By Olivia Haveron
Ballet reigns as one of the most beautiful and artistic artforms in existence. Usually the first thing that comes to mind when someone hears ballet is The Nutcracker. And while dances such as this flourish in popularity, the one problem that continues to exist is the lack of diversity and change. Currently looking at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School — as of 2019 — 84% of the company (which includes dancers, staff, musicians, crew) are white. Similarly, nationwide dancers of color disproportionately makeup small numbers on ballet-company rosters.
Not only that, but the gender roles perpetuated by ballet creates divided limits based on the ‘delicacy’ of women. Men are meant to be the power force in this duo dynamic, while women need to have fragile precision and a seeming ability to defy gravity. However, one ballet student is not only tightening the game for dancers of color, but also breaking apart the gender norms of ballet as well.
Ashton Edwards is an 18-year-old ballet student at the aforementioned Pacific Northwest Ballet School within their elite Professional Division in Seattle. He has been studying the artistic form of dance since he was four years old — yet every single role has been that of male. According to Edwards in a recent NPR interview, the roles became too limited for him stating, “It took a lot of searching within myself, but I think my goals in life and in my career and who I saw myself as a person were much bigger than just one small box I was put in. So I decided to explore.” Ballet normally places women on a pedestal, literally having male dancers lift them high above their heads, reinforcing the conventional ideas about masculinity and femininity — think of the Prince saving his Princess.
And what he realized he truly wanted to do within ballet was to dance en pointe — the technique in which said dancer dances on the tips of their toes with special ballet shoes. Now, in the past this sort of breaking of the mold would be heavily discouraged within the form.
What takes most dancers years to master, took Edwards a mere six months to perfect, taking on serious en pointe work within a professional ballet setting. In reference to the shoes and the technique he states, “They have their challenges. But once you're up and once you start dancing, you're floating, and it feels like flying I think. It’s amazing.”
However, Edwards says that the school was immediately open and accepting. Yet more and more company studies are challenging this gender dynamic, where dancers are starting to ask — why should gender identity determine the way they dance or the roles they perform? Women are jumping higher than ever before, men are training to incorporate stretch and finesse into their physique — both of these attributes have been previously associated with the other gender.
These dancers are pushing the gendered boundaries, becoming more versatile, bringing a new dynamic to old positions and steps. Ashley Bouder, a New York City Ballet principal, credits her versatile abilities to her teachers growing up, who didn’t see why she couldn’t do what the guys were doing. She — as well as so many other female principal dancers — have started taking on men’s classes. The continuing education with their own bodies has led to discussions about gender and what women can physically do with their bodies, rather than what they are expected to do. This, in turn, has created a sort of liberation movement for women and men who can escape the image they have created for themselves in this mold.
Edwards says that “it’s really exciting to see choreographers nowadays blurring the lines of gender binary and sexuality… We see men dancing with men and women dancing with women. And it doesn’t always have to be a love connection. It can just be a partnership”.
Ballet has been changing in recent years in order to better reflect the world, creating a blurring of lines between dancers of different colors, body types and sexualities. In order to stay alive in these changing times, the dance form must change and become diverse as well — whether that be through gender, race, etc. Ashton Edwards is simply just one of the dancers who is breaking apart this barrier and more is set to come.