tl;dr even though trans people do dance, it is dance as defined by cis people and warrants questioning.
So, about a year ago, I wrote a long rambly post about how, despite everything, trans people do dance.
My original theory is simple – gender is a physical experience, beyond the reductive understandings of biological sex, through the way movement is developed within a society. How a person of a specific gender moves is defined by society – children learn from the adults around them. Each social system has its own socialised movement codes and expectations. To the point that sometimes something as simple as walking differs between societies and between genders within a society. Movement is socialised and movement is gendered.
For trans people, even those of us that fit within the binary gender system, we are often forced to contain our movement because it challenges the movement norms defined by society. For a trans person to reclaim their power of movement, to dance, to have a relationship with our body and our movement that is our own and not the one defined for us by society, is a radical act.
At the same time, mainstream dance (contemporary, in particular) supports cis society and is supported by it. Even while it extols the virtues of diversity, it has a vested interest in keeping trans people out of dance. It is quite often a toxic world for a trans person to dance in.
My original point was simply that, despite this, trans people dance.
Since then, I’ve had to face the possibility that maybe we don’t actually dance at all, because dance is defined by cis society. When a trans person dances, is it really dance, or is it just copying movement done by cis people? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being pedantic and overly philosophical. But I do believe it’s important to recognize that our current strand of staged contemporary/modern dance was created by cis people for a cis audience. Maybe there’s no place for trans people.
I wrote a funny thing in one of my free-writing sessions that has more truth to it than I’d like to believe:
“What I do isn’t trans dance, it’s cis dance on a trans body.”
The thing is that this is completely and utterly true. All my dance teachers are cis. All the choreographers I have ever danced for are cis. Most of the people I dance with are cis. Even when I create work, my audience is still predominantly cis. This eventually creates this situation in which everything I do is established by cis people for cis people. I’m the trans interloper clinging on for dear life.
When dance is centered so much around cis experiences and cis bodies, is it even possible for trans dance to exist?
What even is trans dance?
I’m constantly told to dance as myself, but I am also only told that by cis people. And, even when I’m told that, there are still specific aesthetics dancers have to meet. Aesthetics designated by cis people.
What are the trans aesthetics?
How does a trans person dance?
How does a trans person dance differently than a cis person?
This has another layer for non-binary dancers because dance does have specific understandings of women’s dance and men’s dance.
What is non-binary dance then?
Or gender neutral dance?
How can such a gendered form be non-binary without falling into the same issues of “in between” that many non-binary people face with everyday presentation and clothing choices?
And the fact is that none of these things exist. Trans people dance, yes. We dance all over the place. We dance a lot. But we are doing cis dance.
This isn’t just the mainstream dance world trying to keep us out in order to maintain social structures, this is about there being literally no place at all for trans people in mainstream dance. Or, we have to conform ourselves to a very specific set of standards to have a place.
I had a chat with a ballet teacher the other day in which I asked what she expected me to do when she gave different movement options to men and women. She told me to do whichever one I preferred. When I pointed out that that would require me to misgender myself, she had a lot of trouble understanding. Eventually she suggested I do something completely different, which definitely showed a pleasantly surprising level of thought and awareness. However, it never once occured to her that the problem isn’t me, it’s the gendering of movement.
The problem isn’t trans dancers. It isn’t that we want to do something that is controlled and defined by cis people. It’s that cis dancers and dance teachers aren’t able to recognize the implications of their movement choices. Movement is gendered and socialised. Until the cis people that control mainstream dance acknowledge and challenge that, trans dance will not have a place in mainstream dance.
And, to be honest, I’m not convinced that’s such a bad thing. I’d rather do something that’s true to my values and my identity and have it not be validated as dance by a bunch of cis people who will never understand my experiences than take part in an activity that doesn’t have the imagination to fully recognize my existence.