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 →

Social Dancing With Pride

Hooray! It’s Pride Month! The time of year when my city gets decked out in rainbows, and the memes pages of the internet are full of people like me! Woo! Pride weekend always seems to coincide with my being at a dance event, and over the last few years I’ve seen organizers make a wide range of choices about what to do with that information – including ignoring it entirely. Continue reading →

Unbound, We Howl

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

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

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. 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 →

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? Continue reading →

So Emotional – Survival Tactics and General Education

I decided to study dance, and I write this blog, in part because I think dance can make the world a better place. Four years into a PhD later I am still just as convinced of that truth, and I am beginning to get a much clearer picture of how.

Part One:

In the UK we narrow our subjects early: by 15 we have around 10, by 17 that’s dropped to three or four. At university I only studied one subject and that subject was dance, which sometimes made it hard to keep track of the rest of the world. At 17 the bane of everyone’s life was “General Studies” – the everything else class. The little bit of ecology, sociology, science, politics, art, and culture that was supposed to make you a well-rounded human being no-matter what three other subjects you happened to specialise in. The class where we learned to dissect a newspaper article and an advert, and covered a whole range of subjects with such appalling superficiality that it often didn’t feel like we were learning anything at all.

It wasn’t until I started to really care about politics that I realised how grateful I was for general studies. For far too long I let my ignorance about politics act as an excuse not to engage at all: “I don’t know very much, so it’s better for everyone if I just don’t take part. Right?” Of course I eventually worked out that people with a lot less knowledge than I had were taking part and making an absolute mess of it, and if I wanted anything to change I’d better get more knowledge quickly, and then I was glad to have been given at least a basic crash course, if not in everything I needed to know, at least a sort of rough outline of what I ought to start teaching myself, and some of the issues at stake. And then I moved to America and just about had to start all over again.

For the last year I have been, essentially, teaching a general studies class. American universities – I still haven’t learned to call them colleges – require their students to take a whole slew of subjects, but General Education is still considered necessary for them to come out as well-rounded human beings, hence my class, Dance in Popular Culture. At first I thought that teaching this class was impossible: there are more dance forms on the syllabus than there are class days in the semester, and each one needs to come with its appropriate cultural background and contextual awareness. How on earth do I give everything a fair hearing without flooding my students with information? How do I teach dance forms that are completely new to me? How do I teach the context and culture of representation across an entire century and actually make it matter?

So I spent a lot of time thinking about the point of general studies.

Part Two:

Earlier this year I was made suddenly and appallingly homeless. I am still very much not ok. I am, however deeply, unendingly thankful for the human who on almost no notice gave me a safe place to stay, and who introduced me, among other things, to RuPaul’s Drag Race, and to the drag queen Sasha Velour.

I had never quite got the hang of drag before, but Sasha’s queer aesthetic, her articulate, cerebral deconstruction of gender through juxtaposition and hyperbole, her…. Her everything…. I was instantly smitten. Her drag, and undeniably, the other queens of the series, had a politics with the potential to slay conservatism in its tracks, a fierce energy that grappled with gender, race, mind and body, and didn’t shy away from deep feeling. In the face of the assaults on human rights of the last year, and on humans, I wanted to be like Sasha Velour: I wanted to tear my hair off, I wanted to cry until rose petals shook from my skin, I wanted to get So Emotional.* And for the last year, and the last months, I have not been doing those things. I did my job, I found a new house, I carried on. I had not, until I saw it, come to terms with my need to have someone else doing those other things for me.

So I had to rethink what I thought about drag.

Part Three:

I’ve come to see general studies as the class where we teach survival. The stuff we think people need to know in order to make their way in the world around their vocations. What are the messages in media, and why should we care about them? In shifts of the law, what are we being taught about power and ownership, and how do those new structures impact us, and the people around us? Dance is an art, but it’s also a lens to look at the control and emancipation of bodies, and how the fight around that is being fought on small screens, on big screens, in clubs and in government chambers. I still can’t teach it all, but I now I hope that I’m delivering the content so that my students will be able to teach themselves the stuff that matters when it matters.

My students are awesome.

Drag is on my syllabus now, at my own insistence – we have collectively decided that gender needs to be general, not just specialist education.** We go from Paris is Burning to Voguing to Sasha Velour. We talk about signs of gender and sexuality and what pop culture tells us we’re supposed to want. We talk about the need for community, behaviours of belonging, and how we have a choice in what messages we take onto our bodies. We talk about these things briefly and lightly and with nowhere near enough time, and I make my peace with that. I will be sad to leave this class behind.

When we need to teach too much, and we need to know too much, and we live in a political environment where every aspect of our society is undergoing fundamental policy shift, we have to be able to deal with a flood of information. We have to become generalists as well as specialists. We have to teach, and know, too much, and we have to be able to do so in a way that is survivable, and that matters.

We need general education. We need monsters and freaks and rose petals. We need the tools to survive, and for me that is, unexpectedly drag. And teaching. And dance.

 

 

 

*I cannot find the Grand Final version of this song, which I would dearly love to link in here. If you know where it is (NOT the Nightgowns version), let me know!

 

 

Boys in Dance – Too Much of a Stretch?

A few months ago a colleague sent me a flyer for a dance conference, and I sat with this post and that flyer for a long time before I decided to write about it. The Male Dancer Conference was advertised as:

…a groundbreaking, educational and social event designed exclusively for male dancers. It features education, connection and conversation all designed to improve the present skills and future lives of male dancers. It stands as one of the only large-group, multidimensional events for male dancers to gather, learn, share, and connect. MDC participants leave as better dancers who feel enriched, empowered and connected to a community.”

Focusing on conversation, connection and education, the conference held supervised discussions, panels, classes and workshops for male dancers and the community around them, there were social activities, and a visit to the pop up shop boysdancetoo [sic]. Testimonials speak to how inspirational and empowering the experience was:

This conference filled a void in the dance world. Instead of summer intensives where our boy is the only male dancer or one of a few, this conference was all about them. It spoke to the emotional and physical demands of being a boy dancer. It was a much needed safe space for them to be their authentic selves. It was a community of friendship and support, for the boys as well as their parents. It was a nurturing and empowering four days and they all left stronger dancers (physically and emotionally) when it was over.”

…. The thing is, I’m not sure there IS a void in the dance world. Or at least, I’m not sure this attempt to address the gender imbalance in the dance world was quite the way I’d have wanted to center the conversation. This conference, and others like it, and the literature advertising boys dance classes (of which there are many) focuses on a problem of numbers:

“The male dancer has been present throughout history, but the significant lack of male dancers in the field has been and continues to be a question and a challenge. From early childhood dance and movement classes through secondary education and beyond, the dance world is faced with the question of how to attract more boys and men to the field. This problem is not limited to one genre of dance, age group, or country; the dilemma is global. This symposium seeks pragmatic solutions to address the dearth of male dancers in our studios, schools, and companies as students, professionals, and educators.” – Men In Dance: Bridging the Gap Conference

The common strategy for addressing the problem seems to be to design events for boys only, and for classes to focus on fitness, flexibility, and dance forms outside of feminine stereotypes. A dance created by men, for men, separate from “girl dance,” where (or so it seems) different skills are being learned in a way that will isolate, intimidate, and otherwise alienate the next generation of Baryshnikovs, Poulins, Wheeldons, and McGregors.

At the same time, the professional dance community is speaking out strongly about the lack of female representation all over the dance world, especially in creative and managerial roles. The appalling lack of female choreographers, and the disparate opportunities and funding offered to those who do try and make a name for themselves in contrast to their male counterparts is striking. The narrative of the oppressed, isolated male dancer who needs to be given resources and a chance might be sweet, but rippling up the field it becomes the same old glass ceiling, the same old grandfathering system, the same old privileging of male authority and creativity.

So what’s to be done?

The first question we HAVE to ask is: do boys need safe, isolated spaces, and is that the best way to make dance equally attractive to dancers of all genders?

Consider a world where dance was more about what you do than who does it. Consider classes that focused on skills like dance story telling; dance making; high energy, athletic dance; or fundamental dance technique, so that students could choose the outcomes, rather than the settings that interested them. Consider a dance class in which you weren’t immediately considered to be unique or different because of your gender – it happens in other clubs and classes all the time. While most codified, examined syllabi continue to differentiate students by gendered dress and vocabulary, other forms of dance are leading the way in terms or normalising mixed groups. In what ways could more codified dance forms address the divides in their teaching, rather than doubling down on the separation?

This ideal doesn’t take into account the cultural reality of homophobic attitudes to men in ballet, and the pervasive attitude that certain parts of dance are only for men and women – but isn’t that a belief we’re supposed to be working against? Alexei Ratmansky went on a particularly vicious screed this week along the lines of “men have the strength to lift and women have lines,” which is worth answering despite how beautifully and completely it was deconstructed by other dancers, because it shows some of the quieter, nastier beliefs at play in this logic: I have met a number of female dancers who could quite easily lift me in a full press, but the effects of that training on their bodies gave them a shape outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic. Are we ok with bodies outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic, and if we are, why can’t we teach them in a way that builds the development of muscle? What about adopting lifts from techniques that aren’t strength dependent, or lifts with more than one base? Why is so important that one man lifts one woman anyway? As to the belief that men don’t have lines… I invite my readers to post their favorite video in the comments that disproves that old chestnut.

Secondly, I’m not flat out opposed to Male Dancer conferences, or Boy’s Dance classes, especially as dance works to change its image in public consciousness. What I find appallingly absent is a discussion of male responsibility in a world where men hold a shockingly high degree of power and privilege, as well as (frequently) control over the physical safety of their partners’ bodies. If we are teaching boys that they hold a different position in the dance world, what are we teaching them to do with that position, and how are we teaching them to view those it’s not offered to?

Here are a few examples of male dancers taking responsibility in my life:

  • Seeing my love of flight, and deliberately going across the floor with me so we could enjoy a mutual challenge of strength and power.
  • Insisting I be allowed into “boys” classes.
  • Offering to teach me “male” repertoire.
  • Creating pieces where the repertoire wasn’t gendered at all.
  • Letting me base them.
  • Showing up to pas de deux classes and learning how to dance both roles.
  • Seeking my advice on how to do both roles better.
  • Inviting me to give my perspective in classes they were teaching.
  • Comparing contracts with me so we could check we were being hired for the same wages.
  • Recognising and speaking openly about their advantages as male dancers.
  • Telling people who reached out to hire them “Actually, Fen has more experience.”

Yes, you read me right, I have had male dancers in my life turn down work because they felt it was being offered to them unfairly over their female colleagues, and in some cases over me. It’s weird, but that behaviour meant that institutions and companies had to take a step back and think about why they were offering that job in the first place. I’m not telling people to turn down jobs they’ve worked hard for, or that they’re bad if they don’t. I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to have one man lifting one woman. But we do have to think about how dance reflects wider patterns of gender discrimination in the professional world, as much as it holds the potential to subvert those patterns.

The dance communities I’m part of work hard to challenge the notion that gender defines our role as dancers, and the kinds of opportunity that are offered to us. There is a massively long way to go. But if we are going to create isolated spaces for boys and men to learn what it is to be a dancer, we ought to be taking a long, hard think about the kinds of dancers, and people, we’re teaching them to be in those spaces, and how they relate to the rest of the world when they come out.

 

 

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.

But.

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.