Our Cultural Blindspot
By Josef Brown
Business Development Manager at MDM Dancewear
Feminism. It’s a movement for emancipation, equal rights and status that was long past due being birthed into popular thought and conversation even in 1837 when the word was first coined by Utopian Socialist and French philosopher Charles Fourier. In the intervening 180 years the fight for women’s equality in commerce, politics, arts, sports and in the domestic sphere has undergone many obstacles, but has continually gained momentum till we find ourselves in the position today where full equality has never been closer; though there is of course much work still to be done.
I raise this because for decades we’ve been justifiably raging about the lack of women in positions of power, the lack of women as small business entrepreneurs and as overt leaders of our communities. And while I agree we needed to rage about the relative lack of women in such positions, concurrently we should have also been better celebrating the many women who were and continue to lead the charge.
In my role as Business Development Manager for MDM Dancewear I’ve recently been traveling our beautiful country from Cairns all the way down our eastern coast to Wollongong, out to Toowoomba, Grafton, Dubbo, Orange, Bathurst and west across to Adelaide.
Time and again I’ve come in contact with extraordinary, powerful, intelligent women that are leaders across the dance industry, and indeed are themselves the legacy of the many extraordinary, powerful, intelligent women who led before them and inspired their leadership roles. They’re not only wonderful teachers; they’re studio Principals, small to medium sized business owners and operators, who have built from the ground up educational and commercial enterprises that have thrived for decades and in some cases have endured for generations.
From Dubbo Ballet Studio that has been continuously run since Joyce Schneider started teaching classes in her sunroom in 1934; The Studio Arts Centre in Adelaide which was founded in 1932 by dance pioneer Joanna Priest and Ashgrove Dance Studio in Brisbane founded under the direction of Nellie Lawrence in 1899 and which has been run continuously, handed down through generations of women ever since. Other luminaries include Jan Conroy from Conroy’s Dance Centre, Rosanna Castellana from Promenade Dance Studio, Prudence Bowen from Prudence Bowen’s and Tanya Pearson to name but the tiniest fraction of the over 2000 dance studios in Australia servicing over four hundred thousand young dancers, the vast majority of which are owned and operated by women.
And what of the many hundreds of female dance suppliers, store owners and dance wear makers and designers that service these many studios, again almost exclusively owned and operated by extraordinary women who continue to meet the vagaries and challenges of changing times and markets and yet who have persevered and prospered.
There are also of course the many successful female dancers, respected and indeed hailed within our industry for their accomplishments and who have never been considered inferior to the men they dance alongside. There are the choreographers, the great creative artists pushing the boundaries of the craft and the Artistic Directors and company founders such as Elizabeth Cameron Dalman who founded Adelaide Dance Theatre in 1965, Dame Peggy van Praagh who founded The Australian Ballet in 1962, Madame Kira Bousloff who founded The West Australian Ballet in 1952, Suzanne Musitz who founded The Dance Company (NSW) – later known as Sydney Dance Company – Expressions Dance Theatre founded by Maggie Sietsma in 1984, Cheryl Stone and Carole Johnson who founded Bangarra Dance Theatre in 1989 and Kate Champion founder of Force Majeur to again name but a few. And then there are the administrators, the dance magazine founders, editors and owners and dance critics, most of whom have been and are female.
If over the preceding decades and indeed century our culture wanted inspiring stories and examples of women leading, excelling, achieving, building and sustaining a Nation wide – and likely global – industry and being treated as equals alongside the men they worked with and employed, they only ever needed to look to our dance industry and culture as an example of what was possible and yet they didn’t. They haven’t. They don’t. Which begs the question, why not?
Sadly I feel the answer is all too clear. Because dance, like the powerful women who have manifested and sustained it, has been and continues to be fundamentally under-valued by our society and Western culture more broadly. And I suspect this link is not entirely coincidental. Perhaps because women led the way, and were and continue to underpin much of the industry, our culture continues to have a blind spot both to the profound achievements of these women and, as a consequence to the value of dance itself.
Yet while I decry our culture, our news organisations, our journalists, our novelists, our historians for leaving this rich female legacy largely untold, we too as an industry must take some of the blame. Because we have been too silent and have not recognised these achievements enough and shouted them from the roof tops till we were hoarse and exhausted forcing others to listen. We are partly to blame because we do not do enough, as a collective body, to have a truly interesting conversation about dance, it’s power, it’s history, it’s value, questioning where it is going, why more men are not dancing, what its status is and should be, and all that women have been able to achieve despite the dominant paradigm of male privilege.
And it is only when we begin to have a more interesting conversation together that others, currently perceived as on the outside of dance will look in, start to listen and eventually want to join in. And then and only then will we be able to grow the pie, expanding our presence and create greater value for dance.
As the Business Development Manager for MDM we’re striving to be part of that conversation and I wanted to start by talking about some of the extraordinary women that have built our industry. Because I do not believe it is a coincidence or accident of history that both women and dance have been under-valued in our culture. And it is my hope, that with the long overdue rise of women to positions of power, overt influence and authority that dance too will be able to rise to its rightful place in our culture; valued, prized and celebrated as the profound craft, liberating experience and art-form that it is.