Gender in Dance Leadership by Heather Risley






A recent study found that 86 percent of the country’s 43 ballet companies with budgets of $2 million or more are run by men. The 2002 study, by DanceUSA, is part of that organization’s long-standing project to document trends in the field. The data shows that those holding positions at the highest levels in the largest companies are mostly men. Dance companies with smaller budgets are subject to the same influences that have created this trend in the field’s largest organizations. What is unclear is whether the trend in dance is simply an expression of the gender imbalance that occurs in the leadership of all corporations. According to a 2003 study by Catalyst, an international advocacy organization, just 8 of the 500 largest for-profit corporations are run by women.

Gender disparity in leadership is noticed by female artistic directors working in the D.C. area. Gesel Mason, Artistic Director of Gesel Mason Performance Projects, observed the intensity of male-female inequity in the dance world. Ms. Mason stated that in a female dominated industry the existence of a small minority having significant power over the majority resembles “a kind of apartheid.” Another female artistic director (who asked to remain anonymous) said she has regularly faced challenges because of her gender. She believes that men get preferential treatment when it comes to bookings, grants, and publicity. “I think female directors have to work much harder and be much better than a man to achieve the same respect and admiration,” she wrote.

Alexandra Nowakowski, Executive Director of CityDance Ensemble, has a more neutral outlook. She stated that she thinks the phenomenon of male-dominated leadership exists in all industries. Ms. Nowakowski said, “In terms of sexism, I do experience it every now and then…. it may take me a bit longer to earn their respect, but ultimately it is up to me to either gain or lose the respect I deserve.” Mason agrees with Nowakowski that the leadership disparities reflected in the dance field echo gender imbalances in society as a whole. While Mason did not speak to personal encounters of sexism, it is hard to ignore the data. Men may be more encouraged and have more opportunities to be in leadership positions. Ms. Mason stated that, “Women are seen first as dancers, not necessarily as running a company.” It is possible that programs to address the disparities would be a valuable asset to the field.

In a perhaps un-related issue, in 2002 The Kennedy Center created the “Capacity Building Project” for companies in music, theater and dance. The program allows “companies of color” to collectively – and with the Kennedy Center’s assistance – address challenges particular to the population. Several local companies benefit from participation in the Capacity Building Project, including Step Afrika! and The Dance Institute of Washington (both male run companies.)

Heather Risley graduated from Marquette University with a BA in History. She is currently the Editor of a website for international corporate ethics and anti-corruption. She has been involved in the dance community from a young age and continues to take classes in the Washington DC area.

originally published in Bourgeon Volume 3 #2

Bourgeon’s mission, through our online publication and community initiatives, is twofold: to increase participation in the arts and to improve access to the arts. Bourgeon is a project of the not-for-profit Day Eight.
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  1. Gender and dance is an important issue that should be addressed by those of us in the field and those who produce performance and fund performance.

    In New York City, disparity in funding support for men and women choreographers has been a hot topic for some time. From what I have read, the BIG bucks go to men and the smaller bucks to women. Perhaps this issue will come to life in Washington, DC with presenters and funding organizations.

    Regarding leadership in funding and presenting in DC, I created this short and unverified list of producers/presenters(please forgive the errors, change happens fast):
    -Dance Place, Executive Director, female; Programming/Development, female
    – Wolftrap programming in dance – female
    -Institute for the Arts, University of Maryland – female
    -Metro DC Dance – female
    -Lisner Auditorium, Executive Director, female; Publicity/programming director, male
    -Kennedy Center for the Arts; Director is male; international programming, female
    -Arlington County CUltural Affairs, Executive Director, female; Performing arts director, male
    -GMU, Center for the Arts – male
    -WPAS – Director and Emeritus Director – males
    – Shakespeare (Put them in because they are programmning dance in the Harman space – executive director and programming director – male, male; programming, female
    -Altas Theatre – Executive Director – male Administrator, male
    -Warner Theatre – male
    -Washington Institute for the Arts; male
    -Strathmore Center for the Arts; male
    –Washington Ballet – artistic director; executive director, female

    Another important area, of course, are the development directors. I don’t know enough about that and the foundation directors to make a list (i.e. D.C. Commission for the Arts, male Executive Director and male programming director; Meyer Foundation, Female; Cafritz Foundation, female; Dance USA, female)

    The article by Risley questioned the imbalance of organizations funding training programs based on race and ethnicity. That seems to be an important issue in Washington, DC.

    Maida Withers

  2. A November 1, 2007 New York Times article addressed the dilemma of why there aren’t enough women in positions of leadership. The nonprofit organization Catalyst recently conducted research showing that across cultures “the default mental image of a leader is still male.” There seems to be a global problem with perception, then, not with the capabilities of women themselves.

    I recently read some statistics concerning women in American academia. Despite the fact that women compose over half of the recipients of bachelor’s degrees in fields like chemistry and political science, in those fields they represent, respectively, 13.7 and 26.1 percent of all professors at top 100 departments. Similarly, women in my career field, law, make up only a small percentage of those in top positions.

    While one might think that the dance world would be immune to sex discrimination since women are dancers in such strong numbers, as Heather Risely points out, that logic doesn’t hold up. Unfortunately, I don’t find this at all shocking.

    One fascinating study found that auditioning blind (behind a screen that prevented judges from seeing the gender of the musician) increased by 50% a female musician’s chance of progressing beyond the preliminary rounds, making it several times more likely that she would ultimately be offered an orchestra position.

    So, what can we do to keep women from being held back, besides forcing blindness? Catalyst determined that in the legal field a lack of mentoring opportunities and a lack of female role models plays a large part in the failure of women to advance. In order to overcome the problem of under-representation, I think it’s critical that those women in dance leadership roles reach out to other women who want to follow in their footsteps.
    There’s definitely a disturbing disconnect if those holding the highest positions in the largest dance companies remain mostly men because that ratio doesn’t reflect the dance community as whole. I’m curious about what the men in these leadership roles could contribute to the discussion. Do they think women have the same prospects for advancement as artistic directors as men? Why or why not? Ms. Risely did not include the male perspective.

  3. […] all. … And while we're at it, let's eliminate gender disparity in education once and for all. …Gender in Dance Leadership by Heather Risley | BourgeonCommissioned by Bourgeon, Heather Risley reports on Dance USA's national survey of Gender in Dance […]


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