Stifling Female Dancers

An opinion piece by Nicole Haskins.

As conversations surrounding the lack of females in leadership positions in the ballet world continue to grow, it’s important to look at how the underlying cultural and structural aspects of the world of ballet stifle creativity and leadership in women. The historical approach to ballet – especially for girls – has often been shut up and dance. Girls are taught to be silent and comply without question, leaving little space for them to discover their own voices and forge their own paths. Just like the widespread realization that many of our cultural representations on stage need to be rethought, it is time we reckon with our methods of teaching ballet to girls and update them for the future of the art form. While it is heartening that many teachers and schools are creating more positive environments and adapting their curriculums, it must be an institutional push to make lasting and substantial change. We must create a culture that does not shame women into silence but inspires them into greatness.

If we define women by their bodies, and teach them to be ashamed of their appearance, are we surprised they don’t often put themselves in the front of the room? If we tell women they have to be perfect, that one mistake could be the end of their career, are we surprised fewer opt to take risks? If we make ballet a negative, shame driven, and emotionally draining space, are we surprised many women do not wish to continue working in ballet when they retire? It’s time we allow women to push beyond the limited expectations the ballet world imposes on them and provide students with the opportunities to grow, develop, and mature into the greatest version of themselves. By remaining committed to the ideal of a subservient pre-prepubescent girl, the ballet world not only micromanages what is expected of women, but almost more damaging, it limits what women often expect of themselves. This thinking needs to be addressed, and only then will girls be able to see their value beyond their time on stage.

The closure of theaters and studios during this pandemic has given space for reflection of how we want to model this artform for the future. Conversations surrounding diversity, inclusion and access have all pushed the ballet world to address systemic and institutional shortcomings. Among these shortcomings, it is imperative we address the physical, emotional and mental health of every dancer. If we want this art form to last into the future, we need to begin by laying the groundwork for the realization of the ballet world that we want: one that supports and uplifts rather than demeans and belittles, allowing girls to expand their self-perception instead of minimizing it. To start, we need to challenge the notion that if you aren’t a dancer you are nothing, which creates too much trauma in an already stressful career. We cannot define someone’s commitment to dance by how little value they place in the other aspects of their lives. Instead, we must support the notion that being a whole person enhances the value of an artist. Women have always been capable of leadership, but they have rarely been given the space within the ballet world to fully realize and achieve it. In investing in these women at young ages, we will cultivate a future of female leaders, choreographers, policymakers and artists ready to lead the ballet world into a new and more inclusive era.

Nicole Haskins, originally from Venice Beach, California, is a dancer, choreographer, mentor, and coach who tries everyday to live up to her mantra that “Art is Risk Made Visible”. Her choreography is sought after across the country and has been commissioned by Richmond Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Sacramento Ballet, Dayton Ballet, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, The National Choreographic Initiative, and Smuin Contemporary Ballet.

She has been awarded The New York Choreographic Institute’s Commission Grant, Fellowship Grant, and participated in the Institute’s Spring Session in New York. After spending 14 years dancing professionally with The Washington Ballet, Smuin Contemporary Ballet, and The Sacramento Ballet, Haskins will become the Resident Choreographer for Mid-Columbia Ballet this summer and cannot wait help the next generation of dancers gain the confidence, intelligence, and perseverance to take their own risks and reap the rewards of this magnificent art form.

Visit Nicole’s website here.

Image Credit (from top to bottom images): Artists of Smuin Ballet perform Nicole Haskins’ Confessions of a Dreamer. Photo by Keith Sutter. Courtesy of Nicole Haskins. | Nicole Haskins rehearses with Smuin Contemporary Ballet. Photo by Chris Hardy. Courtesy of Smuin Contemporary Ballet | Nicole dancing for Smuin Ballet. Photo by Chris Hardy. | Nicole Haskins. Photo by Tatiana Wills.