Considerations for cis dance teachers: Assumptions

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.

Considerations for cis dance teachers: The Basics

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.

 

The basics:

 

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!

I am not a dancer who “happens to be” trans

tl;dr By saying someone “happens to be” trans, it suggests that transness is a convenient accident and diminishes the importance of transness in a person’s identity.

January 2017

There is nothing I hate more (ok, there probably is) than when a news article or a person mentions someone who does something else and “happens to be trans”.

As if transness is some kind of happy accident that has very little bearing on someone’s identity.

And, I mean, maybe that’s true for some trans people, but something about how obsessed cis people are with this specific turn of phrase worries me.

It also goes on with these statements of “XYZ may be trans, but they’re also so many other things….”

Which, I mean, great, people are complicated, multifaceted beings, and I understand how quickly society likes to simplify people, but the danger of these statements is that it says “look at all the parts of XYZ that aren’t trans! Ignore the trans bit! That’s not important!”

Transness is an integral part of me. It’s not a happy accident, or a funny “happens to be” coincidence that I dance and am trans. It is impossible to understand the rest of me and the layers of my personality without recognizing and prioritising my transness because (shocker) that has a huge effect on how I perceive and interact with the world.

It’s time to stop talking about people who “happen to be” trans. Instead, let’s discuss people who have major success because they are trans. Let’s discuss the way a trans identity will fuel and influence someone’s career, whether they choose it or not.

And, especially if we’re talking dance, a world particularly hostile to trans identities, we have to recognize that I’m a trans dancer despite transphobia and cissexism. I am not a dancer who happens to be trans or a trans person who happens to be a dancer, those two parts of me are inseparable. And every moment we spend separating the different bits of me apart, as if I can be turned into a catalogued list of attributes, is an excuse to not look at what it really means to be a trans dancer. And it’s a great way to get brownie points for polite, respectable diversity without actually taking responsibility for how dance, and society, disadvantages trans people.

No, there is absolutely no accident in my being a trans dancer. It is a very specific, conscious decision and challenge to the transphobia and cissexism in the spaces I enter because of who I am. No one gets to forget about or minimize the importance of my transness.

 

Growing generations

tl;dr Even though I’m still pretty young, I’m realizing that i am no longer the youngest. And, if nothing else, I would like that the work I do ensures the generation below me doesn’t have to do the same thing I’m doing. 

January 2017

One of the things I’ve been really thinking about recently is the fact that I’m getting older. Not in the bad oh-god-my-life-is-over way. And, to be honest, getting older doesn’t mean I’m old. I’m actually very very young.

That’s another thing I’m thinking about.

But, in terms of my place in queer communities, there is now a generation under me that is distinguishable from my generation. Part of that is just experience – I now have an undergraduate degree and the experience of involvement in queer circles while an undergrad student is pretty particular and has shaped me in specific ways, I also got to intern with a queer theatre organization, and lived with a ridiculously inspiring anti-racist feminist activist (and a bunch of other things) for a month and a half, whose entire approach to activism is something I am trying to adopt into my entire life and has left strong imprints on me over a year later.

Basically, a lot can happen in four years. And, in interacting with those who have not yet experienced those particular four years of their life, or even are just in the midst of experiencing it, I’m realizing that I am no longer the baby. It doesn’t mean I’m the wise elder either. Far from it, I’m still a confused, inexperienced youngster. But I’ve had some moments and I’m older.

For me, one of the hardest parts of the disastrous US presidential elections this year was watching the younger trans people I know respond. This is the second presidential election I’ve been able to vote in, this was their first. Not a huge difference, but enough for us to have different perspectives. I was watching panic. I was watching heartbreak and fear and hopelessness. And these were all things I was feeling too, but seeing it come from someone younger was a lot more painful than experiencing it personally.

For me, the most meaningful part of my community’s response to the disastrous US presidential elections came in the form of two facebook messages. Two older trans people I know here, outside of the US, from completely different settings, both British, simply had the thought to send me a message, let me know they/their respective communities were there for me, and ask how I was doing.

And, because I’m in this weird old/young middle place, I was able to experience both sides and gain the perspective of just how important my role is becoming in my community. And it will become more and more important as I get older.

In a way, that responsibility is daunting. But it’s a good reminder of who I am.

I’m currently dealing with institutionalized transphobia at my school. It was an easily-solved situation that the institution chose to extend and extend and extend. I am exhausted. I have had to justify and explain myself, my identity, other trans identities, and argue that transphobia has no place in academic discussions with my peers and teachers. And then the words I used were twisted around and thrown back at my face in an attempt to deny everything I was saying.

And staring at that, I nearly gave up. I don’t have the energy to deal with this. I am at this school to learn how to dance, not to argue with people that think transphobia is good for my education. I cannot emotionally balance a demanding course and workload while making myself the necessary amount of vulnerable to fight this.

But here’s the thing: There’s someone on a different course than me with a trans symbol on their backpack. We haven’t talked a lot. I’m not even sure if they’re younger than me (I think they are, but I’m also terrible at estimating people’s ages).

Here’s the other thing: One of the hardest things about being a professional-track trans dancer is that no one else is. In the US, we have Sean Dorsey. But I cried the day I saw him dance, because what I saw was a dancer that played with and fit into binary gender as much as any cis choreographer. His work is brilliant and his work in queer and trans-specific activism is excellent, but he cannot model the path I’m taking in dance. There’s something about not having a single person paving the way for you that creates this extreme loneliness and helplessness.

I’m at this school for less than a year. I could give up, keep my head down, get my education and leave. But what about that other dancer? They could have two more years at this place. And, maybe I’m wrong (I hope I am), but I have to assume they are, in some part, experiencing the same loneliness and helplessness I am.

It takes a lot of hubris to say “oh yes, I will be that person’s role model” and I don’t intend for a minute to try that. Someday maybe I’ll deserve that, but not today.

What I can do is take on the battle in front of me. No, it’s not my job to teach my teachers how to treat me with basic human respect, but no one else is doing it and it has to be done, if only so someone else further down the line doesn’t have to do it. I might not be able to find a resolution to this problem, but if I give up and don’t continue to challenge it, that’s just passing it on to the next person. There is definitely a part of me that just wants to go “yeah, fuck this, I’m dropping out”, but if I drop out, then the transphobia continues and the next person ends up in the same situation and mainstream dance will not have become any more trans-inclusive than when I started. In fact, they’ll have learned how to conveniently speak over trans people and avoid being called out for transphobia.

So basically, screw my education, screw my chance at a degree, screw letting my teachers and peers get away with casual transphobia. I’ve been shown quite clearly that the institution I am currently involved with is unapologetically transphobic and that is my priority.

Because I might be young, but I am definitely old enough to know how my actions effect those that are younger than me. And, if nothing else, I want the next generation’s battles to be different than the ones I fight. And, to be honest, this one is quite boring and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

 

Trans visibility in articles: A delicate balance

tl;dr It is frustrating when the “good” articles about trans people still fall into dangerous patterns of objectification. 

 

So I want to talk about this article a bit because it’s a difficult one. It’s the challenge trans people face all the time, and I’ve faced it a lot more personally with artic les about asexuality, having been interviewed and photographed for such things, but the concept is vaguely the same. When queer people, especially trans people, appear in the media, in news articles, in documentaries, thinkpieces, you have it, there is always the balance between “getting the word out” and “not being objectified by the person telling your story and, in consequence, the person reading your story”.

 

This is a good article. It is a necessary article. It told me about a trans choreographer I didn’t know about and that’s exciting. And that’s one of the huge necessities of being in the media – our visibility is not always for cis people, sometimes it’s the only way we can tell each other that we exist.

 

At the same time, it falls into two patterns that are really objectifying and kind of sickening.

 

This article is, like almost every article on trans people, obsessed with our bodies, but not on trans terms. The word “dysphoria” is not used a single time, instead the author euphemizes the very real pain and struggle many trans people have with their bodies, as “discomfort”. This isn’t wrong, but it shows a lack of interest of engaging with trans communities – we have a word for this discomfort, one that is widespread, and honestly pretty well-understood by the general population, why not use it? When writers choose to use their language instead of our language, it’s a sign that they want to talk about us without really including us.

 

And this writer really wants to talk about us, or more, our bodies. And the creepiest part about this is the way they keep mentioning “center of gravity” and how medical transition affects a person’s dancing, because this is used as a justification for the continued obsession over trans bodies and medical transition. Except, dance is not an excuse to pick apart someone else’s medical history. Dancers are allowed body autonomy and medical privacy, just like everyone else, even if their job happens to include presenting their body on stage. And it becomes really obvious what’s going on when it’s the trans dancers being presented alongside their medical history.

 

This is where it becomes a tangle. Because I am really not comfortable with trans bodies being such an object of fascination for cis people.

 

At the same time, there are so few trans dancers, that there is no information about what HRT or GRS or any gender-affirming procedure does to a dancer’s body, the way we have well-studied information on the effects of other physical changes on dancing (such as age, pregnancy…). This is the only way I, and other trans dancers, can find this information. It needs to be out there. I am so glad to know so much more about Sean Dorsey’s transition because I remember seeing him live and thinking that he was proof that only “fully transitioned” trans people (whatever that means? I was an insecure teenager at the time) could dance. This was something I needed to read because it isn’t something available to me in any other place.

 

And yet, it still disturbs me that I had to read it like this.

 

The other pattern here is this idea that trans people are the ones that break gender norms.

 

It’s a bit ironic because the article even ends with a warning not to include trans dancers simply for “edgy politics”, which I wholeheartedly support. And yet, the title, “What does it take to challenge dance’s gender norms?” suggests that 1) there are gender norms in dance, 2) we are interested in challenging them, and 3) the subject of the article (trans dancers) will be a way to challenge gender norms.

 

Which is particularly interesting, because the person that first showed me this article is a trans woman. And, her response to reading it was that she felt divided – she wanted to support this breaking of gender norms and gender neutrality and you have it, but she also felt firmly attached to being able to dance a specifically woman’s role, because it was an affirming experience for her.

 

Who am I to tell her she has to go off and challenge gender norms?

 

Who is some random journalist to suggest that her dancing has to challenge gender norms?

 

What if trans people don’t particularly want to challenge gender norms?

 

And what the hell is so challenging about a trans man dancing a man’s role on stage? It’s almost like cis people think trans people aren’t really our genders…

 

Trans existence is not inherently the antidote to strict, binary gender roles.

 

Cis people need to stop looking at trans people to challenge gender roles and start doing the work themselves.

 

And when I want to read an article about people like me, trans dancers, something so rare that it is easy to get sucked into a hopeless void of believing there is no one else, what I don’t need is a reminder of this expectation that I am the one supposed to challenge gender norms.

 

This is a good article. It is a good article because it doesn’t misgender the trans people interviewed. That’s a huge win that we don’t usually get in articles (yes, the bar really is that low). Except every trans person interviewed is binary and we are told the gender they were assigned at birth and how each one transitions.

 

This is a good article because it quotes trans people respectfully, because it recognizes that transition is a long, complicated, personal process, because it waits until halfway through the article to mention Caitlyn Jenner. And yet it is still clutching to recycled narratives of “born in the wrong body” and “transition is necessary for full transness” and “trans people, even binary ones, are breaking all the gender norms ever! AAAAAH!”

 

This is a good article because it is telling trans dancers like me that we are not alone. Because it gives us multiple role models to look towards. That makes it a necessary article. I am glad this article exists.

 

And yet, I am so sick of reading articles like this. I am sick of needing articles like this.

 

Can’t there be one article that provides the needed trans visibility without objectifying a single trans person?

 

You don’t reeeaaallly need to talk about this, do you?

tl;dr It’s necessary to recognize the affect gender has in spaces where it might not appear relevant, such as in a technique class. Sometimes transness, or other “irrelevant” things can deeply affect class experience and are worth noting. 

September 2016

One of the things I get a lot when I talk about being trans in dance is this sentiment that it’s really a silly thing to bring up in class. Like, a technique teacher doesn’t really need to know my gender in order to teach me proper technique, right?

Wrong.

Cis people, as lovely as certain individuals might be, do not realize how ingrained gender is in everything. Technique class isn’t just receiving technical training and corrections. It is receiving gendered technical training and corrections. Teachers expect different things from differently gendered dancers. Sometimes they even change their exercise for different gendered students.

For example, I know I constantly shock ballet teachers with my jumps and battery because I’ve been at an intermediate level for more or less everything and then suddenly I can do something that usually only advanced male dancers do. No one knows what to do with that because they’ve been too busy gendering (and not expecting an Irish dancer in ballet class). Sometimes also, these teachers put the people they consider men in front of the class, or don’t even set the same jumps on the people they consider women.

That’s just an example. But the point is this: Making a dance class unsafe for trans people can be as simple as an offhand comment about how the “men in the room” might have more difficulty with a certain movement. Saying gender isn’t important in a technique class is like saying it isn’t important in a Finnish class – we may be operating with a gender neutral vocabulary or movement that fits every body differently, regardless of gender, but as long as we, as a society, desperately cling onto binary notions of gender, it’s going to be an ever-present element to what we do (my old Finnish teacher was hilarious to be honest, I’d be quite happily taking advantage of the fact that it’s a gender neutral language to talk about a person without mentioning their gender and her first question would always be “is it a man or a woman?”).

My ballet class the other day was a good example. First, the very weird administrative system put my preferred name on all the induction registers, but not on class registers, so I was tricked into relaxing and then suddenly heard my legal name and had to go back to correcting teachers. From the teacher’s comments that it was strange that I went by such a drastically different name, I emotionally moved to the defensive. I felt like i had to protect myself in case comments that were a lot less neutral were coming.

Happily, nothing came of it. But there is a very vague thing that I can’t quite explain – I can tell when people who are interacting with me are perceiving me primarily as female or as a person. This teacher definitely perceived me as female and it affected my class.

It’s nothing new. It’s not even that horrible. But it does affect the way I move and interact with my body in class. And that affects my technique.

And I think it’s even more important in technique class than in the more touchy-feely-talky dance classes because there is no chance to dialogue in technique. If a teacher misgenders me and I correct them, I am disrupting the class with something that has no relevance with what I’m trying to learn.

So yes, it’s important for me to be out to technique teachers before class starts. And, on an even broader scale, it’s important and necessary that i can communicate with my technique teachers about things that might not directly link to the class, because those things are still relevant.

 

Dancing Selfishly

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.

September 2016

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.