Attitudes towards gender roles have become significantly more flexible over the course of the 21st century. Nevertheless, boys are still in the minority when it comes to pursuing dance as a leisure-time activity. How do boys themselves perceive their hobby?
This question intrigued Uniarts Helsinki’s researchers Kai Lehikoinen and Isto Turpeinen. They decided to conduct a questionnaire for men who had participated in boys’ dance groups from the 1990s to the year 2008.
The study demonstrated that dancing had left a permanent mark on the respondents.
“Many of the interviewees pointed out that dancing is a way to express oneself physically without competition or measuring the performance. Dance served as an outlet for discussing the important questions in life,” says Kai Lehikoinen, who is a university researcher at Uniarts Helsinki.
Dance makes people look at things from various perspectives.
“Dancing teaches us to become aware of our bodies and to read another person’s body language. It helps us understand the concept of being different and guides us to engage in cooperation with various kinds of people. Dancing also boosts our body esteem. One of the interviewees said that dance saved him from having a narrow outlook in life,” says Isto Turpeinen, who works as an arts advisor at the Arts Promotion Centre Finland and as a visiting researcher at Uniarts Helsinki.
Everyone can be themselves in a dance studio
The respondents said that they were able to be physically themselves in a dance class, without judgement.
“Basic education in dance offered the research participants an environment where they could be different from what they were at school or with their circle of friends as teenagers. Diversity of bodies was accepted. For some, dancing itself was the most important part,” Turpeinen explains.
Many of the men who participated in the survey told that their dance group was a family or a community of sorts, one that they felt that they belonged to. The boys’ locker room was an important place for the survey respondents to talk about their experiences and share their views on sexuality, for example, in new ways and more freely than at school.
“Some of the dancers have remained in touch with each other from childhood to this day,” Turpeinen notes.
Masculinity and narrow male gender roles
Most of the men who danced as a boy said they were heterosexual and only two of the respondents said they belonged to a sexual minority. Many of the men stopped pursuing dance as a hobby at some point in their youth for various reasons, one of them being social stigma.
According to Isto Turpeinen, many of the respondents found the experience of ending their hobby traumatic.
“When a young man runs into a stereotype about an unmasculine and homosexual dancer, feeling that he differs from the narrow male ideal, he may start to doubt his own being and his masculinity,” Turpeinen notes.
Many of the survey participants did not tell people in school that they danced as a hobby. Hiding the hobby was a survival strategy.
“A person’s parents were hardly ever the cause for giving up dancing, and usually it was the pressure from friends that made boys do it. Somebody whose opinions mattered to them didn’t approve of the hobby, so they gave it up. Fortunately, there were also many respondents who found dance and the dance community so important that they empowered them to carry on with their hobby,” Lehikoinen notes.
Ballroom dance gets a pass, theatrical dance doesn’t
Many cultures have very different attitudes towards theatrical (or performance) dance as opposed to participatory dance.
Partner dance and folk dance are socially acceptable for men and dancers who are skilled in these styles are respected, whereas dancers who represent theatrical dance styles such as ballet, jazz and contemporary are questioned when it comes to their masculinity. Male gender roles in the Western countries are very restricted.
“In theatrical dance, the bodily experience is more heightened and dancers are the object of the audience’s gaze, a role that has traditionally fallen on women,” Lehikoinen says.
The doctoral theses of both Lehikoinen and Turpeinen explore themes of masculinity and dance. In their research, they found that the Finnish dance scene began to emphasise the masculinity of a male dancer starting from the 1950s.
“As late as in the 1980s, the masculinity of male dancers was boosted by comparing them to top athletes and by adding games and movements from martial arts to boys’ basic education in dance. Homosexuality and feminine attributes in a man were denounced as shameful. It wasn’t until the 2000s when we have finally started to accept a wider spectrum of male identities and thankfully stopped force-feeding heteronormativity,” says Lehikoinen.
Peer support from boy groups
Besides his research activities, Isto Turpeinen has also taught dance for boy groups and father-son groups since the 1990s.
“Right now I teach a group with ten boys at the age of 7 and 8. The group was filled fast, and some kids were even placed on a waiting list.”
Classes specifically aimed at boys are popular, but they are not available in many dance schools in Finland. Turpeinen has heard comments that gender-specific dance groups do not take gender diversity into account.
“In practice, most dance groups are made up exclusively of girls, so teachers design their classes for girls’ bodies. Boys feel that the teaching is not suited for them. Sometimes boys are left alone, and they don’t get to have that shared locker room experience and the sense of community that comes with it,” Turpeinen points out.
Turpeinen finds that boy groups are an effective way of increasing dance as a hobby among boys and men.
“Everyone in my group can choose to define themselves as boys, and I don’t limit anyone’s right to participate based on their biological sex. My goal is to make sure that all those who have interest also have the possibility to dance and that diversity is genuinely taken into consideration in dance education. We have an exceptionally wonderful basic education system in dance here in Finland, and I hope that boys and men, too, would find dance education a suitable option for them,” Turpeinen continues.
The study also explored the question of whether gender-specific teaching offers a sufficiently safe space for boys to pursue dance as a hobby as their own selves. Lehikoinen points out that it is largely up to the teacher to create an accepting and appreciative atmosphere for their students.
“We contemplated on whether classes aimed at boys support the positive building of masculinity. According to our study, gender-specific dance groups can offer peer support, motivation and encouragement for boys.”
Embracing diversity in dance teaching
Dancing is a natural way for people to be in the world and to express themselves in it.
“Body awareness is part of humanity, and we increase our knowledge of the world through our senses. If people ignore the bodily dimension of themselves, it reflects negatively on their wellbeing. Everyone has equal rights to develop their own body awareness. That’s why men should get to dance, too,” Lehikoinen emphasises.
Lehikoinen and Turpeinen underline the importance of providing suitable training for dance teachers and introducing the diverse spectrum of gender roles and sexuality as part of dance teaching already in basic education.
“Dance teaching should support teenagers’ growth as human beings. A teaching method that is based on respect for people and a dialogue with others is beneficial for a group’s sense of community, as well. There should be research into why basic education in the arts has usually attracted girls significantly more than boys. Doesn’t teaching in the arts take different kinds of learners into sufficient consideration? In our article, we emphasise gender sensitivity instead of gender neutrality. For example, this means that we question traditional, narrow gender roles and embrace diversity,” Lehikoinen notes.
A total of 17 men who had taken dance classes in boy groups participated in the survey, and 11 of them were also interviewed. Six out of 17 male respondents worked as a dancer, dance teacher or a choreographer during the time of their response in 2019. Some of the respondents had quit dancing altogether. The respondents were 27–35 years of age. In the research, the words “man” and “boy” refer to a person who is socially perceived as a man or a boy based on their looks. – Written by Päivi Brink