Sankai Juku gives dancers an opportunity to explore butoh.

Sankai Juku in Umusuna: Memories Before History

Sand gently cascades down, covering a stage where dancers with shaved heads and talc-covered skin move with a calm, hypnotic intensity. They move as if they themselves are grains of sand that emerge from the set to create a moving mosaic before sinking back to the floor. At times they reach out—in painful discomfort or inquisitive searching. This is a scene from a butoh performance—an avant-garde Japanese form filled with slow-motion illusions.

This month, as part of its engagement at Brooklyn Academy of Music, the internationally known butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku offers a three-hour master class, What Makes a Body Move.

Semimaru, a founding member of the company and dancer for 37 years, teaches the class, open to dancers of all ages and experiences. “I believe that this sense of feeling inside and outside is essential to any butoh exercise,” he says. “It is to have a third-party point of view toward your own body, toward people around you and the air around you.”

Dancers can expect to collaborate with each other during the master class. “In the most basic exercise, the participants work in pairs; you help your partner move and then observe their movement. When you yourself move, you feel and observe your own movement,” Semimaru says. “In another exercise I ask several participants to walk together at the same speed—they walk together not only by sight; you try to feel your own senses and others’, as well.”

Imagery will also play an important role to help dancers, whether new to butoh or experienced in the form, find a way to connect to it. “The image I may suggest is that you have a ball in your body or that your body is filled with water,” Semimaru explains. “So, when you move, it also moves. And, you may also need to feel the existence of air around you.” 

Sankai Juku founder Ushio Amagatsu considers himself part of Japan’s second-generation of butoh dancers. The form was developed by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno in the 1960s in post–World War II Japan and passed along to their students, such as Amagatsu, who founded his company in 1975 and has performed in more than 700 cities worldwide.

The master class is co-presented by BAM and Mark Morris Dance Group and takes place October 30 at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Sankai Juku performs Umusuna: Memories Before History at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, October 28–31. DT

For more: bam.org

Emily Macel Theys writes on dance from the Pittsburgh area.

Photo courtesy of BAM

PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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