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Does Gender Matter?

By Rebecca Martin of Dance Informa.

Despite the giant leaps that have been made regarding gender equality in dance, the opinion of the general public does not appear to have changed a whole lot.  For the uneducated public, dance is for girls who wear pink tutus and shuffle around on stage looking pretty. They are taught by old ladies with buns in their hair and walking sticks who play cute music from a stereo in the corner of a church hall. To them, dance requires little to no training or commitment, and absolutely cannot be a legitimate career. 

Those of us who have sweated in a dance studio or watched our children strive for perfection in front of full-length mirrors know that dance is a difficult vocation that is pursued with commitment, dedication and passion. We know that dance teachers are of different ages and can be women or men, and that the training provided by teachers will make or break a student’s potential to have a career in the cut throat world of dance.

With the increased popularity of dance over the last few years, there has definitely been an overall improvement in what the general public, students and parents know about dance and dance training. Additionally, society at large is shouting about gender equality and equal rights. 

So does gender matter when it comes to dance teaching?

Recently, a successful Melbourne dancer and teacher with 10 years of teaching experience applied for a position with a large dance school. He submitted his CV by email as required, including glowing references from schools and parents. But he was told by return email that he was not suitable for the advertised position of dance teacher. Keen to receive feedback, the dancer asked about his unsuitability and was simply told that the school only hires female teachers based on the belief that the students respond better to female teachers and that the parents are more comfortable with the teacher being a woman. 

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, with identical scenarios occurring regularly around the country.

If dance schools themselves are perpetuating this type of mentality, then what hope is there for parents, students and the overall public? This type of conduct is incredibly harmful to the industry and does not support the professionals already working or trying to break into the industry. It is hard enough to get work as a dancer in Australia, let alone having to fight against gender stereotypes and discrimination from the very people you expect to support you.

Sadly, although the rejection of a job application on the basis of gender is illegal, in the dance world this action is accepted due to the perceived normality of it. If someone applying for a job in a bank was refused the position on the basis of their gender, we would be seeing lawsuits and news reports, but when it happens in a dance studio, no one bats a false eyelash.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Section 14) states that it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person on the ground of the person’s sex in the arrangements made for the purpose of determining who should be offered employment, in determining who should be offered employment, or in the terms or conditions on which employment is offered. Simply put, to take into account a dance teacher’s gender when considering their application is unlawful, as is the refusal to hire them on the basis of their gender.

It should be noted that the position being applied for in this instance was to teach young students under the age of five. It is rare to see discrimination against gender in full time dance schools that accommodate older students on the cusp of their professional careers. By that point in their training, both the students and the parents have hopefully figured out that their training will benefit from learning under the best teachers available, regardless of their gender. 

So is it the parents of students who are perpetuating this gender inequality or is it the schools themselves? 

It is concerning to think that it could be the dance schools that are causing the problem, or not addressing the problem. Parents place a great deal of trust in the dance teachers they hire to train their children. Parents need to have faith that in their absence, their children will be treated well by teachers and given proper and safe training. In most cases also, the parents have little to no experience with dance and they rely on the opinions and guidance of the teachers they hire. Therefore, it makes sense that the parents listen to a teacher who tells them that gender does or does not matter when it comes to dance teaching.

Surely a dance school will not sacrifice having excellent male teachers on their faculty due to the naïve and uninformed opinion of a few parents. And surely society has progressed far enough to allow for equality in teaching, whether it be in dance schools or educational schools. Sadly, this may not be the case.

Dance teachers need to stand up and refuse to allow this unlawful discrimination to continue, and the dance community needs to continue the fight to educate society. One day, dancers will be treated with the same respect as other professionals, be paid appropriate wages and not face discrimination or demoralisation. And one day they won’t have to fight for these rights against the very people and institutions that are meant to be supporting them.

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