One of the reasons I started blogging was because I was frustrated that journalists and historians tended to focus only on the big names: the stars, the directors, the choreographers, the “game-changers,” the critics and scholars, while leaving out the people who did so much of the heavy-lifting: ballet mistresses, teachers, coaches, notators, assistants. Another category: those dancers who come over during a rehearsal and help you out when those at the front charged with doing so don’t know how to. Insiders know that ballet is a joint enterprise, and that on the dancing side, these are the people who make the ballet world go round, who hold it together, who support and lift everyone in it, who keep the ship afloat and motivate the crew in stormy seas badly navigated.
I wanted to do two things: to say thank you to the people who had explained the ballet world to me when I was floundering, particularly at the beginning of my career; but also, to disrupt the web search results, so that some of the people I admired most would come out of the footnotes to other people’s biographies. It was the early 2000s, and at the time, people believed (perhaps they still do?) that if you couldn’t be found on the web, you didn’t exist.
They weren’t all women, but the fact that men in these roles are also overlooked has, I believe, a lot to do with gender, with the tendency to dismiss supportive, other-directed, compassionate, nurturing and emotionally intelligent behaviour as unimportant “women’s work,” compared to the more attention-grabbing projects of choreography, composition, or building new premises. Joyce Fletcher writes about this in Disappearing Acts:
[C]ertain behaviors “get disappeared”—not because they are ineffective but because they get associated with the feminine, relational, or so-called softer side of organizational practice. This implicit association with the feminine tends to code these behaviors as inappropriate to the workplace because they are out of line with some deeply held, gender-linked assumptions about good workers, exemplary behavior, and successful organizations. In other words, the findings [of Fletcher’s research among female design engineers] suggest that there is a masculine logic of effectiveness operating in organizations that is accepted as so natural and right that it may seem odd to call it masculine. This logic of effectiveness suppresses or “disappears” behavior that is inconsistent with its basic premises, even when that behavior is in line with organizational goals. The result is that organizations adopt the rhetoric of change—moving, for example, to self-managed teams—but end up disappearing the very behavior that would make the change work, such as recognizing the effort involved in helping a team work together effectively.
As an example, she cites a discussion in a manufacturing firm where everyone agrees that “the ability to bring people together, to resolve differences, and make team members feel at ease with each other is something that is very important in getting a diverse group of people working well together,” (p.2) yet these do not get added to a list of core competences because “they are not measurable or something that could be written into one’s objectives.” If you’ve ever had to write learning objectives, or been told to make your goals S.M.A.R.T. you’ll know what it feels like to have to bring yourself kicking and screaming into line with this way of thinking.
This isn’t about giving some occasional column inches to “unsung heroes.” The concept of lone heroes and solitary geniuses is part of the problem. As Mary Beard said recently in an interview in the LARB about women and power:
This is about women who want to be listened to and taken seriously and to make a difference to the ordinary workplace. Power isn’t just stratospheric. It’s not just about the glass ceiling. There’s quite a lot of women who feel so far from the glass ceiling that that metaphor is a real turn off. This is about how we operate together at every level in the culture, whether that’s around a university seminar, or high school, or a retail store, or whatever. It’s about thinking about who we take seriously, how, and why.
This list is 13 years old, and I could add many, many more to it now (I won’t, because if I start, I’ll end up doing a new Advent Calendar) but it’s wonderful that I still know, work or catch up with most of them today, and they are still every bit as fabulous.
10 Fabulous Ballet Women for International Women’s Day
- Gillian Cornish December 2, 2005 2:42 pm
- Jackie Barrett December 5, 2005 7:11 am
- Pussy (Diana Payne Myers) December 6, 2005 10:07 pm
- Susie Cooper December 9, 2005 4:15 am
- Elizabeth (Betty) Anderton December 13, 2005 6:38 am
- Pat (Patricia) Neary December 16, 2005 9:29 am
- Belinda Quirey (1912 – 1996) December 18, 2005 8:54 am
- Irena Pasarić December 19, 2005 8:19 am
- Ann Hogben December 22, 2005 7:06 am
- Tania Fairbairn December 24, 2005 7:22 am