Illustration by Thomas Pitilli
Kaiden Johnson was in costume, ready to take the stage with the rest of his Superior High School dance team. The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) was holding its December Lake Superior Conference Dance Championships in Duluth, featuring high kicks and jazz. Superior, on the northwestern border of Wisconsin, had joined its rosters, closer to Duluth than other Wisconsin dance competitions. But before Johnson could get out there, face the audience, and perform his routine with the rest of his team—after months of practice, all leading up to this moment—he received an urgent message: Because of his gender, he was not allowed onstage.
Johnson, the only boy on his team, could not compete according to MSHSL rules. “I felt useless,” Kaiden told the lawyers now representing him. “All that work I put in was wasted.”
The MSHSL intends to keep competitive dance a girls’ activity, responding to concerns that boys simply commandeer any physically active extracurricular that goes coed. But Johnson’s lawyers argue this violates Title IX, a federal law barring the exclusion of students from activities based on their sex.
Johnson didn’t get to compete, and as his legal case unfolds, it contributes to an ongoing conversation about gender in extracurricular programs and the arts. When the Boy Scouts recently welcomed girls, for example, the move seemed progressive. But critics called it a ploy, leeching off the Girl Scouts to feed the anemic Boy Scouts. Now, Johnson’s story raises a fundamental question: Aside from participation rates, is there any merit to separating girls and boys?
In sports, we’ve long labeled male and female bodies as different—enough for women’s soccer, women’s basketball, and women’s hockey. But dance, landing between sport and art, is tougher to delineate. Toni Pierce-Sands, dancer and artistic director of St. Paul contemporary dance organization TU Dance, says she’s more interested in individual dancers’ differences than gender differences. She started dancing young, back when her high legs contributed to a virtuosic step. As her body changed, though, her dance repertoire shifted, too.
Studies have found that men, on average, have longer legs than women and are taller. But does it make sense to ignore the variety in women’s bodies—including shape and length—while flagging male bodies as too different?
Pierce-Sands, coming from the contemporary dance world, says she has never felt pigeonholed by gender. But in ballet, dance is deeply sexed. Women perform the stand-out moves—rising en pointe and demonstrating arguably greater rigor than men. “Was there a role of a man that I wanted to do?” Pierce-Sands poses. She recalls dancing in a New York show, Shelter, where an all-women cast conveyed the strength and weariness of homelessness through relentlessly physical choreography. Later, an all-male cast took on the same show (adding a certain macho bravado). “I’m like, ‘No! There are women’s roles that men have wanted to do!’ ” she says.
We see women as getting the better dance parts, but traditional gender roles still hold sway. Male dancers lift seemingly delicate women and provide balance. TU Dance recently toyed with that construction in No One Will See, where a man and a woman, faces veiled, fluidly switched between supporting and center roles. Still, Pierce-Sands admits that a dancer’s performance begins as soon as her body appears onstage. It’s why directors use the term “gender-conscious casting” rather than “gender-blind”: Many want to level the playing field for women, but the performing arts work visually, and unlike playing a musical instrument, one’s instrument in dance is the self. “The body that enters onstage already brings us into a certain perspective,” Pierce-Sands explains. “We can’t take for granted that the body is the carrier of messages.” And those messages include ideas attached to bodies by centuries of gender-binary patriarchy. Recent news about school sports, transgender bathrooms, and sexual assault highlight gender inequality, but it’s not a new problem—especially not in the arts.
In fact, in the past 10 years, many studies have pointed out a stigma surrounding boys and dance. The MSHSL scores teams according to “musicality,” among more technically athletic criteria. For boys, the studies suggest, expressing themselves with the same physical grace and freedom as girls requires more emotional fortitude.
Johnson, for instance, has said he has endured bullying. One could argue that boys like him present no imminent threat to competitive dance, and those who want to compete should enjoy the same encouragement girls receive when they play football or join the Boy Scouts.
Of course, an entire culture can’t change overnight. Even in the body-less visual arts, women still receive less museum and gallery space than men (a fact that inspired the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s giant blue rooster statue, a visual pun on the word “cock”).
Actors’ bodies perhaps most obviously constrain them—but here, some are making headway. Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director of Minneapolis’ Jungle Theater, two years ago staged an all-women production of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At first, it flaunted its gender-conscious casting: A pink set emphasized the directorial choice, women dressed in men’s Elizabethan clothing taking on a somewhat chauvinistic play. As the show went on, though, audiences saw that the women embodied their characters, no winking.
“Frankly, there are women who are just really good at playing male roles,” Rasmussen says.
When actress Charity Jones played Scrooge in the Guthrie’s A Christmas Carol last year, it caught headlines, though she simply did her job: pretending to be someone she’s not. Casting Fly by Night last summer, Rasmussen put African-American actress Joy Dolo in the traditionally older, white, male role of a comic sandwich maker—because Dolo’s improv-quick energy just felt right.
Rasmussen says she has faith the lines will blur further. “The younger generation has a really open sense of gender fluidity,” she notes. “It makes me hopeful for what we’ll see on our stages.”
And depending on how things unfold in Minnesota, one of those stages could soon include Kaiden Johnson.