tl;dr Some basic things cis dance teacher can do to support their trans students include listening, using correct name and pronouns, doing better after apologizing for a mistake, and not grouping students by gender.
I once got a really lovely message from a wonderful dance teacher, asking if there were ways she could do better for her trans students.
I spent a good amount of thought on the question because, the fact is, even though she is cis, the fact that she treats me with basic levels of respect makes her so much better than all of my other teachers and I hadn’t even stopped to think “yeah, there are things she can do better”. Of course there are, there are always things that cis people can do better, it just hadn’t occurred to me. And I think that is a huge, blinking warning sign pointing at the shit I deal with on a regular basis from my other teachers. More importantly, it’s terrifying that I’ve been conditioned to more or less accept that shit as unavoidable.
But! The good news is! It’s not unavoidable! There are loads of things cis dance teachers can do to support their trans students! And, more importantly, there are things cis dance teachers can do to challenge the power cis people hold in modern/contemporary dance worlds and make space for trans people to create their own dance. So, I’m writing out a series of lists of considerations for cis dance teachers. This first list will be absolute basics, and there will be a list or two more to come.
Obviously, I am one single trans person doing my best. I could be wrong. Or what works for me may not work for other trans people. The most important thing is to listen to trans people because, given the space, we will tell you what we need.
Fair warning: these might not always be things you want to hear. Facing your privilege and your power and your mistakes can be really hard and know that I fully respect you just for reading this far in a post. Allyship is a process, as is breaking down oppressive structures in society. It takes time and I understand that. No one expects you to become the #1 trans ally of perfection after reading a blog post or two. But what I hope is that you’re trying and that this can be a guide for you on your journey of doing better.
Use this to figure out where you’re at in your personal journey of allyship and what step you can take, not as a way to grade yourself. There is always more allyship to do. Maybe if you ever do get through all of this, we’ll be at a point where dance teachers have gotten trans-friendly enough that there can be a whole new list of considerations…
Before we begin, one basic rule: Do not ever expect your students to teach you. You are the teacher. They are the student. Do not force them to become a teacher and perform emotional labour so you can give them a safe and respectful class. This is on you. If you know a student well, you might be able to approach them and say you would welcome suggestions (as was the case with the teacher that inspired this post), but your basic education is your responsibility.
1. Use everyone’s name correctly and do whatever the hell it takes to do that. First of all, YAWN. If you haven’t figured this one out, we have a problem. Using people’s names, whether or not they’re trans, is crucial to respecting them as people. And basically every guide on how to be an ally to trans people mentions this. And yet, I still have teachers, more than halfway through an entire year of studying with them, that still “accidentally” call me, and other people in the class, the wrong name. A slip up or a mix up is fine, but consistently failing to get a student’s name is unacceptable. So here’s the deal: I literally do not care what you have to do in order to get your students’ names correct, but you have to do it. Sooner rather than later.
2. Pronouns! This is another bit of a yawn because it also shows up in all the ally guides ever, but I do think there’s never enough explanation of how to handle pronouns and I realize it is scary for people who have never thought about pronouns to start using gender neutral pronouns for another person in front of a whole bunch of other people who have never thought about pronouns before. So, here are some thoughts for how this can work in a dance class.
Level 1: If a student offers their preferred pronoun, use it (fun fact, I told ALL my teachers at my school to use “they/their/them”, and none have yet to actually use it. They all failed level 1. Can you do better than a teacher at a major dance conservatoire? I think so.)
Level 2: Offer your own pronouns when you introduce yourself to the class. You could say something like, “Hi, my name is XYZ and my pronouns are ZYX. I know it might seem obvious, but I’m aware it’s impossible to tell someone’s pronoun by looking at them and we don’t know each other very well yet, so I just wanted to make it clear”. That tells trans students that you do care about using the right pronoun and they are more likely to offer you their preferred pronouns, so you can continue to practice Level 1. It also normalizes the practice of specifying pronouns for everyone in the class.
Level 3: Ask for pronouns to be included in personal introductions. Here, level 2 is still important – you have to start. A trans person is not going to feel safe sharing their pronouns simply because their teacher asked them. The teacher has to ask everyone, including themselves and set the example. This also includes establishing a model of behavior in which joking about pronouns is completely unacceptable (my rule is that if you provide a joke pronoun, that’s your pronoun until you can take the exercise seriously and share your actual pronoun). This also means doing whatever the hell it takes to remember pronouns and use them regularly and consistently and asking your students to do the same, while not using it to draw attention to individuals (if someone regularly misgenders/mispronouns someone in your class, it’s acceptable to privately remind them of the person’s preferred pronoun, with that person’s permission. However, in a class setting, try not to draw too much negative attention to a person because of their pronoun, and instead model proper pronoun use to make it clear how completely expected that is in your class).
3. Do better after you apologize! This sounds incredibly simple, but, fun fact, I do have a teacher right now who apologises profusely after misgendering me and then continues to misgender me. An apology stops meaning something if you then continue to do the same thing you were doing before, and constantly having to forgive someone when they apologise is work for me that I shouldn’t have to do. So please do apologise, yes, but don’t do it expecting forgiveness from the trans person you’ve misgendered or called the wrong name. An important part of an apology is doing better.
4. Avoid singling out or grouping people by gender. You know that thing where you like to see “the men” in your class dance together because they dance similarly? Or you change the movement slightly for women or men? Or you point out how a dancer has very good jumps “for a woman”? Or you only have men learn one part and women the other? Yeah. Don’t do any of that. For one, this quite often completely ignores the existence of nonbinary identities (hi!). For two, it classes dancers in a sloppy way and makes categorization difficult for any trans person that may not be fully out in a class and could draw unwanted attention onto that person if they felt more comfortable in a group the other students didn’t expect them to dance in. For three, it means your students are missing out on chances to learn broader movement vocabularies and dance with a variety of people. When I did partner dancing, I had a teacher that refused to teach me how to lead. Not only was I misgendered and forced to be a woman (the one time I got to lead, she made it Explicitly Clear that I was still going to wear the “women’s” costume), I got to dance with less people when I was learning. And now, when I want to do social partner dancing, my options are a lot narrower than they would be if she had just let me learn the other part (and it also was enough to keep me from wanting to do partner dancing for a very long time and I’ve really only just started again in spaces where I am allowed to attempt leading).
And this is the end of this list. Short and sweet. Next time, I’ll give some more ideas on how to challenge your assumptions and prioritise trans voices in dance spaces. Yay!