Masculine versus Sharp: Say What You Mean
Imagine the most masculine dance you can. What does it look like? Who do you envision doing it? What words come to mind for masculine movement. Often, what I hear are the following words: sharpness in both angles and movement speed, largeness/openness in posture (taking up space), pelvic movements, and chest isolations (other than shimmies).
Does the image you conjoured look anything like this?
I don't think anyone would argue with me when I say that Dexter Santos dances in a way that matches his body. Yet, there are many moments within this solo routine where his movements are soft: he rolls through his hips and torso, moves through his arms, he uses cross-body postures that close off his chest from the audience.
Now, envision a feminine dance. Create the opposite of what you envisioned before. Where you saw sharpness, make it softness, moving gradually between soft shape to soft shape, close off the posture, take up less space, hip isolations.
Does the dance you imaged resemble this?
Flouer Evelyn here uses beautiful flowing movements, and even accentuates them in her costuming. Again, she is embodying her own body. And yet, there are sharp moments, angles that come out of nowhere.
These juxtapositions aren't by chance. These dancers are creating contrast, which creates interest in these pieces. Often, in classes, the juxtaposition would be described as masculine versus feminine movement. Despite the set-up of this article, I'm about to argue that this particular framing isn't particularly useful for exploring solo movement in a classroom context.
In dance classes, instructors must be able to take a look around and quickly evaluate...are the students getting it? Is this concept/move/language I've provided helping the students grow, or do I need to try another tact? This is a weakness of prompting students for a gendered movement. While gender is socially constructed, and thus there are markers for gender performance readily accessible, those constructs vary across different cultures and communities. One person's masculine movement might read feminine to another person. So a quick look around the class might find distinctly different movements that still authentically represent the request the instructor made without matching their expectations. This makes it difficult to provide specific feedback.
Additionally, when choosing to use signifiers such as masculine and feminine, what we are asking students to do is perform two translations: first, from those gendered words to adjectives that specifically describe movements, and then to take those movements into their body. For beginning dancers, this additional layer of translation can cause additional difficulty as well. As an instructor, I am always trying to make things easier for my students, and eliminating a layer of translation when they're working through a new concept is a simple way to do that.
Another thing that sometimes happens in dance classes is that asking men to perform feminine movements can cause them to create parody representations of femininity. Sexism makes it hard for men to engage in feminine actions without feeling shame or discomfort, so they often rely on humor to keep from having to engage deeply. While perhaps dance class can be a safe place to explore this, those women in the class witnessing that might feel their own identities mocked. In an effort to create safer spaces for movement exploration, I would rather avoid this area in early movement classes, which is where I find the broad categorical contrast topics most often crop up.
Finally, as someone with a nonbinary gender identity, I often struggle with what movements are left to me, if all movements can be classified as feminine and masculine. Where do movements I choose fit in? Can I dance in a nonbinary way? Is every dance I dance a nonbinary dance?
Contrast is a critical part of making solo dance interesting. But we can explore contrast without evoking vague gender constructs. Ask students to dance sharply or softly, to create angles or curves, to move quickly between shapes or to transition slowly between them, and to use hip or chest isolations. While some students may find some of those align better with their bodies, we don't need to predispose them to certain movements by explicitly gendering those movements.