Category Archives: politics

Unbound, We Howl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Lesson in Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do I do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So back to these students.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Vote.

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

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

 

 

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.

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.

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!