tl;dr Both dance and the way society treats transness are terrifying forms of body control. I refuse both and choose to dance for myself.
I want to talk more about the concept of dancing FOR someone and how that links into body autonomy and how that particularly affects me, as a trans dancer. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so here goes.
A lot of dance education operates on compliance from an early age. Very young children (age 3-5) are brought to dance class and taught to listen to a teacher. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? We all have to learn how to listen to teachers and other mentor figures, and learning is a necessary skill for children and adults alike.
But dance class is also about the body. Teachers are actively telling these children how to use their body. Also, not necessarily a bad thing, bodies are funny things and we all need to learn how to use our own one. And habits placed into the body at an earlier age have a profound effect on how it develops. So, it’s always good to start on establishing a physical practice at a very young age.
The thing that scares me about this arrangement is that, more often than not, instead of teaching children to listen to their body and respond accordingly, dance teachers teach their students that authority figures know more about the child’s body than the child. It teaches dancers that other people are the experts on their body.
To make this clearer, here are some examples: A ballet teacher telling me to plie deeper than my legs will physically let me, dance teachers from multiple disciplines telling me to turn out my feet without ever explaining to me what turnout felt like, a teacher yelling at a student for drinking water because it wasn’t a water break yet (the same teacher also yelled at students for yawning), being told I’m not dancing at top energy when I’m doing the best I can in an unairconditioned studio, even the amount of gatekeeping I had to go through to get my pointe shoes (my teacher had told me to get them and then I had to have a long back and forth with the dance store to convince them to schedule an appointment for me, it was ridiculous).
There’s this attitude that dancers can’t take care of their bodies or use their bodies without guidance from someone else. Our bodies are not our own – they belong to our teachers, our choreographers, our directors, our examiners and judges, our audience, even the people selling us equipment. And we are teaching this to children from day one of dance class.
The time I feel this the most is in repertory class. I have very divided feelings on repertory classes. On one hand, I love watching choreographers work. There is nothing more exciting than to watch a choreographer create a piece in front of my eyes and get to be part of the process. But, on the other hand, being part of the process means my body more or less becomes the choreographer’s play thing – my role is to bring their vision to light in the exact way they want it, so I have to become exactly what they need.
I don’t get to be myself.
My body is not my own.
I started dance late, so that conditioning that makes other people experts on our bodies is not necessarily complete for me. Maybe that’s why I feel it so much more sharply – I’m not conditioned to accept it as a fact. Or maybe everyone feels it just as sharply as I do and just don’t speak about it.
But, here’s the other side of the coin – society controls trans bodies (I’ve also mentioned this before). There are specific images for how trans people are supposed to look (from a cis person’s perspective, so obviously, wrong), and I’m not going to say people who fit those images are treated better, they’re not, I’m saying that society dictates what is an Acceptable Trans Body and what is Not Actually Trans No Matter What They Say (and this is completely driven by the dividing lines between who has easier access to medical transition and can change their gender markers on official documents and all those other Official Capacity ways that define a trans body). I’m definitely in the latter category. Even before I realized I was trans, I understood that my body had to be a certain way, and that I should be ashamed because that’s not what it was. Heck, I didn’t realize I was trans for so long because the messages I was hearing was that I didn’t have a trans body. Society took away the right to understand my own body.
It’s harder for me to write about the trans side of this because, actually, it was a lot easier for me to look society in the face and say “fuck you”. It only took me a few years to put on my dresses, braid my pigtails, and proudly proclaim that presentation didn’t have a thing to do with gender, that no matter how anyone perceived my body, I was still trans. I was able to reclaim my transness. I’m not quite sure why. I’m going to say it’s probably because loads of other trans people are doing this alongside me. Even when I wasn’t actively talking to other trans people, I was looking at their images and reading their commentary, I was part of a community that was distinctly aware of how our bodies were being controlled and actively fighting it.
It took me a lot longer to come to the same conclusion in the dance studio. It took me forever to realize that I didn’t have to take repertory classes, that dancing in a company for someone else wasn’t my end goal, that my dancing was, first and foremost about my personal expression and needs, that I was allowed to dance selfishly, and say no to teachers who told me to do things I wasn’t ready for, and embrace my strengths.
Of course the two sides of body control are related – even the most “enlightened” forms of dance still operate on binary systems. I’m quite often expected to dance as a “woman” (whatever the hell that means). Coming to the realization that I could dance selfishly also meant that I could dance as a trans person, whereas my dancing and my transness had been two distinct parts of my life before then. For my own self, I needed to recognize that I didn’t stop being trans when I entered a dance studio.
Yes, I am looking at a professional career in dance. Yes, I am well aware of the challenges related to that and that I’ll need to get money for somewhere. Yes, I know that I will have to make huge compromises in order to be successful, as with any artist trying to make it in a market that doesn’t value art to its fullest.
But the one thing I cannot and will not compromise is my body. My body doesn’t belong to a teacher or a choreographer or society. My body belongs to me. And I will always dance selfishly because I cannot give anything to my audience (or funders, wheeee) if I don’t have a body to work with.