Performing Masculinity, Refusing to Move: A Brown Bag Book Chat with Maxine Craig

The final DHI Brown Bag Book Chat of the year featured a conversation with Maxine Craig about her new book Sorry I Don’t Dance: Why Men Refuse to Move (Oxford University Press, 2014). This blog post was contributed by faculty respondent for the event and Professor of Sociology at UC Davis, Laura Grindstaff.

Sorry I Don’t Dance offers a thoughtful analysis of men’s relationship to dance over the past century in the US. It draws on a combination of historical research and ethnographic fieldwork, including interviews with 50 men and participant observation in a university dance class. At issue here is social dance – dancing for individual and/or collective pleasure rather than professional aspirations or career goals.

Craig argues that the common sense ways in which individuals understand, talk about, and participate in dance often naturalizes the body’s physical relationship to dance on the basis of race, gender, class and sexuality. Taken-for-granted notions that white men can’t dance, black men can dance, and gay men love to dance cannot be explained by individual preference or “natural” aptitude; rather, such notions have deeply historical roots entwined with social, familial, and cultural influences that have either encouraged or actively discouraged movement to music.

Specifically, men’s penchant (or not) for dancing depends upon the way dance bolsters or threatens a successful masculine performance. For much of the first half of the 20th century, dance could contribute to a seamless masculine identity if done in the “proper” (masculine) way with the proper (female) partner. Homophobia and reassertion of distinct gender roles in the postwar period stifled and confined (white) men’s bodily expression and movement.

As many white men confined music to the mind, some marginalized men – including gay men and men of color — found a certain degree of expressivity and performativity in dance.

The history of dance in the US has been a battleground for debates over pedagogy, citizenship, and medical/biological ideology. Especially interesting to me (as a scholar of gender and sport) is the place of dance in physical education. Although much attention has been paid to the rise of the liberated “new woman” at the turn of the 20th century — and her counterpart, the physical educator, who was invested in protecting girls and women from dangerous, mannish, or aggressive competition — Craig widens the lens, detailing parallel developments around boys’ and men’s dancing.

In tandem with efforts to shape (and curb) women’s athleticism, physical education curricula during this time structured and reaffirmed the normative gender order by mandating dance for girls and eliminating it for boys.

According to Craig, “excluding girls from some athletic activities and boys from all dancing, the curriculum was shaped by the fear that physical education could undo the natural gender order” (or, conversely, sustain it).

I love how the book starts with a kernel of belief about the effeminacy of dancing and demonstrates how it “travels” – weaving in new and overlapping ways into the cultural scripts that are well-familiar to us today. For example, in her chapter on disco, Craig shows how the cultural spaces and discourses of disco were mocked and disdained when they developed in conflict with hegemonic masculinity.

Dance historians (along with Craig’s Dance 101 instructor) agree that disco’s origins lay in black social circles, particularly that of black female singers. Yet people today largely remember disco for John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever and they make fun of it precisely because the white, straight, middle-class men who danced to disco so deliberately rejected the privileges of hegemonic masculinity by caring about their appearance or by enjoying the “to-be-looked-at-ness” normally relegated to feminine performativity. Generally speaking, most straight white guys are uncomfortable dancing outside of a recognizably masculine framework of bodily movement (hip-hop, b-boy or mosh styles, for example, which are suitably aggressive and combative) or a recognizable ethnic tradition (salsa for Latino men).

The historical tracing of masculinity and dance leads us up to the book’s main argument: many white men shun dance because white middle-class masculinity is anti-performative (or, put another way, unorthodoxly performative). When this masculinity is embodied, it is minimally expressive and stolid, with homophobia being knit into this masculinity.

In the second half of the book, Craig details the ways that sexiness, sensuality, and masculinity are linked, how dancing practices are learned from childhood, and how race shapes masculinity. For many white men, sex and sexiness are intertwined: they fear that dancing makes them the object of a gaze that inevitably feminizes them. For many men of color, dancing and femininity are distinct, as sporting a swagger or flaunting one’s physical expressivity through dance can be a racial/ethnic performance of cultural competency.

At the end of the day, gendered/racialized/sexualized subjectivities signify social and cultural differences. Black and gay masculinities index sensuality, “the body,” and emotional expressiveness, whereas straight white masculinity indexes rationality, intellectualism, and emotional control. These differences – articulated by and through dance — shape inequalities in everyday life and reinforce normative cultural scripts about the meaning of particular bodies and bodily practices.

Sorry I Don’t Dance is a terrific book and it really made me think about dance in new ways. It made others think as well, judging from the lively discussion that unfolded at the DHI!

– Laura Grindstaff, Professor of Sociology