female repertory will not help the situation. In fact, the whole dance field will benefit if lecturers choose to voice the gender issue with students openly. Instead of teaching female dancers to fit into an outdated idea of how a female dancer should look, behave and move they could choose to create a female dancer for the choreographers of the future.

Lastly, of course, women have to look inwards. “I came to the conclusion, personally, that the journey is yours to take.” Says Mendl Shaw, “Yes, it is harder for women and if you want to take the journey you have to push harder. You have to be better and you have to push harder. I did not come away [from The Gender Project] saying that the world is unfair. I came away desiring to look at my own behavior and figuring out where I was backing away as a woman.” 

Further Reading:

[1] Brandt, A. ‘Women Dance Leaders on Ballet’s Gender Imbalance’, Poin...

[2] Cooper, M. ‘Breaking the Glass Slipper: Where Are the Female Choreo...

[3] DeFrank-Cole, L. and Nicholson, R. K. ‘The slow-changing face of leadership in ballet: an interdisciplinary approach to analysing women’s roles’ in Marturano, A., Harvey, M. and Price, T. Leadership and the Humanities. Vol. 4 No. 2, 2016, pp. 73–91.

[4] Eagly, A. H. and Karau S. J. ‘Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders.’ Psychological Review. July 2002, pp. 573-598.

[5] Jennings, L. ‘Sexism in dance: where are all the female choreograph...


[6] Kaur, H. ‘Gender Inequality in Contemporary Dance’, The Huffington ...


[7] Kourlas, G. ‘Dance Luminaries Weigh in on the Conspicuous Absence o...

[8] Larson, E. ‘Behind the Curtain: Exploring Gender Equity in Dance among Choreographers and Artistic Directors’ in Wendy Oliver, W. and Risner, D. Dance and Gender: An Evidence-Based Approach. 2017, pp. 39-59.


[9] Macaulay, A. ‘Of Women, Men and Ballet in the 21st Century’, The Ne...

[10] Perron W. ‘Are Women Dancers Still Discriminated Against?’, 2001

[11] Scheer, A. ‘DANCE; Making a Career With One Eye on a Gender Gap’, T...


Further Information

[12] Data USA

[13] The Gender Project’s trancripts can be found at the Lincoln Center library

[14] JoAnna Mendl Shaw’s Equus Projects

[15] Janis Brenner

[16] Ellis Wood

[17] Heidi Latsky

[18] Kate Ladenhaim and The People Movers

[19] Dance / NYC Reserch

[20] Advancement Fund

[21] What is a fiscally-sponsored project?

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Comment by Mariana Taragano on July 18, 2019 at 10:43am


Thank you for taking the time to read through the article and to comment. 

You are correct in noticing that many references are ballet related, however I invite you take a closer look into the bibliography, specifically the following articles:

1. Jennnings: Sexism in dance:where are all the female choreographers? (about both ballet and contemporary)

2. Kaur: Gender inequality in contemporary dance (as the name suggests, not about ballet)

3. Scherr: Dance: Making a career with one eye in a gender gap (which is an interview with Ellis Wood, so clearly contemporary)

4. Perron: Are women dancers still discriminated against? (I really invite you to read this one)

Unfortunately, there is no major research that I found (not due to lack of searching) regarding the face of contemporary dance specifically. That is the reason that I added self-collected data in the form of numerical choreographers being presented in major stages in charge on the face of contemporary dance in the East Cost (which speak by themselves as to the current situation, if you ask me) as well as interviewed many female choreographers. 

Also unfortunate is the in-importance of the number of EMERGING female choreographers. As mentioned at the very beginning of the article, over 80% of the work-power in dance is made of women. It only makes sense that women will try their luck at choreographing. However, numbers show that most will be emerging until the end of their careers, or until they give up and quit.

The choreographers who get grants, commissions and other important opportunities that are essential to making the leap from EMERGING to ESTABLISHED (meaning, bluntly, they get enough money to get paid themselves - more than once or twice) are still male. 

The premise of the article is to shed light on professional choreographers, not merely those who engage in the act of choreography. Of course one would think that statistically at least some of the people engaging in the act of choreography will manage to leap - I hope this will be the case. 

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