tl;dr Dance allows trans people to reclaim their body which is why mainstream dance is so vested in keeping them out. Trans people dance anyways.
April 2016 (2017 me thinks this is really rambly. Leaving as is for the moment, a new, condensed version with a reflection is coming…)
Transness and dance are both experiences of the body. Yes, we talk about gender in intellectual terms until identity becomes an abstract concept. But the fact is, gender is physical. And, I don’t mean the anything silly about “biological sex”. Yes, there are physical traits that mean a person is more likely to be assigned and perceived as one gender more than another, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m also not talking about dysphoria, although that is definitely a physical manifestation of my transness that I, and many other trans people, experience.
What I want to say is that gender is something felt by the entire body, not just the mind.
And this is why I believe it is so important to discuss the relationship between transness and dance, why I believe that it is necessary to make dance a possibility for all trans people. At the same time, I believe this is why mainstream dance is currently so toxic for trans people.
See, society forces trans people to recognize our physical forms. The cliché of an intellectual whose the body is simply a vessel for a brain? Not acceptable for a trans person. I do know trans people who aspire to this. But cis people’s fear of and frightening fascination with the trans body works to erase it, we are forced to recognize that our trans body exists. We are not allowed to ignore or overlook our body.
Every physical action is constrained by gender. How we walk, how we talk, even how we fucking smile (which is so annoying, since when has physicalizing personal happiness had to be gendered? Ew). Trans people have to take this into account. We can then choose to ignore it (I definitely do), but we always have to go through that process of considering it. We have to live within our physical forms and consciously choose how we look and how we move.
And we are caught in a place where cisnormative society dictates what a trans person should be: who passes, who is denied rights, who is killed, who is validated…our physical choices are constrained. We are denied free movement. Our bodies, which we are forced to acknowledge and exist within, are not our own.
There’s a really quick way to observe this – posture. Loads of trans people have terrible posture. For those of us who experience dysphoria, we are required to constrain parts of our body long before we are allowed to remove it. In fact, we are often expected to inflict pain on ourselves in order to prove we have the right to a body that is our own. But, even without this, we are constrained – trans people have less of a right to exist in society, so we are required to make ourselves smaller. This does terrible things to posture and overall alignment because bodies, as physical objects, take up space. By forcing us to take up less space than is natural for our bodies, society is actually destroying them (and no, this is not a hyperbole. Of course the level of destruction depends on the person, and some trans people definitely escape it, but overall, society is causing physical harm to trans bodies).
To dance is a chance for trans people to rediscover our bodies. Instead of having to look at ourselves through the lens of “feminine/masculine”, “passing/nonpassing”, “acceptable/dangerous”, “for me/for someone else”, we gain the lens of anatomy and physiology and art – what actually is going on in our body? How does it fit together? How does it work for us? Our conscious choices become healthy, informed conscious choices. It is a way to reclaim our relationship with our body, to take it out of society’s hands and say “no, I understand my body now, I get to choose.”
Above all else, dance is a way to experience our body as a tool, something we can use to make art. It no longer is something that constrains or limits us, it is a means for self-expression.
And this is particular to dance. I know loads of trans people that participate in physical activity and are empowered by that, but running, or lifting weights, or whatever else anyone chooses to do isn’t necessarily a form of communication. Dance is art. It is expression. It is communication (admittedly, most of what I communicate is “I have no clue what I’m doing and am totally faking this”, but hey…) In a society that refuses to listen to trans people, to speak back with our bodies, that’s radical.
I truly believe trans people need dance. And this is why it is so important to me that dance becomes a trans safe space.
Because yes, very few spaces are open to trans people and we inhabit them anyways (mainly because we have to in order to survive), but dance is bad in particular ways. And it’s been mutated into this myth among trans people that dance isn’t a thing for them.
If a trans person (unlike me) is just looking for a hobby, or a physical activity or way to perceive their body differently, dance looks like a giant institution of horror and they are more likely to turn towards other things. This saddens me because dance is something unique that trans people have as much a right to as anyone else (in professional and amateur forms and all forms in between and around).
But, if dance is something that can empower trans people to reclaim their relationship with their body, society has a vested interest in keeping us out of that. Because, as always, the privileged folks want to maintain their hegemony (my non-existent sociology textbook is crowing at having taught me that phrase). They cannot maintain their power over trans people that hinges so much on controlling trans bodies (denial of transition, presentation, health, movement, even existence) if we are dancing.
And the main dance world is vested in this too, because it has established itself so much along a gender-essentialist binary: female bodies do this, male bodies do that. It can only work if trans people don’t exist. If they don’t have to recognize that their understanding of “male body” and “female body” are reductive and oversimplified and don’t actually describe the human body. To allow trans people to dance is to admit exactly how much of a lie they are working with. It is to admit that dance’s obsession with gendered movement (even in dance that claim to challenge gender) is completely unfounded. It is to admit that well-established teachers, directors, choreographers, companies even are Wrong.
But, if there’s only one thing I can say on the matter, I want to say this – trans people can dance. We do dance. Mainstream dance hasn’t quite caught up yet (and I don’t think it will). But there are safe spaces, and there are ways for a trans person to dance, just as there are ways for us to participate in every activity that is blocked to us. The path is different from that of a cis person, but so are the paths of our lives.
Trans people dance.
And, I believe, above all else, making this fact known will be what starts to break down the gender essentialist systems in mainstream dance.