Men aren’t supposed to want to grow up to be ballet dancers. Or so I’ve been told, at least.
Except, I did, and I grew up to be one — and a pretty darn good one at that. I left home at age 11 to train with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, one of the premier companies in the country. I’ve long since hung up my ballet slippers, but it’s still a major defining part of my life.
For better or for worse.
That I was a ballet dancer is no secret; there are pictures of me in costume and in stage makeup on my Facebook page. Yet, it’s not something I broadcast — and not out of embarrassment, but because it more than often means I have to explain myself to other people, as if I need to justify it. It’s the same questions every time: yes, it is called a ballerino, no; I didn’t go en pointe; yes, I wore tights; no, I’m not gay.
There’s a strange division of thought among a lot of people when it comes to heterosexual ballerinos. For two years I was the sports editor at SFU’s own The Peak. It took showing a former editor there the photo above to prove to her I was, in fact, a dancer at one point in my life. She couldn’t believe it, because I “[wrote] about football and stuff.” if football and stuff are normal things for a guy in his mid-20s to be into, while ballet is not.
While I hate to think of it as “abnormal,” I do think it’s fair to say it’s out of the ordinary. We’ve talked at length in this class about the pervasiveness of our heteronormative culture, and ballerinos are a challenge to that. My old roommate, one of my closest friends, insisted that ballet was “inherently more feminine” than hockey, and I struggled to comprehend his logic. But I think I get it now. Ballet isn’t competitive in nature (not to say that it can’t be a cutthroat environment), and it isn’t a three-hour exhibition of brute force. It’s graceful, elegant, and set to classical music. The tutu is to ballet as Jerry West’s silhouette is to the NBA. There are far more women than men who engage in the activity, and further still, is that activity even a sport? I’m in the camp that ballet is a performance art in the same vein as Broadway (but then again, Ice Dancing is in the Olympics), and I’m not alone (Kottler, 2016). Either way, the debate has led to detractors: by thinking of dancers as artists and not athletes takes away from the incredible physicality involved.
We’ve tried to define masculinity in this class, or at least the concept thereof. We called it “anything not ‘feminine,’” and that’s an idea echoed by many (Haltom & Worthen, 2014, pp. 758; Martinez, 2015, pp. 1-6). Haltom and Worthen (2014) define the social construction as simply, “not sissy stuff” (pp. 758). I started dancing when I was seven years old. Almost 20 years later, I still get called things like “pussy”—that is, things that are inherently feminine, to emasculate me and normalize things.
Ballet is to many, for the reasons described above, sissy stuff. Ballerinos are a square peg in heteronormativity’s round hole: they don’t quite fit, and that, to some, is discomforting.
I’ve seen it first hand, and not just in the name-calling. As time has gone on, people’s reactions to discovering my dancing past have generally moved past schoolyard name-calling. Instead, it’s a general uneasiness, like they don’t quite know what to say or how to react. If they don’t clumsily ask all the same questions, they brush past it and act like it was never brought up — and it often never is again.
We can see this on a bigger scale, too: Michael Sam was an All-American defensive end at the University of Missouri before entering the 2014 NFL Draft. He came out a few months before, and almost passed through the draft unselected. Ultimately, he was chosen by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh and final round, and while his NFL career was unspectacular to say the least, there’s little doubt him coming out affected his draft stock. That general discomfort was not limited to NFL teams, however: Many, “even well-meaning people — say that there was nothing wrong with Sam being gay, but that ESPN should not have aired the kiss and celebration between Sam and his partner” (Adamson, 2015, pp. 33).
The argument could be made, if we consider masculinity to be “not sissy stuff,” that heterosexuality is a man’s most masculine possession. I can be a ballet dancer and be straight, because no matter how “sissy” ballet is, I’m not gay, yet Sam can become a social outcast despite playing one of the least “sissy” sports.
“Coming out” as a heterosexual professional dancer is as surprising to some as a professional football player coming out as gay, if on a smaller scale. Yet, tension over the former is often much more quickly resolved because it still partly obeys these standards our culture has, at least more so than the latter.
“The Pros” and Cons
Our culture is one that “ritualize[s] and dramatize[s] patriarchal and heteronormative gender relations” (Arend, 2014, pp. 145), and people who don’t follow those rituals are often looked down on. It creates a very binary idea of life, from sports to politics. Any sort of dialogue surrounding these issues is either queer, feminist, or nothing remarkable at all; moments of “juxtaposition, flirtatious encounter, or even embrace between these discourses will appear unintelligible” (Deen, 1999, pp. 92).
Yes, our culture is one of patriarchy, and one of heteronormativity. It is normal to be “straight”—the concept of straightness alone means anything that is not is therefore crooked or wrong.
Certainly, this trend is slowly changing. Former National Basketball Association player Jason Collins, whose career spanned from 2001 to 2014, came out in 2013. Collins, who penned the article in Sports Illustrated that served as his public coming-out announcement, admitted to struggling with these pre-conceived gender notions. “I thought I had to live a certain way,” he wrote. “I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.” (Collins, 2013.)
People like Collins and Sam have certainly received backlash and hate for their sexuality. Chris Culliver, a former San Francisco 49ers cornerback, said just months before Sam’s announcement, “We don’t have any gay guys on the team […] They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff” (Rosenthal, 2013). The world of professional sports is no easy place for gay men, but the discourse is changing.
For every Culliver, there is an article heaping praise on the two for showing the courage to come out, with Collins “generally celebrated as a trailblazer” (Billings, Moscowitz, Rae, & Brown-Devlin, 2015, pp. 153). It is so uncommon, and so against the cultural norm that when not met with criticism, male athletes who come out are celebrated.
These ritualistic notions of gender are not constricted to heteronormativity. In some circles, to be homosexual is considered the norm. Ballet is one of them — for men, at least.
And while not equivalent, it is certainly similar to the world of women’s sports. Male dancers, like female athletes, are almost expected to be gay — if for very different reasons. Male dancers shed themselves of masculine qualities by participating in perceived feminine activity. Female athletes are forced to shed their femininity — by not adhering to traditional beauty or body norms, and by participating in “masculine” activities such as basketball or hockey. So while male athletes like Collins and Sam are commended for coming out, the same can’t necessarily be said for women who do the same.
Around the same time Collins publicly came out, WNBA star Brittney Griner did the same, except her announcement wasn’t met with laudation. Rather, “Much of the media coverage in the month following Griner’s acknowledgement treated it as a minor news event” (Dann & Everbach, 2016, pp. 182). And this isn’t a new phenomenon, either. Eight years prior to Griner, Sheryl Swoopes, one of the most celebrated female basketball players of all-time, came out as a lesbian. And, “With few exceptions, journalists claimed that Swoopes’ declaration was neither shocking nor surprising” (King, 2009, pp. 173).
Normalizing homosexuality is far from a bad thing, and that’s what athletes like Griner are aiming for. In a video interview with Sports Illustrated, Griner said, “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way” (“Griner, Delle Donne, Diggins discuss sports and sexuality”, 2016) (You can follow the link to SI, or watch a shortened YouTube version below.). But when homonormativity exists for the sake of pushing gender roles, then it remains very problematic.
At the very least, the discourse is beginning to change. For every vocal opponent like Culliver, the stories of people like Sam and Collins have been “overwhelmingly greeted positively” (Billings et al., 2015, pp. 143). Slowly, homonormativity is entering the discussion as well. But people from outside the world of professional sports are lacking representation in that discussion. A quick search of Collins, Sam, or Griner understandably yields pages on pages of articles about them. If you type “ballet” into Deadspin’s search bar, the only article that comes up on the first three pages of results directly referencing it is one about a barre-based workout. That traditional gender roles are being challenged through one of their defining factors (athletics) is a great development, and increased awareness of the issues at hand will lead to a decrease in the conversations like the one I had with my roommate. Sports are at the head of this movement, and for good reason. But for it to be truly successful, to truly challenge the notions of performative masculinity and heteronormativity, the discourse must extend to those outside the professional sports realm.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have tickets to see The Nutcracker with my mom.
Adamson, B. (2015). Michael Sam: Upending NFL Heteronormativity With a Piece of Cake. Texas Review Of Entertainment & Sports Law, 17(1), 33-42.
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Billings, A., Moscowitz, L., Rae, C., & Brown-Devlin, N. (2015). The Art of Coming Out: Traditional and Social Media Frames Surrounding the NBA’s Jason Collins. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 92(1), 142-160.
Collins, J. (2016). Why NBA center Jason Collins is coming out now. SI.com. http://www.si.com/more-sports/2013/04/29/jason-collins-gay-nba-player
Dann, L. & Everbach, T. (2016). Opening the Sports Closet: Media Coverage of the Self-Outings of Jason Collins and Brittney Griner. Journal Of Sports Media, 11(1), 169-192.
Deem, M. (1999). Scandal, heteronormative culture, and the disciplining of feminism. Critical Studies In Mass Communication, 16(1), 86-93.
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Griner, Delle Donne, Diggins discuss sports and sexuality. (2016). SI.com. http://www.si.com/more-sports/2013/04/17/wnba-griner-delle-donne-diggins-sports-sexuality
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Kottler, B. (2016). Ballet Is an Art, Not a Sport. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brittany-kottler/ballet-is-an-art-not-a-sp_b_4718929.html
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Rosnethal, G. (2016). Chris Culliver wouldn’t accept openly gay 49ers player. NFL.com. http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000133011/article/chris-culliver-wouldnt-accept-openly-gay-49ers-player