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Why Ballet Is A Man's World, Except In Miami

Lopez Apollo Dress 10-18-2012.jpg
Daniel Azoulay

The legendary choreographer George Balanchine once said, “ballet is woman,” and that seems to be the case, considering the scarcity of boys aspiring to become ballet dancers compared to the legions of girls.  But of the girls who grow up to become top dancers, few have actually graduated into the upper levels of leadership.

Ballet’s Glass Ceiling

Right now, the biggest ballet companies in the U.S. are run by men -- with one exception: Miami City Ballet, where Lourdes Lopez is wrapping up her first season as head of the company.

“On stage, the female dancer is the main focal point, but once we step off the stage we don’t maintain that,” said Lopez.

In terms of budget size, Miami City Ballet was the eighth largest ballet company in the country in 2011, according to the most recent budget information available.

You have to go all the way down to number 20 to find the next female artistic director -- the Cincinnati Ballet's Victoria Morgan.

Data on company budget size comes from Dance/USA

"I don't think it ever entered our minds we were capable." - Lourdes Lopez

When renowned ballet writer (and former New Yorker magazine editor-in-chief) Robert Gottlieb was asked to help the company find a new artistic director after founder Edward Villella announced his retirement, he turned to Lopez for advice. But it didn't immediately occur to Gottlieb to consider her for the job. 

"As I talked to her and heard her extremely intelligent, well thought out answers, it occurred to me: why not Lourdes?" recalls Gottlieb. "She's the perfect person."

Before she took the  Miami job, Lopez had worked on both the artistic and executive side of several major dance organizations. She was a member of the New York City Ballet, ran the George Balanchine Foundation and co-founded a contemporary ballet troupe.

As a Miami native growing up, she and her friends dreamt of becoming great dancers but never of being the boss, said Lopez.

According to Dory Vanderhoof, who co-founded a firm that helps companies find artistic directors, women don’t seem to be applying for those leadership jobs at the same rate as men. “We usually get one or two women to 4 or 5 men,” said Vanderhoof. The firm has found artistic directors for ten companies. “In terms of the people ultimately selected, eight of them were single males and two of them were married, where the males took the artistic lead and their spouses worked in the studio with them.” That's with selection committees that were more or less evenly split between men and women. 

Both Vanderhoof and Lopez think one of the reasons might be because girls and boys have such different experiences during their training years. In the U.S., boys who want to do ballet are hard to come by.

“I would say that in our advanced female class you’ll have 20,” said Lopez, “where the advanced male class you might have 7. And we have a big school.”

Ballet Class 1.jpg
Credit Arianna Prothero
Advanced students taking technique class at Miami City Ballet School.

Mamas, Let Your Sons Grow Up To Be Danseurs

Boys often receive hefty scholarships and special treatment in order to attract them to the profession, and many people in the field say that may give young men a sense of empowerment that their female counterparts don't get.

Miami City Ballet principal dancer Jennifer Kronenberg just released an advice book for young dancers. Eleven-year-old Natalia Garcia went to a recent book signing, and when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Garcia quickly replied, “a professional ballet dancer.” When she was asked about being the boss of a company one day, Garcia answered with a little chuckle and a prolonged “nooo.” 

Christine Williams, sociology chair at University of Texas at Austin, has been studying gender inequality in the workplace for decades. She says the way girls and young women answer those kinds of questions tell us a lot. “Women might start off saying, no, I’m not interested in leadership, and people go, oh, okay. She’s not interested.”

Williams says men benefit from something she calls the reverse of the glass ceiling: the glass escalator. “I know a lot of men in leadership that when first asked, they say, you know, I want to stay at this level of my profession, yet they get sponsors who insist they rise up in their organizations. That's what women don't get.”

As for how Lopez got to the top, she says she doesn't consider herself particularly special. She credits her parents, Cuban exiles who taught her to take advantage of any opportunity that came her way. And she's  glad she jumped at the chance to lead Miami City Ballet.

“I feel fulfilled in the same way as when I was dancing-- just a real sense there’s a purpose again.”

Lopez says she’s not sure if her new post is a sign that the culture is changing—there were women who ran major companies before. The most important thing for her is to take Miami City Ballet to the next level.