All posts by fensfeet

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.

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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.

Fusion… What Is It?

This is a post that’s been a long time coming – in fact I first began drafting it while I was living in England and contributing to the Dance X project, which was several years ago now. The topic was brought to light again during Mile High Fusion, particularly at the teacher’s summit, and has been kicking around ever since. Not every thought in here is 100% mine, and some of it flies in the face of some pretty well established social dance conventions. Special thanks to Mark Carpenter and Joe DeMers who helped me hash this out over exhausted Thai food. I’m probably going to get snarky. Here we go.

What is fusion?

The question comes up frequently as our scenes develop, and our communities try and find ways to discuss the work we’re doing. There have been attempts to re-name fusion and define is as a specific dance technique. There have also been a number of umbrellas applied to different approaches: Fusion as Fusion, Fusion as Philosophy, and Fusion as Aesthetic are three of the big ones. I subscribe to none of them… or rather, I do, but for me they’re not the answer to the question of “what is fusion?” and the subsequent question of “…and how do we teach it?”

Issues that arise in answering the question:

  1. The west coast tends to think it owns fusion, and that what’s happening on the west coast is what’s happening all over the country/world. This is not true. Folks who don’t travel to fusion events where a broad range of local fusion practices are represented make sweeping generalizations about what is “happening” in fusion, and ignore the very present and very valid approaches of other fusion scenes.
  2. Fusion gets a whole lot of shame and dismissal from other dance communities. I remember vividly standing in an airport this year while around me blues dancers performed a hideous parody of “fusion” to general laughter and agreement. The broader dance community is unwilling to recognize fusion as a unique and identifiable form of expertise.
  3. Fusion is FULL of experts… but they’re often experts at specific things that are not fusion. Folks trying to define fusion are often bringing in their own standards of what is neutral, universal, most efficient etc., without acknowledging the cultural weightedness of those assumptions and how they are producing limits and exclusions on the dance floor and in the classroom.
  4. People are coming to fusion wanting to be experts in just fusion, without the investment in other dance techniques. Everyone wants this to be possible, but no one is sure of the best way to go about doing it respectfully, and in a way that produces good dancers.

So where am I coming from?

I’m originally a conservatoire-trained concert dancer. I have a professional career in ballet, contemporary and modern dance that I started concurrently with my entry into the social dance world. I started blues and swing when blues was more like fusion, but I also danced fusion as a separate practice. I’m a contact improviser. I’m a trained movement analyst. I’m getting a PhD in dance, specifically in the construction of discourse. I lecture on dance in university and conference settings and I teach dance technique in the same. I organize my local fusion scene and I teach and DJ at national-level social dance events. I publish academically about blues and fusion. I am a full-time professional dance geek.

To start answering the question “What is Fusion,” I first want to introduce you to a few other terms: dance techniques, dance forms, dance aesthetics, and dance styles. I’m going to use those terms slightly differently than you may have heard before.

Techniques: physical, internally motivated ways of doing things. Techniques cluster together as…

Forms: recognizable collections of culturally connected techniques. Forms are often recognizable through their…

Aesthetics: externally recognizable traits of a dance form. Not the same as technique (see below). Individual practitioners of a form may use a combination of technique and aesthetics to produce…

Style: an individual or communal way of practicing a collection of techniques, or a dance form. Consistent enough to be recognized over a period of time.

The difference between aesthetic and technique… ok, here is where some blues dancers start to raise their hackles and get bitey, but bear with me. When Brenda Dixon Gottschild began writing about Africanist Aesthetics she was identifying features that could and should be recognized from outside the black dance community – visible things. When we teach the blues aesthetic in dance classrooms what (I sincerely hope) we are teaching are the internal, physical techniques required to produce that aesthetic. I know there’s a ton of classist and standardizing baggage around the term “technique,” and it makes sense to use an in-community word, but I am using the word here in a specific context to distinguish two important ways of doing. In other words:

You can recognize this as the aesthetic of ballet….

index

But this is the aesthetic produced by technique…

drama-swan-lake-1-tkhunt

….and this, plus ideology, is why I do not think fusion is an aesthetic.

Ideology?

In an abstract, ideological sense, fusion has no limits as to the kinds of dance it can produce. This is where Fusion as Philosophy comes in. In practice, fusion absolutely does have cultural norms and limits, which take into account the safety, comfort, and assumed background of everyone at the dance. At least 80% of the dancing is done on two feet, for example. So I say that the ideology of fusion – the ideals that shape and guide it – are different from the facts of its practice.

Returning to my point, I’d say that different scenes have different fusion aesthetics, produced by local pools of forms and techniques influencing the dancing. But fusion as a whole does not have/is not an aesthetic.

So what is fusion?

Fusion is not a dance form because of the way we treat techniques. Individual fusion dancers pull in a range of techniques from a huge variety of extant social and concert dance forms. I said that dance forms were clusters of techniques that are culturally connected – to history, to music, to a given population. Fusion does not really meet any of those criteria. Individuals share their techniques and add them to the local or national pool, but there’s no expectation of technical common ground when we go to dance with each other.

Ah hah! You’re talking about fusion as fusion!

Well… kinda. I do believe that for a dance to be fusion there need to be at least two dance forms meeting within the dance, but those two forms could meet in one solo performance. They could have been encountered only as techniques taught in fusion classes. They might be expressed between the partnership and the music, rather than between the partners themselves. I don’t think that it’s impossible to dance fusion as the only dance you do, which sets me out of alignment with the center of the fusion as fusion argument. It becomes clearer when I start talking about teaching fusion.

I believe that there are two strands to teaching fusion, and that both must be present for scenes to be successful: we must teach dance techniques (n.b. NOT forms, although I’m hugely in support of teaching the histories and cultures of those techniques as we share them), and we must teach methods of collaboration and combination. My current favourite analogy is to compare fusion to painting: we have to put colours on our palette, and we have to develop skills in applying them to a canvas in order to make art. A solo dancer with blue and red can still dance purple. A partnership may share green, or may come to it as a collaboration of blue and yellow if they have the skills to do so… or they can dance blue and yellow as distinct and separate colours, together.

The techniques of combination and collaboration across difference are the expertise of fusion. There are no fusion techniques, although there are dance forms that contribute our primary colours: blues, contact improvisation, tango etc. Individuals and local communities develop different fusion aesthetics because of the different colours offered to the palette, and because we by no means agree on how combination and collaboration should best take place – brushes, finger-painting, abstract splatters etc.

Wrapped all together, what does this mean? For me, fusion is a dance style: an individual or communal way of practicing a collection of techniques, or dance forms. Consistent enough to be recognized over a period of time. At its heart fusion is an individual practice that we choose, as a community, to do together. It is a shared exploration of technique, form, and aesthetic wherein we use the physical inspiration of others – dancers, DJs, videos – to develop a style that we can call our own. As we teach fusion, we are offering dancers the tools to continue that exploration for themselves, and to paint new designs and details in their own bright colours.

Fusion as style.

 

Thanks for reading!

Conversational First Aid

My dearest rose,

There are but few places in this heathen field for a man to charge his iPad. Worse, I fear you must imagine the lunch I am having, as the Instagrams is down.

Fabulously, Heath X Buford, 1st Hipster Batallion, The Fighting Kale Wraps

Heath Harper via Twitter

 

Ma & Pa,

I wish you could see the folly of your vote for Emperor Tinyhands. You meant well, but were mistaken. Please stop seeking validation on Fox News and join me at the polls in November to curb this madness.

Always, Tess

– TessDiva via Twittr

 

Dearest Teddison,

Our rations are thin and I am only allowed 1 Frappuccino a day. Our blue stronghold of Atlanta is overrun with red caps. General Issakson is steadily approaching and we must prepare for battle. Our forces are small but heavily caffeinated.

– Michaelanne via Twitter

 

In case you have not been following the second civil war that erupted on July 4th this year, I take the opportunity to share with you some highlights, and to transition into my blog post for today. Witty responses to politics aside, I’ve found my posts recently skewing more and more away from dance and towards a cry for more respectful dialogue in general. A while ago I turned down the opportunity to publish one of my blog posts on a much larger platform because the editors wanted me not just to present an argument but to condemn those on the other side as vile, evil, and abhorrent. I believed strongly then, as I do now, that I want to write a blog that can be read by anyone, in the hope that I at least promote different ways to listen to each other without lashing out. This attitude gets harder and harder to maintain in light of the views being currently shared and discussed in public forums all around me, and especially online.

Far too many of my friends are stumped as to how or even when to engage with opposing views, especially when those views present as extremist or threatening. In the UK we have a wonderful acronym to guide us through first aid interventions, DR ABC: Is there Danger, is there a Response, do they have an Airway, are they Breathing, can they maintain Circulation. I’ve adapted this guide to produce my own acronym for conversational intervention – a hopefully bi-partisan guide to help us all evaluate when and how to step in.

dangerD – Danger – Is there danger to you if you intervene? A number of groups in the US are infamous for targeting dissenters with threats of violence and death, individuals do this too. In other cases there may be a social consequence to your intervention i.e. your friends may stop talking to you, or you may be excluded from certain spaces. You may lose your job. Evaluate the risk of danger to your person as best you can, and decide whether this intervention is a risk you want to take.

ResponseR – Response – Is this a conversation where you can get a response? Is it an old thread? Is it a private conversation? Is it taking place in a community or group to which you do not belong and are not invited? Has a participant requested an end to the conversation? Without conversational consent, either direct or implied, your intervention is likely to do very little. Evaluate your likelihood that people are able to engage with you.

AgendaA – Agenda – Why is the viewpoint you object to being expressed in this conversational context? Very few people express a viewpoint with the intention of having it changed, yourself included, so you will be attempting to change the conversational agenda and that makes it advantageous to know where people are coming from. Are they joking? Problem solving? Looking to do good? Trying to educate people? This is the step that I find furiously difficult because I frequently see views expressed that are so distant from fact and humanity that I assume they are only being expressed to troll people… but those people do, in fact, believe that what they say is a valid contribution to the discussion. Determine your agenda too: do you want to show someone how wrong they are? Do you want to show them the harm they are doing? Do you want to educate them? Do you want to come to a place where you can compromise or do you need them to completely abandon their views? Do you just want to poke someone? Do you want to show the people around you that you will speak up and fight back on this issue? Clear goals will help you stay on topic and evaluate whether your intervention can be fruitful.

BackgroundB – Background – Do all the participants in the conversation have the background knowledge and context to follow what you are saying? One of the biggest obstacles to structured conversation is the availability of wildly conflicting facts around any given situation. A common tactic I see is people constantly moving the goal posts of what needs to be proved and to what standard in order to be accepted as common knowledge in a conversation. Another is saying that individuals from a given identity group cannot contribute to a conversation. If you cannot agree on a reasonable standard of shared background knowledge, context, and experience, conversational intervention is incredibly frustrating. You may have to start from the place your conversational partner is in order to establish a place where you can communicate.

communicationC – Communication style – How are you going to enter into this conversation? What tone do you want to use? Are ad hominem attacks on the table? What is the limit beyond which you cannot agree to disagree? What is the balance of authority between you and the people you are talking to? Do you have the spoons to do the work required? Is there a benefit to interjecting anyway in a limited way? Do the resources you are working with enable you to intervene according to the other factors indicated above? What limits do you need to set for yourself about how you speak, and when you will walk away?
My dearest friends,
I hope this handy guide will stop some of you from burning out in your efforts to bring this country, nay, this world to peace. The path to positive change is slow, but I hope even now that we may avoid a second civil war.
Yours
Fen

The (Dancing) Body Politic

Last Friday all the queers in town showed up to throw Mike Pence a loud, joyous dance party. A man who has argued vehemently for the withdrawal of gay rights chose – in a truly STUNNING lack of foresight – to come to one of the queerest cities in the Midwest on pride weekend, and to speak from a hotel on, I kid you not, Gay Street. What did he honestly think would happen?

This morning I woke up to a post from the New York Times about Tango dancing in non-metropolitan areas as a wonderful way to come together, listen and be vulnerable in a non-political space.

Wait… what?

In the academic world in which I circulate, dance is ALWAYS political. There’s the argument that dance is political because it is a reflection of the political environment in which it was created. There’s the argument that the medium of dance is the human body, and that the human body is the place where political power is enacted. There are goodness knows how many examples of dance being used to control, pacify, protest, claim space, comment, and otherwise act politically – and just in case you think I’m only talking about vernacular dance let me offer you two examples from ballet: that the entire repertoire of the Paris Opéra was changed in light of the French Revolution so as to reflect new attitudes to the aristocracy; and that the famous Fairy Variations in Sleeping Beauty used to be about the gifts of a powerful leader, before people got uncomfortable with women in charge and re-wrote the choreography and libretto to be about gifting grace and beauty instead.

Going down another trajectory, dance has to be political because it is not universal. Each dance has a unique trajectory through history, geography, class, race, gender etc. For many dances, Tango included, that trajectory shifts radically when it comes into contact with white American popular culture. That’s where things get sticky, and the word “should” gets really, really loud.

Should dance be about the politics of its past?

Should dancers have to learn about the culture dances come from?

Should people be codifying certain types of dance?

Should certain dances be closed off – or open to – certain kinds of people?

Who should be allowed to answer these questions?

The answers, of course, are staggeringly complex, and highly divisive. Often there’s a feeling that political awareness must be balanced by freedom of consumption, but the tip of the scales varies hugely based on who’s currently loading each side. The need for safety vs the need for escapism. The need for just having fun vs the need for cultural respect. The need for autonomy vs the need to welcome a diverse community. These decisions cannot be made in a bubble devoid of a world in which some people have more power than others… and we come back round again to why dance is always political.

A point brought up in the article is the need for a space where people don’t have to discus politics. Where they can share physical space, regardless of who voted for whom. What the author appears not to have noticed is that the politics is always there, even without the discussion. Here are some ways in which politics shows up very obviously for me, personally, in a dance space:

Is there a bathroom that will accommodate my gender?

What happens when I ask women to dance?

What happens if I offer men the choice to follow?

Am I expected to dance with one partner or to rotate between many?

Does the population who will dance with me or ask me to dance vary according to how I am dressed and what role I take?

Where do I stand during class?

Is there a class?

…. I could go on.

Yes, many of these things are tied to my gender identity. An identity that the government has recently stripped of protected status. An identity that on the basis of which I can be denied housing, medical care, food, and employment. An identity that could be a legal defense if someone kills me. An identity that people find so abhorrent that they have proposed bills advocating for legalizing my execution… bills which already exist in a number of countries. I do not often sit and write out those facts, but the thought of putting my body in a dance partnership with someone who voted (passively or actively) for those conditions does not seem like a fair price to pay for fostering peace between us. Where I dance with my body is always political.

For some people, that’s not always perceived to be the case. I would argue that in the same way that atheism is a religious position, calling anything a-political is a political action. I would rather discus in what ways politics is acting, who is being affected and in what ways, and how politics shapes the way dances are happening than pretend that nothing political is happening. I would rather find ways for politics to be embraced and discussed than have the existence of the space dependent on covering up that conversation. I’ll admit that letting politics dance in under the radar can be a great way to change minds… or to protest without getting maced and arrested… but again, stealth politics is still politics, even if it takes advantage of the fact that people want to pretend it isn’t.

In conclusion: it is your decision whether or not you want to dance Tango – or anything else – with Trump voters. I am not going to place any more weighty shoulds into the conversation around dance politics. I am going to keep dancing, and to keep using how I dance, and where, and with whom, to be politically active in the world, and to keep having conversations about how that works. I hope you’ll keep joining me for them.

 

[…….] No More

While choreographing within an academic institution has its limitations, I have found during the last few years that for preference I tend to make installation works that are about half an hour long. One of my favourites was a piece commissioned by M.I.N.T. Gallery for their queer performance series, called The Aviary. The audience was invited to move around the darkly-lit space observing the behavioral patterns of strange half-bird half-ballerina creatures over the course of a slowly developing improvisational score.

Five minutes into the work a man came up behind me and petted me like a cat. I treated it like a genuine mistake, let him know that this was not an ok audience behaviour, and carried on. He seemed genuinely delighted by the work, and made no further attempts to touch the dancers, but I wondered what would have happened if he had approached one of my cast who didn’t feel they had the authority to step out of character, or decide what kinds of interaction were appropriate? Was there a reason he went to the smallest and youngest looking of the performers? Why did he feel like he could touch us? There was no part of the instructions for the space that suggested touching was welcome. We do not touch animals in zoos, and we do not touch birds in particular. There is no art gallery in the world where you would walk in and touch the works on display without being specifically informed you could do so…

… Unless of course you would.

During my time as a freelancer in London I was hired by a major gallery as part of a cast of live-art performers, supporting an exhibition of international mixed-media work. Our roles included shadowing gallery attendees, activating installations, and displaying ourselves immobile in a series of poses – my favourite was a living sculpture that required me to hang in an impossible position, strapped to an invisible frame.

Eventually the cast had to send a message to the gallery managers threatening to quit because of the harassment we were receiving from members of the public, and from the security guards employed by the gallery. While I was strapped to the frame and unable to move or get away people flashed cameras in my face, did everything they could to make me blink or startle, and talked loudly about forcibly undressing or molesting me. The guard watching laughed and encouraged them, despite this having nothing to do with the work in particular or the exhibition as a whole. The gallery managers, thankfully, were receptive to our concerns, apologized, and tightened up expectations for how we should be treated. This is not always the case.

I have begun this blog post with two examples from my own experience to show some of the difficulties that happen when performers are harassed by audience members: the boundaries of appropriate behaviour are often unclear, performers are often dependent on others to enforce those boundaries, or they risk destroying the work if they speak up for themselves. The physical safety of performers and the sanctity of the audience experience are held up as comparable concerns, and frequently the latter takes priority.

Earlier this year Amber Jamieson wrote about sexual misconduct by the audiences at Sleep No More, and the comparative powerlessness of performers to protect themselves. The article explains that audiences to the show are masked, frequently inebriated, and are not explicitly told that touching performers is forbidden, despite requests from the cast for this addition to the welcome speech (the line has since been added). Audience members ejected for their misconduct have been let back into the show, and known violent “superfans” who aggressively pursue one-on-one opportunities with performers are allowed into the show night after night.

Sometimes the misconduct is all part of the show. In 2011 artist Sarah Wookie spoke out first anonymously, and then in an open letter about conditions at Marina Abramović’s production for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. To quote Wookie: “Of course we were warned that we will not be able to leave to pee, etc. That the diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc but will be warned not to. Whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected. What the fuck?!” When Wookie asked about safeguarding and signals for performers in distress, and was informed that nothing could be guaranteed. In this case dance icon Yvonne Rainer added her voice to the debate, parsing out the difference between Abramović’s own performance history of using her body to challenge audiences, and her method for conscripting others to do the same:Subjecting her performers to public humiliation at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed and Ms Abramovic’s obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing — this is not a critique of Abramovic’s work in general — but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.” 

Collecting these examples, and I am certain there are many more out there, tells us that when performers of all genders are working in close proximity to audience members the boundaries for appropriate interaction need to be carefully delineated in advance. Procedures need to be in place, and followed, for dealing with disruptive audience members and those who try and push the limits of the space. For choreographers concerned about maintaining “performance mode” I will suggest that it is not difficult to include a hand signal, gesture, or even a blink sequence if there is someone watching out for performer safety. It is possible to choreograph outs and exits into a work so that performers can keep themselves safe without breaking character. If an audience member is flagged as disruptive they should not be allowed to continue through the work unattended.

In the examples above we can see the need for a proactive, rather than a reactive approach to audience disruption. The last time that you want to be making a decision about how to handle a poorly behaved audience member is in the moment when that behaviour is happening to you. While it would be wonderful to assume that the kinds of behaviour listed above will not happen, every performer out there knows that it does – as a steward at Sleep No More said: “It wasn’t until I got to a job where I wasn’t afraid I was going to be hit or groped every day, I realized how weird that was, that that was a part of my job, or that I thought it was part of my job.”

If dancers as a community want to assert that our creativity, our work, and our skills are valuable, we need our personhood and our bodies to be valued as well. That means the ability to set and maintain boundaries about what elements of our selves are available to audiences in performance, and which are not. We have moved on from the days when the poorest members of the Corps de Ballet were available for solicitation in the Foyer de la Danse. Our work is art, and art is not for touching without an explicit invitation. Our work is available because of the humans manifesting it; humans who need to eat, sleep, house themselves, feel, and maintain their own bodily autonomy. We need to make art in such a way that those needs can be assumed, met, and defended.

In Three Sentences… Queer Theory

Power structures in the world give us a certain way of looking at things, and there are certain positions and labels we recognize within those structures.

But what if we stopped accepting those structures, or looked for alternatives to the normative positions that can often guide our thinking, or stood in the spaces between opposing positions?

As well as dealing with issues of sex and gender, queer theory is a way of asserting that we should be open to value and validity in all the ways we find it, and that we can make new ways of living, being, and creating for ourselves.

(And with all that said, I couldn’t resist this song.)

 

Queer Theory reading list:

Meg-John Barker: Queer A Graphic History (amazing resource)

Judith Butler: Undoing Gender (core text, dense language)

Sarah Ahmed: Queer Phenomenology (queer as a theoretical tool)

Kate Bornstein: Gender Outlaw (shocking and hillarious and wonderful)