Traditional dance class dress codes stem from a binary approach to gender. In the class description or syllabus, we often see the attire broken down into boys and girls, or men and women. As we progress in a necessary movement towards diversity, equity, and inclusion, I specifically want to discuss gender inclusivity in the classroom, and how we can best support and empower our students.

As many changes have been underway, I found myself scouring my own syllabi again as we approached the semester. After an invigorating conversation with other dance faculty within the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance a while back, I was inspired to begin researching the range of language being adopted by other institutions, conservatories, and studios. This change has been happening for some time now, and I was pleased to find so many different ideas and progress in the matter. My dance colleague and I at Chico State decided on new language that we would adopt for all of our technique courses in our department, with obvious separate details depending on the genre. I’m excited to see how this continues to progress and change.

On the first day of class, I was surprised by the overwhelming response from my students to the new changes. It was when one student informed me that this class was the first time they had ever seen this type of change being made to the dress code, that I wanted to investigate it further. The responses were positive, and it ignited many conversations with my students and colleagues about it. I reached out to numerous programs in higher education, private conservatories, and dance studios. All had varying language, but most have done a significant amount of work to adopt new inclusive language.

One specific example was in my musical theatre dance class. Previously, everyone was required to have jazz shoes, and “women” were required to have character heels (“Men” should also have to purchase character shoes, but that’s a separate conversation). This not only requires an additional purchase, but it also remained in this colonized, hierarchical approach to gender and the classroom. Instead, we give the option to whoever wants to work in heels to do so. Class is the perfect place to practice in heels outside of performing, but that shouldn’t be limited by gender. No one is required, all are welcomed. We have conversations about expectations for shows, certain roles, and help them best prepare for what they want.

Looking at a larger scope, this is an example of the dress code in another class. In beginning ballet, we listed out the options:

  • Every student is accepted for who they are. Our dress code is gender-neutral, and every dancer should wear which option feels appropriate to them. The selected attire is to support every dancer’s safety and comfort.
  • Leotard (any color) and pink/black/skin-tone tights, OR any form fitting tank or dance t-shirt and tights or leggings. Skirts are optional.
  • Proper supportive undergarments are required.
  • Ballet shoes are required. Pink, white, skin-tone, or black canvas ballet slippers are acceptable.
  • Warm-ups and layers are appropriate for the beginning of class.
  • All hair must be pulled out of your face and well secured at all times. A clean bun is preferred, no ponytails.
  • Jewelry should be small. No necklaces.

In addition to allowing more options within the dress code, I have actually noticed a change in overall confidence. Whether directly related or not, I have seen a shift in my students and their unique individuality coming out way more pronounced than before. They’re taking more pride in their appearance, and they seem to be showing more personality and poise. As we assist them in finding their unique artistic voices, championing them in their expression across the board will only make that richer.

I imagine, and hope, that these will continuously change and adapt. Consistently having open conversations with our colleagues and our students will certainly support that. The simplest way to approach a gender-neutral dress code is to take gender out of it, and give options. Then you have the students in the appropriate attire for your class, but it does not confine them to one specific option. Appropriate supportive undergarments are important, and we can assist our students with how to shop for those based on anatomy.

Gender inclusivity within the dress code not only allows every individual the freedom to be themselves, but it also makes them seen. This is just one tiny aspect of a much larger conversation. What to wear to dance class is still important. Opening the dress code without assigning gender allows the student to simply be who they are. Acknowledging pronouns is a wonderful start to recognizing a person’s identity, and supporting them in allowing them to dress as THEY are is the next step. So, however strict your program or school decides to be within the dress code, it’s high time that we stop assigning gender to our students and push harder for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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