Moving Forward: Report from Symposium on Women in Dance

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

A dynamic group of women leaders in the dance world came together on October 30th at FringeArts to discuss “Challenges, Chances, Changes – Gender Equity in Concert Dance.” The Pennsylvania Ballet will present a world premiere by choreographer Helen Pickett on November 9th at the Merriam Theater. Because it’s still a rare event for a woman to create new work for a major ballet company, the PA Ballet, together with FringeArts, recognized this as an opportune occasion to organize a symposium focusing on women in dance. The seven women who participated in the discussion are deeply passionate about dance and are clearly committed to using their influence to inspire and promote opportunity and equity for women as choreographers, directors, curators, etc. in concert dance.

Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, who is Professor Emerita of dance studies at Temple University and the winner of numerous awards for her work as a performer and cultural historian, served as moderator for the evening. Ms. Dixon-Gottschild invoked the recent words of California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who matter-of-factly and repeatedly insisted, “Reclaiming my time, reclaiming my time, reclaiming my time,” as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin attempted to monopolize the proceedings and run out her questioning time when he appeared before the House Financial Services Committee. Congresswoman Waters’ words have been taken up by women across the country as a signal that we won’t continue to cede the floor to others, and that it’s high time to take our power back. Ms. Dixon-Gottschild asked each of the artists on the panel to talk about her experiences as a woman in the world of concert dance and to focus on an important “challenge, chance, or change” in her career. “Let’s break down some gender walls; Let’s shatter some glass ceilings,” urged Ms. Dixon-Gottschild.

Helen Pickett, who is currently choreographing a new dance called Tilt for the PA Ballet, spoke passionately about the capacity for role models to inspire women and create change. Ms. Pickett is a former Ballet Frankfurt dancer and resident choreographer for Atlanta Ballet. During her 12 years as a choreographer, she has created over 35 ballets in the U.S. and Europe. Ms. Pickett recalled the influence of role models in her life, including her parents and the examples of women choreographers she had the good fortune to see at San Francisco Ballet when she was a teenager. “Young people need to see people like themselves in leadership roles,” said Ms. Pickett. Just as she was sparked by women who came before her, she hopes to inspire a new generation of choreographers. Inequality still exists, yet young women (and men too) can be agents of change through dialogue, awareness, and action, stressed Ms. Pickett.

Terry Fox, who is Director of Philadelphia Dance Projects, recalled her earliest challenges as a dancer in the 1960s and 70s while pursuing pedestrian movement and improvisation, in terms of being taken seriously as an artist, let alone as a female artist. In those days, “women were almost always the dancers and men were the musicians,” and she often thinks about why “so many girls and women are drawn to dance in our society.” Ms. Fox founded the “Dance With The Bride” series at Philadelphia’s Painted Bride Art Center and was also the Managing/Artistic Director of the Danspace Project at St Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery in New York City in the 1980s. In her work as a curator she presented “countless” fabulous women artists, but because of lack of adequate financial support for their cutting-edge work, they faced huge challenges in gaining wide audiences and advancing their careers. Ms. Fox said that women choreographers present a different viewpoint from men, and she believes that getting their work before the public is the critical issue, and this is where women who have broken into positions of influence can exert their leadership.



Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director of Dance Theater of Harlem.
compared the situation for women in dance to the concept of
negative space: “We are both the center of ballet and completely on the outside.”


Virginia Johnson, who has received numerous honors throughout her career, was appointed Artistic Director of Dance Theater of Harlem in 2011 after having been a founding member and principal dancer. During her 28 years with the company, she performed most of the repertoire. Ms. Johnson dove right into the topic saying, “Gender equity is absent in the world that I live in.” She compared the situation for women in dance to negative space, a concept represented in the well-known drawing that can appear to be a vase in the center or two faces on the sides – depending on how the viewer looks at it. As women, said Ms. Johnson, “We are both the center of the ballet and completely on the outside.” While acknowledging her gratitude and debt to DTH founding director Arthur Mitchell, she said she got the clear message that her role as a ballerina was to be a “voiceless vessel of dance expression.” Her voice grew stronger, however, when she founded POINTE magazine and was editor-in-chief from 2000-2009. She discovered the publishing world to be “filled with dynamic women,” and she relished the chance to help young dancers “learn about things I hadn’t known.” A great shift occurred when she was named Artistic Director of DTH, an unequivocal opportunity to upend the role the male authority figure in driving the art form. “Increasingly women get to be the definers,” said Ms. Johnson. “What may have been solid ground before is in flux.”

Annie-B Parson, who is the co-founder of Big Dance Theater, presented her remarks as a pointed and witty “list of events and shifts in the weather,” drawing many nods of agreement from the other panelists. Ms. Parson’s company premiered 17c, an inter-disciplinary work built around the 17th-century diaries of Samuel Pepys, at this year’s FringeArts Festival. Her work with Big Dance Theater has been commissioned (among many others) by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Walker Arts Center, and FringeArts. In addition, she has created choreography for operas, pop stars, television, movies, theater, ballet, and symphonies. Ms. Parson (who noted that she was raised by a feminist father) enumerated her experiences of being subjected to sexual advances made by men in power, being relegated to standing (literally) outside the circle of men gathered around a well-known theater director, and being erased in the press while men received credit for her work. She described her letter-writing campaigns to men such as American Ballet Theater’s Alexei Ratmansky to advocate for presenting the work of women artists. As “anecdotal” evidence, Ms. Parson observed that in her years of watching dance, “I think it’s clear that there are many women who deserve greater platforms.”

Francesca Harper, who is Artistic Director of The Francesca Harper Project and a former Dance Theater of Harlem and Frankfurt Ballet dancer, expressed her delight to be sitting on the panel with women such as Ms. Dixon-Gottschild, Ms. Johnson, and Ms. Pickett who have given her essential opportunities and support during her career. Ms. Harper has choreographed works for (among others) the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and her own company. She recalled how her mother had wanted to be a ballet dancer, but quit studying ballet because she noticed that there “weren’t any black ballet dancers.” Instead, her mother became a modern dancer and performed with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Because of her mother’s experience, Ms. Harper was fueled to become not just a dancer, but a ballet dancer. “It was a civil rights issue for me,” she recalled. Because her mother was a strong feminist, Ms. Harper said that “feminism has been a given part of my life.”

Christine Cox, who is the Artistic & Executive Director of BalletX, described her years as a ballet dancer when she was full of fire – fast, quick, and musical – and yet she knew, “I would never be a principal. I wasn’t the right type.” The director of one of the companies she danced for actually suggested she might want to consider plastic surgery to change the look of her body. “I was shocked,” Ms. Cox declared, “because I thought he supported me.” When she joined the PA Ballet in 1993 (where she performed until her retirement from the stage in 2006), she applied her spirited nature to “try anything” and “seize every opportunity.” That take-charge attitude fostered the establishment of BalletX, Philadelphia’s premier contemporary ballet company, which Ms. Cox co-founded in 2005. “As Artistic Director, I just dug in to succeed. There was a lot of doubt from people about whether I could run the company – but I’m just getting into my own.”

A prominent theme during the question and answer period following the panelists’ statements concerned the status of women in the art form of ballet. An audience member asked about programming decisions by ballet companies, specifically mentioning the PA Ballet’s choice to present Le Corsaire last year. The questioner remarked that the ballet was certainly beautiful, but the plot was disturbing because it was “about sex trafficking.” Ms. Parson opined, “We’re looking at historic pieces of art all the time.”  It’s important to look at these works, she said, but also to find ways to publicly acknowledge and frame the issues they bring up. “Have a conversation about it,” she urged.

Ms. Johnson drew good-natured laughter when she commented, “It’s odd, but I believe in the art form of ballet.” She noted that centuries-old classical ballet stories come from the aristocratic class and those values are enshrined in the art form. “It’s beautiful, but it’s rotten at the core,” said Ms. Johnson. “That’s a beautiful past, but what is our future?”

Contemporary ballet companies, such as BalletX, are leading the charge to propel ballet into the 21st century. “I want the craft of ballet to move forward,” said Ms. Cox. Indeed, all of the women choreographers on the panel are making work that is essential to advancing the creative possibilities for dance.

A discussion about pointe shoes touched on the fact that ballet aesthetics have traditionally sought to make ballerinas appear dainty and weak, but in fact, female dancers are extremely strong. “Point shoes have always been a place of power for women in ballet,” Ms. Pickett asserted. Other panelists described the moment of rising onto pointe as akin to taking flight. “It’s like sky-diving in a way,” enthused Ms. Harper.

The panelists agreed that it’s essential to keep talking about and pushing for gender equity in dance. “Let’s keep the steps happening – like Angel Corella and the Pennsylvania Ballet promoting this panel,” said Ms. Pickett. The conversation among this group of women invigorated them to redouble their commitment to supporting and promoting women in dance. Ms. Cox and Ms. Johnson, in their roles as ballet company directors, both pledged to use their hard-earned leadership roles to create more opportunities for women when planning their seasons. Ms. Johnson said, “We need to have vigilance.” Ms. Cox echoed her, “Sometimes I realize I am perpetuating male choreographic dominance. I am changing it next year!”

The women on this panel raised many important issues and powerfully advocated for specific actions to effect change. There’s clearly plenty more for everyone involved in dance, even (or especially) as audience members, to think about, talk about, and do something about.

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