Thursday, February 13, 2014

Complementarianism on Ice? A Dancer’s Response to “An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives”

Yesterday my husband showed me a tweet by John Piper along with a corresponding article by his associate John Ensor that uses pairs figure skating as a lesson for how marriage is supposed to work.  He (my husband, not Ensor or Piper) asked me to offer my point of view on the subject as a dancer.  (So in a complementarian sense, he initiated this response by leading me to the article, while I received his request and responded to it.  I think that means it’s his fault if you don’t like what I have to say.)  For a more entertaining response to Ensor’s article, I recommend the movie Blades of Glory.

I’m not a figure skater.  My expertise, as I’ve stated in previous blog posts, is in dance.  However, pairs figure skating, partnered dancing or gymnastics, contact improvisation, and other similar movement forms, all operate on the same basic principles: physics, timing, and a combination of independence and interdependence.  The stunts and shapes are different in each discipline, but the science and preparation behind them are essentially the same for everyone.  So while I don’t know the names of all the skating moves and I’ve never studied that particular style of partnered dancing, I think my experience does give me somewhat more of an insider’s point of view than John Ensor has.

First of all, I’m thrilled to see somebody using figure skating as a metaphor for anything at all.  That’s fairly uncommon in my experience, and it’s unfortunate because in my own dance career I’ve discovered a number of principles that hold true for life and even theology, so it’s refreshing to see somebody else doing much the same thing.  Ensor seems to have a genuine appreciation for the beauty and grace demonstrated by the athletes on the ice, as well as an understanding of the amount of work (not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears) that go into creating such a performance.  Unfortunately, in his effort to create a metaphor of complementarian marriage out of pairs skating, he makes several mistakes in describing the mechanics of how partnering actually works.

Who really leads?
Ensor writes, “[The man] leads [the woman] onto the ice and initiates each part of their routine.  She receives that leadership [. . .] her focus is on following his lead and signaling her readiness to receive his next move.”  Throughout the article, Ensor repeatedly uses the word “lead” to describe the male role and “receive” or “support” to describe the female role, but I get the impression that he thinks the couples are improvising.  That’s not how a skating routine (or a dance routine, or a gymnastics routine) works.  In reality, neither party is actually the “leader” – they have a choreographer or a coach (sometimes both) designing the routine, down to the timing and spacing.  Additionally, there is usually music or at least a rhythm that dictates when each movement should occur.   On professional stages, that music is controlled by a conductor.  It’s not up to the man – or the woman - to decide when the next stunt happens. The couple doesn’t have a leader and a follower; they have to move together as one.  On the ice or on the stage, the music is the real leader; before that point, it’s the choreographer, coach, or rehearsal director – the one who plans the whole routine and who guides the couple through the rehearsal process.

Ensor adds, “His raw physical strength is more on display than hers; he does all the lifting, twirling, and catching.  She complements his strength with her own; a more diminutive and more attractive strength of beauty, grace, speed, and balance.”  This is a very eloquent way of saying “Man lifts woman, not woman lifts man.”  This is true, but it’s incorrect to state that the act of lifting (throwing, catching) the other partner requires more strength than the movements the woman does while the man lifts/throws/catches her.

The men who do partnering do become incredibly strong, it’s true; but so do the women.  And I’m not just talking about a “more diminutive . . . strength of beauty, grace, speed, and balance” (which by the way, men also develop in these art forms); I’m talking about literal physical strength.  In pas de deux class, girls quickly learn that we can’t expect the guy to do the work for us; we have to be able to do turns, extensions, balances, jumps, leaps, and various connecting steps ourselves.  I know from experience, having danced with partners who were far less experienced than myself or who weren’t strong enough to “save” me if I was off balance – I learned to hold myself, to move decisively, to jump and leap like nobody was helping me, and it made me a good partner.

The other thing you find out in partnering is that a lot of things that look like feats of strength really are feats of physics.  Partnering is a delicate combination of timing, momentum, balance, and weight-sharing.  Most lifts and supported jumps and turns, done correctly, are not so much about sheer muscle but are the result of perfect balance and synchronization between the partners.  What makes the athletes so physically strong is the countless hours of repetition leading up to the performance.

Who supports whom?
Ensor believes that pairs skating is about “male leadership and female support.”  I’m sorry, but in traditional/classical partnering (“man lifts woman”), it’s actually all about the girl.  She’s the one in the front, she’s the one making the pretty lines and poses, she’s the one whose face is visible the whole time (his is often hidden by her body).  It’s the man who supports the woman (literally) as she moves through space.  Granted, in figure skating, the man gets to move more than he generally does in ballet (the art form on which the figure skating aesthetic is partly based), but the general idea is still the same.  We see this female-centered aesthetic even more in classical ballet.  In this art, once performed exclusively by men, the ballerina has been the focus of the stage for nearly two hundred years.  Practically every classical ballet storyline has a female main character.  The man escorts the woman forward for the curtain call, then steps back and gestures to her while she bows in front of everyone else.  There was a period of time in which dance critics disparaged the male leads in a performance simply for existing; all they cared about were the females.  In fact, at one point male dancers were so scarce that men’s roles were played by women.

I’ll agree with Ensor on this point, though: “the roses and teddy bears, thrown onto the ice when they have collapsed into each other’s arms at the end, are for her.”  Dang right!  (Seriously though, men get flowers and stuff too.  But the women always get more.)

Yes, it’s an art form – but not the only one
Ensor, along with John Piper, seems to believe that this structure of large man lifting + small woman being lifted is the only way that partnering can or does work.  Piper tweeted, “Egalitarian manhood and womanhood would not be beautiful in olympic [sic] figure skating. Complementarian dancing is.” Ensor writes of this structure, “Alternative approaches only add more pain and yield less satisfaction.”  Unfortunately, in saying so, both men betray their own ignorance of the arts not featured in the Winter Games.  In the dance world, partnering can be done in any combination.  Classical dance evolved the way it did because of the society in which it developed, not because of necessity.  The sight of a man lifting or catching a woman is more familiar to most audiences because of this history, but contemporary choreographers do, in fact, feature more “egalitarian” partnering.   The man and woman, often of more equal size (again, physics at work) each do their share of both roles, and the result – far from the disaster Ensor and Piper seem to anticipate – is stunning (for your consideration, I highly recommend John Neumeier’s Sylvia featuring the Paris Opera Ballet – the pas de deux are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen).

Nontraditional partnering (something other than “man lifts woman”) is a common sight in contemporary and modern dance as well as gymnastics, another Olympic sport.  As choreographers learned more about the science of partnering, they started combining dancers in different ways – two men, two women, and even groups.  The world-renowned modern dance company Pilobolus, which grew out of a contact improv class at Dartmouth, is famous for its “shadows” or silhouettes formed by dancers all climbing on each other to create recognizable shapes.  Recently a friend of mine shared with me a video of three female gymnasts doing an amazing partnered routine in which all three girls share the responsibility of support at different times.  Not only is the classical partnering model not the only viable one, but in implying outright stating that partnering is a model of God’s design for marriage, Ensor is unwittingly passing approval on many types of relationships that would probably make him very uncomfortable.

It’s about trust
One thing Ensor does understand correctly is that the foundation of the partnership is trust.  My pas de deux teacher used to say nearly every day that partnering is like a marriage.  It doesn’t work unless both parties are equally dedicated and can trust each other unreservedly.  If that doesn’t happen, it weakens the whole performance, and the audience can tell.  In the best pairings, the individuals are equally matched in terms of strength and technique.  They rehearse together every day, often staying partners for years, and in doing so they develop a sense of unity and timing that is beyond what they feel when dancing with anyone else.  You can run and leap straight at your partner or fall into their arms or let them pull you off your feet because you know they’ll catch you.  You can experiment with new stunts, more daring lifts, and more challenging sequences of movement, because you trust each other’s abilities and you know that however long it takes, you can work it out.

As Ensor rightly notes, it takes time, patience, and usually lots of pain, to get to that point.  Things almost never go right the first time, or the second, or the third.  Each partner makes mistakes during rehearsal, and it’s only with continual practice that a routine becomes fluid.

I mentioned earlier that partnering requires both independence and interdependence.  In one sense, partnering is like dancing on your own – you still have to do the movements, hold your leg up, turn, and jump as if you didn’t have support.  But in another sense, it’s different because you can’t just think about yourself.  You develop a “sixth sense,” a finely-tuned awareness of the other person, and you learn to execute every movement with that person in your consciousness.  You start to feel like one person dancing in two bodies, or like an image reflected in a mirror.

Even more than that, there are times when one partner has to “submit” to the other.  Sometimes (in a traditional pairing) it’s the girl’s job to hold her position while the guy moves her around; sometimes he has to hold back and wait for her to pose before he can step in.  In cases like these, if either partner tries to do all the work, things feel forced and awkward. I mentioned earlier that in pas de deux I learned to move as if I was on my own, and that’s true, but I also had to learn when to let my partner move me, when to trust him to put me in the right place while I held my shape.  My partners also had to learn when to release control and let me step or turn or lift my leg or initiate a movement myself. The process becomes a mutual give-and-take.  You can perform a solo, but you can’t do a pas de deux alone.  It’s a different type of moving, designed in such a way that each partner needs the other.

A lesson for marriage
Am I saying that the type of partnership we see in pairs figure skating is bad?  Absolutely not.  It obviously can work, and I enjoy watching a traditional pair as much as the next arts aficionado.  But Ensor seems to be unaware that the traditional structure is not the only combination that does work.  The combination of man and woman, and the movements they do, are specifically designed to highlight the dynamic that emerges when you have people of different sizes and builds moving together.  But that kind of partnership only works with certain people and certain combinations.  Imagine, for instance, a short, small-boned man attempting to do the same routines you see in the Olympics with a tall woman of a more athletic build.  According to Ensor, - according to complementarianism - everyone has to fit into the same mold regardless of whether those roles actually fit you.  The great thing about egalitarianism (at least, in my own experience) is that you fill the role you fit.  In my opinion, if traditional gender roles work for you, that’s great.  If they don’t, that’s great too. 

In partnering, you pair up the people who are a good match for each other in terms of relative height and weight, movement quality, and technical ability.  You give them movements that cater to the strengths of each while at the same time working on their weaknesses, hoping to build them into new strengths.  Through an endless cycle of trial and error, success and failure, people who are different from one another come together and learn to trust each other and work toward a common goal.  In a sense, they become one.  They equally share the work, the pain, the responsibility, the triumph, and the reward.  Marriage is the same way, at least in my experience.  It’s not about having a leader and a follower, an initiator and a receiver; it’s about mutual strength, trust, and dedication, and as Christians, mutual submission to the real Leader.