Category Archives: lgbtq

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.

 

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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!

 

 

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.