Inaugural Selma Odom Lecture explores dance and masculinity

The inaugural Selma Odom Lecture in York’s Department of Dance investigates gender stereotypes in dance with a four-part presentation titled Dance and Masculinity in the Worlds of Ballet, Bharatanatyam, Belly Dance and Minstrelsy. Four eminent authorities in the field, all associated with York, share the stage in this free public lecture taking place Feb. 11 from 1 to 4pm in the McLean Performance Studio, 244 Accolade East Building on York’s Keele campus.

The lecture series was established to honour renowned dance scholar and educator, York dance Professor Emerita Selma Odom. A leading light of Canadian dance studies and a mainstay of York’s Dance Department for 37 years, Odom recently retired from full-time teaching to devote herself to her research and writing projects.

Left: Selma Odom

The speakers’ ideas on dance and masculinity also share the page, as each presenter is also a contributor to When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinities Across Borders, a collection of essays published by Oxford University Press in 2009. Thematically, the book explores the dichotomy between the reality of dance as being as physically demanding as any contact sport, and its public perception as a feminine activity, leaving male dancers stereotyped as gay or unmasculine.

"This collection examines the experiences and stereotypes of men who dance by interweaving new scholarly essays with a cross-section of related personal accounts,” Odom says. “The result is a tapestry of diverse thinking which will become a key resource for dance and gender studies."

That diverse thinking is reflected in the topics being addressed in the first Selma Odom Lecture. Enlarging on their published research, the speakers will consider issues of masculinity across a wide spectrum of dance forms and global cultures.

Jennifer Fisher (MFA ’92) (right), an alumna of York’s Dance Department, professor of dance at the University of California – Irvine and co-editor (with Anthony Shay) of the book When Men Dance, will share her new research with a talk titled “Ballet’s Failure to Evolve: How Gender Binaries Haunt the Pas de Deux”. Fisher questions why the vast majority of ballet duets continue to typecast men as chivalrous supporters and women as the fair damsels who lean on them. She asks: “Can ballet break out of an old mould and still be ballet?”

“Gender Trumps Race? – (Cross) Dressing Juba in Early Blackface Minstrelsy” is the topic addressed by Stephen Johnson (left), director of the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at the University of Toronto and an adjunct professor in York’s Graduate Program in Dance Studies. Johnson notes that minstrelsy was not only aggressively racist, but also aggressively misogynist, as evidenced by the “wench dance”, a grotesque drag performance. In his talk, Johnson will explore the history of Juba, one of the first African-American dancers to perform for white audiences in the 1840s, and the only one of his era to tour with a white minstrel show. Johnson argues that when Juba cross-dressed and performed as a woman, he subverted the audience’s conceptions.

Barbara Sellers-Young (right), dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, will discuss “Men and the ‘Happiness Dance’”. Her research deconstructs the orientalist version of raqs sharki, more commonly referred to as belly dancing, as principally a female dance form. Looking at notable male dancers such as John Compton and Tito, she argues that their versions of the art form are not an imitation of femininity, but distinctive versions of masculinity.

“From Gynemimesis to Hyper-Masculinity: The Shifting Orientations of Male Performers of South Indian Court Dance” is the title of the presentation by York alumnus Hari Krishnan (MA ’02) (left), artistic director of InDance Toronto and currently artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University. Krishnan hypothesizes that the shifting masculinities represented by male dancers in the courts of South India correlate with larger tensions in gender expectations within the nation over time. He also explores current misconceptions and their impact on contemporary male performers like himself.

The consideration of male dancing and double standards in gender construction in dance offers an ideal launch for the Selma Odom Lecture, a new forum for the discussion of critical issues in the study of dance.