Theme Dance

Written by Jordan Beth Vincent, Victorian College of the Arts

In her 1952 memoir, Dance to the Piper, American modern dancer Agnes de Mille (1905-1993) remarked that dance is 'the one physical performance open to women that does not carry with it either moral responsibility or physical hazard' (de Mille, 58). Though she was reflecting on the cultural landscape of early 20th-century America, de Mille's comments ring true for Australia in the same era. In a country obsessed with sport and masculinity, dance represented a rare opportunity for female self-expression, athleticism and creativity. It was men- and not women- who were forced to legitimise their participation in the art form, a marked difference from other athletic and creative disciplines in Australia. Moreover, dance was generally perceived to be a positive 'gendering' activity for girls and women in the 20th century, with the potential to improve their grace, beauty, and femininity. Their participation in dance assured and accepted, women enthusiastically embraced the art form in all its many incarnations.

Anecdotally, we know that more women than men graduated from Australia's tertiary and private dance programs, sought performance careers in dance, taught dance at every level from pre-primary to university, filled roles as dance advocates for government, and occupied middle-level managerial positions at Australia's many dance companies and organisations. However, despite their manifest dominance of the industry, women have been less likely than men to hold and sustain traditional leadership positions as artistic directors and choreographers in Australian dance companies. This has been particularly true of dance genres that cling to traditional gender roles and representation, such as classical ballet or commercial dance- two areas of the industry that are distinguished from contemporary dance by their combination of private and public subsidy. Women have fared better in contemporary dance, a genre inspired by American modernism and postmoderism and Central European Ausdruckstanz (expressionist dance), both overseas artistic movements.

Notably, many contemporary dance companies led by women have tended to focus on educational programs, highlighting a key connection between women and the teaching and training of young dancers that drives the development of the art form at its most basic level. In spite of individual successes, a survey of Australian dance history reveals that Australian women have struggled to exert and maintain creative control over companies with a significant amount of funding.

This entry explores the role that women have played in driving the development of dance in Australia in the 20th century, as well as the barriers that women have faced in obtaining positions of power in the Australian dance 'fraternity'. It is important to recognise the overarching association of dance with femininity, as well as the underlying association of dancers on stage as objectified, sexualised females. The connection between femininity and dance, reflected in nearly every aspect of the art form across the century, was in sharp contrast with traditional views of 'leadership', which codes decision-making, directing, or strong financial management as 'masculine' attributes. Over the years, the relative scarcity of men training and performing as dancers (in comparison to the numbers of females) created an accepted double standard, in which female dancers were viewed as more expendable, replaceable, and generally less valuable than their male counterparts. Considering their representation in the industry, the barriers against access by women to traditional leadership roles in dance has been both insidious and rarely discussed in an art form coded 'female', and has its roots in the history of the profession.

The dancing body is a gendered body. Not only is the physical made visible in dance, but our strongest cultural associations of dance and dancers are also deeply gendered. In classical ballet repertoire, women are carried, moved, and manipulated across the stage by male dancers, mirroring the hetero-normative romantic narratives in which virginal characters such as Giselle, Odette, and the many sylphs succumb to hysterical madness, die of a broken heart, or seek rescue by a handsome prince. These well-known narratives also reflected the realities of the art frorm, for women in ballet were highly unlikely to drive or control the creative process; rather, they were directed by male choreographers and artistic directors.

At the height of romantic ballet in 19th-century Europe, the growing obsession with female ballerinas coincided with the transition of men off the stage and into roles as directors and choreographers. This created a strange dichotomy in which women were intimately associated with dance and yet were rarely responsible for its creation, financing or general artistic direction. French critics of the era, such as Théophile Gautier, viciously maligned the dancing male and emphasised the relationship between ideal beauty and female dancers. Outspoken audiences and critics of the romantic ballet, like Gautier, tended to be male, and conflated skilled ballet performance with sexual desirability.

Dance performances, along with other theatrical events, were a regular occurrence during Australia's formative years; yet, for most men during the gold-rush period of the mid-19th century, the spectacle of dance was closely related to the sexualised performances of dancing women (Vincent, 2009). The objectification of women on stage mirrored women's peripheral role in Australian political culture of the era, and visiting artists such as Lola Montez played up to the conflicting stereotypes of dancers as promiscuous and yet sexually unattainable. Owing to the shortage of women in general-except for those who participated in the flourishing and largely unchecked trade of prostitution-dance retained a connection to uninhibited female sexuality, something that became a cause for concern in the late 19th and early 20th-centuries, as as moral discourses characterised by more constrained cultural conventions came to dominance. Women in dance have both benefited from, and rejected, the sexual objectification of the female body on stage, with a tension between the art and entertainment aspects of the performing arts ever present in any discussion of the form.

This is not to suggest that men were not involved in performing or creating dance-they were. However, many talented performers in the early part of the century (such as Sir Robert Helpmann) were chased overseas by what they saw as a homophobic culture. Visiting male dancers (Rudolf Nureyev, for example, who toured Australia and danced with the Australian Ballet overseas multiple times between 1962 and 1991, as well as the many virile performers of the Ballets Russes who arrived in Australia between 1936 and 1940 and the men of the Bolshoi Ballet touring Austtralia between 1962 and 1988) were accepted as much for their exoticism as their technical skill. Visiting female dancers such as Anna Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn, and the many female performers of the Ballets Russes were adored as paradigms of perfect femininity. Fears about the emasculation of men (and the correlating de-feminisation of women) heated up at times of national tension- just after both world wars when the demographics of gender shifted, and again in the 1970s as images of homosexuality became deeply entwined with stereotypes of male dancers.

In the cases of classical ballet and commercial dance (here used to define everything from musical theatre to dance at corporate events), the appearance of gender has been clearly delineated by specifically gendered costuming. Male ballet dancers generally wear tights, making their masculinity clearly visible, and emphasising the contrast with the pointe shoes and romantic tutus worn by women in traditional repertoire that reflected the lightness and other-worldliness of their essentially ethereal characters. Women involved in the many productions on the musical theatre stages of J.C. Williamson Ltd in the 20th century were valued for their beauty as 'ballet girls', and the end of the Tivoli circuit in 1966 saw female dancers move from vaudeville and dancing revues on the circuit into performances at theatre restaurants (such as Melbourne's The Lido and Brisbane's Theatre Royal), nightclubs, and on the new medium of television. In the early days of television, every station had its own ballet. Some of the women who transitioned from theatres to television (and often back again) included Valrene Tweedie, Robina Beard, Mary Duchesne and Betty Pounder, the powerful in-house choreographer and dance director for J.C. Williamson Ltd from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The eroticism of dancing women in this new visible world was generally reflected in their costuming, just as the penchant of today's female commercial dancers for revealing clothing and loose hair highlights their sexuality for a consuming, commercial audience. However, the deeply gendered elements in dance have been something of a trap for women. On-stage representations of female characters have cast long shadows over the behavioural expectations for dancers off stage, and residual fascinations with the sexual proclivity, mental stability and economic solidity of dancers are some of the outdated, yet unshakeable remnants of 19th-century dance. If nothing else, these obsolete cultural associations only support antiquated attitudes about the inability of women to excel in traditional leadership roles as artistic directors and choreographers.

The roles of artistic director and choreographer are crucial to the dance-making process and are widely accepted as the dual creative heads of any successful dance company. It is generally only the former whose position is permanent and reasonably well salaried. With the exception of the role of 'resident choreographer', it is not uncommon for choreographers to work on a freelance basis, both nationally and internationally. At the most basic level, the responsibilities of an artistic director range from creative control over repertoire selection to hiring practices and financial decisions, kept in check by an administration and production staff who help to balance creative choices with their economic ramifications. The dynamic between artistic directors and dancers differs from company to company but it is often strongly hierarchical. This speaks to the level of inequity within the company structure, in which dancers- and particularly female dancers- are numerous enough to be viewed as replaceable commodities. This particular structure is most prevalent in the ballet world, perhaps as a relic from ballet's beginnings as a performance spectacle for European royalty. However, such a structural hierarchy is crucial to sustaining successful dance companies; dancers learn to understand their position in the pecking order from a very young age and to recognise the significant level of competition that surrounds any professional position as a dancer.

It is also important to appreciate that, beyond just determining the direction of a single season, artistic directors set the agenda for a dance company over the long term. Fewer female artistic directors and choreographers may result in a dance sector that is less capable of meeting the needs of female dancers. It also may contribute to a culture in which women are seen as less valuable contributors to the creative and choreographic process, or in which the stories of women are less likely to be interpreted through the medium of dance. Considering the relatively extensive level of private and public patronage enjoyed by Australia's ballet companies (in comparison with Australia's contemporary dance companies), this also means that female choreographers will enjoy less exposure than their male counterparts, ultimately resulting in lower levels of funding across the course of an entire career.

Many women have founded their own dance companies. One of the first groups run by an Australian woman was the First Australian Ballet (FAB), founded in 1931 by Louise Lightfoot (1902-1979) and Mischa Burlakov (c.1884-1965). However, Ballets Russes dancer Helene Kirsova founded Australia's first professional company, the Kirsova Ballet, in 1941. From 1946, Laurel Martyn's Ballet Guild (the company became Ballet Victoria in 1967) integrated the structure and system of classical ballet with strongly emotional and, in the case of work such as Matthinna (1954), political interests. Other significant women who founded their own companies include Padma Menon, Paige Gordon, Anna Smith, Nannette Hassall, Lucy Guerin, Chrissie Parrott, Sue Healey and Maggi Sietsma, among others.

As we reflect on the women listed above, it becomes noticeable that, not only did they actually found their own companies rather than take over existing ones, most of them actually work within the contemporary dance sector. Australian contemporary dance grew predominantly from two overseas artistic movements- Central European expressionism and American postmodern dance. American postmodernism, however, did not arrive until the second half of the 20th century, meaning that the main influence on non-classical ballet for several decades in Australia was expressionism. When it arrived in Australia in the late 1930s, brought in by experienced European dancers including Sonia Revid, Ruth Bergner and Gertrud Bodenwieser, expressionist dance was undeniably associated with femininity and emotionality. Although we can certainly attribute this to the fact that the majority of artists migrating to Australia were women, it was also a consequence of the very method these artists used to generate movement material. Expressionist dance relied heavily on the emotional outpouring of the individual dancer, sparked by improvisational exercises. Combined with a wider cultural assumption that dance was a female art form and the scarcity of immigrating or local male expressionist artists in the early years, it is no surprise that the first generation of Australians to utilise expressionist styles and tools in their own companies were also women: Shirley McKechnie, founder of the Australian Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1963, Margaret Lasica, founder of the Modern Dance Ensemble in 1967, and Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, founder of the Australian Dance Theatre in 1965. These women laid the foundation for subsequent Australian female artistic directors.

It is also noteworthy that many of the companies founded by women in the 20th century featured a strong educational or community focus, such as co.motion (founded by Anna Smith in 1997), Tasdance (founded by Jenny Kinder in 1981), and The Dance Company (NSW) (founded by Suzanne Davidson). Further examples include Dance North under the direction of founder Cheryl Stock, and Melbourne's Dance Works under the direction of Helen Herbertson and Beth Shelton (the company was founded by Nannette Hassall; Sandra Parker served as the final artistic director from 1997-2006). Margaret Lasica's company, the Modern Dance Ensemble, attracted a number of university students who did not necessarily desire a professional career but wanted to dance as an adjunct to their studies at the University of Melbourne. This highlights a very important element of female leadership in dance- the acceptance of women as trainers, teachers, and liaisons to the community through dance practice.

A number of the most successful female company founders in Australia have actually migrated to Australia as adults, including Helene Kirsova (1910-1962), Raisse Kouznetsova, who founded the Polish Australian Ballet with Valery Shaievsky and Edouard Sobishevsky, and Kira Bousloff (1914-2001), founder of the West Australian Ballet in 1953. The tours of the Rambert Dance Company in 1948 and 1949 heralded the immigration of Joyce Graeme, who directed the short-lived National Theatre Ballet Company from 1949, and Dame Margaret Scott, who was the first director of the Australian Ballet School from 1964. Gertrud Bodenwieser was a highly respected expressionist artist in inter-war Vienna; when she migrated, she brought her entire company of female dancers with her. Carole Johnson, an American dancer who toured Australia with the Eleo Pomare Company in 1972, founded the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre in 1976 and Bangarra Dance Theatre in 1989.

A survey of female-led dance companies in 20th-century Australia- across both the ballet and contemporary dance genres- reveals a number of instances where directors were unwillingly ousted by their boards or administrators (as in the case of Australian Dance Theatre under the leadership of Elizabeth Cameron Dalman and Meryl Tankard, and the Australian Ballet under the directorships of Dame Peggy van Praagh, Maina Gielgud and Anne Woolliams, and Dance Concert under the leadership of Margaret Walker), of companies suffering from financial mismanagement (as in the case of Laurel Martyn's Ballet Victoria), or companies folding after losing their funding (as happened with Sue Healey's Vis-a-Vis Dance Canberra, Eva Segal and Marina Berezowsky's Kolobok Dance Company and Melbourne's Dance Works under the leadership of Sandra Parker in 2006). Companies founded by women, including Australian Dance Theatre (founded by Dalman in 1965), Dancenorth (founded by Cheryl Stock in 1985), Dance Concert (founded by Margaret Walker in 1967), and West Australian Ballet (founded by Kira Bousloff in 1952) all came under male control after the founding female artistic directors left. This suggests that, even when women have risen to traditional leadership roles, their positions as artistic directors have often been somewhat tenuous.

The artistic director may be the most visible traditional leadership role within the dance sector, but the choreographer is just as important to the process of creating dance (it is not uncommon for a single person to hold both positions in a dance company). Without the choreographer, there are no steps to put on stage. Traditionally, the choreographer takes charge of the unique creative decisions within a studio that shepherd dance from its unformed rehearsal state to a polished stage product. As with artistic directorships, we see a division of gender in choreography based on dance genre.

Historically, women have been excluded from roles as choreographers in classical ballet. The repertoires of Australia's three ballet companies- Queensland Ballet (founded in 1960 by Charles Lisner), West Australian Ballet (founded in 1952 by Ballets Russes dancer Kira Bousloff) and the Australian Ballet- collectively feature more works by men than by women. There are standout exceptions, such as significant work by Jacqui Carroll and Chrissie Parrott, but a perusal of the historical repertoire demonstrates a clear gender bias (Dyson, Ausdance Guide). An early commission by the Australian Ballet in 1964 was for Australian choreographer Betty Pounder (1921-1990) to create Jazz Spectrum. Pounder's contribution to Australian musical theatre and television is significant; she was responsible for organising a number of musicals for J.C. Williamson Ltd through the 1970s. Other significant works by female choreographers for the Australian Ballet included Joanna Priest's (1910-1997) opera ballet, Catulli Carmina (Priest also founded the South Australian Ballet Club in Adelaide in 1939 and contributed to a number of television and theatrical programs through the 1970s). Natalie Weir, the current artistic director of Expressions Dance Company, created Dark Lullaby (1998), Mirror, Mirror (2000) and Carmina Burana (2001), and was appointed resident choreographer in 2000. Meryl Tankard choreographed Wild Swans, a joint project between the Sydney Opera House and the Australian Ballet in 2003, and The Deep End in 1996.

Certainly, the transition from dancer to choreographer (or to artistic director) seems to be more straightforward in contemporary dance than it is in ballet. We can partly attribute this to the creation of a number of tertiary dance programs. The first was at Rusden College (now Deakin University), founded by Shirley McKechnie in 1975 and modeled after European and American university dance programs. Since then, programs for tertiary dance include those at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Adelaide College for the Arts, Victoria University and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Graduates from these programs have gone on to impressive performance, choreographic and directing careers. This indicates that women who trained as dancers in tertiary programs were learning leadership skills and choreographic techniques as undergraduates; based on the evidence, the same cannot be said for the female graduates from the Australian Ballet School. A number of male choreographers have graduated from the Australian Ballet School, working in both ballet and contemporary dance, but the scarcity of female choreographers from the Australian Ballet School may suggest a gendered split by training or in the admission of new students- or simply a culture that does not nurture emerging female choreographers.

As we have seen thus far, women have struggled to gain traditional leadership roles within the dance sector, and, when they have succeeded (often through founding their own companies through which to choreograph work), they have often struggled to maintain either the positions or the funding necessary to sustain the companies. As we have also seen, there are exceptions to every rule and some significant female success stories. However, it does appear that sexism is endemic in an art form that is so closely associated with femininity.

Because of the contradictory aspects of women's participation in dance and their lower representation in traditional roles of power, a discussion of female leadership in 20th-century Australian dance must extend beyond those typical employment roles that wield financial, creative or intellectual control, such as artistic director and choreographer. If we are to fairly evaluate the impact of female leadership in this industry, we must adjust the notion of 'leadership' to encompass roles in performance, teaching, mentorship, research and advocacy for the art form, both in concert performance and in the mostly undocumented area of community practice. Leadership in dance, therefore, may include areas that are unrecognised from outside the studio, and yet play enormously significant roles in shaping the art form by influencing the artistic and creative practice of individual Australian women. These are the areas that have been dominated by Australian women as they have ventured beyond the roles of choreographer and artistic director to contribute to the dance sector. Unfortunately, jobs in community practice, teaching and advocacy are notoriously poorly paid despite their cultural and social value. For women, retaining roles in the dance sector outside of performance can offer flexibility in terms of working hours as well as a chance to continue contributing to the dance sector; yet they often come without the job security and financial benefit of other areas of employment.

Dance teaching is a career populated by women and provides a kind of leadership to the sector that is rarely acknowledged though it is reflective of the very nature of dance. It is difficult to learn to dance from reading a textbook; 'dance' does not hang on a museum wall. Stylistic and technical nuances are passed from master to apprentice in a studio- it is a living history that survives in the human body. Dance teachers such as Eunice Weston, Dorothy Gladstone, Frances Scully and Jennie Brenan pushed for certification of classical ballet at the end of the 1920s. Certifications by ballet organisations, such as RAD (Royal Academy of Dancing) and the Cecchetti Society, have been championed by female teachers and examiners since the early 1930s. Every state in Australia has benefited from dedicated female dance teachers in every dance genre, with suburban dance teachers giving the first technical instruction to future performers. The rise of teaching within the tertiary dance sector has also been almost entirely driven by women. There is a clear pathway for a dancer trained in a tertiary dance program into choreography and artistic directorships in the contemporary dance sector. Graduating dancers are also able to gain a certificate (Certificate IV or Bachelor of Arts) for their efforts, thus legitimising their field of study and smoothing pathways into forms of employment that may otherwise be closed to them.

Australian women have also excelled in the bourgeoning field of practice-led research, as well as in the more established academic arena of tertiary dance. The careers of Professor Shirley McKechnie, Dr Cheryl Stock, Dr Kim Vincs, Dr Maggi Phillips, Jenny Kinder and Nannette Hassall represent the transition from performer, to company director/choreographer, and then into significant leadership roles in the education and research sectors. Tertiary programs have struggled to find the right balance between a conservatory model, in which performance training and choreographic skill are highlighted, and academic associations that prize publishing and research. However, the creation of tertiary dance courses expanded the possibilities for dancers to work as teachers and choreographers, and simultaneously succeeded in strengthening contemporary dance (an area of key female leadership) within the larger dance industry.

The Australian Research Council has funded three major choreographic cognition projects led by Professor Shirley McKechnie and Professor Kate Stevens, beginning with Unspoken Knowledges in 1999, with choreographers Anna Smith, Michelle Heaven and Sue Healey contributing new work to the research projects. Dr Kim Vincs has led the Deakin Motion.Lab since 2006, with her research team working in the areas of movement, motion capture and the use of advanced technology. Significant gains have also been made by researchers studying the nexus between science and dance; Lucinda Sharp and Janet Karin, among others, have been involved in the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science since its foundation in 1990.

Academics such as Dr Rachel Fensham, Dr Amanda Card, and Dr Elizabeth Dempster have contributed new dance research in universities across the country. The Green Mill conferences (1993-1997) focused on dance practice, education and history, for the first time bringing practice and scholarship together.

Dr Michelle Potter became the first curator of dance, initially at the National Film and Sound Archive in a partnership with Ausdance in 1997 (the Keep Dancing project), and then at the National Library of Australia in 2002, signalling a widespread interest in preserving Australia's dance history. Potter is also one of a number of female dance writers who have led the way as dance critics and reviewers since the 1960s; among others in this field are Hilary Crampton, Deborah Jones, Mary Emery, Jill Sykes, Valerie Lawson and American dancer Beth Dean, all of whom have been major contributors to Australia's print and online media.

Some of the most significant contributions made by women in the 20th century have been through the work of the Australian Dance Council, or Ausdance. Ausdance was founded as the Australian Association for Dance Education in 1977, with the aim of creating a united voice for dance by bringing together dance practitioners, teachers and researchers. The individuals leading Ausdance included Julie Dyson, Hilary Trotter, Dame Peggy van Praagh, Shirley McKechnie, Johanna Exiner, Hilary Crampton, Cheryl Stock, Valda Craig and many others across the country. The creation of Ausdance helped to redress the geographical isolation faced by the Australian dance community and. Significantly, raised the profile of the art form through partnerships, publications and public advocacy at the highest political levels. The organisation designs and delivers programs and resources to support and sustain professional dance practice in Australia, working through its national office in Canberra and its state and territory chapters.

Some of the most important initiatives by Ausdance National over its four decades have included: the creation of a national Indigenous dance program (Treading the Pathways, now BlakDance Australia); its Safe Dance research; national guidelines and, later, accreditation for dance teachers; career development for professional artists with the Australian Institute of Sport and the Australia Council; and the establishment of a national dance collection at the National Library of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive. Ausdance National leads the National Advocates for Arts Education, co-convenes ArtsPeak (the confederation of peak arts organisations) and partners the Dance Board of the Australia Council in projects such as Dance Plan 201 and the biannual National Dance Forum.

We have seen women's leadership as teachers, community leaders, government advocates, dance writers, and researchers- as well as through the powerful individuals who have created and maintained their own companies or choreographic practices in Australia. The final- and by no means the least important- area of leadership dominated by women is in performance on Australia's many stages and screens. There are far too many exceptional dancers and performers in every genre across the 20th century to name them all, but they have led in a crucial way by providing inspiration. The cultural association of dancing with femininity opened up opportunities for female dancing excellence, as women saw in dancing a place for personal expression through movement.

However, the career of a dancer is notoriously short and this is an important aspect to understanding the role of women in dance. The single most accepted role for women- that of a dancer- is constructed within the very limits of the physical body. The problem with an art form that places such an emphasis on the physical form is that the body degenerates with age, thus limiting the long-term earning potential of dancers who seek successful careers. This is in addition to the amount of work Australian dancers undertake with no financial reimbursement, making dance one of most poorly paid artistic professions in Australia (Positive Solutions, 20). Unlike other artistic disciplines, the necessity for training and further education never ceases. In order to have a finely tuned instrument, dancers must take classes on a daily or weekly basis and a lapse in discipline or training can have a real, and immediate, effect on their career prospects. Dance is an unapologetically ageist career, and dancers are well aware that there is very short time line between the culmination of training and the age when their bodies are unable to continue with the same level of functionality (never mind the dwindling number of roles, apart from character parts, designed for middle-aged women).

Unfortunately, those very years in which women dancers are best able to sustain a performance career overlap with their prime child-bearing years. Any loss of mobility, flexibility or balance, in addition to the weight gain and fatigue that accompany many pregnancies, can signal the end of a performance career for female dancers. This necessitates a choice between dancing and having a family: a choice further complicated by the difficulty in securing child-care that suits the late night hours of theatrical employment, as well as the relative cost of child-care compared to the low income earned by most women for dancing. Because of this, dance has generally not been a sustainable career for women, meaning that dancers often find themselves making a career transition or seeking further education at a time in their mid-thirties and forties when other professionals are well along their chosen career trajectory. It is not uncommon for dancers to move into roles in mid-level management, teaching, public relations, or research following their onstage careers in the dance world, thus continuing to contribute to the art form behind the scenes in more financially secure and permanent roles.

However, these realities about the choices for female dancers have far-reaching consequences. As we have seen, the pathway from dancer to a traditional leadership role as choreographer or artistic director is far easier for contemporary dancers than ballet dancers, not only because there is a model for female leaders in this genre, but perhaps because contemporary dance is generally more forgiving of different body types than classical ballet. The scarcity of females in top leadership roles contributes to a culture that does not recognise the difficulties of women who wish both to pursue a performance career and to have children and provide them with the necessary support. This issue is further compounded by the expense of producing dance on any scale and in any genre, for there are simply not the financial resources to allow for maternity leave schemes. The expense of making dance- hours, days, and weeks in the studio in which dancer health, fitness and mental stamina plays an important role- has long been a serious problem. Fortunately, some organisations have begun to broach these difficulties, including the Australian Ballet with an impressive maternity leave scheme that began only a few years ago. Drawing on research compiled by Catherine Beall in 1989, Ausdance worked in partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport (with support from the Australia Council) to create SCOPE (Securing Career Opportunities and Professional Employment), Australia's leading professional development and career management organisation for performing artists. SCOPE has since ended as a result of funding cuts, but the program is still used as a model for Ausdance.

The funding model of project-based companies (common in the contemporary dance sector), allows artistic directors the flexibility to hire different dancers for each new work, but this is at the expense of the security offered by full-time employment for female dancers. Not only must dancers be prepared to move in and out of flexible (and probably low-paying) jobs such as teaching dance or working in the hospitality industry as performance opportunities rise or disappear, but the choice to have children almost inevitably interrupts a dancing career.

As we reflect on women's leadership in dance in the 20th century, it is clear that the story of dance is essentially one of female self-expression. Even when their participation in traditional leadership roles within the sector has been limited, women have sought power elsewhere, particularly in the fields of research, advocacy, writing, and teaching. To this day, the leadership of women within dance features both behind the scenes- in the creation of Australian dancers- and in front of the footlights as performers. It is clear that women have driven both the training of Australian dancers in every genre of dance and the development of the art form. However, Australian dancers have struggled to cope not only with the gendered associations of dancing but also with the never-ending efforts to secure funding.

From the perspective of female leadership in Australia, it is clear that gender parity has not been redressed or even seriously considered as it has in other areas of Australian professional life such as business, politics and academia. It seems that the very acceptance of women in the art form signals the collective turning of a blind eye to the barriers to leadership. To this day, female dancers are fiercely aware of their relative value compared to their male counterparts; though it has not been properly documented, there is a general feeling that male dancers, administrators, choreographers and directors will always be highly valued and even praised for their participation in a 'female' art form. Men's barriers to leadership in dance are worth discussing further; we might hypothesise that any societal insecurity about the sexual preference and proclivities of dancing men has been successfully counterbalanced by their dominance in traditional leadership roles, as well as by the performance of hetero-normative relationships on stage.

The drive for female leadership within dance will always be hampered by the physical nature of the art form. It is nearly impossible to avoid gendered interpretations of dance when the body is on show, or to imagine the art form as a whole enthusiastically embracing older, larger, or less athletic bodies than the young nubile ones that comprise collective understandings of the dancing body. Moreover, dance has yet to completely reject its patriarchal heritage and history or its overarching associations with female sexuality, and it seems unlikely that it will ever do so. However, an awareness of the sexism and limitations for women can only add value to any discussion of the art form and cause us to question why we are happy to see women dance while yet remaining resistant to the idea that they should be the ones to drive the art form forward into the future.

Additional sources: Australia Dancing, (last accessed 16 May 2012).

Published Resources


  • Banes, Sally, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage, Routledge, London, England, 1998. Details
  • Brissenden, Alan and Glennon, Keith, Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance, 1945-1965, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, South Australia, 2010. Details
  • de Mille, Agnes, Dance to the Piper, Little Brown, Boston, United State of America, 1952. Details
  • Dyson, Clare, Ausdance Guide to Australian Dance Companies, Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1994. Details
  • Pask, Edward, Enter the Colonies Dancing: A History of Dance in Australia, 1835 - 1940, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1979. Details
  • Pask, Edward, Ballet in Australia: The Second Act, 1940 - 1980, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1982. Details
  • Scott, Kate Rachelle; Vashti, Lorelei and 3 Deep Design, Luminous: Celebrating 50 Years of the Australian Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details

Edited Books

  • Burridge, Stephanie and Dyson, Julie (eds), Shaping the Landscape: Celebrating Dance in Australia, Routledge, New Delhi, India, 2012. Details
  • Vernon-Warren, Bettina, and Warren, Charles (eds), Gertrud Bodenwieser and Vienna's Contribution to Ausdruckstanz, Harwood Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1999. Details

Magazine Articles

  • Lawson, Valerie, The First Australian Ballet, Dance Australia, February/March. Details


  • Vincent, Jordan Beth, 'In Pursuit of a Dancing "Body": Modernity, Physicality and Identity in Australia, 1919 to 1939', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 2009. Details

Online Resources