tl;dr Cis dance teachers can challenge the way transphobia shapes their assumptions by assuming there is always a trans person in their class, gaining awareness of biological essentialism, using gender neutral language, and removing cissexism, biological essentialism and transphobia from their teaching materials.
This is part of my ongoing series of lists of ideas that cis dance teachers can start to take on to support their trans students. The first part of the list, dealing with the basics, can be found here. This time, I’m going to jump right into some thoughts about assumptions.
1. The one assumption to make: Always assume there is at least one closeted or stealth trans person in your class. Just because you don’t know of any explicitly trans people in your class doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Especially if you’re new to this, it’s sometimes hard to judge what’s ok and what’s not, especially on the fly, as most teaching ends up being. You will not always be able to go and do research and consult with a handy trans friend/encyclopedia every time you’re faced with a question of how to not let your socialized transphobia impact your class. Let this assumption guide your decision making.
Basically, if you wouldn’t do it in front of a trans person, you shouldn’t do it. Transphobia and cissexism are still transphobia and cissexism when there is no trans person present.
Everything else I’m writing in these lists are things you can (and should!) take on whether or not you know if you teach trans students. Because the moment the trans person shows up is too late to be working on this stuff, you should already be learning and practicing, so that moment can be one of a calm “yes, I’m working on this” instead of a panicked “Ah! I suddenly need to do all these things!”
2. Know what biological essentialism is and start noticing when it influences your teaching. There are loads of resources on it, so I’m not going to belabour the point, but biological essentialism is more or less the belief that biological differences between men and women are essential, unchangeable, traits.
First of all, people aren’t a bunch of body parts thrown together!!! There’s so much biological variation in people that shoving us all into two boxes is all kinds of sloppy and imprecise.
What does this biological essentialism look like in a dance setting? It’s any moment,you find yourself thinking “oh, men are less flexible than woman” or “women aren’t as good as jumping” or “men tend to be stronger than woman” or “women are more graceful”. No matter how hard you try to make these facts true, there are always going to be flexible men, women that jump, weak men, and clumsy women, regardless of biology.
Trans people are particularly hurt by this, because this kind of language is used to challenge the existence and validity of our genders, but this is actually something that limits and harms every single dancer of every single gender. A teacher’s assumptions about a dancer will affect how and what they teach that dancer. So, take a step back and notice what your assumptions are and how that impacts how and what you teach your students.
3. Use gender neutral language in general situations. In basics, we were discussing how you refer to your specific students. But here, start thinking about how you refer to everyone. Instead of “men” or “ladies”, you can almost always use “dancers” or “people” to refer to your class. In partner dancing, “leader” and “follower” are almost always more useful terms than “man” and “woman”. If you’re discussing abstract dancers you’ve made up, you don’t need to gender them. Instead, use the pronoun “they” and describe them as a dancer.
If you’re describing a dancer you don’t know from a video or performance or any other situation, the same rules apply. If someone hasn’t told you their gender, you don’t get to make that decision for them, even if they aren’t in the room. Practicing this in your teaching challenges the assumptions you are making about dancers and models for your students how it is most effective to discuss other dancers. It has the added benefit that any example you give is more universally applied to all of your students.
4. Start removing casual cissexism, biological essentialism, and transphobia from your teaching materials. Song with a transphobic line? Not a good music choice for class. Anatomy textbook that’s really obsessed with the different bone structures of men and women? Photocopy the images if they’re useful, but that’s not really something you want to bring into class or refer your students to. Same with videos you may want to show or refer students to.
(WARNING: BE VERY CAREFUL WITH FEMINIST DANCE! Feminist contemporary dance has a looooong history of biological essentialism. Do your research and a lot of thinking before bringing that into your classroom. If you’re unsure and it’s possible, consult google and/or see what trans people are saying about a particular piece/song before making a decision. There is always a time and place to discuss feminist dance, even the painful essentialist stuff. But you have to be aware, smart, and prepared to discuss biological essentialism and its harm before bringing something like that into class.)
And that’s assumptions for the moment. Next time I get to this, I’ll talk a little bit about how you can prioritise trans dancers in your classes.