Dancing solo: an iconic image of independence

Jo Boon explores how the image of women dancing is changing, and even becoming an iconic image of independence. The image has traditionally been composed by a male artist, with a sexualised female subject, and a male viewer in mind. The rise in popularity of the female gaze is beginning to change that, however, and the image of a woman dancing solo is beginning to offer an alternative.

For generations, art has been the preserve of men. However, women have always been persistent in taking up space, sharing their perspective, and crafting a female gaze. A male gaze has been so normalised that many people barely notice it; it is simply the commonly accepted way to view the world. The Guerrilla Girls campaign have done an excellent job of drawing attention to this with their iconic image stating that: ‘Less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art Sections [of the Met.] are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.’ Art is sexist, there’s no denying that.

When it comes to images of women dancing, they are traditionally highly sexualised and often nude. Dancing is seen as an activity for male pleasure; the women in the image is there merely as an object of male desire; she has no autonomy, character, or backstory. She remains firmly within the frame. (Let us forget for the moment the bizarre possibility that one woman may find another attractive.) This view has been normalised: male artist, sexualised female subject, male viewer.

This is changing and the image of women dancing is becoming one of the most iconic images of independence. The woman in this image is solo; there is no male partner to lead her round the dance floor or grind up against her. However, this woman is also solo in another sense- the image is designed as a moment of intimacy, with no viewer intruding on the scene. In some ways, yes, this is a contradiction as the release of the art makes clear that there is an intended viewer, but the power dynamic is changed. Rather than a sexualised woman designed with a male viewer in mind, the independent solo dancer is imagined as a character alone, a moment on which the viewer is intruding. It’s the equivalent of a character being ‘alone on stage’; they are not, they’re in a room of hundreds of people, but you forget that through the power of storytelling. Theatre is designed for an audience, but (barring Brecht etc.) you forget that in the moments of intimacy. The crucial difference, of course, is that the women has a story to start with.

One of the best examples of this is The Temptation of Victoria by New Order. In this video, she is free, self-expressive, lost… I’m sure everyone watches this video and sees something different, but you never for a moment feel that she is trapped in a male gaze. When she dances in the room at the end, you really do feel that she is alone and totally independent, an iconic image if ever there was one.

Another classic example, is in the 2012 version of Foxfire. There is a wonderful moment where the narrator, Madeleine, sways in an over- the- top, glorious moment of abandonment on the bed with the rest of the group. She isn’t self-aware, she doesn’t feel stupid when letting go, she’s not trying to be sexy, she’s just expressing herself and enjoying being the centre of the female group for a moment. A studious, shy girl, who is hiding the fact she’s gay/bi/queer totally let’s go through dance.

Unfortunately, this trailer only highlights another moment of letting go through dance, but it gives you a taste of what the film is all about. I can’t recommend watching it, or reading the book highly, enough and this moment with Madeline dancing never fails to disappoint.

Constructing a female gaze is a continuous process, and something we can all contribute to. We may not all be artists, but even just thinking about how we talk about art, through to how we shape our personal Instagram feeds, can make a difference. Art tells a story, and it’s high time we started sharing women’s also. The iconic image of a woman dancing solo is one that I love, and definitely something to look out for and replicate, both in art, and in life.