The dancers stood in a circle, listening to the instructions. About thirty-five. It was a large circle. Some barefoot, some in socks. A few in hats. A few with beards. In departure from the typical dance class, it was composed entirely of male students.
Think of a word that embodies you. Create a movement to give life to this word. Repeat the movement with your eyes closed. Hold that movement. Eyes closed, allow your body to carry your word. They stood motionless in thought while the instructor counted off and then at the snap of the fingers, the dancers gave motion to the words that came out of their names. Looking around at each other, there were some soft guffaws, a few teasing words. As they repeated the movements with their eyes closed, a few declined to take that extra step of vulnerability. Two dancers in the corner nudged each other and muttered, each reminding the other that their eyes should be closed; neither giving in.
Today I accompanied our Performing Arts Librarian to an instruction session for the Movement Skills Enhancement for Men. The class was interesting to observe, in part because of its entirely male enrollment (I’ve taken classes in modern, ballet, and jazz. I can count on one hand the number of times I had male classmates), but also because the instructor, Vincent Thomas, uses dance as a tool to examine cultural and social structures. Made up of mostly college athletes, the students are here at the requests of their coaches.
In American and much of the western world, dance isn’t something the average guy will be pushed towards. Little girls are the ones in tutus and leotards, with dreams of becoming ballerinas. Little boys play sports and do other “boy things”. Dance, while appreciated, perhaps, falls under the realm of work performed by society’s culture keepers. There are social rules that detail how men and boys can use their bodies and still be thought of as masculine.
I’ve heard of football players taking ballet to improve movement, transition and strengthening of the joints, so it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that there is a dance class full of athletes…okay, maybe a little. But what really fascinated me is that they don’t stop at dancing. Using the concept of dance as scholarship, Thomas encourages his students to examine masculinity and the way men move in American culture, but also across different cultural platforms and in different countries. Thomas teaches students not just how to work their bodies and become better athletes through study of movement, but he challenges them to examine themselves and engage in reflection. As one student put it, Thomas teaches a way of life. Another said Thomas allows dancers to “discover the positives of yourself.”
One of the class assignments involves students viewing videos of and about male dancers. Post-viewing, they are to provide thoughtful reflections. Thomas said his goal to to get students to see themselves in the dancers and make connections between how they see men moving around the world and the movements they’re learning in class.
Remember that exercise at the beginning? One student volunteered that his word was empathy. In a culture built on heteronormativity and strict social boundaries, empathy is definitely something we could use more of. I hope he takes that word with him wherever he goes.
Whether it’s through physical movement, academic study, or conversation on the street corner, I’m all about asking questions and challenging assumptions. It’s refreshing to see this happening in the dance studio.
My goal is to help students stretch their capacity to make a positive impact on the world. I teach techniques and concepts, yes, but the relevance of those in different aspects of life – that’s the real power.
-Vincent Thomas, faculty bio