Unbound, We Howl

It is international women’s day… and I am not one.

I am frequently mistaken for a woman, in fact I have been for most of my life, and I could probably still pass for one if I chose. So what are the political stakes of deliberately choosing to step outside of the identity – in fact the political position – that is being a woman, and say: “no, I am something else?” Feminist and theorist Laurie Penny writes that she is biologically non-binary, but politically a woman because she believes that the experiences of her life in her body make it fundamentally necessary to speak to the position of women in today’s social environment. What is it, then, this political identity that is “woman” that I have never been a part of? Where does it intersect with “feminist” – which I am? How can that identity and politics and weight and necessity be communicated to those who sit outside of that identity and politics in every direction? Well, if you believe Alexandra Stilianos, and I usually do, you start with anger.

Unbound, We Howl is an unashamed polemic on the state of women in humanity. It begins with seventeen dancers – women and not – seated on the floor of the stage, facing away from the audience, watching a collage of found footage and scrolling, distorted headlines on transgender suicide and bathroom bills. Rather than setting up transwomen as the limit break case on the breath of identity, Stilianos places them right away at the center of her community, and then gets on with the serious business of exploring the heart of what being a woman actually means. In this space, what it means is these dancers, captured in life-size portrait on the backcloth of the stage. The seated cast rises to take their place in a two-dimensional pencil outline of themselves, fitting into the shapes that have been left by them in a moment of captured time, filling them out into three-dimensional reality. And then they move.

It starts very simply, with a short run and a one-handed appeal to the audience. We begin to hear fragments of text from Sylvia Plath, Jeanann Verlee, given voice by the dancers, or by electronic distortion, or even Siri – reminding us that we have consistently chosen a women’s voice to anthropomorphosise the idea of passive service. (Incidentally, while Siri, Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Google Home and Facebook M will all tell you they have no gender, they all present as female, and advertising literature refers to them interchangeably as “she” and “it.” Woman or object… why not both?!) The dancers on stage emerge, explore, trace the present materiality of their bodies, crawl towards us, all with a gradual undertone of wary tension – a coming storm.

It is Andie Altchiler who breaks the tension first, with a stumbling, tripping, whirlwind of a solo that flings her legs and arms and hair all across the stage, only brought to a halt by a shout from another dancer. The cast retreat back into their portraits, but only for a second, crawling straight back out to make tornadoes of their own. The portraits become a home-base, a space owned by the dancers inhabiting their bodies, from which they can emerge to speak out amidst the tumult of cascading voices. This play between the general torrent of opinion and the specific kinesthetic appeals of each dancer, belies an easy theorization of the piece’s thesis or driving point. Each dancer becomes a manifestation of her own identity, gathered within the collective umbrella of a shared political identity: woman. At last they run forward and stand shoulder to shoulder at the front of the stage, visible and present, ready to be seen.

But the dancers are not interested in us, yet. Instead their gaze drags ours upwards to where an additional cast of dancers marches above us in silent protest, trapped by the bars of the lighting grid and unnoticed until this moment. The unusual perspective that keeps them from us and us from them shows us the vulnerability of bodies hitting the floor, but also renders their protest partially illegible – we are not used to seeing from below, and we cannot access the complexity and completeness of what it is they are trying to say.

Back down on the stage the tornadoes continue, but now the dancers add their individual voices into the play of sound around them. Stilianos joins her cast onstage to create a live mixing of light, sound, and projection, lending a sense of authenticity and spontaneity to this impassioned moment. Kat Sprudzs cranes her “poor, female head” into the microphone as she writhes across the floor, Laura Deangelis clambers on top of another performer to say… something about sex that she can never really quite get high enough for us to hear. The thwarting of the dancer’s voices and the impossible attitudes they have to enter into in order to amplify themselves explains why some simply try to stand by themselves and shout without the microphone, trying to make their point against the noise and movement all around them. The work begins to expand into the audience, the performers linking hands in a long, anchoring line as Emily Gaffga – finally in control of the microphone but with her voice distorted, walks among the seats asking questions about make-up: “Are you selling your body?” The line breaks down and struggles within itself as dancers fight to be heard, while above us more and more of the marchers collapse to the floor and shout at each other – the text on the back wall reads: “RECKONING.”

Some kind of accommodation: the dancers run and walk around the stage, are picked up, stand above the crowd, fall, roll, return to walking and running again. They return to their portrait line and stride forward together. Chaos. Dissolution. One dancer lays down erratic taped pathways while another dancer flings herself behind to stick them to the floor. Text drops from the ceiling to be read, the back of the stage reads “FEAR.” The dancers appeal to the audience for help but the project remains unclear – we don’t know how to productively intervene. Each dancer shouts, runs, dances, implores us to understand, but most of all we are asked to bear witness to the struggle in front of us: the performance that lacks unification but which is fundamentally about unity; which is as complicated as politics and as difficult as it is to define what it means to be human. Given torches, all the audience can do is shine a wavering light on the movement or image that makes most sense to them in the moment.

Just as I am beginning to understand, the lights cut out and – for a moment – we all breathe together. Exhausted.

Links to the full work can be found at Stilianos’s website.

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The Territory of Togetherness: CDA Works #2

When I moved to Columbus five years ago, I won’t lie; I despaired of how I’d managed a PhD without becoming absolutely and totally starved for art. In all fairness I’d just spent nearly a decade living in London, one of the great art centers of the world, and I had some very British misconceptions about the Midwest and what a “town with an attitude” like Columbus could offer. Well, I’m grateful to say, I was wrong.

The dance scene in Columbus was far richer than I knew, and has grown exponentially over the last five years. From the world-renowned dance degrees in the area – and especially at Ohio State – to a flourishing landscape of local companies, studios, projects, showings and pop-ups, the city is doing well. While I regret the loss of wonderful projects like the MINT collective and Feverhead, I’ve seen the rise of SEA<>BUS dance company, bringing sophisticated and intelligent improvisation-based work to the area, I’ve seen Flux and Flow build itself up from scratch and turn an empty shell of a health food store into a vibrant community class space and dance company. I have become an advocate for living, working, and dancing in Columbus, and as I look to the future and new jobs on the horizon I feel a profound sense of sadness about the community I’ll be leaving behind.

Last night those feelings became particularly poignant during the #2 showing of the Columbus Dance Alliance, a program of dance and movement, founded by generous donations and housed by the Wexner Center. The program last night demonstrated the breadth, versatility and beauty of the Columbus dance scene, and the committee should be congratulated wholeheartedly for holding such an open and proud space for dance in this city.

Lost Brotherhood by Gamal Brown opens the night – a sweetly moving work that set my own mood of fond nostalgia for times and friends gone by. Dancer DaRius FIncher brings a delicate touch to the space, gliding lightly through a complex turn series before coming to rest on the balls of his feet – poised on the fine line between present and future, self and community. Brown’s work is supported by a Columbus Dances Fellowship, and uses choreopoem and performance to tackle social justice issues of the present and past.

Inclusion by Melissa Hinchman (leader of the non-profit Cultivate Dance Project) is the second dance on the program, once again playing with individual creativity and unity. The choreography is articulate and full of refreshing, quirky details, making use of the dancers’ arresting performance dynamic. As the music breaks down, dissolves and returns, so do the dancers move from crisp unison towards a gradual dissolution of self – their attempts at partnered support gradually lost in individual isolation.

The final piece before the intermission – Michael Morris’s Elemental Rites at the End of the World – reaches out to the audience and draws us together in an urgent community of survival. Inviting us into a circle around them, Morris calls to the North, West, South and East horizons in a time of endings, invoking the elements with body and breath and ritual text. We are reminded that Earth, Water, Fire and Air are around and in and with all of us, that the spark in each cell is the wildfire that rages, is the witch burnt at stake and the women who we still do not believe. As their body strikes, flows, quakes and drifts, Morris shows us the layers of relationality between ourselves and the world, and they offer – with gentle hands – a way to hold those layers present and to care for them as we care for ourselves and each other.

Lauren Slone, choreographs and dances hot night slow drive fast car: a puzzle of a piece with a cobra in its belly, beautifully crafted and performed. Slone writhes and flicks her limbs across the stage with calm surety as the text and soundscape around her hint at profound internal struggle. hot night is a challenge to the superficial reading, and the dismissal of history and ritual trained into the body or inked on the skin. Interrupting balletic technique with a casually jutting hip, tracing pathways that are at once obscure and yet relentlessly determined, Sloane offers half of a story, and leaves us straining to see more clearly.

I have always loved the intersections of poetry and dance, and so the penultimate work: From these old pages, choreographed and danced by Megan Davis Bushway and Victoria Alesi was a treat to my eyes, ears and heart. Juxtaposing fragments of poems to shape new linguistic constellations, Bushway and Alesi invite us to consider how texts shape our humanity and response to the world. Their movement is quiet, with a responsive flow – a favourite moment is when the dancers grasp hands like a ballet bar, but instead on stasis they generate a swinging, circular, collaborative momentum, evolving and shifting until a compass line is traced around the stage. Poems become fragments become maps become the terrain we know, and how we explore it together.

On Board(hers), the final work of the night, takes us starkly from the free flow across maps and countries to the harshly linear space of customs and immigration control. Lucille Toth’s work, based on the testimonies of 15 Ohio-based immigrant women, has gathered interest and attention from all over the community, and I was justly excited to see an excerpt tonight. Amrita Dahr is flawless as the Orwellian customs agent, propelling the performers through a counter-intuitive ritual of routine subjugation. Toth and dancer Bita Bell bark at the audience in French and Farsi, in a powerful demonstration of what it’s like to be treated as a stranger in your own home. On Board(hers) makes its protest in the language of the marginalized – through empathy, and the unmistakable presentation of humanity, despite all the forces lined up to these things away. The full work will be shown on March 28th at the Beeler Gallery, and I urge all those who can to come and see it.

Thank you to the Columbus Dance Alliance for bringing these six works together, and I look forward to program #3!

The Big 5-OH – Celebrating OSU Dance

I am delighted to have been at OSU for the occasion of the department’s 50th birthday, and their Big 5-OH showing. Congratulations to whoever came up with that particular title, and the tagline: “…throwing our weight around for 50 years…”* I’ve always appreciated a really nuanced pun, and this big ten university dance department really does know how to throw it’s weight around, and how to stand up for itself, as the four dance pieces on tonight’s program demonstrate.**

The pieces are neatly tied together on the theme of Rudolf Laban’s principles of movement analysis: space, weight, time, and flow. The OSU Dance Department has been a home to Laban’s theories for many years, and when the vast repository of scores and documents previously held by the Dance Notation Bureau were orphaned, OSU’s archive reached out to shelter them under its expansive wings, turning the university into one of the foremost locations in the world for Laban-based research. Projecting scores onto the theater floor was an inspired touch – an invitation to literally get up and walk through pieces – a tool that I hope gets used with the next class of analysis students!

On my way into the theater I look through the archival display, lovingly crafted by Chris Summers. Here the department’s capacity to make art out of history and history through art is woven together in a compelling and accessible format. I pass the department chair, who pulls me in to look at a yellowing list of department alums from the year I was born. “This is so important!” She tells me, and I feel our collective pride in where we’ve come from and what we have done with dance – and what we’re going to do.

The space section of the evening is taken on by Susan Petry in her work Trace, and quite frankly I could have sat and watched its introduction all evening and still gone home satisfied. This is the first work I’ve seen in the Barnett Theater since it was reconfigured in the round, and the cast is clearly hungry for every extra inch of room the new layout affords them—they reach, roll, leap and dive through movement that stretches out to early modernism, but is still totally supported by the dancer’s conviction, and the starkly contemporary lighting design by Dave Covey. The formations of this work are its triumph: the dancers spiral in and through each other, knock each other out of place, bind and unravel, find and re-find clarity… even more astonishing is the humanity with which they achieve such calculated precision, causing me more than once to hold my breath, or double take, or even spontaneously applaud as complexity flourishes unexpectedly from chaos. I loved space. I just wanted to give it more time.

Time, thankfully, I had in abundance thanks to Daniel Robert’s work Nomadic Drift, which followed in the evening. Robert’s desert is a harsh space, but a rich one, incorporating the tectonic shift and grind of mountains wearing down, and the explosive bloom of day-flowering vegetation, the scurry and calculated mastery of survival. The dancers are at home in this landscape, and once again the virtuosity that could easily have been clinical is instead empathetic and full of life. The role-reversing foot-to-foot duet that marks time at the beginning of the work is as delicate as glass, and as certain as diamond. A later trio with the theme of diving through is gigglingly playful, while the central solo by Sydney Samson is as crisp and clear in the silence as a shadow carving through the sunrise. The Cunningham-based techniques in the piece feel at home in the atmosphere of the past, but this work is a showcase of all that the dancers in this department can do right here in the now.

Of all the choreographers commissioned for this anniversary show, it is Eddie Taketa who seems to have most fully grasped the brief that tonight is a birthday party. Kipuka is a flat out romp through jazz and funk, the dancers smiling and wheeling, and having what is clearly a wonderful time. If you weren’t looking carefully you might get caught up in the celebration and miss some of the sophistication of flow within the work, which would be a shame when this dynamic is so intelligently explored. Watch Alizé Raptou as she whips and spins across the floor, then breaks on a dime to turn back the other way, seemingly pulling momentum out of thin air. Watch a trio of dancers throw and catch each other across the space, moving with gravity but never allowing it to pull them even a hair out of rhythm with their partnership. This is not flow that pulls you on uncontrollably, this is flow taken up and mastered as a way of getting you exactly where you want to go. What is hip? This is.

It seems trite to say that a piece on theme of weight makes an impact, but that is without a doubt what Lush Departures by Crystal Perkins does: slamming a foot decisively down in the space and yelling “here we are, this is what we can do, and no-one can stop us.” Weight is a springboard that lets the dancers fly and rebound, their communal energy spiraling up and out and all through the space. Perkins has clearly made this piece with a lot of love for the department she called home as an MFA student, and which now celebrates her as a faculty member. Alumni photos hang like a benediction over the dancers, and a central section of the work uses archived sound of Vera J. Blaine coaching a past class of dancers in lightness. As we hear Blaine’s voice and see the cast embody her exploration we realize that we are seeing time: the innovation that becomes tradition that becomes innovation reworked again. It is a statement of past and future, reverence and pride, and fills me with hope as I step out and leave into the ongoing dance.

 

Happy birthday OSU Dance, here’s to many more years.

 

 

 

* I hear it was Susan Petry, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

**A fifth work Well of Pearls took place as part of the celebrations in another theater, but I was unfortunately unable to attend.

 

A Lesson in Fear

I thought that the next post up on the Headtail Connection would be dance-specific one. In fact I have a dance post, all written out, but I’m waiting on feedback from a collaborator. So very soon you’ll get the next installment of “What Is Fusion.” But in the meantime… it’s been a very trans week. The republican government is attempting to redefine protected identity categories in order to create a legally actionable definition of gender that is indistinguishable from sex-as-assigned-at-birth. The UK government has also been pursuing an update to how it offers Gender Recognition Certificates, involving a lengthy public consultation.

I wasn’t going to bring those issues here. Instead I wrote an extended post on my facebook page about actionable ways to support transgender people, which has had an incredible reach and which I will include at the bottom of this post for those interested. As much of the content of this blog is personal, it’s mostly a geek-oriented and non-partisan space.

But then I read this article by the Reynolds School of Journalism and featured on Medium.com. If you don’t want to click out on the link, the summary of the article is that Republican students on campus feel afraid, and outcast, and think their teachers and peers are acting against them for having certain political views. This seems to fall nicely under my remit as a dancer, geek, pedagogue and blogger, so I’m going to talk a little bit about that fear.

I have republican students in my classroom. I know it. I have students who support Trump, I have students who have never met a queer person, who grew up attending all-white schools, who come to school wearing merchandise featuring Native American mascots, who don’t want to have any involvement in politics, who think dance is an easy A, who don’t want to dance with anyone of the same gender, who… you get my drift. It’s a mixed classroom.

I’m a masc-of-center non-binary queer, who takes they pronouns, and advocates for inclusivity, and wears button-downs and a buzz cut, and lectures about race and gender and sexuality and representation in the arts. While the university asks me to keep my political affiliation quiet, there is NO WAY that students do not know something of how I feel about Trump and republicans and conservatism. And since my students have to write essays in my classes about race, gender, sexuality etc etc… that’s a little bit of a problem. Admittedly not all teachers will have their politics made obvious by their identity in the same way that I do, but the way these teachers frame a discussion around issues of identity and politics will usually make their position fairly obvious.

Talking with my colleagues across the university, it’s clear that not all teachers inspire the same amount of fear in their students. A teacher with a visibly marginalized identity will be seen as “biased,” and will receive treatment and teaching evaluations to that end, while a white cis-male professor can be far more politically active in his content and will be reviewed as impartial. So for someone like me, it’s really important to try and remove the perception of bias from my classroom.

So how do I do that?

At the beginning of every semester I go through the syllabus with my students, and we discuss what it means to create an environment where it is safe for everyone to learn and grow. I promise that I will grade their research on accuracy, not politics, and that I do not have to agree with everything they write for them to get an A. I hold myself to that, taking advice from my colleagues and my rubrics when I think I’m in danger of not being fair.

I make a point of answering questions and opinions from a place of historical evidence/fact rather than from a place of opinion or feeling. People say things in discussions that I absolutely disagree with – about art as much as about identity – but if there is space in the evidence as far as I know it to validate their opinion then I will. If not, “that’s an interesting interpretation and I can see how you got there but in fact…” or “I’m not seeing how you got that, can you explain some more” are good ways to start dealing with difference.

Where I do draw a line is that if a student says or writes something that is to the best of my knowledge inaccurate, it is my job as an educator to correct or clarify for them. That can be difficult to do well. A while ago a student in my class expressed doubt about the existence of white privilege, arguing that white people exist in states of extreme poverty and deprivation, so white people can’t all be privileged. In that case I clarified that yes, white people definitely do live in extremes of inequality, but that I’m talking about white privilege as a structural system that favours whiteness over other races, not making a statement that all white people enjoy the material and social security because of privilege, or aren’t affected by other forms of inequality. This system has been demonstrably proven to exist, even if its manifestations aren’t always clear. We agreed that that was a reasonable basis for discussion.

I hope that in that instance my student didn’t feel like she was pressured into agreeing with me. Since she continues to speak up in class I’m assuming not. Luckily in that case I had three other adults in the room: my TA and two university staff members, one of whom sent me a very nice email saying how much she admired my fair approach to cultural and political discussions. So I feel validated in saying that I try and treat all my students well, even if they disagree with me.

I also think that stepping outside of the white historical canon is a political act. There would be far less dissent (and less critical thinking) in my classroom if I taught canonical dance history, or used white male authors. That choice would be seen by many as politically neutral, and that by mentioning Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, or Frederick Ashton’s desire to be female (at least sometimes), I’m dragging politics in where it doesn’t belong. But these are historically demonstrable statements with a profound effect on how we understand the lives of these artists and the works that they make. If we treat all voices as equal then that means all voices, not just the ones that are easy, and don’t challenge us to confront our bias. It would make me a very bad teacher.

So what about these students who are all feeling afraid? Or other people who feel like they are being “bullied” for holding conservative or controversial views. It’s a hard call to make in academia, because so much of our history is about genius pushing through entrenched and dogmatic opposition, so it’s understandable why people want to cast themselves on the side of the oppressed genius, and keep pushing on with their viewpoint against all the evidence and odds. Both sides tend to believe that their opponents are entrenched, dogmatic, and oblivious to both the facts and the humanity of anyone who disagrees with them. They poke holes in any conflicting evidence, demand an exorbitant standard of proof, and resort to ad hominem attacks and traumatized rage in this desperate struggle to… to do what?

This is a point that I’ll try and make clearly and fairly, but my politics are going to show for a bit. It is now the desired policy of the republican government that trans people do not deserve protection against bias. It is the desired policy of the republican government that homosexual people be denied the right to services, up to and including housing and medical care. It is the official policy of the republican government to separate migrants from their children, and to house those children in brutal, inhumane conditions. It is the desired policy of the republican government that women lose their right to abortion, and to birth control. It is the official position of the republican government that climate change does not exist, and should not be discussed. That these goals and desires exist is supportable by evidence as best as I can find it. So even if they only selectively adhere to republican politics, students voting for a republican government are seeking for these things to happen, and to exacerbate. In contrast I have not seen any desired policy of the democratic party that seeks to deny social or civil rights, or services, to straight, white, or cis people. Or republicans.

There are people out there, and in my classrooms, who would argue that these are good things. That they are backed by logic and sound reasoning. I live on the internet, I have had those arguments. What I have not yet found is any good evidence supporting these policies as successful ways of achieving their intended aims. They rely on fundamental misunderstandings of economics, social sciences, biology, human behaviour, etc etc. It’s like UK austerity politics, they don’t work. We know they don’t work. All the evidence shows they don’t work. They do a huge amount of harm. Just because they sound appealing on paper to a certain subset of the population doesn’t mean that at the end of the day they work. Arguing for them is not lone genius pushing against dogma, it’s an old idea proven wrong by new evidence.

So back to these students.

We have to be able to tell students that they are wrong when they are wrong. We have to tell them when their evidence is flawed, or non-existent. We have to do it without calling them horrible people or blaming them for views they have come to through completely understandable routes. As educators we should be aware of the paucity of information available to some of our students and the bias with which much information is presented. The free availability of absolute garbage, and the algorithms by which it appears to us as truth. A big problem is that the “truth” is now an intensely political quality, and students aren’t willing to believe science and facts any more if they contradict a political ideology. And we return to this idea that students are simply trying to say what they know, in dread of the political bias and mindless adherence to false beliefs by their teachers. It’s really, really sad.

In the linked article students said that they wanted to be known as individuals before they were judged for their politics. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable ask. But I can like a student very much as a human and still desperately want to shift them from a belief that will lead to them growing up to do harm, those aren’t conflicting positions for me. I can still teach the evidence as best I know it to be true. I can still teach my required curriculum – which is about race and gender and representation – and ask students to gain competency in that. I can still follow the rules of the university, which reject bias and prejudice against statistically marginalized identities. I can ask students what they are afraid of, and weigh the potential harm against its risk, and set safeguarding measures in place. I can hold myself accountable every single time I answer a question in class, or grade. What I can’t do is let fear – anyone’s fear – rule my classroom and distort my teaching the best that I know to the best of my ability.

There is a subset or republican and conservative and evangelical and TERF fear that’s about white nationalism and homogeneity. There’s also a subset of republican and conservative fear that’s about social shame and social change. Liberals are not kind to those who they view as actively seeking to take away people’s human rights, and – I speak from experience – believing that someone loathes your very existence, and having them argue that at you like it’s rational, is a powerful disincentive to pleasant conversation. People out there are getting very, very upset about being told they’re factually wrong, because they know that their incorrect opinions are associated with a set of beliefs that are associated with monsters… and also with their parents. And their loved ones. And their churches. And their communities. It can be as dangerous for republican kids to dissent as it can be for gay kids to come out – which is pretty damn dangerous. And if they get that dissent wrong, or not all the way or fast enough, they get a huge amount of hate from both sides. I don’t think I would want to do it.

I’ve talked for a long time, and all my solutions were done a long time ago. When you politicize the truth and you hold up the humanity and life of identity groups as the stakes of that truth there is no easy way to have a debate. I will continue to try and be kind and fair and accurate in my classrooms. I wish the best of luck to anyone trying to do the same.

 

 

As promised, here is my post about supporting trans people:

I see a lot of cis people on facebook urging everyone out there to support the trans community. Thank you. But what does that support look like practically? Here are some ideas!

– Firstly, vote. Vote tactically and get the people who want to make this horrible law the law out of power. Vote.

– Offer to accompany your trans friends to the bathroom if they have to go to the bathroom in public. Don’t assume that a space is safe enough for them, show them that you’ll make spaces safe for them.

– Use the right pronouns and names for people, always and forever. If you can’t get it right, practice on your own time. No excuses any more.

– Introduce yourself with your pronouns. When you assume that everyone knows your pronouns you make non-binary people’s lives incredibly hard. You don’t have to ask people what their pronouns are, but you can offer yours into the space like all pronouns belong there.

– Speak up against sexually essentialist and/or binary language. Stop saying “men and women,” stop conflating genitalia with gender. People of any gender can get pregnant, people of any gender can menstruate. Support this in your conversation.

– Take delight in appropriately gendered language. Find out who among your friends wants to be “one of the boys,” who should be invited on a “girls night out,”who wants to talk to you “man to man.” Affirm people’s gender, even and especially when it creates a discordant image. (caveat: don’t out your friends).

– If you have money, put a little bit of it aside every month and put it towards getting trans people the transitional care they need – especially since it might be taken away soon. (Anyone who wants to give money towards my top surgery, hit me up!)

– Educate yourself, read articles by trans people about their experiences, learn how to make the case that trans people want you to make for their humanity, rather than coming from a medicalised narrative.

– Make sure that any policies you’re in charge of are trans-inclusive. “You are welcome to wear the uniform most concordant with your gender identity”would work WONDERS in the workplace.

– Does your workplace have a gender neutral bathroom? If not, ask why not. Find out where the closest facility is so you can direct people there. Is there a way for folks in the men’s bathroom to dispose of menstrual products? If not, why not? A $5 trashcan in each stall would be an easy blessing. +10 points if you can put some sanitary products in there to use also.

– Do not offer arguments against the humanity, existence, or human rights of trans people the same validation as reasonable debate. “That’s not scientifically true.” “That’s not factually accurate.” “That argument is based in transphobia.” Do not get derailed by folk who would like to pull the level of debate endlessly back to “but are they even real though?” We know the answer to that question and the answer is yes. Move on.

– Vote.

p.s. I’m not a monolith and all the trans people you know will have different ideas about this.

p.p.s. I’d really love it if as well as liking this post my friends would commit to one or more of these things that they’re going to do!

 

 

Success is Spelled Like

“You will be deemed incompetent in your field if you continue to write the way you write.”

“I always thought from your emails that you were dyslexic – I just didn’t want to say anything.”

“You’re an A-grade student on your content and an E or F on spelling and grammar.”

…..

When I was little my mother made me do writing practice constantly. She kept a spelling journal, and every time I spelt a word wrong I would have to sit back down again and write it out three times, five times, ten. I wrote lines, Bart Simpson-style, as a punishment for bad behaviour – 20, 50 100. I remember that once I changed the text of the line because I couldn’t spell one of the words she’d asked for, and she made me write the whole hundred out again (the word was cacophony, and I was 8 – high pressure household)!

It didn’t work anyway – I have never been able to spell.

So why not?

A few years ago the New York Times published an article about aphantasia, or blindness in the mind’s eye. It was me! I make no mental images, I see only the world in front of me, and until my teens I had never really understood that anyone else had a different experience. I wrote – badly – to the nice scientists doing the experiments and they sent me their tests, which very firmly confirmed that this is the way my mind works. I’ve also been recently delighted to learn that my very dear Aunt experiences it too, so maybe there’s a genetic element to it? Seeing nothing internally makes me incredibly good at remembering conversations, skim reading, spotting patterns, and organizational thinking. It gives me tremendous difficulty with geography, remembering faces and, apparently, spelling.

One of the tests they ask you to do to see whether you have aphantasia is they ask you to picture a house in which you have spent a long period of time, and count the windows. Most people will picture the house and walk around it internally or externally, counting as they go. I had to do it narratively: “ok, so I get home and I go through the back door and there’s a toilet by the back door is there a window in the toilet I think so because I’ve watered plants there, and then I go into the kitchen and I know I can look out the window as I pour the kettle and do the dishes so that makes two more and…” and despite my best efforts I forgot the existence of two whole rooms in a house where I lived for ten years.

It’s pretty much the same way with words. I can’t see them. I read extensively and furiously for work and pleasure, but I can’t call up a picture of a word in my head. I usually write in a kind of flow state, knowing that if I challenge myself on a particular word and its (it’s?) spelling I will be unable to determine whether it is right or wrong without spell check and Google. As an instructor I dread the moment when I have to turn around and write complicated words on the blackboard because I have absolutely no idea whether or not I’m getting it right or not, and I dread the day that I freeze in front of my class because someone has asked me to spell “pressure” (a word I almost always bail on) and I crack under the… strain.

Why am I writing about this? Because I remember one of the first arguments I had with a co-teacher was whether I should grade my students on the spelling and grammar of their writing or on their comprehensible fluency. I teach a huge number of students who speak English as an additional language, or who write a form of English that is not the standardized norm, and I know that the decision about how to grade student writing has huge impact on the power we give to race, class, and educational privilege in our classrooms, and since I have a pronounced RP English accent it can surprise people how fervently I argue that if I can understand it, I’ll grade it just fine.

In an educational system that simply does not teach students how to write academically unless they come from extremely advantageous circumstances, teachers in higher education have to have strategies for dealing with multiple forms of English and students who don’t know how to write. I know how to write. I may be a first-generation student, but I went to an intensely good grammar school and I took essay subjects at A-level, which means I have all the tools at my disposal for crafting academic arguments. My brain just won’t let me spell. It means, however, that I can empathise with the students who haven’t got the tools that I’ve got, which to me means aiming for “can I understand you” rather than “are you writing perfect, standardized English.” I’m also lucky to be in a field in which experimental writing is supported, and can thus recognize the beauty in a grammar, syntax and flow that is not my own.

It also means that I can be a model for students who think that their writing capacity defines their potential in higher education, or as a scholar. I am a PhD student, I have lectured internationally at university level, my writing has been published in field journals (they give you editors when you publish in journals, it is AMAZING), and I keep this blog, which is read all over the world. Students, I can’t give you much advice for getting over issues with writing, because I haven’t got over mine, I’ve just got better at faking it (except that my spell check now corrects into both American AND English spelling seemingly at random and it is a PAIN). But I can tell you that your voice is valuable, and what you have to say is worth saying. Don’t let anyone tell you that your dialect or your spelling or your grammar has to match a certain standard for what you write to be worth reading, or that it can stop you from doing what you want to do.

Teachers, I understand that especially before university level there’s a world of standardised testing that gets in the way of adopting a comprehensibility-model of grading. I urge you to offer your students opportunities to gain credit for their own speech, as well as teaching them the standard. Ask whether your students have the tools to write a certain way, and if they don’t, is it worth blaming them for the failures of an educational system we know is chronically underfunded and a curriculum with gaping flaws? Ask how we can raise up the voices of students who take their grade as a measure of their worth, and how we can reward conviction, clarity, poetry and power, as well as spelling and formal rhetoric. From someone who can’t write, to all of you who can: keep trying, you can do it, I can’t picture it, but I believe in you.

Deep Waters

The news that came out of New York City Ballet this week was… not news to most of us. Yes, the names were new. The individual circumstances were horrific. But the story and the culture? Hauntingly familiar.

A little while ago I wrote about safety and sexual assault in professional performing environments, now I want to go back and talk about ballet, about institutions, and about how we can respond as peers and colleagues and leaders to individual events, and to the climate of objectification, harassment and assault that forms the deep, dark waters of our profession. How deep do those waters go? Well…

I first learnt Swan Lake – as a teenager – from a man who slept with his students and was eventually fired for it. I found out about a year afterwards, and I remember not even really judging him. It was just one of those things that happened.

I remember my pre-teen students at ballet camp being told by a dorm supervisor that they should never wear hot pants or short shorts, even to bed, because boys might look in through the dorm windows and see them.

I remember some friends discussing how they didn’t like to work with a particular colleague because of the “tiny flowery flip flops always in his hallway” – the euphemism returns to me every time I see freshmen wandering around my own campus, pink sandals flapping underfoot.

I remember.

I remember.

I remember.

A year ago Alexei Ratmansky said there is no equality in ballet, and that he was very comfortable with that. I wonder if that statement has come back to haunt him now that Marcelo Gomes, Peter Martins, and now Chase Finlay have shown the world what it looks like to live and work in an art form without cultural equality. To date the worst backlash I have ever received from a blog post was when I said that male-only ballet classes should teach male responsibility, not just male privilege.

I could write about this from a technical perspective: talk about the physical elements of ballet itself that are being used to distinguish men and women while they’re still boys and girls, and how that’s harmful. I could talk about the centuries-long history of women in ballet being offered up as sexual compensation for wealthy patrons of the arts. But frankly, it doesn’t matter why the problem is there at this point. What companies and schools and institutions need are some basic guidelines of what on earth to do – and not do – when any professional comes to them and explains that they are being abused by one of their colleagues. If men are going to engage in this kind of behaviour, and men are engaging in this behaviour consistently, then the people who hire, finance and lend their name to those men need to have a plan in place for what to do when someone gets hurt. With that in mind, here are some of my ideas:

First – have a written procedure for what to do if you are offered a disclosure of abuse or improper conduct. How to respond in the moment, who to report to, what resources you can offer, and what the next steps are likely to be. Do not attempt to squash, minimize or silence what is being said. Accept the harm that has been done, rather than the harm you think should have been experienced. You, personally, might be thinking about fallout and press and reputation, but that is the burden of the institution, not the person sat in front of you trying to protect themselves. Likewise it’s not your job to decide what burden of proof is required at this point, it’s your job to find out how deep the problem might go.

Second – lay out the range of options available. That means you’ve got to know what they are. What does your organization define as improper behaviour, harassment, abuse, and assault? What are the consequences specified for each? Which of these things are a crime on your area? Is there a mandatory reporting body? What will they do if they get a report? Who is qualified to address this complaint if you are not? Do not expect the person disclosing to you to know what should happen or what avenues are available to them. If you have to send them away so that you can educate yourself, set a timeline for doing that, and hold yourself responsible for meeting it.

Third – decide what burden of proof you require in order to enact what consequence. The BIGGEST trap I see institutions falling into, and getting sued for, and receiving bad press for, is when they try and make allowances at this point. When women report, the statistical norm is that they will be treated as if they are over exaggerating. A crime becomes a misdemeanor, a misdemeanor becomes a joke, a joke becomes office culture. As a result women are taught to second guess, third guess, fourth guess and fifth guess to make sure that they couldn’t possibly be making it up, or demonizing a “really nice guy going through a rough time.” [Insert your own stereotype here]. As I said before, know how deep the problem MIGHT go, and act to protect yourself and your community from that.

Fourth – enact consequences in line with policy, evidence, the needs of the person exposed to harm, and the law. MAKE SURE THE PERSON WHO MADE THE ACCUSATION IS SAFE AT THIS POINT. If you are going to talk to the person accused of harm, let them know so they can protect themselves. Make it very clear that there will be consequences for retribution, or any continuation of the behaviour. Consider laying out a code of conduct for how they will behave while any kind of investigation or procedure is underway. Realize the hard truth: that failure to act, or placing the burden of safety on the person who came to you for help is condoning any abuse and harm that befell them. Ask yourself if that’s something your institution can risk.

Finally – assume that everyone in your organization knows that something is going on. Collaborate with the person who made the accusation, decide what your public position will be, go through it with the lawyers, and hold to it. Do not name the person who made the accusation unless they give explicit permission. The harm done by abuse in a community does not go away with silence, it goes away with social and communal healing. People should not have to carry on as normal when one member of their community harms another, and asking them to do so perpetuates a culture in which abuse is normalized.

 

Whatever you decide that your policy and its consequences will be, make them available to everyone, all the time. Give people the tools to know what is ok behaviour and what is not. Overwhelmingly men are socialized to believe that criminal behaviour is normal and acceptable. In my experience the best way to change that is to imbue the cultures you shape with new social norms around that behaviour. Men hold a lot of power in ballet, and if those men say “no” to the behaviours of other men it sets up a powerful disincentive to that behaviour. I say this because no-one actually wants to harm men as a collective identity category (they just want them to stop harming other people). No-one wants to get to a point where the police are involved, or where someone loses their job. But if we can’t check each other from the small things then the big things will happen: office culture becomes a joke, becomes a misdemeanor, becomes a crime… and your friends should not be smiling and nodding at you along that way because friends should support and protect each other.

In the arts we often like to think that we’re a slightly better class of human being – more sensitive, more attuned to our feelings, more empathetic to others. That doesn’t mean that the cultural problem of male violence is any less powerful in our spaces. We want to make allowances for difference, for emotion, for the quirks of genius. But all to often we only make those allowances for the people who fit the dancer mold in hegemonic and already privileged ways. I am vividly reminded at this point of Hannah Gadsby’s point about Picasso – we normalize and erase his abuse of a 17 year-old girl because we assume that her worth could never have been equal to his… and so we justify leaving her with the consequences of his actions. In the arts, and especially in ballet, our attitudes to gender lead us to favour men and treat them as worth more than women, or people who are not men. We cannot turn to people who have been harmed and give them all the consequences for that harm, and all the consequences of disclosure.

We cannot bear it any more.

Head Connections: Mental Health in the Dance Classroom

It’s the start of the new semester, hoorah!

Time to plan classes, make syllabi, greet new friends and old, and – for a large number of people – it’s time for the awkwardness, anxiety, and general discomfort and threat of getting your accommodation list approved by all your new professors, something that can be particularly difficult for students with invisible needs.

A few years ago statistics showed that in America, for every 1000 students with a disability only 87 would complete an undergraduate degree. That’s appalling. Unpacking those numbers is a complicated process involving cultures of stigma, the medical vs social model of disability, the mind-bending cost of the American healthcare system, the hideous pressure on teachers – adjunct teachers in particular – lack of education about inclusive classrooms… I could go on. In fact I do, I talk about this stuff at conferences and in pedagogy classes and in staff meetings and I co-founded a resources and information network within my own university. But anyway, some more figures:

The Guardian newspaper found that in the UK 87% of first-year university students struggle to cope with the stress of the transition to higher education. 60% say that the main stress is studying, while other issues include isolation, living independently, and financial difficulty. Students with mental health conditions have the highest drop out rate of any disability group in the US – 37%. In 2016 it was found that 78% of British students reported mental health problems over the course of one year, and 33% experienced suicidal thoughts.

Joe Booth, a UK activist, has been gaining support for his Take The Stress Out of Studying (TSOS) campaign, calling for standardized tests to be replaced with “a well-resourced, publicly accountable system, which supports and educates individuals by engaging them rather than pressuring them.” The most recent TSOS blog post, which can also be seen as a close-captioned video here, reports that 48% of 12-year-olds in England feel sad or anxious at least once a week. By the age of 16, 70% report feeling this way at least once a week, and 22% report having negative feelings as often as once a day.

Why all these numbers? Because I’m about to start speaking from personal experience. I know that as soon as someone with a mental health condition starts talking about mental health there’s a strong tendency from people to dismiss them, or to assume that they’re over-exaggerating the problem. I’m not. These numbers are the proof – if you need it – that mental health in our education system is in utter crisis. Now I want to talk to you about some of the things that crisis does.

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and PTSD. I experience panic-inducing, frequently debilitating flashbacks, which can be accompanied by hyper-vigilance, depression, suicidality, nausea, disassociation, shaking… the list goes on. How often I experience flashbacks can vary from daily to weekly to monthly, and they can easily last a whole day, sometimes more. I started having panic attacks several times a day when I was 17, I have been on and off medication. I do not receive formal accommodations from my university. I am a final year PhD student.

I hid my mental health issues for around decade because I was ashamed of them. One of the main ways I justified this to myself was “I don’t need help because I’m doing fine in school.” If I could submit every assignment, pass every test, get to class… I didn’t need help. I never questioned the COST of submitting every assignment, passing every test, going to every class… because in my mind I could stop having mental health issues if I just worked harder. I could control them, and if I didn’t, it was my fault. But paying that cost every day had – of course – a crushing effect on my mental health. And then I stopped being able to do those things.

Dance valourises physical virtuosity. Dance champions the idea that the body is intelligent, versatile, adaptive, and capable. Dance does not do so well with the idea that your brain can incapacitate your body. Dance thinks of itself as a healing modality, one which you practice to get more healthy, happy, wise and well.

My biggest problem is not with academic or written work – there’s usually enough time given to those assignments that I can find some way to get around them. My biggest problem is that during a flashback I should not dance. Doing so makes my skin crawl, makes me want to vomit, makes me want to curl up on the floor. Dancing forces me to do the opposite of what I need to do, which is stop, listen to my self, and allow myself to come back to a place that I feel safe in again. The pressure from dance as an institution is that dance class IS a safe place, and if I would just try and be present and in tune with my body then the problem would go away. It doesn’t. Interestingly, ballet is slightly easier than other forms because I know what’s coming in a class. I know I CAN get through a class or, in fact, hold down a performing career. But I need to be able to make choices about when to make myself keep going, when to do less, and when to make myself completely stop.

Trying to tell dance teachers about this problem:

“So you have some feelings…”
“No, I have a panic disorder.”
“So you have some big feelings.”

“It doesn’t look from the outside like there’s a problem.”

“Why don’t you just start class, because you’re not injured, and just see how you go?”

“But you seem so happy.”

“I understand, sometimes I feel terrible too, but dancing always helps.”

“If you’re sat on the side you need to be watching and writing and to hand that in at the end so I can see you’re still engaged with the class.”

Sigh

All of these responses are very well intentioned, but all implicitly ask me to accommodate to the class by admitting that I need less.

In contrast, the absolute best response that I have had from a dance teacher whom I went to about this problem was this:

I don’t understand the problem, but I trust you. I will not ask you why you’re sitting out of my classes. You can tell me if you want to. You can answer questions or offer observations from the side or not as you are capable. But I will accept your assessment of what you can and can’t do on the expectation that you will do as much as you can, and that is healthy for you. If you want to walk out of the class at any point and go home, you can do that too.

I can already hear teacher’s hackles rising. I know the argument you want to make: “but what if students just use this as an excuse to get out of class whenever they’re feeling tired or stressed?” “What if what they really need is the encouragement to just try a little harder?” “What if they miss so much class that then they can’t do the work?” “I understand that YOU want to try hard and do everything, but most students, if we give them that option, will start missing class left right and center just because they’re having a bad day, and they’ll never get jobs or graduate.”

To which my answer, frankly, is: then make your classroom one that students want to be in, and your content things that they want to learn. Set clear expectations about what you want every student to know and be able to do, and hold them all to that, rather than their ability to be physically present in the room. If students aren’t doing as much as they can, their grade will drop. That’s not your problem. Your problem is giving everyone the opportunity to learn and the space for their efforts towards learning to be fruitful. If your students are not meeting your expectations, you can instigate a process to ensure they do so, and hold them accountable to that, but first you have to believe in what they say they can and cannot do, and what they need to do the things you want.

It is not a teacher’s job to decide what a student’s internal experience of mental health actually is, or what accommodations they need. This gets us into the dangerous territory of “psychological ownership” – a term coined by Julia Gleich and which we blogged about together a few years ago. In a nutshell it means that while you may have educational authority over a group of students, it does not mean you have authority over their lived experience. Teacher’s set expectations for learning and professionalism, and students work out how to meet those expectations, or if those expectations are unreasonable and need negotiation. Again, I hear the problem “but I don’t have the time to design thirty different classes and thirty different rules for thirty students based on their needs.” So don’t. Design a class that meets a broad range of needs, minds, and bodies upfront, and then only adjust for the unexpected. Mental heath issues should be expected in every single university classroom at this point, and failure to plan for them in the face of the statistics above is just asking for more work later. Build inclusivity into your syllabus and your classes and you benefit everyone, including yourself.

Some specific suggestions: at the beginning of each semester teachers usually set out expectations for what students should do if they are injured or sick. What if they added expectations for a mental health event? I’ve heard of teachers bringing red beanbags to class so that students could signal “don’t call on me today.” You could call one part of the class the quiet corner. Red socks mean, “I’m doing as much as I can, but that’s not everything.” Students who have disclosed a mental health condition can leave, and make up the time in another class, or by submitting a physical practice journal/video. Have an exercise that doesn’t involve touching as a ready backup to partnered touch work. Bring mental health out into to light of your classroom, and kill the stigma faced by individuals who overwhelmingly feel like they’re a burden, and alone.

I know I’ve gone on for a long time, but one more point: I’m a grad student. Grad students also teach. In my institution you are not supposed to cancel classes, and I teach a lecture course, which requires a lot of preparation to sub. That means that I frequently get up and teach while mid-flashback, and let me tell you that is not something you ever want to have to do. Funnily enough some of my best performance reviews come from my worst days because I’m so in control of my breathing, my affect, my pacing etc. Mental health issues have taught me to be a better, and sought-after instructor. Teachers have mental health issues too, and I am not trying to set up a binary or an opposition with this post. But when it comes to teachers I don’t really have any answers for how to tackle the problem at a cultural or institutional level, and I think that changing the culture for students might lead to some.

In the end I want more people to be able to be in more classrooms, learning what they love. I want more people to be able to talk about the mental health crisis in academia and how it affects them. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to pay the dreadful costs of hiding and silence until they can’t pay anymore. I want dancers and dance teachers to value excellence and professionalism as personal qualities, not as scripted performances. I want everyone reaching out to be seen as an authority on their own experience, without feeling like they have to play down their needs, or like they have to play their needs up in order to deserve help.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

P.s. A note on responses.

This blog has a lot of readers, who give me both support and backlash. I always appreciate both as long as they’re considerate of the fact that there’s a human being on this end of the keyboard.

I just disclosed a lot of mental health stuff that I don’t usually talk about. I am aware of the risks of doing that just as I go on the job market! I hope that people will employ me for my skills and abilities as a dancer and teacher, and – like I said – trust my capacity to do any job that I apply for. I am not unique for what I can do with these conditions – I am just one voice of a very common problem. I have amazing friends, I go to therapy, I have the support I need to make my voice heard, and I hope it chips away at the walls in front of other people.

Image from the Guardian’s series of sketches inspired by the university mental health crisis.

A dance blog for the thinking body.