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Challenging gender binary limitations in dance – Prentice Whitlow, Dancer at Phoenix Dance Theatre

Prentice Whitlow - Phoenix Dance Theatre

Prentice Whitlow joined Phoenix Dance Theatre in Autumn 2014, having graduated in 2009 from George Mason University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance, coupled with the distinguished Award for Excellence in Performance. His credits include Karen Reedy Dance, Dissonance Dance Theater, The Mark Morris Dance Group, Alwin Nikolais Dance Theater, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Dance Iquail, Elisa Monte Dance. Prentice has also performed for Toniah Pedersen and Østre Gasværk Teater (DK).

Prentice Whitlow - Phoenix Dance Theatre
Prentice Whitlow

“…There are usually so few boys in any group of young dancers … add talent to rarity and some boys are lavished with attention in order for them to live up to the artistic ambitions and curiosities of their teachers and choreographers…”

Prentice, please can you tell us about your career to date and what made you want to become a dancer?

I can very clearly recall the moment that really solidified my curiosity for dance.

I was 17 and had just begun studying with Amanda Standard, a high school dance teacher who also had her own Christian dance school which I attended thanks to a generous scholarship.

One evening we were in class rehearsing one particular movement and I felt something very strong come over me.

Without going into too much detail, I can describe the moment as an alignment of visceral, emotional and spiritual ecstasies and I guess I keep dancing in attempt to honour what I felt then. The trajectory of my desires changed completely from that one instant and I feel like I’ve been riding that wave ever since.

I feel pretty lucky. The thirst that feeling put into me has lead to a satisfyingly nomadic lifestyle. I’ve been based in Washington DC, St Louis, Salt Lake City, New York City, Copenhagen, London and now Leeds, where I’ve been working with Phoenix Dance Theatre since 2014.

What is your day to day schedule like at Phoenix?

It’s pretty intense. We are a repertory company of four men and four women, in comparison to some ballet and contemporary dance companies where there can be as many as 20 to 30 dancers. Each day begins at 10am with a dance technique class that fits the needs of whatever physical demands we might encounter throughout the day.

At any given time we can be working on up to ten different pieces, each with their own physical and artistic nuances. We split the day up into three blocks of rehearsals in order to sort all this out and usually finish around 6 pm.

What is the gender split of the company across the various different roles?

Sharon Watson - Phoenix Dance Theatre
Sharon Watson

Whether it be in the office, in the studio or on stage, the women greatly outweigh the men in terms of numbers and influence. In my time with the company, all of the top positions in the organisation, Artistic Director [Sharon Watson – pictured], Executive Director, Rehearsal and Tour Director, have been held women. Currently the Fundraising, Education and Marketing Departments are also helmed by women.

In our current touring programme, Triple Bill 2016, three of the four works we rotate are by female choreographers. I think there’s only one man working full time in our office, and about three part time.

Do boys who want to dance growing up receive as much support as girls?

In dance studios across America, boys who want to dance get more support than girls! There are usually so few boys in any group of young dancers … add talent to rarity and some boys are lavished with attention in order for them to live up to the artistic ambitions and curiosities of their teachers and choreographers.

How do we break down traditional gender stereotypes and make it easier for boys, and also for girls to find and follow careers doing things they are passionate about?

I think one way we can help our youth is by providing them with strong examples of people who challenge those stereotypes, whatever they are. It’s important not only for those facing gender binary limitations but for the ones perpetuating them too.

Dance is commonly considered to be a female dominated field, yet it could still be perceived that there are more men in leadership, choreography and direction. Does this match your experience?

Prentice Whitlow - Phoenix Dance Theatre
Prentice in TearFall – photo by Brian Slater

It doesn’t actually. Most of my bosses have been female. That’s not to say that there isn’t a problem. Men in dance are made more visible by their rarity and in that way find fame and eminence more easily, I think.

Past that point, though, when it comes to how men gain and retain power and influence in dance, I can only really chalk that up to how we are conditioned by patriarchy to take men’s voices, visions and aspirations more seriously.

You’re a choreographer as well as a dancer yourself. What are your ambitions here and how are you developing your experience?

Lately my interest in dance has been shifting from artistic to sociological. Right now I’m really curious about social dance environments like clubs, bars, etc. and how we use movement to affect and relate to each other in these spaces. I’d like to explore this more at a postgraduate level and possibly even explore ways technology could help quantify what happens when people dance together.

What’s coming up next for you and Phoenix?

This year is our 35th anniversary and we are touring nationally with a Triple Bill, which showcases a series of engaging, funny and beautiful works including: Itzik Galili’s reworking of Until.With / Out.Enough; audience favourite, Melt, by Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sharon Watson; and Bloom, by award-winning choreographer, Caroline Finn. We’ll be at The Civic, Barnsley this Friday 7th October and touring until the end of November.








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