The Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD), which aims to be a “progressive institution”, has reviewed the “elitist” art form as part of a diversity drive that has seen the introduction of new policies relating to gender and race.
Ballet has been ditched as a requirement for school-entry auditions because of its “contentious nature”, with teaching staff explaining that the traditional mode of dance comes with the baggage of “white European ideas”.
The centuries-old art form was seen as being a barrier to inclusion because of the exclusionary financial burden of taking classes, and also because of its idealising of certain European body shapes, and division of roles along gender lines.
‘Decolonise the curriculum’
The changes come after the conservatoire undertook work to “decolonise the curriculum” and take advice from LGBT societies.
Information from the NSCD, based in Leeds, said: “We review content and have removed ballet from our audition day due to its potentially contentious nature.”
Francesca McCarthy, head of undergraduate studies at the conservatoire, explained to The Telegraph: “It is essentially an elitist form. Young people need to pay to take ballet classes as a general rule and for a vast number of potential students, they’ve not had access to ballet.
“It is a very specific form that is built around particular white European ideas and body shapes that are often alienating to young people who do not fit that aesthetic ideal.”
“There are issues relating to body, money, language and movement vocabulary.”
An issue of vocabulary
The issue of vocabulary hinges on ballet’s traditional terminology – which has led to gender distinctions such as “ballerina” for women and “danseur” for men – and the everyday use of “men and women” or “girls and boys” in dance classes.
The split of roles along gender lines, with female dancers tending towards pointe work and men customarily performing leaps and lifts, has also been cited as an issue, and the NSCD is seeking to become more inclusive by tackling distinctions.
Ms McCarthy said: “Ballet has strongly gendered roots in terms of the movement vocabulary.
“Most of our ballet staff were trained at a time where divisions in the teaching of ballet were clear and men lifted women. There was a shift to ladies and gentleman over time but this is still problematic in relation to inclusion of non-binary and trans dancers.”
Ms McCarthy said that the NSCD has encouraged staff to use gender-neutral terms such as “dancers/people/folk/everyone/everybody”, and also to “try and embed the use of they in terms of pronouns in order to not make assumptions about a dancer’s identity”.
The NSCD hopes that removing ballet as a necessity for entry auditions, and altering the way the art form is taught during courses – where ballet remains part of the curriculum – will make the school more inclusive and increase the diversity of the student body.
Accelerated from BLM protests
The changes come after a three-year process that began in 2019 with staff undertaking “professional development” to learn more about “unconscious bias”, and that was accelerated following Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, leading to a focus on “decolonising the curriculum”.
The NSCD also established several student societies in 2020, including an LGBTQ+ group that subsequently offered advice on “pronouns and the implications of gendered movement vocabularies such as in ballet classes”.
The school is one of the member schools of the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, which rolled out plans to ditch traditional, tight-fitting dance attire such as leotards in order to be more inclusive of transgender people.