Practical Questions/Suggestions for White Teachers

I am sure that many of you by now are aware that there is an ongoing crisis of racial injustice in the United States.

First: black lives matter.

Second: I am going to give some advice here that white people can implement in their classrooms. This advice will not solve racism and does not supersede the need for everyone to educate themselves on black history and racial injustice. It does not supersede the words, needs, or guidelines already put out there by people of color. This is a supplemental collection of practical suggestions that you can use in addition to those resources. As a dancer, I’ve really appreciated this list of questions by Ballet Black, and their list of questions for ballet companies inspired this post.

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Third: there is a difference between a one-off action and a systemic change. Right now we need a combination of both, but with a priority on the latter. Don’t burn out on one big thing if it’s going to stop you making long-term change. Work with the resources you have.

With those three caveats, here are some questions and suggestions to implement in your classrooms and check for in your teaching practice. Some are specifically related to blackness, and some are about inclusivity more broadly. I have tried to avoid suggestions that require extra labor from black professionals, as across industry in general folks from marginalized populations are already asked to do more work for the same recognition and reward.

  1. Require your students to watch and discuss media/performances by black artists. How often do you do this a semester? Do you have a broad range of examples and practices?
  2. Require your students to read black authors, both on blackness and on subjects other than blackness. How often do you do this a semester? Do you include black authors of multiple genders?
  3. Present black scholars/creators as experts during your teaching. Who are you citing? Do you cite black authors on subjects beyond black history/performance?
  4. Teach black perspectives on subjects. Do you offer more than one narrative? Do you show students how narratives can differ based on the power you have?
  5. Pay a black teacher to teach your class at least once a semester. Introduce them as an expert. Have a black instructor teach ballet. Have a black instructor teach your ballet class West African Dance. What is the difference and the value of each of those experiences? How would you have a conversation about that with your class?
  6. When was the last time you played music by a black musician to accompany class? Do you tell your students whose music is playing?
  7. When was the last time you watched art made by someone black for your own pleasure?
  8. If you could choose to own one piece of art by a black artist, what would it be?
  9. Who is your favorite black author?
  10. What was the last movie you saw with a black director? A black protagonist?
  11. When was the last time you took a class from a black instructor? What black instructors have inspired you?
  12. What creators are your students most excited about? Who do they follow on social media? How have you brought those influences into your classroom?
  13. If a student asked you to explain Jim Crow laws, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights movement, or the contemporary protests, how would you reply? Would your answer change if a black person could hear you?
  14. You have a pre-professional opportunity for five students in your class. Who does your mind immediately go to?
  15. Look at your grades for the last semester or the last five semesters. Who got the lowest grades? Is there a group of students you consistently give lower grades to? Why? Are there certain assignments where there’s a racial imbalance in the grading?
  16. Do you grade written assignments based on “standardized” English? What systems of support do you have in place for students who speak an English dialect or English as a second language? Do you teach standards for format and citation? How do you penalize people if they get those standards wrong? Do you explain why you’ve chosen a writing format e.g. Chicago or MLA?
  17. What financial burden do you put on students in your classes? What clothes and books and tickets do you require? Does your syllabus have a clear procedure for what students can do if they can’t afford these things?
  18. Do you have a “student in distress” and a “disruptive student” policy in your classroom? Do either of these involve the police? What resources will you draw on instead of the police?
  19. Think of the last five audition notices or job opportunities you’ve seen. Did they include a diversity statement? Did the notice specifically invite people of color?
  20. Establish an independent board to review the grant and tenure process in your department. Are marginalized professors expected to do more work than their peers?
  21. Describe the last three interactions you had with a black colleague. Were you asking them for help or labor? Did you talk about their life outside of work? Did you make a positive or negative judgement about them? Did you express it?
  22. How many black colleagues do you have? How do they feel about racism in your shared workplace? In the wider world? What micro-aggressions do they face? What support does your workplace offer them right now? What do they need?
  23. If you don’t have black colleagues, why not? When was the last time you hung out with a black person, either virtually or in person?
  24. How fluent do students need to be in black history and culture and dance to pass your class/program? What about white history, culture and dance?
  25. When was the last time you publicly said something was racist? Have you ever told your students that something was racist?

These 25 suggestions, which you will almost certainly have to adapt for your teaching, boil down into three main ideas:

  • You must be fluent in the past and present of blackness. Without a working knowledge of black history you cannot understand the impact of racism in the lives of black people today. However, black people are more than their shared past, and you should be familiar with contemporary black artists, creators, and people. If you do not find genuine pleasure in your black friends, in black artists or writers… you need to expand the content you’re consuming.
  • You must make blackness visible in your classroom. Cite the experts, play the music, speak about the issues. Silence makes it harder for everyone and conveys the message that you do not have the strength to be an ally.
  • Racism acts at a person level, a community level, and at a systemic level. We must address all three of these levels in order to be effective. You have to recognize racism in yourself and in the world that surrounds you and use that recognition as a force for change.

I can tell you that this process is uncomfortable. It is hard. You will get push back and you will feel like you can’t get it right. You will get tired. You will mess things up, and that doesn’t mean you should stop. Please go first to resources that aren’t your black friends if you want to know more or do more. If you use resources by black people, find where they want you to donate and give some money.

It begins with the knowledge that black lives matter.

We won’t know where it ends unless we keep going.

Contemporary vs Contemporary Dance (with videos)

I’ve been a contemporary dancer for almost 15 years now, and I still don’t know what that means.

In fact, since my first year as an undergrad at a contemporary dance conservatoire, I’ve heard my professors discussing what contemporary dance “is” and how we should be doing it, without ever really coming to a consensus.

In the UK at least there seems to be a common notion that contemporary dance is experimental, involves a process of curiosity about the body and its potential, and an investment in “what’s going on?” more than “what does this look like?” It gets complicated when you start to talk about things like “contemporary ballet,” which is often more aesthetically oriented, but people generally have some idea of what they’re about.

In the US….

In the US that definition of contemporary dance exists, but people might also call that kind of dancing downtown dance, or modern. “Contemporary” dance is, among other things, a competition genre of highly virtuosic, balletically-rooted, acrobatic spectacle.

Just to recap then, contemporary dance is pedestrian or balletic or something in the middle, aesthetic or anti-aesthetic, competitive or communal, and it might be for an outside audience or totally internally driven. You can see, then, why its something of a problem for people to have a conversation about.

So why write this article?

A LOT of students come into university dance training with experience in contemporary dance, often competition contemporary dance. So they go into a “contemporary” dance class or a “contemporary” choreography class in their university and suddenly they get told that not only do they no know what they’re doing, but they’re going to have to un-learn everything they thought they knew in the first place if they want to succeed or be thought of as artists. Because one thing you need to know about contemporary dance is this: there is a LOT of stigma in university settings towards competition contemporary dance.

I’ve never done competitive contemporary dance, but I did have a similar kind of experience of stigma when I went to a contemporary dance school, because I was, until that point, mostly a ballet dancer. Suddenly all my glorious, rigorous ballet training meant that I was shallow, rigid, out of touch, and ignorant. I wasn’t just a bad dancer, there was a feeling in the air that I was a bad person too, for absolutely no fault of my own. No-one took the time to sit down and explain that there was a historical conflict of values going on, and that my body was somehow caught up in the middle. The impression I got was that once I saw the beautiful, natural, thoughtful thing that was contemporary dance I should just be swept up in a rush of emotions and my body and mind would come together in a beautiful outpouring of genuine, holistic expression and I’d want to leave all that bad, nasty, artificial ballet training behind…

Let me tell you right now, it didn’t happen.

Instead I stepped back and realized that there were rules to contemporary dance, just like there were rules to ballet, or tap, or Graham, or Cunningham etc. My body wasn’t failing to do something that should have been natural, it just hadn’t learned the right techniques and rules yet. So when I think about contemporary dance, and especially students who come in from competition dance, I think we give them a better shot at learning if we sit down and talk through some of the differences in rules and values; NOT because one is better than the other, but because ideally a great dancer can switch between systems and do both.

So. Potted history time.

During the 50s and 60s in the US, dance started shifting away from “this is the person who invented a technique, and these are its steps” and towards “lets get together and find ways to improvise and see what comes out.” Dancers became less interested in “what does this look like?” and more interested in “what happens if I do this?” or “how does this social condition inspire me to move?” and one of the results of this was that the audience became not so much recipients of a visual treat as much as they were witnesses to a communal experiment. Another shift that happened was that dancers began to increase their play with the weight, mass, and anatomical realities of the body as sources for inspiration – one fairly extreme example of this is Elizabeth Streb, who uses extreme physical situations to explore the body’s relationship to things like gravity:

Competition and – for want of a better word – avant garde contemporary dance actually share a lot of the same values: they both want to explore the human condition, they both believe that dance can speak to social and political concerns, and they both value individuality in expression. The difference is that in competition dance technical difficulty is read as commitment to your message, the performance of emotion is read as power and passion, and the more people in the audience you can share those things with the better. So on one hand you have a contemporary dance where steps are unimportant, and “authenticity” of connection with yourself (seen as an affect-less performance) are the best indicators of artistry and a different kind of contemporary dance where steps and emotive performance are absolutely vital.

That’s the dilemma students face when they come into a “contemporary” dance class – which one of these systems is going to be more important? Because a lot of choreographers now will even split the difference between these two systems – asking dancers to improvise with high emotional affect, for example, without clearly communicating what their values are.

What’s going on, in a word, is dogma.

Contemporary dance is all wrapped up in the idea that it will make you a better person, and that’s great. Theoretically. But how that can manifest is a refusal to explain your choices, scorn for other ways of working, people tackling issues they have no claim to and thinking that their movement will lead them to the truth, judging people whose bodies and movement don’t fit within the system etc. etc. ALL these problems are equally rampant in both kinds of contemporary dance, which means – as far as I’m concerned – that we need to be more pragmatic, and a lot more up front about what we’re doing and why we’re asking people to share it with us.

Time to put my money where my mouth is.

I’d love you to watch two video clips where I attempt to show some of the differences in how different types of contemporary dance might handle the same choreographic structure.

First we have Mia Michaels’ Gravity – a contemporary piece from So You Think You Can Dance exploring addiction. She does so in accordance with the rules of competition contemporary dance – virtuosity, and high emotional affect. You’ll see Kūpono Aweau grabs, Kayla Radomski a lot, forcing her into shapes and throwing her around, but for the most part she uses her strength to control the movement and remain in charge of what her body is doing, giving the impression of lightness. The dancers throw out step after step in quick succession, with high emotional affect and exaggerated expression. The choreography has a high degree of synchrony with the music.

Next you have my own attempt to recreate the first 30 seconds of the choreography according the rules of academic contemporary dance (I’ve added an in-screen shot of Gravity to make comparison easier). Note that I’m not exploring addiction because I’m not qualified to do so. Instead I had two fantastic dancers – Emilia Stuart and Chad Finch – explore the weight, dependence and control going on in Michaels’ choreography. In this work the choreography is much more loosely tied to the music –  the timing comes instead from how long it takes for Chad to shift, push, support and drop Emilia’s weight. In many places she is deliberately not in control, and when he drops her she really does fall to the ground, for example. I gave them no instructions for performing other than to feel what doing the movement caused them to feel. While you can see a lot of similarities in the shapes and structures, these are two very different pieces of choreography because of the rules that have been applied to that structure. While you are welcome to prefer one or the other, try not to think that one of them is better, try instead to see why each one is the way it is, and how you can get more of what you want.

I hope that this kind of an experiment can show more people who are confused about contemporary dance some of the difference that go on underneath that umbrella. I hope that it encourages more productive conversations about our techniques, values, and the benefits of both kinds of training.

More than Prince Charming: Equalizing the Ballet Classroom

Good morning America, and welcome to the new semester! A few days ago the dance world woke up to the fact that *shock and horror* people still believe ignorant and harmful stereotypes about boys doing ballet…. I KNOW, right???!!!

… Of course, I’m being sarcastic, we’ve known this for a very long time. To date a lot of our work towards combatting this stigma has often been to provide isolated and safely masculine experiences for boys within ballet classes and dance classes in general. This can look like a boys-only class, it might look like all the boys going at the end of the allegro line to a slower tempo… anything to prove to boys themselves, to concerned parents, to the outside world, that these boys aren’t feminine, or doing anything to endanger their masculinity. Continue reading →

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? Continue reading →

Preservation, Politics, and Power: Re-doing in the Blues Dance Community

Blues dance. A collection of idiom forms that have clustered into new shapes; a mostly-white community of practice based around black vernacular dances; stories and histories and dances with very different voices raised in conversation and conflict. What are we doing when we dance blues?

Right now I see a number of debates going on in the blues dance world about how best to bring blues forward. These issues include how to teach culture and history alongside dance, how to introduce beginners to specific idioms and cultural information without overwhelming them, how to maintain respect for the dance and the communities who have practiced it over time, while still making it work for the community dancing it now – recognising that these communities might not always be easily separable or reconcilable. I see these debates becoming heated and personal, devolving into arguments of good and bad, right and wrong, with many folks withdrawing from our community because they cannot make their voices heard, or are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Being somewhat uniquely positioned to offer an alternative perspective on these debates, I have started framing here some things to consider as we go into these conversations.

I am a blues dancer, and teacher, and organiser. I am also a dance scholar, and have spent years getting certified in the preservation and reconstruction of dances through Labanotation. Labanotation is a way of scoring a dance on paper in the way that a musician might score music. It is mainly used for concert dance, but has also been used to record tap, Bharata Natyam, American Sign Language, and vernacular jazz dance – among other things. I have recorded and reconstructed stage works, dance techniques, and pedestrian movement; I have brought concert works to the UK for the first time, I have been part of copyright cases, and I’m currently talking to NASA about putting dance in space. I run a blog discussing notations of “jazz dance” and how that relates to the blues community.

While I viscerally disagree with the notion that dance has to frame itself through an academic lens to be taken seriously, what this experience gives me is access to language and literature that I think could be useful in framing some of the questions that come up around the “authenticity” of contemporary blues dance practice, and how to approach the work of remaining respectful without shame, and accessible without diluting dances down.

Firstly: what are we doing?

We’ve come to a communal agreement in blues that we are trying to do-again a certain collection of idiom and vernacular dance forms. But there are a number of ways of approaching that project depending on resources available, the identifying features of the dance in question, and the purpose of the redoing. For example:

To reconstruct is to attempt to get a dance back with as much authenticity as possible, by drawing on a wide variety of available resources. Embodied knowledge, videos, scoring, supplementary documentation, and cultural inquiry.

To restage is to take key identifying features of a dance and keep them present, while adapting the rest of the dance to the circumstances of the production.

To reimagine is to rebuild a new version of a dance based on and adapted from our own understanding of what the dance was.*

We need to be able to make realistic decisions about what we are able to offer to a given scene at a given time, with the knowledge that we have about a specific dance.

But what IS a dance anyway?

In concert dance the big pitfall is to say that the dance is the steps. But what about dances that are improvised? That are choreographed to represent the deeply personal experiences of a selected body of performers? That are an embodiment of certain kinds of cultural knowledge? That are representative of a certain kind of physical movement system? Any dance might be any and all of those things, but how we decide what is more or less key to how we dance blues dance will radically alter how we teach and share our values.

There are some things that we cannot get back. We can never train or practice ourselves into another body. We cannot erase the physical and mental history of our own dance experience and cultural socialisation. That doesn’t mean that we can’t train very hard to inculcate our bodies with new knowledge, techniques and experiences – but we can only build on who we already are.

We also should not say that what we can get back is necessarily the thing just because it’s all we have. Learning the choreography of Hellzapoppin’ from video, for example, would not mean that we have learned to Lindy Hop. We understand that Lindy Hop is an improvised form, that Blues is an improvised form, and therefore that the ability to improvise must be present in our re-doing of the thing in order for it to be blues. For a long time we called a certain kind of 1990’s slow social dancing blues, which many of us agree now is definitely not blues. But at the time, with the information they had, a lot of folks in authority thought they were doing the thing. When did we actually start doing the thing? Have we ever?

We understand that in Blues there are technical and aesthetic principles in play that we can train ourselves towards. But we can only come at those principles from the bodies and culture that we have, and from the perspective of our present moment, however well-researched that perspective is. We are not always sure what technical, aesthetic, and cultural fluency is necessary for dancers to be able to say they are dancing blues, who gets to draw those lines, and what the consequences for falling outside of them should be. We have different opinions about what we have permission to let go of or change. We know that some dancers of the past had strong feelings about how certain things should be done, and why their voices were offered a certain degree of validity. There are voices we will never hear speak.

We do know that some black dancers appealed to formal systems of copyright in order to cement their rights of ownership and personhood in the eyes of the law, with varied success. We know that others relied on less formal, but still incredibly salient systems of copyright and ownership for the codification of who did what how, and who had the right to do it again.** We also know that part of the resistance to white ownership and theorising of black bodies has been to keep certain kinds of meaning deliberately intelligible… and that this did not stop white dancers and writers attempting to own, adapt, explain and codify what was going on anyway.*** We come at blues from a long history of white dancers appropriating black dances into new technical forms and social structures.

As we adapt blues to a new kind of social existence and transmission, we have made certain decisions about what we want to keep and what we want to change. We have adopted names, rules, and principles of movement that provide accessible shortcuts to certain kinds of knowledge.**** The act of naming creates a boundary of differentiation – these things may fall under this name but these things may not. We draw those boundaries in different places – those boundaries have always been drawn in different places. What is blues dance?

This post is not written to answer any of these questions. It is designed to open up the field of questions, and maybe provide some avenues for starting towards answers. I hope that it gives us some language to talk through our differences of opinion, and to think about what evidence might be needed in order to resolve those conversations – and what to do when that evidence isn’t there. I will continue to dance, and teach, and organise, and to strive for clarity in articulating what I am doing and what I am aiming to do and why I feel able to say that the thing I am doing is what I say it is. This includes how I teach blues to beginners, why I make certain movement choices, and how I shape my local and national community. I hope people remain interested and invested in continuing this conversation with me.

* A number of these debates are laid out in Preservation Politics: Dance Revived, Reconstructed, Remade. Particularly the article “Is Authenticity To Be Had” by Ann Hutchinson Guest

** Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. By Anthea Kraut.

*** Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom by Sarah Jane Cervenak is a very academic look at this.

**** Brenda Dixon-Gottschild is the obvious example here.


With thanks to Chris Wells for his help editing.


The Hardest Thing In the World

In 1930 Martha Graham was a young dancer transitioning between the comfortable institution of Denishawn into the risks of a choreoraphic career in New York. Léonide Massine, star choreographer of the Ballet Russe, invited her to take time away from her burgeoning company to dance the role of the “Chosen Maiden” in his version of Sacre Du Printemps [Rite of Spring]. Influences from this piece can be seen in many of Graham’s later works: claw-footed intensity, archetypical femininity, choric ritual, and yet for Graham the main lesson she took away was one she shared almost immediately with her own dancers in rehearsal, which I may be paraphrasing from poor memory and lack of sources: “I have learned the hardest thing in the world, I have learned to stand still. And now I will teach you.

As I write this I am cruising at an altitude of 35,000 ft., travelling somewhere between five and six-hundred miles an hour (thank you Shelly Voegl, United airlines) – I am doing the very opposite of standing still. I am flying between concert and social dance, teaching and conferences. I have moved through Columbus Day to World Mental Health Day to International Coming Out Day, and I am looking forward to a hike in the mountains.

I wonder, sometimes, why dancers have such  a propensity to liberal activism. Many of us have, in pursuing the fine arts as a career, eschewed some of the central tenants of capitalist society, but that doesn’t explain why the trend exists in social dancers too, even among those in the upper echelons of the economic spectrum. Maybe as people whose lives are literally lived in touch with one another we are more attentive to the responsibility and precarity of human care, and the strange shapes that sometimes has to take.

On the other hand, I have been exploring the notion recently that dancers are often activists because we deeply and viscerally understand the idea that stillness is a choice. Standing inert is not a neutral action, and choosing not to act is as inherently politically weighted as any other movement you can make. Standing still indicates a decision, a perspective, an opposition to doing anything other than occupying a position and, perhaps, observing.

In a dance class stillness can be time to attend to and care for one’s self – to listen to breath and heartbeat, to ground and settle, to allow movement to come from a more connected place. In social dancing stillness is a play, a responsiveness to music, a test of partnership and connection. On stage stillness can indicate anything from a benevolent presence, to resolve, to a complete lack of capacity. Each stillness occupied is different, and that difference holds meaning. Stillness never fails to signify, and as dancers we develop our ability to choose our own messages – we are never still by accident.

If you beg a human to help you, and they remain still, a choice has been made.

If you ask people to let you in, and they refuse to move, you have your answer.

If people shout for change, and you remain inert, you have made your refusal.

In the current political climate it is not uncommon to hear that stillness is a position of privilege: that only those who are comfortable, secure, and supported can afford to remain where they are. It is not uncommon to hear in reply that stillness indicates a lack of information, indecision, a place of too many contradicting options, or not enough – being trapped. Is it possible for audiences to distinguish the stillness of “wait,” and “help,” from the stillness of “never?” How could we move to resolve that crisis?

To an audience asking for movement, stillness looks like opposition. To a population demanding answers there is little functional difference between being ignored, the composition of a complex response, and the breath before speech. That is not to say that sometimes stillness is not powerful or needed – to obstruct, to block, to insist upon the reality of your presence, to resist the momentum around you is a powerful choice. It should always be one that you have chosen to make.

Imagine that you are a teenager, who has just come out to your parents. They stand, still, silent. You know from the internet and the experiences of your friends that the responses may run the gamut of loving acceptance, passive aggressive guilt tripping, pathologisation, denial, homelessness, violence, and death. You have moved yourself from a position of safety you occupied through silence into a position of risk facilitated by speech and movement. Your parents stand still and silent. You are afraid. Each moment the stillness stretches out ratchets up the churning in your guts, the tension, the fear. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt, to anticipate their answer, but in the light of all you know might – is likely – to happen, that seems impossible. What will they do?

Imagine you are a child on the playground and a boy has just hit you. He says you deserve it, and you go to the teacher. What lessons are learned from the teacher supporting one side, or the other? What if they say “well I can’t possibly know the truth,” or “well you’re both mature enough to sort it out for yourselves, stop making a fuss?” Having learned those lessons, what happens if he hits you again?

Martha Graham understood that stillness was hard perhaps because it is much more difficult to preserve integrity in stillness than in action. When we are prevented from moving or speaking by any kind of artistic or social choreography it is incredibly difficult to communicate who we are, what we mean, and why we have made our choices. When we are asked to act, or speak, and do not, we are asking those around us to interpret on the evidence of our non-action. That might be deliberate, and a choice you make for all kinds of reasons – to start off, it is much easier to discus and debate and potentially conflict with the thing someone did, rather than the infinite myriad of things they didn’t do. It is easier to defend an internal movement that no-one can see than the external evidence of that thought process.

If we look at the situation with dancer’s eyes, however, we become aware of stillness as a choice that serves a purpose, and that holds meaning. We are not maidens shocked into immobility by awareness of our immanent sacrificial demise, we are not deaf to the music of the world around us that asks us to respond. Take time to be learn how to be still with integrity, breathe, ground, listen, but be aware that nothing can stop and wait while you do. Your stillness is seen. What does that mean in a world where you have been asked to move?


A Holiday Guide To Dancers – Part 2

Hello friends, it’s been a tumultuous year, which can only mean that it’s time for the second installment of my holiday dancers guide! This year we’re focusing on modern and contemporary dancers, for the specialist spotter. If you haven’t seen the original guide, you can read it here. Enjoy!

Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.56.42.pngDuncan Dancer

Look out for: Unexpected skipping, knocking things down with scarves

Favourite tipple: White wine

Wearing: Grecian drapery

Ideal Gift: Flowers

Political Stance: I see America weeping

Conversation Starters

Bad: Have you tried my new motorcar?

Better: How do myths relate to us now?

Best: What invigorates your soul motor?



Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.57.09.png

Graham Dancer

Look out for: Standing perfectly still, wild-eyed, as the room swirls around in chaos

Favourite tipple: THE BLOOD OF MY ENEMIES

Wearing: THE BLOOD OF MY ENE … Black.

Ideal Gift: Eye makeup

Political Stance: Movement never lies, but Trump…..

Conversation Starters

Bad: Aren’t you getting a bit old for this kind of thing?

Better: How do you think Jung would interpret this party if it were a dream?

Best: Can you tell me something about yourself?



Cunningham Dancerscreen-shot-2016-12-11-at-10-57-40

Look out for: Turning the christmas tree into modern art

Favourite tipple: Guinness

Wearing: Brightly coloured leggings

Ideal Gift: A blank canvas

Political Stance: Come away with me to Black Mountain…

Conversation Starters

Bad: Can you count this music?

Better: How could we stage an Event in here?

Best: What is the alignment of democracy and chaos?



Judson Dancer

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-10-58-23Look out for: Unexplained durational activity, accompanied by blank staring

Favourite tipple: Vodka

Wearing: Beads, feathers, and a small ornamental birdcage

Ideal Gift: You really can’t go wrong here

Political Stance: NO Manifesto

Conversation Starters

Bad: Is this art?

Better: What is art?

Best: Does art matter?



Release Dancer

Look out for: Sitting on anything except a chairScreen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.58.41.png

Favourite tipple: Wheat beer

Wearing: Hemp and bamboo

Ideal Gift: Tennis balls

Political Stance: Semi-supine

Conversation Starters

Bad: Is there any technique to what you do?

Better: Why is ballet evil?

Best: How are your fascia doing?


Got another kind of dancer you want added to the guide? Comment below!


Tilting Fabulous – Jokes, Dance and LGBTQ History

This week, dear readers, I heard something in a classroom that I’ve never heard in a classroom before: I heard a professor make an in-joke about Merce Cunningham being a gay man.

…. Ok, context: Merce Cunningham is probably the most important abstract choreographer of the 20th century, in part because of the incredible collaborations he produced with his partner, John Cage. Here’s a link to a solo from Split Sides, which is not one of their collaborations (instead it’s Cunningham and Radiohead/Sigur Ros), but is a really great bit of dancing if you’ve not seen his work before. The music and choreography is based in chance procedures, and the movement itself is put together from smaller elements (curves, extensions, turns, tilts etc.) in the same way that you might put together Legos to make abstract sculpture.

Cunningham and Cage lived and worked in an era when homosexuality was just not something you could do and have it be ok with the American government. Their relationship vanished from the public view of their work, to the point that as a student in the 21st century, at a university with Cunningham technique and Cunningham on the academic curriculum, I never head John Cage referred to as anything other than an artistic collaborator. Even today I hear people trying to smooth out the edges between the man and the art: Cunningham and Cage had an “intimate relationship,” they were “very close.”

In part I understand why that happens. The really big deal about Cunningham and Cage’s work is how abstract it is: their entire philosophy was grounded in removing obvious referential information from what the audience could see, and so there’s an instinct by educators to avoid personal information that isn’t ideologically relevant to the choreography (… or at least that’s the official statement). Contrast that with someone like Martha Graham, who’s choreography is all about her personal self, or look at a dance world where people desperately try to look for the story, and you can see why you might try to teach Cunningham without the romantic sub-plot.


Dance as a field is famously accepting of LGBTQ life styles; in fact I am frequently the subject of some envy from my friends in university departments that have not yet embraced trans identities, or “they” as a singular pronoun. That said, the dominant narrative of LGBTQ people in dance tends to fall into two stereotypes: gay men doing ballet, and super-queers making postmodern work about queerness. Those stereotypes fall down in practice, but it is very difficult to find, for example, famous lesbian ballerinas whose sexual identity is “out” in the same way that Nijinsky’s is.

Is that a problem? Well I certainly won’t insist that anyone has an obligation to out themselves for any reason, even my blogging. The stereotype that all male dancers are homosexuals is another nasty hangover from the 1900s that we’ve had to deal with, and I can understand totally the response of: “We’re all just dancers, ok?” …just because your job is to get up on a stage and perform does not eliminate your right to privacy, or mean that your sexuality has to be a public part of how you do your identity.

On the other hand, if we are all “just dancers,” who can make work about whatever we like regardless of gender or sexual identity, then isn’t one way of making that clear to acknowledge and normalise the diverse range of dancers and choreography out there? To demonstrate that your sexual identity has absolutely no bearing on how you dance or the kinds of dancing you can do? When I finally found out about Merce and John it didn’t change how I felt about their work, but it did make me frustrated with a system of books and teachers that had – by omission – implied that their relationship did not exist: that had known, and yet allowed me not to know.

The reason I spotted, remembered, and blogged about a throw-away joke in the middle of a technique class was precisely because it indicated a normalacy to Cunningham’s sexual identity – and the expectation that everyone else in the room would share that understanding. To joke about Cunningham not being interested in female dancers, you have to believe that the majority of people listening a) know about Cunningham’s sexual preference and b) don’t think it’s that much of a big deal (either in general, or in relationship to his artistic work). Note: this is a different thing to making a joke criticising Cunningham’s identity, where you assume that most people know, and that they share your (incorrect) opinion of gay-ness as a bad thing.

So… thank you, anonymous professor*, for providing a social model in which Cunningham can be an abstract artist, and a gay man, without any conflict between those two identities. And of course thank you to Cunningham, and Cage, for making awesome art, one of my favourite dance techniques, and just in general – for being tilting fabulous.

*who shall remain anonymous unless they ask to be identified.

A Dance By Any Other Name… The Multiple Modernisms of George Balanchine

I never knew that being a dance PhD had so much to do with picking the right labels: are you doing dance research or dance studies? Gender theory or queer theory? Post-colonial or pop culture? Throw out any kind of equality-minded project and someone will call it feminist – because intersectionality, and of course you could just throw in the towel and say it’s all post-structuralism, but somehow that just feels like cheating, and what does post-structuralism even mean anyway?

Dance has a serious label problem.

Not, of course that I don’t understand the purpose of these labels in general. Citing yourself in relationship to the field? Great. Contextualising your work in relationship to previous scholarship? Fabulous. Having to spend the first chunk of your article slotting yourself in amidst the labels and explaining exactly how it is you’re defining both the label and your field in general? ….I’m working on it, I promise, I promise.

Why am I starting this debate when I promised you I was writing about Balanchine? You came here for the ballet, right? The wondrous legs, the fabulous choreography! Well you can have it!

But first you have to put a label on Balanchine.

Was he a classicist? A modernist? A romantic? How about the patriarchy incarnate? A man who had a post-colonial project before the term was even floated?

For the last few years I’ve lectured at the TrinityLaban Conservatoire on Modernism. We look at (among others) Baudelaire, Woolf, Mondrian, Manet and Greenberg. Then I ask my poor students to name for me a modern choreographer. Some name Graham, some Cunningham. I offer a counter-argument.

They say “But FFEEENNN, what IS modernism???” And I reply “….exactly my point.” There was an identifiable modernist project, but then there were also several. Medium specificity, expressionism, a reaction to industrialisation, a search for the “really real,” to name just a few.

As a regular visitor and sometime contributor to the feminist blogosphere, I am familiar with the exhortation to NAME YOUR FEMINISM. I posit that Balanchine was a modernist choreographer, who gleefully and delightedly refused to name his modernism – and made his his success the greater for choosing not to do so.


Look at the final, Choleric, movement of The Four Temperaments, and you will see a laughing commentary on classical, Petipa-esque convention.


Look at the second section of Liebeslieder Waltzer and you’ll find a heart-achingly beautiful portrayal of the social dancing soul.


Shades of Ausdruckstanz writhe in the Siren’s dance of The Prodigal Son.



From using his ballet company to reflect the jazz beat of the new New York City, his coolly, intellectual restructuring of the danse d’ecole to the mystery of the final exit of Serenade, Balanchine embraces all the modernisms, and none of them. He took the pulse of his time and made dance, without doing us the courtesy of letting us know what kind or why – unless the dance itself is the message, and why-ever should it not be? He was a choreographer first after all. Perhaps what I like best is that his commentary isn’t spiteful: he cites a huge range of influences from both popular and social dance, and – as far as I can tell – his reason for citation is: “isn’t this cool!” He puts a Sleeping Beauty reference and a Charleston right next to each other, in an Ancient Greek narrative, sandwiching a transition that is absolutely his own… and it works! He builds a bricolage of..

Oh no… bricolage… doesn’t that make him…. POST-STRUCTURALIST!!!

Ok, wait, back track and bear with me a minute, I promise that my point is coming. Balanchine cited himself in relationship to the world of dance. He contextualised himself in relationship to the culture, art and social thinking of his time. What he didn’t do was attach himself to a particular theoretical or political project. His agenda was first and foremost to make dances, and comment on the field second, if at all. He didn’t have a label problem, and I’m not sure I’m motivated to make one for him now.

What does the dance tell you? What do you see? What does it make you think of?

How much story you want?

Friends at the Theatre

Today I read Balanchine in the New York public library. Balanchine both personal and professional – the choreographer and dancer, the man and the lover.

Being somewhat familiar with the material (set texts for the next semester), I didn’t try to go in chronological order – I simply worked m way alphabetically down the list: from Acocella to Gottlieb, taking notes as I went. I took a break to grab a bagel. Before I knew it, hours had slipped by – I could happily have stayed for more.

I read about his material and his teaching style, recognizing fragments from my own classes. I learned that he shared tender evenings with a young Suzanne Farrell in an inn, and later a 24 hour Dunkin’ Doughnuts, only a few blocks from where I’m currently staying. I made a mental note to try and find them on my way home.

First though, the library was showing Cover Girl, a classic film from the 1940’s with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. Too much to hope for, I guess, that they’d be showing one with Balanchine’s choreography, although I did note some of his collaborators in the credits. Since this was a free screening on a Sunday, the room slowly began to populate with individuals somewhat older than myself.

The first friend I spotted was, unsurprisingly, Martha Graham, white hair in a bun, perching a few rows behind me. A wispy John Cage sat at my left shoulder, telling jokes through the opening credits; Maria Tallchief made elegant gestures from the front row as she conversed with a companion whose face I couldn’t see.

Mr. B. arrived just as the film was about to start, slipping through the door and taking a seat far right, missing nothing over his hawk-like nose. Merce Cunningham was conspicuous by his absence, although perhaps he could have been in the back – I don’t suppose it would have mattered to him.

The credits rolled.

For me New York is always the home of dance. This may well be a betrayal of both my geographic and pedagogic origins, but I am long since past caring – I’m a modern baby. The inn and the Dunkin’ Doughnuts have sadly gone, but the city, especially at Christmas, still reminds me why I love what I love, and chose to do what I do.

From Broadway, Manhattan, happy 2015.