Winter 2022

Class Note

Elizabeth Yntema, ’84: The Disruptor Using Data to Shake Up the Dance World

By Chelsea Liddy Pivtorak

Elizabeth Yntema, ’84

Elizabeth Yntema, ’84, did not originally intend to start a nonprofit organization, but when the lifelong dance enthusiast realized how rare it is for women to assume positions of power in ballet, there was no stopping her from trying to shift the imbalance. 

Despite thinking of herself as a “reluctant entrepreneur,” Yntema is the driving force behind the Dance Data Project® (DDP), a gender-focused research nonprofit that aims to shift the status quo in classical dance, specifically ballet.

Yntema says that her experience at the Law School, where she first waded into tough subject areas, helped prepare her to launch the initiative. As a law student, she received the Jane L. Mixer Memorial Award—an annual prize that recognizes outstanding contributions to advance social justice—for organizing a controversial conference on pornography and the First Amendment, which first brought Catherine MacKinnon, now the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law, to lecture on campus. 

“With DDP, no one wanted to engage on gender equity, but Michigan Law gave me the framework to keep pushing for system-wide answers,” Yntema says.

Yntema has been interested in classical dance ever since childhood ballet classes, and she has since become involved in the ballet world as a philanthropist—and a disruptor. She founded DDP in 2015 and helms a team of researchers, interns, fellows, and other staff members who are all committed to advancing equity through data analysis, advocacy, and programming. 

“I kept looking around and thinking, ‘Well, somebody has got to be doing this work,’ but nobody was looking at the numbers in a consistent way that created longitudinal year-to-year statistics,” Yntema says. “As long as no one knew the numbers, those benefiting from the status quo could continue to ignore the problem. DDP started at my kitchen table as an Excel spreadsheet, but it’s grown so fast from there. We now offer extensive resources geared to help future female leaders globally.”

Classical dance is big business, with expenditures by the 50 largest American ballet companies totaling more than $660 million in 2019, according to DDP. Yntema states that it is not uncommon to see ratios of up to 20 girls to one boy in lower-level classes. 

Similarly, industry experts have confirmed that it is the norm for 70 percent of audience members and donors to be women, but much of the decision making still lies with the men who operate and direct the companies. 

Approximately 70 percent of artistic directors at the 50 largest American ballet companies are men, and DDP’s research has demonstrated that women earn an average of 63 cents for every dollar their male counterparts receive as artistic directors. Internationally, DDP has found that of 175 ballet companies from 56 different countries, 33 percent of artistic directors are female.

A significant number of the largest ballet companies are currently seeking new leadership, something that is akin to “electing six to eight new popes” according to Yntema—who also notes that “it’s about as open a process as the College of Cardinals sequestered in the Vatican.” 

DDP is preparing to launch an advocacy campaign to promote more transparency in the selection process of artistic directors. The organization also maintains a comprehensive index of women leading in dance through both creative and administrative roles. 

“One of the things that I get pushback about is ‘why ballet?’’’ says Yntema. “What we are doing at DDP doesn’t just challenge the ballet world; this lens can be applied not just to classical dance, which is one of the most conservative art forms, but to all performing arts and the entertainment field in general.”

With the Dance Data Project®, Yntema seeks not only to change the culture of ballet but also to defy expectations for women in their 60s. 

“One message that I would really like to get through, particularly for women who have not pursued a linear, or more traditional, career, is you’re not done yet. You’re not done until you decide you’re done, and it doesn’t all have to make sense at the time. People have told me no at almost every single juncture. You just have to ignore them and keep on going and learning.”