Being sensitive to gender identity in the classroom

Gender identity can be a sensitive topic. It is an evolving and ongoing conversation, and at Broadway Dance Center, it’s something that’s respected a great deal. BDC strives to make all its students feel comfortable as they step into the studio, honoring them in the way they wish to be seen, while simultaneously providing an appropriate setting to grow, discover and learn. 

We caught up with several BDC teachers to hear how they approach sensitivity to all their students in the classroom, and how that awareness can have an impact on the dance community at large. 

Gender sensitivity in the studio
Photo by Belinda Strodder

How do you address gender identity and sensitivity in the classroom? 

Barry Kerollis, ballet faculty 

“Over the years, ballet has obviously had challenges when it comes to cultural evolution. Part of what makes our art form so special is its traditions, which are often extremely gendered. Traditionally, children begin training together and perform the same exercises. But as puberty sets in and hormones influence how bodies change, women and men are separated into classes that highlight common strengths of these genders. Women are taught to dance en pointe, move fast and hold their legs at their ears, while men focus on multiple pirouettes, lifting and sky high jumps. 

As a ballet educator, there is a fine line I have to walk to honor the history of ballet while being inclusive toward each dancer who waltzes into my classroom. In the studio, I offer explanations as to why I am teaching certain steps for women versus men. From there, I try to offer dancers the choice to make a decision on whether they want to focus on the female-defined criteria versus male-defined criteria. Allowing a student to make this choice, accepting their decision and offering them the same treatment I do others is an important part of my job as an educator at an open-class school. It isn’t my responsibility to force dancers to choose material based on my interpretation of their gender.”

Justin Boccitto, tap and theater faculty 

“It’s important that we are sensitive to everyone’s gender identity. What I’ve been trying to do is focus on using more inclusive phrases like ‘everyone’, ‘all’ or ‘anyone’. If a student tells me their pronoun, I take note of it for future reference. If I accidentally mix up the pronoun, I will always apologize and ask the student to be patient with me, as I do interact with many students on a daily basis, and it’s not, in anyway, a disrespect to their wishes or identity.”

Emily Bufferd, contemporary, jazz and lyrical faculty 

“Gender identity is a personal choice, and I am glad to respect everyone’s preferences. When making a correction, I typically ask if it is all right to make the adjustment. Gender is not even part of the equation, and/or if a more personal addressing feels warranted, I tend to ask the dancer their name.”

What are you doing to include everyone? 

Kerollis

”I try not to make immediate assumptions about one’s gender based on their appearance. While I do like to see my students wearing appropriate dancewear, I am more open to different clothing choices in open classes. If a dancer is not yet comfortable showing their body, I am happy to allow them to wear warmups over their dance clothes. Although, I do require all dancers to appropriately cover bodies (for example, no tube tops or exposed thongs). My hope is that they will become more comfortable with their body and choices and slowly peel off their layers to allow me to give them appropriate feedback for greater improvement. 

I am also careful about the adjectives that I use in class. If I say, ‘This moment should feel beautiful,’ I will often follow it immediately by saying, ’or handsome, or whichever adjective feels appropriate.’ I also try to learn dancers’ names, instead of using pronouns like she, he, her and him. I have had dancers of all ages, genders, ethnicities and sizes enter my studio. And they are all welcome to learn the traditions of classical ballet as long as they are focused and work hard.”

Bufferd

“My classroom is inclusive by nature. I almost never break dancers into groups by gender, and I highly encourage the dancers in class to approach the movement in the way they feel most comfortable. If a female dancer wants to dance with what we tend to think of as more masculine traits, bring it on, and vice versa with a male dancer wanting to incorporate what we tend to think of as more feminine.  

It’s also important to respect any dancer who does not identify with a specific gender and allow them to vibe the movement as it suits them as well. In class, I think there is beauty in getting a variety of offerings and letting dancers feel out how they want to approach. For rehearsal, we’d likely have a different conversation simply because jobs often call for very specific things, but class is a place for exploration.”

Why is inclusion in the classroom important? 

Kerollis

“Ballet has long been seen as an elitist art form. This is part of its allure. It has also been a place where dancers who are not cis-gender, white or having a traditional ballet body type have felt unwelcome. 

As an educator at an institution like BDC, where I can influence dancers from around the world, I have the opportunity to show all types of dancers that ballet is accessible to anybody who wants to try. Anybody can be a ballet dancer, whether they are a professional dancer or recreational student.”

Bufferd

“I think being respectful to everyone is important. Respect of my students is the biggest underlying factor, and the fact that my job is to educate. Part of educating is guiding dancers to self-discovery in their process.”

How will increased gender sensitivity benefit the larger dance community? 

Kerollis

“Many people feel or have been told that ballet isn’t for them. On the other hand, everybody should know that ballet is the base for practically all styles of technical dance. If a dancer feels unwelcome or uncomfortable in a ballet class, they are unlikely to continue training in that style. But if a dancer wants to grow and become successful in any form of dance, they need to understand the complexities of ballet technique. Feeling welcome and comfortable in a ballet class will allow dancers to improve their skills in all styles of dance. 

Additionally, those educated in our art form become dance professionals, patrons, donors, practitioners who serve artists and act as advocates for our field. Love of dance bonds us all together as a community and helps maintain the cycle of support for our art form to continue.”

Bufferd

“In general, it’s a matter of really respecting each person’s offering. A greater level of respect anywhere (including discourse) is always good.”

Boccitto

“It’s about being kind and understanding while we all navigate through the changing times. We all benefit when everyone with whom we dance feels as free and available to learn as possible, and being aware of how that is different for different students is an important goal of BDC. Taking that sensitivity from the studio to the stage, and then to the streets, is a positive practice that we, as dancers, can use to be examples in all areas of our lives.”

By Emily Sarkissian of Dance Informa. 

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