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Reversal of a Policy – Men in Class

posted in: musings, Teaching | 1

So I recently made an announcement regarding the change in my “no men” policy for my bellydance classes. The announcement was thus:

“I am finally opening my regular classes officially to all genders next session. If you want to know the story of why I made my classes women only in my early years of teaching until now, I am more than willing to tell you why. But even given very good reason, it has never sat entirely well with me to exclude men from my classes. 

I decided the day that our beloved John Compton passed that it was time to let the past be the past and move forward with my heart. I have had many male dancers who have inspired me during my dance life, and it has become impossible to imagine that I could continue to keep eager, willing, and potentially wicked-talented men–perhaps a future John Compton!–from coming to my classes and share in the joy that is bellydance.

To any men who may have been hurt or offended by my policy in the past, I apologize for ever making you feel unwelcome or under-valued in the  dance world. As I said, I am willing to explain why it is that the policy came to be–it wasn’t always my policy, but one that grew out of specific experiences in my early years teaching and was a choice that was right for me at the time. But as of now, that policy is overturned.

I welcome your thoughts or questions should you have any. As always, my door is open. 

When the Roots run Deep, the tree grows mighty.”

I did get some initial queries as to why my policy was put in place in the first place, and I am happy to share my experience for those who are curious.

I initially did not limit my classes to women only. I was very pleased and even proud that I was opening my doors to all genders–something which at the time most studios I knew of did not do, and was nearly unheard of in tribal/ATS studios, a style which was considered the domain of “female empowerment”.  So I was a bit of an odd-one-out with my open door policy (another outlier was my mentor Paulette Rees-Denis of Gypsy Caravan, from whom I took my largest dose of inspiration in my formative dance years). Within my first couple of years teaching, however,  I had two incidents with male students who made me ultimately decide to limit my classes to women only.

Two Cases for Women Only

In the first case, it was the first year I was teaching. A male student came and seemed perfectly respectful. After class he immediately hit on a fellow student and tried to pressure her into “giving him a ride home” in such a way that she felt threatened. She reported this to me and I told her I would talk to him the following week, but he never returned. It left me and my students that night feeling like he had simply tried to prey on a roomful of women and when it didn’t work out, moved on.

In the second situation, maybe a year later, I had a male student come dressed in a nearly see-through skirt and a crop top. A man wearing a skirt is not something I object to in general. And this was not a transgender woman attempting to fit in. This was a man, hairy chest and all, dressed in a crop top and filmy skirt (thankfully with underwear…), but more importantly, the overall energy this person put off definitely sent red flags up for many of us as off-putting, attention-seeking behavior.  This student proceeded to be verbally disruptive throughout the class in a way which made several students come to me after class and say that if this student returned to class, they would not feel comfortable continuing themselves. One student didn’t report anything to me, but did not come back, and only much later did I find out it was because this man had said things to her which made her uncomfortable in the studio lobby such that she didn’t feel comfortable coming back.

As in the first case, this second male student did not come back and I didn’t have to have any confrontation. But as a baby-teacher who was not yet in full possession of my power as a leader or in control over my space, I was not eager to continue to deal with situations like these. I knew that FatChance studios had a no-men policy which was well-known, and after some soul searching and discussing it with trusted friends and mentors at the time, I decided to change my classes to women-only.

Since Then
In the intervening decade since I made this my policy, I have checked in with a cross-section of students and floated the idea of having men in class. The overwhelming response has been that they enjoy having a women-only environment. That the rest of their lives were largely populated by men, some in professions where they are the only woman in their division, and that having a place where they can meet just among other women made the experience more safe and comfortable for them.

I have had a myriad of inquiries from men asking to join my class. I always made it clear that while my classes were women-only, there was a place for men in the dance world and there were other classes locally which did welcome men. I encouraged them to follow their bliss and enthusiastically referred them to other instructors. While it was usually met with some degree of disappointment, they were respectful of my policy (at least to my face) and moved on to seek out other classrooms. Some sought to debate it, some took it quite personally and left with a proverbial flip of the hair that made it clear they weren’t pleased with my policy. Some of the men gave me the sense they would have made a fine addition to our class culture, and I was myself disappointed in turning them away. But as Carolena often remarked when I would discuss the topic with her, letting one or two men in on a case-by-case basis invites arguments from other men who may not be a low-maintenance fit-in-seamlessly-with-the-women kinda guy. It is easier to simply have a blanket policy than to open your door to the drama or arguing about who can and cannot be in your classes. So I took my cues from established mentors I trusted and kept the policy in place.

I do not regret making these choices at the time and am grateful to my mentors for discussing, sometimes at length, this complex issue. As a young teacher, it was the best choice for me as I was finding my power and ability to develop my class culture. As a developing teacher, maintaining a safe space and a reputation for trust and consistency was first and foremost my goal, and my early experiences led me to feel allowing men in the classroom compromised this sense of safety for many women. And I was frankly just not confident in my ability as a leader to confront and possibly eject problem students (and in turn invite still more drama, as most likely the ones I would eject would be the squeakiest of wheels or biggest of drama-mongerers). It was easier and safer to set and hold to this policy.

Evolution of a Teacher
As the years went by, I grew as a teacher, and I established a teaching practice which engendered trust in hundreds of students who came through my doors each year. I had become well-known to be a teacher who had a no-nonsense, no-drama classroom which was safe, fun, and close-knit. I began to wonder if perhaps I had come to a place in my career where I wanted to revisit my policy.  Sure, a drama-mongerer who came in and was later asked to leave would make a stink or hold a grudge–and the internet makes this practice much easier for them and more consequential for teachers like me. That is still a very real concern. But I had come to a point where not only did I feel I was in possession of my power enough to make that call should it arise, I hoped my past work and reputation would weather such potential muck-raking.

It was as these thoughts were again stirring that fate stepped in, in the most heart-breaking of ways: the incomparable John Compton tragically passed away. John Compton has long been an inspiration of mine, with his beautiful and dynamic folkloric group Hahbi ‘Ru. I used to play VHS videos of Hahbi ‘Ru on  the TV in my home studio while my students were getting dressed and ready for performances, encouraging them to take inspiration from their stagecraft and soak it into their being before they themselves took to the stage. There was a time when another teacher with a no-men policy, and if she had kept hers in place, we possibly wouldn’t have the memories of John Compton we do. From an interview of John Compton for the now-defunct magazine Habibi:

“I was at the Southern Faire that year and saw Patty Farber’s group, which did belly dancing as well as Turkish and Rumanian folk dancing. I recognized one of the people from Jamila’s show, Farideh (or Cathryn Balk), went to her, and got to know her very well. My friend Jay and I were there for every single one of their shows. But she finally said she couldn’t teach me either, because she was Jamila’s student and Jamila wouldn’t teach men.

Then I found a student who told me where Jamila’s secret studio was in San Francisco. It was at the old poultry factory on Sansome Street, so I went down there. I had taken one lesson from another teacher, and we were being taught how to wiggle and “bleep” the audience. I thought, “This is not for me.” So when I found out where Jamila’s studio was, I went there.

There was a little waiting room outside, with this black curtain. I would peek through, and see everyone going around in a circle, “Step, pivot, step, pivot, back, pivot, back, pivot,” and I’d be doing it in the waiting room. I think they were into “Arabics,” and I said, “Ooh, I think I’ll try this, too,” and all of a sudden the curtain whipped open and there stood Jamila one step up from me, so she even looked taller, and she said, “You! In here, sit there, not a word, don’t leave.” I thought I was dead! But it was such a thrill, because I actually got to sit in the room.”

Jamila quickly incorporated John into their Ren Faire performances with Bal Anat, and the rest is history. That day, Jamila pulled back the curtain and welcomed a future-legend into her classroom. She couldn’t have known that day what ripples that gesture would make, but it impacted not just John, but future generations of dancers who studied with him, danced with him, and were inspired by him. Yours truly included. In my heart I knew I had to see my way to reversing my policy.

Making the Switch
Having already decided that 2013 would be the year I would reverse my policy, I wasn’t sure what form that decision would take.  But fate stepped in again as a lovely student of mine approached me regarding a male friend of hers who wanted to take the class. She had been regaling friends and coworkers with her joyful experiences dancing, and several had become interested in trying classes with her. One of them happened to be a man. She respectfully approached me and asked about my women-only policy, and asked if a man came via her recommendation and endorsement, would I consider letting him attend? Given the endorsement of someone I knew and trusted, my immediate reaction was to say yes.

In the weeks that followed, I again took a small poll of dancers regarding men in the classroom, to gauge reactions. Honestly, a majority of the respondents still said they prefer a women-only classroom. I dug a little further and for some it was simply partly because it was all they had ever known. For others the same reasons cropped up; namely that living in a male-dominant society, having women-only spaces creates a sense of comfort and safety. These responses made me almost second-guess my decision. But having meditated on it for weeks (well, really…for years!), I knew the time had come to just make the leap.

So with a heart full of hope that this gesture will be welcome for many, and at least understood and accepted by those who have reservations, I made the announcement yesterday. My first male student in over 10 years (in regular weekly classes–I have had men in workshops) will be joining in two weeks. I look forward to seeing the way our class culture is enriched by the inclusion of dance brothers. I pray the drama-seekers will be few and far between, and that the sense of trust and safety and joy that has been a hallmark of my classes continues to be nurtured by all who share in our space together. Only time will tell…

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

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    As always, Shay, you make very thoughtful decisions. And I applaud this one.

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