Natasha McCabe, 21
Natasha McCabe, originally from London, England, currently studies French and Italian at Oxford University. McCabe draws influence from her longtime study of dance and finds an inspiring balance between coordinating and dancing in university productions and editing for various student magazines including The Cherwell, Oxford University’s independently run student newspaper, and Phaser, a music and style magazine. For the last three years, McCabe has been the dance coordinator and organizer for Brasenose Arts Week produced by the Brasenose College Arts Committee. While living in Milan, McCabe volunteered at La Grande Fabbrica delle Parole (The Great Words Factory), a nonprofit youth writing center, assisting with workshops for children from underprivileged areas. She finds it incredibly rewarding to help children find a way to express themselves and to instill in them her love for writing.
McCabe notes that her study of foreign languages and literature affords her the opportunity to travel and communicate with the world around her. She is constantly inspired to write by the sights, sounds, and people she meets in different countries. Writing is a way for McCabe to express and interrogate issues that impassion her.
She frequently utilizes writing to create a space to discover important aspects about herself. After seeing an art exhibition that explored the violence and social inequality in Mexico, she was moved to write a review. It morphed into a poem that aided her discovery of how angry she was about the injustice that exists in this world. McCabe feels that, at present, some lives are valued more than others, most noticeably in the underrepresentation and willful omission of some groups of society in the larger cultural and political discourse. McCabe is a feminist and believes that we should all oppose the negative patriarchal and hierarchical systems that structure society, and that we need to intentionally work as a community to guarantee fair and equal respect and opportunity for all.
Does Theatrical Dance Perform the Objectification of the Female Body?
by Natasha McCabe
Roger Copeland once described dance as “the art of pure physical presence in which women are most fully reduced to and equated with their bodies.” In other words, the female dancer’s body is the silent performing art object. Indeed, women’s bodies have for centuries been under the scrutiny of society and constrained by the policies of men and so to an extent, this lack of power and historic passivity is performed through dance.
The choreographer Pam Tanowitz said that ballet is “a man’s idea of woman,” as the female protagonists of classical ballets are in almost all cases idealized virgins, in need of saving by the potency of a man. For example, in Marius Petipa’s late-19th-century classical ballet ‘Swan Lake,’ the heroine is cast into the body of a swan by a male sorcerer, and can only return to her ‘maiden’ form through a man’s love. In this case, the heroine has absolutely no control over her body.
Given these problematic stereotypes about women that pervade the history of dance, shouldn’t I, as a young woman, be seriously condemning it as an art form? Am I, by practicing and performing dance, sustaining and normalizing the misogyny inherent in society? Passivity over the objectification of women was indeed the crux of the recent #MeToo campaign, which sparked women all over the world to share their experiences of male harassment. One of the most striking aspects of this campaign was the omnipresence and banality of the instances where women have been reduced to their bodies.
I remember being told that powerful women have to dress like men in order to be taken seriously. Yet it can’t be right that in order for a woman to have power, she has to have the body of a man. As a teenager I was totally confused by how the media both condemned women for showing off their bodies, and also applauded them. How on earth was I supposed to make my body look in order for it not to be an object? In March 2017 there was a fierce debate over social media about the decision of Emma Watson, actress and UN Women Goodwill ambassador, to expose her breasts in a Vanity Fair photoshoot. The BBC news headline epitomised my teenage dilemma: “Is Emma Watson anti-feminist for exposing her breasts?” However, embedded in this title is not just the question of whether Emma Watson behaved in a feminist way, but rather how our society endlessly consumes and condemns how women define their bodies.
With this obsessive scrutiny that our society has on the female body, it is unsurprising that dance as a performing art is problematic to many feminists. From the 1920s onwards contemporary dance has been dominated by women, such as Isabella Duncan and later Martha Graham, who were eager to express through dance that their minds were as important as their bodies. The title of Yvonne Rainer’s dance sequence ‘The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I’ demonstrates this. Choreographed in 1966, Rainer used dance to contribute to feminism which dealt with issues such as rape, domestic violence, abortion and access to childcare. In the famous sequence, ‘Trio A,’ which was originally performed by Rainer herself on film, she casts her eyes away from the audience, avoiding confrontation with the camera as she moves to no external music. The fact that she is moving her body according to her own rhythm suggests to me that the audience’s gaze and scrutiny of her body is not her purpose for dancing.
The interpretation of the movements of the female dancer is challenged by how the same choreography was used in the 1997 film by Thierry De May of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s 1997 contemporary dance, ‘Rosas danst Rosas’ and Beyoncé’s music video for her song ‘Countdown’ in 2011. In the former, the all-female cast wear matching loose costumes, and the sequence takes place in a derelict school building. Throughout the 30-minute-long piece, the dancers both stare and glance at the camera, inviting the viewer to watch their repeated gestures, such as clutching their breasts, tossing their head and hair back and crossing their legs. Removed from the context of the piece, these gestures might be seen as an explicit evocation of female sexuality. Yet the movements are repeated over and over again, in an almost mechanical way until they no longer seem like movements that perform female sexuality, but rather normal bodily gestures. This is emphasized by the fact that the dancers take pleasure in their own exhaustion and how their breath almost becomes the rhythm to which they move. In Beyoncé’s music video, she uses almost exactly the same choreography and set (without permission), yet, with the context of her lyrics, the movements become unmistakably and commercially sexualized. She seems to enjoy the power of using the dance moves as a provocative display of her sexuality. In both pieces, the dancers technically move in the same way, yet a different choice has been made about how they want the spectator to view their bodies. Watched in unison, I think the two pieces show how even though the female body is the object of art, the subject of the art is the decision made by the respective women about how their bodies are interpreted.
For me, dance is a sensual communication of my being in the world. Perhaps the fact that I am in a way transforming myself into an object of art, followed by an audience’s gaze, reflects how as a young woman I am accustomed to having my actions scrutinized. Yet, I didn’t start dance lessons because I wanted to be an object of art. When I perform, although I know people will be literally watching my body, I use my movement to convey my internal feelings in the most honest way I can. It is this constant tension between being both vulnerable as an object to be interpreted, and in command of an audience, that as a dancer I cannot simply reduce myself to a performing body.