Why Boys Must Dance

By Josef Brown

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as it it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

The above quote, known as Maslow’s Hammer, the Golden Hammer or The Law of the Instrument was originally penned by Abraham Kaplan slightly differently in 1964:

“Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

It was popularly rephrased by Maslow just two years later in 1966, but I recently came across it again in the intriguing 2016 Amy Adams movie, ‘Arrival’ where she plays a brilliant linguist dealing with human-kinds first contact with aliens. 

Faced with the intricacies and complexities of communicating with an alien race her character makes the argument that the Chinese path is likely flawed in their attempt to communicate with the alien race using the game Mahjong. 

Her theory – and I’m likely simplifying and butchering it to some degree – is that if the foundation of your learning, shared relationship and language is built solely on competition and win/lose models then that is all you’ll ever know and that you’ll therefore come to define and engage in all relationships via such an understanding. 

How is this related to why boys must dance?

I’m fortunate to adjudicate in many interesting places across Australia, large cities and smaller, more regional areas. 

One of the many thoughts that has occurred to me while watching all the many wonderful and inspiring performances has been in encountering the obvious numerical discrepancy between girls and boys dancing. 

Clearly this isn’t new, but the realisation that was new to me – though I’m sure it’s been obvious to others long before – is that the many tens of thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands of girls partaking in dance classes across our Nation are enjoying a range of expression that is vastly more interesting and substantial than anything boys are getting from only playing sports. From this I started to wonder how that might effect their psyche as they move from boys to men: to be husbands, fathers, social and political citizens and community and cultural leaders.

Most of the girls tend to engage with many techniques within the dancers craft; they learn and perform tap dancing routines that are full of high energy and interesting rhythms, soft and fluid lyrical pieces, often darkly emotional contemporary abstract works, graceful classical solos and group works and fascinating, often comical, character-driven musical theatre song and dance numbers.

Obviously I’m paraphrasing here for brevity as anyone of these pieces can vary widely, but you get the point. The dancers range of emotional engagement is vast. The physical pattern constructions are diverse and challenging, but so too are the emotional and psychological connections they’re exploring. And while sometimes these techniques and crafts are engaged within the context of competitions and eisteddfods, most often they’re done in the classroom, rehearsal room or in performance spaces as acts of expression for expressions sake. 

In contrast many boys merely play sports that are mostly about throwing a ball, catching a ball, running with a ball and trying to get that ball to the other end. Again, I’m paraphrasing for brevity, as sports too can be varied, but the point being their range of expression is vastly more limited by not engaging in the arts and dance more specifically and is almost solely contained within a win/loss combative model.

Returning to the original quote; we must ask how this more limited physical and emotional vocabulary that they’re introduced to during their youth effects them as they develop through to manhood. 

Sure, we can argue that sports are not merely about competition, they are also about cooperation with your fellow team mates. But ultimately this is all to achieve the end goal of winning. The language they are steeped in is of competition, conflict, factionalism, antagonism, contest, struggle and ultimately win/loss. And so it should be no surprise that is the language that ends up dominating our relationships in business, politics and perhaps even in the domestic sphere. 

Of course I’m simplifying. This topic is deserving of a novel or PhD, but I simply don’t have the time but wanted to at least ignite a conversation. 

Of course we all learn from many teachers along the way and have many experiences of compromise, accord, concession, bargaining. Yet ultimately the dominant paradigm boys in particular come to understand, the language they are coached in – as we all are to some degree – is that of competition and thus, if all you give a boy is a hammer, don’t be surprised when they come to see everything as a nail.

One of the great benefits of the arts is that they play a part in mediating this narrow perspective and dance is well placed and arguably best placed to appeal to boys, if we can rein in the female centric language and tone of the studios. Because multiple studies show that boys want to move to learn. They’re hard wired to be moving, particularly when they’re younger which is why sports has such easy appeal. 

I love sports. And so this is not an indictment of sports nor a suggestion that our boys – or girls – should not play sports. The language of competition too is one they do need to understand. My point is simply that the language of competition is too dominant and being so is to our shared cultural and aesthetic detriment. We need to better understand how we promote the language of competition disproportionally to boys from a very young age and the impact that has on us all as they become men.

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