Installed the day before International Women’s day this month, the Fearless Girl sculpture has fueled many conversations about gender inequality. Created by Kristen Visbal and commissioned by the investment firm State Street Global Advisors, the sculpture features a girl with a firm stance, hands on her hips, staring directly at the eyes of the Wall Street Bull situated a few feet away, in the Financial District in Manhattan. Whereas SSGA has explained wanting to raise awareness around the lack of women in leadership roles, some feminist commentators have insisted on expanding the discussion to address the ways women are still confined socially and politically. As Cara Marsh Sheffler wrote about the Fearless Girl, “the women’s movement, the marches for equality, are not about making every little girl a CEO, but rather about rendering the national dialogue more inclusive.”
Rehearsing Breathing Underwater has brought these issues close to home for Trea Dipkin, Emma Lai, Jasmine Rivers and Jessica Ruth, the four members of the Dance Jam -ODC teen dance company- who will perform Brenda Way’s piece during their upcoming Home Season at ODC Theater.
Created in 2012, the piece explores the suffocating effects of gender stereotyping on young women. It starts with one of the dancers singing the traditional Appalachian folk song The Weaver’s Bonny, which invokes a traditionally sexist view of women. “The song refers to the relationship of the devil and women and seemed a timeless bias sung in an appropriately timeless form,” Way explained. “I liked the repetition as well as the words — the generational continuity of bias.”
For the dancers, the piece is about “feeling limited and stuck. We’re exposed to a lot of media where we are seeing inequality all the time and how women are mistreated,” Ruth commented. “Society has created an image for what women should be: composed, pretty, lovey-dovey. When we are confident, it’s seen as bossy. Women aren’t all the same. There’s more to us than this façade. I’m tired about how someone’s appearance is supposed to determine their success. That shouldn’t be the case at all.”
The dancers are aware of the pressure and the lack of freedom that they face as young women, particularly when it comes to body image and the risk of sexual assault. “You have to fit into this mold -thin waist, bust and butt- otherwise you are totally undesirable and pushed to the side. The opposite gender is not subjected to that. We shouldn’t have to worry about the fact that wearing a skirt and a t-shirt makes us more vulnerable [to sexual assault]” Dipkin stated. “We should be able to wear what we feel confident in and what makes us feel good.” Rivers adds that she hopes the media could be ahead of a change since for her it is largely responsible for perpetuating gender inequality.
For the four young dancers, who are all 17 except for Rivers who is 15, the piece is both “intimidating and inspiring.” Drawing from their personal experiences helped the teenagers get into their character: “We all have specific roles although it requires your own personal input for the piece to actually be successful,” mentioned Dipkin. “We are supposed to be very honest with our characters. There’s a vulnerable side [to us] but also a mean and fed-up side,” added Ruth. Lai explained that she related to her character “because at the beginning she is shy and left out and tries to fit in with the other girls. Toward the end, she becomes a more independent, outgoing person.”
The personal journey evoked by Lai emphasizes the power that can be drawn from sisterhood, both on and off stage. “I started ODC with these girls and Trea was my first friend,” Ruth explained. “There’s an actual real connection between the four of us when we are dancing together. The piece requires so much vulnerability that I find it super helpful that I trust these women so much.”
All four dancers agree that Breathing Underwater is the most challenging piece that they have yet had to perform. For Dipkin, “it’s because it pushes us not only in the physical and technical aspects but also [requires a lot from us] emotionally. After running it, I am exhausted but it feels so satisfying!” After watching and coaching a rehearsal, Way reflected: “I made [the piece] on professional dancers and we were trying to embody something that we knew but we weren’t in it. These girls are in it! I was so moved by what was coming out of them. What I saw them do is the essence of the piece.”
With the natural charisma and the audacity of youth that the fearless girl sculpture demonstrates, the four dancers stare into gender stereotypes, poking at them one step at a time.