The “Bechdel Test” of Dance Class

Tl;dr I tried creating a simple, bare-minimum criteria for dance class and landed on student-centered, safe, and fun.

A friend gave me this challenge recently and I figured I might as well share some of the thinking I’m doing around it.

The challenge is simple: a “Bechdel test” for what makes a good dance class.

For folks who don’t know, the Bechdel test is about establishing a bare minimum for including women in media. It suggests that this bare minimum is:

  • Two named women
  • Talking to each other
  • Not talking about a man

It originally came out of a joke-y comic by Allison Bechdel based off of rules that came from her friend, Liz Wallace, so it does come with an understanding that it was, in part, a personal, context-driven thing with an edge of humor thrown in and technically, it’s a Wallace test, not a Bechdel test. Caveats aside, it has since been taken as a fairly regular standard for representation of women in media. Other tests have been established to either replace or go along with the Bechdel test, such as the Sexy Lamp Test (if a female character could be replaced by a particularly sexy lamp, the thing has failed), but the Bechdel test remains.

Part of why it remains is that it’s so simple. It’s just three, easily identifiable pieces of criteria. And, it’s an incredibly low bar. It’s not the goal for good representation of women in media, it’s just a bare minimum for how to not fuck up.

So, what would a similarly simple set of criteria look like for a dance class?

I struggled with this a lot. I’m a very wordy and very whiny person, so I mostly focus on the things I don’t like and go into great detail about this. Boiling down a dance class into three simple criteria is already difficult, and then thinking of it as a bare minimum is also hard. I spend a lot of time imagining my ideal dance class. What would be my bare minimum for a class?

This is what I came up with for the moment:

  • Class is student-centered
  • Safety is prioritized
  • Class is fun

Class is student-centered. For me, this is crucial for a good dance class. Class is about learning, it’s  not about the teacher showing off. Class should be focusing on what students need and recognize the expertise that students bring into the room. A teacher only exists when there are students to begin with. And, in my opinion, a good teacher is there to help their students grow. In other words, teachers serve students so dance class should center on students.

Safety is prioritized. This includes both physical and emotional safety. While injury is sometimes unavoidable, I don’t believe dance should be an injurious or harmful activity. It’s impossible to avoid all risk in dance, but I do think it’s possible to communicate risk, allow students to make safety choices, pause class to recenter if something is causing harm, and to really think about what is necessary in order to make a class safe and institute it as much as possible.

Class is fun. Honestly, I’m a firm believer that there is no point in dancing if it isn’t, in some way, enjoyable. Not all fun has to be rainbow and glitter (honestly, cleaning up glitter is the opposite of fun). I am a person who takes things very seriously. So, I do have a lot of fun very seriously going through a ballet barre in detail. Similarly, not all class has to be fun for every person. I might not enjoy a glitter rainbow class, and someone else might. But, is the class fun for the students who want to attend and take part in that kind of class? That is the important criteria for me.

So, for the moment, this is my personal test to see if a dance class meets my bare minimum standards. I haven’t put it into practice yet. It’s a work in progress and I am curious to see how it goes.

Most importantly, for me, it tells me how I want to teach. I want to teach classes that are safe, fun, and focus on my students. That’s good information to have as I dive into my current round of lesson planning!

The choice to prioritize virtual

Tl;dr Despite the amount I miss in-person performance and teaching, I am still choosing to prioritize virtual work, both  to meet my personal needs and to serve others the best I can.

Folks, I hate to admit it, but I really, really miss teaching in-person. I miss performing for a live audience. I miss going to shows to see my friends perform and recognizing someone I didn’t expect to see in the audience.

I really fucking miss it.

I’ve also done a little bit of it and it’s made me more and more convince that I don’t want to focus on in-person art right now.

At first, I was completely opposed to it. As someone with loads of anxiety and unclear health problems (and people I care about are in various at-risk categories), I’m being incredibly cautious about covid. For a while, I didn’t do anything in person. It doesn’t help that I get a spike of anxiety-driven anger every time I see someone in an enclosed space without a mask on. I’m not here to argue whether or not that’s reasonable or not. I’m a strong believer in masking, but trust me, I am well aware my anxiety is not reasonable. I still have to live with it.

And then I did a show. Of sorts. Putting together the art was fun. Working with the other performers was so lovely. Backstage chatter. Dress rehearsal. Putting on make-up. Welcoming people into my work. Building connection. It was incredible to do things I had missed so much again.

But, only half the audience was wearing masks. I spent the entire time on edge, terrified of the consequences of one night. I was so exhausted by the end that I was snappish and drained for days afterwards. I’m not sure if it’s worth it.

I’m not opposed to doing something like this again, but I also know that it would take a lot of planning to make sure I have the energy to manage my anxiety and the come down from the event.

A few months later, I agreed to do another thing in person. It was an exciting project for a person and overall project that I really believe in, something I was absolutely willing to commit to, even with the awareness of how hard in-person things are for me. And then it was cancelled a few days before the event because one of the people involved tested positive for covid.

Making art, especially for performance, during a pandemic is fucking hard. Cancellations are normal and inevitable. It also leads to a level of uncertainty. Uncertainty is another thing that can be managed, but adds to my anxiety and the resulting energy loss that comes from doing these kinds of things.

Basically, in-person performance has always been hard on me (I’ve always limited how much I do) but now, even when I’m doing ridiculously light lifts, it’s exhausting.

And so I am still choosing to prioritize and focus on virtual art, no matter how much I long for the in-person work I used to do.

I have my personal reasons – managing my energy and anxiety, staying safe from covid when there is risk in my life, and just generally being more set up to do it. Even without covid, my little fancy mic and laptop set-up in my room is much simpler than having to rent a space and go there. I want to highlight that this is personally beneficial for me because I have a habit of going to the nice-looking ideological reasons first.

But, first and foremost, this decision is personal and selfish. I am choosing to do what’s right for me.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have ideological reasoning too.

I have always operated on the belief that, if I need something, there’s probably at least one other person in the world who needs it, even if none of us are speaking up. Speaking up when it feels like you’re one of few is hard. Sometimes, I try to be the person who speaks up. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming, exhausting, embarrassing, humiliating or any other number of things and I don’t. So, I try to speak up when I can in case the next person over can’t.

If I’m anxious about covid, struggling with the uncertainty of cancelled events, and exhausted after in-person events, someone else probably is too. If I still need virtual events, someone else probably does too.

And so I’m prioritizing virtual work for those people too.

This is for the huge numbers of housebound people who were suddenly able to access art through the myriad of livestreams that were offered at the beginning of the pandemic, who no longer have the same access now that the rest of the world has returned to in-person.

This is for the people who are at risk for covid, or another illness, who don’t want to risk their health in order to take dance class or experience art.

This is for the people who have to balance their schedule more carefully than a budget in order to manage their anxiety, energy, pain, or any other form of wellness. And, for those people who do this, where dance ends deprioritized compared to the things that are harder to avoid, like work, grocery shopping, medical appointments, family expectations, etc.

This for the people who simply cannot fit travel time in the rest of their day, due to anything from childcare to a commute they have in the opposite direction.

And this is for the people who otherwise wouldn’t have an option. This is huge for my teaching. Non-competitive Irish dance for adults is not the easiest to find. Most of my students do not live near me and would not otherwise be able to take class. I love my students and would never go “yup, I’m teaching in-person classes now” when none of them could do that, but I did see the fear in their eyes when they asked me about it  back when most of the other virtual classes started to return to in-person.

And what about the people who haven’t found this yet? What about the people who otherwise would never have the opportunity to try Irish dance because they don’t live in a place that offers dance class? I want to make sure they have options, and the best way to do that is to be an option.

And so, no matter how much I miss in-person things, from dancing under lights for an audience to playing freeze dance with a group of giggly silly children who only want to hop on one leg, I’m going to stick to prioritizing virtual work, both in terms of “performance” (whatever that looks like virtually) and teaching.

And I want to figure out how to do it well.

Just like my in-person work, it’s a learning curve and I have to be able and willing to fail in order to improve, but I absolutely intend to get there.

The Makings of a Dance Class: Expectations of Behavior

Tl;dr In searching for what a dance class is, I got a lot about what behavior is expected in a dance class. The focus on control disturbs me in how it is exclusionary.

All right, so digging into the question of What Is A Dance Class. If you want to read about my preliminary thoughts on the matter, check out this first post.

But today, the question is: What do people think a dance class is or, even more accurately, what do people consider appropriate dance class etiquette? In my research, trying to figure out what a dance class actually is, one thing that kept coming up was a lot of lists of etiquette rules for dance class.

For example, there’s this one that comes with levels and this shorter one from the Rockettes.

Personally, I’m a little weirded out by how obsessed dance classes are with etiquette. Elena Lambrinos has discussed some of the underscoring socializing elements of rules like this in her TedTalk (and dissertation, which I have not yet finished). She ends this talk with the conclusion that not a lot of people can be Dancers because being a Dancer requires a particular type of character and disciple. For her, she can dance and not be a dancer. I think this means the same thing I do when I talk about how everyone who wants to can be a dancer, but it is different language than I would use.

I’m not ok with only certain people with the right personality, discipline, and self-sacrifice (quite often, willingness to self-harm) being the only Dancers. The idea that there is already a hidden set of rules of behavior before someone even enters a dance class feels elitist and exclusionary in a deeply uncomfortable way.

At the same time, this is my world. Some of the etiquette rules I read felt like “duh, common sense”, such as taking shoes off before you enter a dance studio to protect the floor and keep dirt off the thing we’re going to lie down on. I had to sit with that one for a bit and then realized that most dancers, who absolutely believe in this rule, still walk across dance floors in street shoes all the time. There’s a whole second hidden language on where and when and how to do that, but that never shows up in these etiquette guides. I’m left wondering what counts a rule or a guideline, what is common sense, what is a general rule of thumb out of kindness to other dancers, what actually is going on with these listings?

I don’t know. But here’s some of what I’m pulling out by looking at some of these lists.

Methodology

As a general, overarching methodology, I’m coming at these things through a fairly unrigorous CDA lens. Unrigorous because this is my blog and I’m doing this because I enjoy it. If I enjoy it enough and suddenly get the time to, maybe I’ll write a fully researched paper, but, for the moment, this touches and pulls on things, but will not be the most detailed or in-depth research possible. I also want to share my opinions here, so it will start from analysis and move into opinion based on my existing knowledge and personal experiences in dance class.

For the purposes of this thing, I’m going to use this listing of rules and expectations for members of a youth dance company. I chose it for a few reasons. For one, it written both for younger dancers who are not yet professional, but many of whom will consider pursuing as a dance. This means, that these guidelines are about making professional dancers and teaching appropriate dance class etiquette. Additionally, for my purposes, the text provides some more description and explanation than some of the lists I came up with, which is useful for seeing some of the deeper thought patterning behind an etiquette rule.

That said, I started off by pulling out themes and repetition that I saw in a number of lists, mostly this one and the two linked above (there were a few other etiquette lists embedded in “how to attend your first dance class” articles that informed the my analysis but I didn’t explicitly pull from them).

The main categories I saw were around behavior (body language, discipline, interpersonal interactions, dress code), power (the teacher and who gets to set these rules, ideas of “respect” and “tradition”), and safety/logistics (injury prevention, injury management, care of equipment and studios). I’m going to start with just behavior here and the next post in this series will be about power and safety/logistics.

Behavior

For behavior, I’d like to pull out this quote from the youth company guidelines to look at:

“Body language is a strong indicator of respect and openness to learning.  Dancers are expected to look at a teacher when they are demonstrating or giving notes.  As a dancer you should always be ready and free to move. Hands on hips or across your body stops the energy flow and indicates boredom and a closed attitude.”

This give a pretty detailed explanation of what is considered appropriate body language in a dance class and also highlights the underlying belief that body language is a form of communication. Dance is a physical, body-based practice, so it makes sense to consider the importance of what we communicate with our bodies. The use of words like “expected” and “should” tells us what behaviors are considered appropriate in body language.

According to this, dancers are: respectful, open to learning, focused on the teacher, and always ready to move. It is assumed that they show this through eye contact and specific open body language, such as not crossing arms or placing hands on the hips.

Other expectations that came up throughout this list and other readings included: no sitting, no hanging on the bar, no lying down, no yawning.

The underlying message of these guidelines is that dancers should be in control of their body at all times, including involuntary functions, such as yawning. It also removes a dancer’s ability to self-regulate – for example, the rule of “no sitting” means that dancers cannot choose to sit when they need to. Instead, they are expected to be standing unless told otherwise, regardless of what their body needs (I don’t get into guidelines for “sitting out” in this, but those are also fairly formalized and specific).

This creates layers of exclusionary assumptions. First, there’s the assumption that we can always read someone’s body language. That’s incorrect. Body language can be radically different across cultures and between all sorts of brains and physicalities. What you can see and understand in body language depends a lot on context and the individuals involved.

Second, there’s the assumption that dancers can always do these actions. This is also not true. Eye contact, looking at the teacher, might be uncomfortable for some people. Or, for me, my body can’t stay standing all the time. If I took a class, I would need to be able to sit down or I would damage myself. Or maybe someone just didn’t get enough sleep the night before and they can’t control their yawns.

And finally, there’s the assumption that dance requires discipline, respect, and openness at all times. There’s a lot of reasons not to be these things. I’m not going to respect a dance teacher who still calls me by my legal name after teaching me weekly for three months and being corrected every time (yes that’s a thing that happened and I’m sure everyone who knows me is bored of hearing about it). I don’t believe in discipline at the expense of my health, and so there’s a lot of times when I will be incredibly undisciplined in how and when I dance. That’s the only way for me to keep dancing. And openness? I’m all for trying things out, but I’m not going to be open to ideas that I know are going to damage me, be it a movement choice, a particular cultural norm, or a general belief system.
 

This is not to say that there aren’t times when dance could require discipline, respect, or openness. But, it is context-dependent and worth questioning.

So, what we have quoted here is a rule based on layers of assumptions which actually exclude large numbers of people – anyone who can’t follow expectations of physical and behavioral control. In the original context of this rule, it is for a specific group of dancers. It also exists to teach younger dancers how to behave in dance class in general. This is reflected in the other lists which are less about a specific group and instead, are covering dance class as a general concept.

The result is that, generally speaking, exclusionary behavioral expectations in dance are the norm, not the exception.

Conclusion

So, what does this means in terms of what an actual dance class is?

Mostly, it tells me that it’s not something I want to teach. It suggests that a dance class, as we know it, is exclusionary.

While I understand that I am one human and not capable of including everyone, it is incredibly important to me to teach class that is inclusive and welcoming.

So, if this is what we expect in a dance class, what are the other options? How can we have guidelines that are more inclusive? Are there behaviors we actually need in a dance class and what would those mean?

These are the questions I’m sitting with for the moment. I hope they will continue to inform my teaching as I move forward. 

Some August readings

Again, this particular set of readings have no real theme. It’s a group of things I’ve been searching out in my personal research on invisibility and also things that have just fallen on my lap and seemed interesting. All have offered me important perspectives on my work and life moving forward, which does tend to be why I share these!

Disabled Communities in the COVID-19 Pandemic

“The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed the online disability community to demonstrate its seemingly boundless collective capacity to care, listen, and inform. Unsurprisingly, disabled people, as well as many adjacent communities (people of color, trans, and queer folks), have been at the frontlines of coordinating COVID-19 mutual aid groups all over the world. Amid this pandemic, more than I’ve ever in my life,  I see how much nondisabled people need the disabled community. We are experts when it comes to isolation and pandemics. We know how to advocate our legal rights as patients, navigate Medicaid and other private insurance claims, and stock up on supplies for weeks. We know how to live vulnerably, which is to live together. We know all this because for many of us, it’s our daily reality.”

My Life as an Invisible Queer

“But the fix for femme invisibility on a large scale isn’t for all the ladylike lady lovers to trade in our lipstick for crew cuts and our seamed stockings for Chuck Taylors. What we need is a total makeover in the way the world associates presentation and sexuality. We need everyone to stop assuming that normal means straight and queer means strange or subversive or weird. We need a world where appearance isn’t automatically linked to orientation — where everyone agrees that feminine women might be gay and masculine women might be straight and anything in between, and until you ask, you’ll never know. We need to be able to approach each other as entirely new and unique people, making no assumptions but open to whatever interesting and awesome things we might find out. Gender and sexuality are not the same thing and are expressed in all manner of complicated, nuanced ways. None of us should have to worry that one part of our identities will negate another. We should be able to exist visibly in all our complex and fascinating glory.”

Going Beyond Land Acknowledgements

“Has your organization written a land acknowledgment? These statements usually focus on recognizing the Indigenous past, present, and future of a location. You may have heard land acknowledgments delivered at public gatherings. While well-intentioned, land acknowledgments oftentimes have unintended negative consequences. Here’s how to start the process of moving beyond land acknowledgments and focus on actions.”

We’ve Got To Stop Lying To Kids About Their Future

“A lot of what we tell kids are things that were told to us as kids, and we often repeat them without asking, “hey, is this really true? Did this actually help me become a happy and healthy adult?” If we were to truly investigate what we were told and what we are expected to pass on to our kids, we’d find a lot of pro-capitalist nonsense that is likely still making us miserable to this day.”

Maybe most dancers are disabled

Tl;dr I’ve been recently considering the possibility that most dancers are disabled, and this framework of thinking opens a lot of possibility and questions to consider.

I’ve been thinking a lot about disability recently. Most of this is personal. While I’ve been very aware that I’m probably disabled in some way, I’ve hovered on the edge of openly and publicly defining myself as such. This has been for a number of reasons – I’m more or less ok without accommodations, I don’t want to speak over people who are definitely disabled, I don’t have official paperwork or affirmation, it’s a stigmatizing word, I’m scared of getting it wrong…

But, as time goes on, it’s become more and more apparent how much trying to not be disabled does not go well for me. The other thing I’m realizing is how similar this is to my experience as a trans person. No, transness is not the same as disability, but my personal experience of not having role models or waypoints as I figure it out is very similar to what I experienced as a teenager. Again, I’m faced with a fact that I am not seeing People Like Me and wondering if it’s on me to be that person for someone else. So, considering that, I might write a lot more about my personal experiences and thoughts on disability in the future.

But, for right now, I want to start tackling a related thing. To be clear, I’m not completely certain where I stand on this, but I think it’s a useful framework to consider when talking about dance and disability and I’m trying it out.

(Defining disability is complicated. There are various few models of understanding disability and various definitions, none of which is completely perfect. For myself, I usually use a model and definition based on context. For the moment, I’m starting from a fairly standardone, which is the legal definition in the US used by the ADA: The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. A major life activity is considered anything important to most people’s daily lives and can span from breathing and walking, to being able to work, to basic body functions like simply having a functional immune system. Even this definition comes up to vagueness and inclarity, and legal definition are not designed with reality in mind, but it’s a decent place to start.)

Here’s the thing: Most dancers are disabled.

I first hit on this thought when talking with another dancer about how hard it is to communicate with other dancers. In dancer-led spaces, we so often tread the same ground over and over again, speak around and over each other instead of to each other, and generally have trouble having creative, meaningful conversations.

“Of course,” said my friend, “a group of traumatized people are going to really struggle with communication.”

I had been shouting about this bullshit for ages. I’ve talked long and hard about how dance education teaches tiny children to trust their teachers more themselves about their body, denying dancers agency over our bodies even as we do more and more intense body-focused activities. I’ve talked about how dance teaches us to both let other people control our body while ignoring, even overriding, our natural warning signs of dance. I’ve talked about the ridiculously high prevalence of mental illness in dancers.

But I had never had it framed as trauma and, of course, when I thought about it for a minute, it was obvious.

Very few dancers, especially the ones who started dance at a young age, come out of dance education untraumatized.

Trauma alone is not necessarily a disability, but if we think about how it shows up in terms of our definition of disability – an inability to communicate functionally and easily within a community that is also a workplace, alongside difficulties with regulating emotions, handling difficult or charged situations, and the physical symptoms that come from trauma, among many other things – what we end up looking at is that people in this situation are not particularly equipped to be dancers, working in a severely underfunded artistic field which requires collaboration, complex processing, and physical wellness.

And then there’s mental illness in general. This is a known issue in the dance world. One of the best things my dance school did for me was provide therapy. At a school that was for both musicians and dance, this therapist told me that she mostly saw dancers and that, to summarize neatly, dancers were presenting with a Whole Lot of Problems. Lots of dancers have written about their mental health struggles, some have even openly quit for their mental health. Therapists have talked about how things like perfectionism, injury, and a lack of support systems outside of dance exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles. In a related vein, we’ve also got correlation between eating disorders and dance training (here’s a recent study I read on the subject in case that’s your thing).

Again, these are things that can have significant impact on a person’s ability to work, take care of themself well, and generally exist within a community.

And then there’s the issue of chronic injury. I’ll be honest I didn’t look hard for the numbers because I’m fairly confident in saying that many dancers are managing chronic injury, but I will flag this paper (I’m sure there are newer studies somewhere) which states that half of professional dancers have chronic injury. That’s a giant number. I would argue it’s probably more because the nature of dance trains us to work through injury, even while we make conscious efforts to rest. When someone’s career depends on their ability to dance, there are unavoidable external pressures to dance on an injury, and an acute injury is then that much more likely to become chronic even if it’s not considered as such.

Dancers are magicians when it comes to working with injury. We are incredibly good at doing high levels of physical activity while injured. That doesn’t mean we aren’t still injured. That doesn’t mean there aren’t impairments and pain that we have to learn to live with and work around in order to take care of ourselves and do our job. While again, the question of whether or not injury counts as a disability, what we’re looking at is chronic, longstanding things which affect the way dancers live their lives, even with good injury and pain management.

And, finally, there’s one other category of disabled dancer I want to look at and that is the people who found a home in dance. As a teenage dancer, I heard a lot of stories about successful dancers and choreographers doing terrible in school until they went to a dance class and dance worked for them in a way that school didn’t. For a long time, dance (and art in general) has offered an alternative to people who don’t fit into standard school systems. Children with learning disabilities, behavioral struggles, developmental disabilities, or even just the weirdos who don’t fit in, have found something which works for them in the creative physicality of dance, the intergenerational community, and a structure that follows their needs more closely. (For a really beautiful example, I highly recommend watching Lida Winfield’s In Search of Air. I got to see her perform it live once and I’m not going to lie – I absolutely, definitely cried).

The adult version of this is the large number of adults who cannot work the standard 9-5 office job (or the hellish physical, emotional, and schedule requirements of customer service), who survive by paying the bills through more flexible art options, including dance.

So, why is this so important that I’m writing about this instead of getting into any kind of personal reflection or awareness?

Because, regardless of how we parse it, looking at dance through the lens of “whoa, there’s a lot of disabled people here” has a big impact both on how we view dance and disability.

It tells us that creating dance spaces specifically for disabled people is good and important, but it is not enough. It tells us that the conversation can be wider.

It tells us what we already should have known – disabled people are dancing and should have the same access to dance as non-disabled dancers. Dancers should not have to choose between self-advocacy with no support and struggling through silently without support.

It tells us that we, as a community, have clear, traceable difficulties with communication and that this has a huge impact on how we are able to function as artists in collaboration (and alongside our funders, participants, and audience).

It tells us that a true push for access in dance could have incredible positive effects, both in bringing in more creative, talented people who otherwise cannot access dance, and in making it easier for the people who are already involved in the dance world.

It reminds us that, even as some dance communities have tried to mitigate the harm, dance is still a field with a terrifyingly high rate of young people burning or injuring out.

It tells us that dancers could learn a lot from disabled communities, particularly around care, rest, adaptation, community, our relationships with our bodies, and communication.

It also tells us that disability is complex. That we can have a large number of people in a physically and mentally demanding career managing severe impairments and still, on the surface, appearing to meet a definition of “non-disabled”. Whether or not an individual is disabled, this possibility gives us reason to really consider how and why we categorize disability. It encourages us to take on the complexity in front of us.

And it also tells us that dance is doing some things right. We’ve figured out a way to make our space accessible to people who can’t always function in most of society. We understand how our bodies work and how to work through injury and chronic pain. We are experts in adaptation. We know how to listen to our bodies.

(I can’t even begin to explain how weird it was to start talking to disabled non-dancers and realize a good number of them didn’t understand the basic anatomy of their bodies, simply because the medical system had failed to teach them. This is a failure of the medical system that makes me so incredibly angry. The entire way I have survived in my body has been applying anatomical knowledge from dance training to physical experience. I don’t like the thought of what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had access to this knowledge as a child.)

Despite dance being a severely underfunded, traumatizing, harmful space, we have survived. And yeah, I talk about all the negatives of dance, but some dancers thrive. There’s a reason there’s still dance in the world. We have skills to share. What is the potential if we start making a dance world that’s funded, nurturing, and safe? Dancers would be fucking unstoppable.

There’s a lot to unpack. There’s a lot to think about. I’m not sure what comes of it.

But I have been considering this framework a lot recently and I think it’s worth sharing: Most dancers are disabled.

Some July reading/watching

This collection of links is actually more videos than reading. As always, this is just a snapshot of what I’ve been taking in. Currently, it’s a lot about the intersections of art, race, and expectations of aesthetic.

Woke in Progress VI: In The End, We’ll Need a New Logic

“With lots of time and space allotted for the processes involved in shifting from a white, Eurocentric, settler-colonial orientation toward an arts culture rooted in harm reduction and ceding space/prioritizing support for voices, visions, and experiences that have been repressed for generations, we’re now circling back to assess whether there has been meaningful action around these citywide, personal, and institutional commitments over the past 18 months.”

TCM Original Production: Blackface and Hollywood – African American Film History – Documentary

(12:56, subtitles not available)

Since the dawn of cinema and until the mid-20th century, the minstrel show-based practice of donning blackface to portray characters of African descent has been a staple in Hollywood. Our colleagues explain blackface’s harmful history and how its usage has been damaging for Black representation.

I am not  a dancer, and this is why | Elena Lambrinos | TEDxNewtown

(10:26, English subtitles autogenerated)

Dance has the power to develop far more than just movement, but dance isn’t always accessible to everyone. PhD researcher Elena Lambrinos explores how dance education shapes ‘ideal’ dancers and questions how the very notion of the ‘ideal’ dancer may be limiting who can and who cannot dance.  Elena explores the different practices being taught and valorised in children’s dance classes and how often taken-for-granted educational experiences can be both enabling and limiting. She is a dance educator and an advocate for dance inclusion and accessibility.

About this life coaching thing…

Tl;dr I’m becoming a life coach! Despite a lot of the images we have of life coaching, it can be an incredibly powerful tool for moving forward by trusting someone’s expertise and allowing it to be seen.

At the risk of sounding flippant, a lot of people had a pandemic-life crisis in which we made both big and small changes in our lives as a result of living through the catastrophe that is a global pandemic.

I started life coach training.

For people that know me, it’s not a completely out there thing. I love talking to people and offering support and connection.

But, ideologically, it doesn’t always sit right.

See, the image we have of life coaches are rich white (usually straight) women. In some ways, the business is designed to target and exploit desperate rich women who are hurting because the social standard of their life isolates them – from community and from themselves. Life coaches can then charge ridiculous prices to offer support and fulfillment with buzz words like “empowerment”, “inspiration”, and “goal-setting” when really what these people need (what all of us  need) is structural change.

This is, unfortunately, how a lot of coaching works.

However, as my training has progressed, I’ve become more and more convinced that, done correctly, coaching is an incredibly powerful resource and, if so, should be more widely accessible.

The thing I like about coaching is that the coach comes in with the assumption that the other person is the expert. This is exactly what I already do. Whenever I start teaching dance to new students, I start by telling them they are the experts on their body. Everything I offer is a set of guidelines that they get to work with based on their own inner knowledge of body.

Of course it’s not that simple when we live in a society that actively undermines our own ability to build a relationship with our bodies (I got real distracted thinking of examples before remembering that wasn’t the point of this post, see that in the future!) My role as a dance teacher is to support students in rebuilding that link and discovering their expertise.

That’s the same thing I do as a coach, with just a little less moving around and a little more talking. I get to support people in rebuilding their own trust in themselves and their expertise. I get to honor that expertise. I get to give people a place to take control of the things they can take control of.

The other side of it is that I love being coached.

I’ll be honest that I do often struggle with therapy. I’ve had a number of different therapists and often the openness and fluidity of the conversation stresses me out, while some of the more directed or structured questions turn on all my defensive reflexes. Coaching is not therapy – it focuses a lot more on the future and how to move forward through something, as opposed to looking back and processing what’s already happened. Both are incredibly important practices.

But, looking back, the therapist I got along best with (and still miss a bajillion years later) was very coach-like. She shaped our sessions with a very particular structure that made me feel safe. She’s the only therapist I’ve had so far who asked me to connect in with my present body before talking about anything else. Her questions about my past were very much about how they informed my future. They were very much therapy-questions, but something about the phrasing and structure worked for me better than any therapist.

There’s something to be said for that. Coaching is not mental health treatment, but it is a remarkable tool for learning how to navigate the world we live in with the fucked up brains we have. I get tired of having to deal with my brain. Sometimes, I’m too exhausted for therapy. Yes, I know all about the trauma. Yes, I know all about my disfunctional ways of thinking. Yes, I am working through that, slowly but surely.

The reality is that I live in a society that doesn’t acknowledge my existence. No matter how much processing I do, some things aren’t going to get better, no matter what kind of treatment, therapy, or work I do.

But, I can learn how to navigate better. I can keep moving forward and working through the things that are sticking and keeping me from doing it easily. And, as the person who has lived the most as me and known me the longest, I am in a position to know how to figure that out. Yes, the answer might be to bring in a new therapist or do research or talk to an expert, but I’m the one who knows what I need.

There’s a lot of spaces like this where coaching can be helpful. It’s not an answer, It’s more like the missing link that can pull a lot of other kinds of work and processing together and move forward through it.

I love being coached and I love coaching because I know its power. I know effective it can be when someone just asks the right questions until I figure myself out. It’s an honor to be able to share that with someone else.

And, for people like me, who are invisible in society, be it a queer identity, disability, religion, or anything else, there’s just something so very powerful in having someone go “yes, I see you, and I trust you to know what you need” because, most of the time, society is telling us what we need while not taking the time to see us.

I’ve got so many more thoughts about coaching which I will start to share as time goes on. But for right now, my main thought is that it’s a beautiful, incredible tool, and I’m more than a little excited to start sharing the results of my pandemic-life crisis.

The Makings of a Dance Class

What actually is a dance class?

This has been the a question I’ve been turning over in my mind a lot recently. A lot of my dance-related work has turned towards teaching at the same time that I have been learning how to coach and building up my facilitation skills, so I have been faced more and more with the question of what actually is it that I do.

As a dance teacher, am I providing instruction? Am I encouraging exploration? Am I asking questions or telling people what to do? Am I sharing my own thoughts or only listening for my students? Is my role that of a coach or facilitator or is it completely different? And, within all these questions, what is this dance class thing that I am trying to build for my students?

And, of course, for me, there’s the question of how do I breakdown or challenge the parts of a dance class that aren’t working? (I like to destroy things…productively).

So, I went looking and researching and I didn’t actually find a lot of clear definitions of “dance class”. Instead, I found a lot of expectations for how people think dance class should be. I learned a lot about what is considered appropriate dance class etiquette, I read a lot of people unhappy with how other people behave in dance class, I read step by step outlines of what might happen in a dance class of a specific style, and I saw certain repeated values around discipline, control, and what I would consider forced fun.

In short, I found no answers, but whole bunch of things that gave me feelings. The question of “what is a dance class?” has expanded to “what are the expectations of a dance class?”, “what are the underlying values of our greater dance community as presented in a dance class?”, “what are dance classes teaching?”, and “what are we actually saying about dance classes?”

And, from all of these questions, there is an underlying “why”. And personally, for me, there is always the question of whether or not I agree.

And, of course, what needs to be destroyed and how?

So, I’m revamping and returning to theory to start really exploring this question of what actually makes up a dance class. I’ll be looking at the expectations for class behavior, differences in class culture between dance styles, and the insecurity I perceive when I read about these expectations. From there, I can build some kind of definition.

For my moment, my working definition of dance class is some kind of space where dance instruction happens.

Even something this vague causes questions: What actually is dance instruction? What is this space where it happens?

For now, I’m going to sit with questions. For next time, I’ll start looking more at the nitty gritty of the things I have found so far.

The Awareness Loop

Tl;dr It feels like asexual activism is stuck in a time loop circling “awareness” and I’m both a little bored and curious to see what’s next.

I recently read this really lovely interview with Yasmin Benoit. And she said something that’s been really sticking with me. She says:

“Sometimes it seems like asexuality has been caught in some kind of groundhog day.

For folks like me who have managed to miss the most common media references of our times. Groundhog Day is not just the day on which we let a rodent determine the beginning of spring, it is also a movie from the nineties in which our character gets stuck in a time loop.

And you know what? Absolutely yes!

It feels like asexuality is stuck in a time loop.

A community springs up, we have a lot of fascinating conversations, and then something happens, everyone gets burnt out and we all slink back into our holes. Sometimes, when the next group springs up, some of us come back for a few cycles.

For me, it’s actually really poignant hearing this from Yasmin Benoit, who does her work primarily in London, because that’s where I was a student. There were a few of us doing stuff specifically for asexual students, we did good work, and it was already dying out during my last two years there. I didn’t hear about anything happening there until a young, eloquent, motivated Benoit came along and suddenly so much was happening.

It’s exciting. I’ve never seen asexuality so animated in London. I never expected to see it like that in London. Benoit has all of my respect for the work she is doing. (I also worry so much about figureheads and how much she does).

It’s also exhausting to thing about how much of this is a time loop. I want to believe that the earlier work we did in London had an impact in some way to create space for Benoit and this new community.

But the reality is that I don’t think we did. I definitely see some small shifts that stuck around, but I think most of our work went nowhere and stopped. That’s sometimes how things go, but, as I continue to hear the same conversations over and over and over again with just different wording, it starts to feel frustrating.

I’ve been involved in asexual activism for ten years. I have seen progress. I have seen a growth of awareness, clearer language, a stronger willingness to learn, and events and community than I could not have imagined ten years ago.

Except that’s not true. Before I moved to London, it hosted World Pride and asexuals gathered: https://www.facebook.com/aceworldprideconference2012/

Earlier that year, David Jay posited that we were moving into a “third phase” of the asexuality movement. First, awareness. Then, mobilization. And third, expanding mainstream beliefs around what is considered “normal” sexuality.

In some ways, he’s not wrong. I’ve had plenty of conversations with people about shifting our understanding of sexuality, romance, and relationships. The conversations have become richer all the time.

And yet, it feels like we’re still stuck in that awareness phase.

It feels like every new conversation about asexuality starts with a  definition, a list of “asexuality isn’t…”, an explanation of the split attraction model and then…maybe something more. I feel like it’s the kind of thing I’ve read so much I could do it from memory with basically no effort.

It’s not that there hasn’t been growth and change, it just feels like there is so much circling back all the time that it is really hard to see the change. It feels like we are stuck in this constant state of “make people aware of asexuality” and then we get tired and leave it for someone else to do.

I completely dropped out of the world of asexuality activism partially for this reason – it was exhausting and repetitive. The work is good and important work, but I’m the kind of person who likes to have something a little new, nuanced, or unnecessarily complicated in what I do. Asexuality activism isn’t that.

Having someone else say it was a huge relief about something I felt guilty about – yes, we are in an Asexual Groundhog Day. That’s not on me. Of course it’s exhausting to live a marginalized identity in time loop.

At the same time, we are moving…somewhere?

It’s just so slow, I have no idea where it is? Or maybe I’m just not paying attention?

Whatever it is, I’m really ready to look beyond awareness. So, I guess my final question lands here: how will we know when we can move our activism beyond awareness and what will that look like?

Maybe I’m impatient, but that’s what I’m looking forward to finding out.

April Readings

Some food for thought from the past few months…As always, these are the things that have particularly grabbed me or challenged me to think more expansively!

The escalating costs of being single in America

“These issues aren’t just about personal attitudes: American society is structurally antagonistic toward single and solo-living people. Some of this isn’t deliberate, as households cost a baseline amount of money to maintain, and that amount is lessened when the burden is shared by more than one person. There are other forms of antagonism, too, deeply embedded in the infrastructure of everyday life. Even as more couples than ever “cohabitate” without being married, so many of the structural privileges of partnership still revolve around the institution of marriage. (The US Census still conceives of the status of “single” as anyone who is not, at present, married.)”

The Problem with Punching Up

“The people who cling most tightly to this “punching up vs punching down” paradigm are those who really, really want to punch people, and want to know which people it’s okay to punch. Remember, this was originally a moral principle for regulating comedy. Insofar as comedy involves ridicule and mockery, comedy is “punching” as an art form – as entertainment – and “punching up vs punching down” is a professional ethic for comedians, people who “punch” others for a living. As such, comedians have an a priori desire to get on with the punching, and thus a need to identify which targets are fair game.”

“No you’re not” – a portrait of autistic women

“This group of women, the majority here diagnosed within the past four years, are the least likely to be believed to be autistic. The irony is that their struggles are often greater because of their achievements, often in education or work, meaning they are even less likely to be believed and more likely to be misunderstood. I wanted to enable these women to tell their stories and to challenge our understanding and acceptance of different neurotypes in a society where there are so few opportunities to be seen or heard.”