Forgetting

By comparison with music, dance performance remains largely unbound by ever-present libraries of the historical canon. It easily forgets its own history and is therefore constantly in the process of reinventing itself, recast each time in a new body for a new decade.

From The Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows, p. 199

 

Since I’ve read this particular quote, way back in December, it has been sitting with me pretty strongly. I find it very hopeful.

 

Even as  feel like I’m bashing my head against institutions and social structures in vain, there is a process of forgetting. There is always a chance to reinvent dance in a more positive, inclusive light. We can always conveniently forget the discriminatory, oppressive bits and rework and rework and reform and recreate until dance is something worth showing to the world.

 

What came before is important. History is necessary. Modern dance in particular is rooted in feminism, something I have trouble remembering when I look at how the patriarchy has co-opted and controlled its development. But we don’t even have to use Martha Graham’s exact form of feminism to stay true to her history. We can change. We can become. We can grow. We can be as revolutionary as she was in our own time.

 

Let’s reinvent what counts as the canon for dance works, because it isn’t even invented yet.

 

Let’s recreate dance in our image.

 

Let’s reinvent the meaning of dance to include all dancers, and to stand against the hegemony and the social structures that pit us against each other.

 

Let’s value the power to forget because it allows us to become so much more.

Small changes

tl;dr Even while art is not always the fastest or most wide-reaching way to change the world, its impact on the individual scale can be powerful. 

 

I’ve been going through a period of disillusionment with art. Not terribly, I’ve just been thinking more about what art can’t do than what it can. No matter how many times we say that art is going to change the world, the fact is that we need a little bit more to create real, permanent change. That’s not a fault of art, it’s just practicality.

 

And sometimes, when I think about that too hard, I start thinking that maybe I should go do something a little more productive than making weird dance.

 

But there’s one thing that reminds me of why I do what I do, why I make the work that I do, and why I’m not going to stop in order to do something that might create change on a bigger, faster scale.

 

I’ve had a number of people approach me after seeing or experiencing some of my work and come out to me. I have even been the first person some people have come out to.

 

That’s a huge honour.

 

Now, coming out is a very complex thing and I don’t say this to mean “I’ve encouraged these people to embrace their true identity and share it with the world”, because I don’t believe that that’s necessarily what coming out is.

 

What it tells me is that I’ve created work that shows me to be a person worth coming out to. It means I created work so meaningful that my audience was moved to share a piece of themselves with me. It means that I fully succeeded in sharing myself with my audience.

 

It means I reached someone.

 

Most of the people that come  out to me are cis gay people, a couple bisexual ones. It’s not  usually trans people (usually the trans people that see my work are ones I already know and we have very different conversations about the work because of that). It’s people that see enough of our shared experience to connect with what I’m saying and have something to say back, but are also able to then reflect on their own actions and their own place in our community.

 

My work is allowing my audience to experience queer solidarity, to see a trans person both echo and challenge their experiences, to be part of our whole. And these people then trust me. And we can have a dialogue, in which I gain as much from them as they do from me.

 

It’s building connections between people and communities, which allow us to grow stronger together.

 

Recently, as part of my course, I created an installation in which, among other things, I asked my audience to write or draw their gender and display their response.* I got to do the exercise twice – once while the project was in development and once in the actual thing. The responses were breathtaking, from both cis and trans people. It was a way for everyone to take a moment and think about how weird and incomprehensible gender really was, and my audience took the opportunity with vigour – I got brilliant abstract images and images of people, I got responses ranging from “of course I’m this gender” to “I have no clue what this is, aaaaah!”

 

All of these responses were so honest and so personal, I was touched that so many people (including at least one of my assessors!) felt safe enough, curious enough, and open enough to share that with me and their fellow audience members.

 

How is that not going to change the world?

*Videos and photos of the project can be found here

This just in: Transphobia is a conspiracy!

tl;dr a single trans person’s single success is not proof that transphobia doesn’t exist

Someone said something to me a little while ago that still has me seething. There really wasn’t anything productive I could say in the moment, other than “nope, not talking about that”, but I’m still angry, so I’m going to write about it here.

 

To set the scene: I submitted a formal complaint that vaguely implicated my choreography teacher for incompetency related to transphobia. So, when it came to my assessment, I requested that there be a second marker present for my piece simply to ensure there was fair marking.  It was thanks to an amazing friend that my request was even granted. This was already seen by some people as “special treatment”.

 

Then, my choreography was one of a small number selected to be staged, which is a Really Big Deal.

 

One of the people that was suggesting I was getting “special treatment” then said to me, “so this proves that the conspiracy you were so worried about isn’t true.”

 

What she meant: the transphobia I argued against in my complaint and my distrust of the institution as a whole and certain teachers specifically is misplaced. This place isn’t transphobic because I now had one single success.

 

Fun fact: I’m a token! I am my school’s friendly token trans person. My presence allows my school to claim greater diversity than they actually have. It does not mean that my school isn’t transphobic.

 

Another fun fact: A single success of a single trans person does not mean transphobia is over! I mean, if that was the case, transphobia in dance would have already been conquered by Sean Dorsey, the first trans choreographer to be invited to the American Dance Festival, and Sophie Rebecca, the first known trans person to take an RAD exam. Little unimportant me and my puny, single success would be insignificant. Hell, I wouldn’t have had to submit a complaint in the first place because transphobia would be over. Except, we all know that’s not true.

 

Another fun fact: One single success does not negate everything that came before it. I was lied to and silenced and manipulated consistently for almost the entire academic year. Even if there had been a proper apology (though I’ve only gotten a couple throwaway ones…kind of…and a lot of implications that I’m overreacting) those are things that don’t go away overnight and speak to deeper structures of transphobia within the institution that will take a lot of time to dig through. Putting my choreography on a stage is a surface level, showy solution that doesn’t actually fix anything besides appearance. Plus, since we didn’t get choreographer bios in the program, any audience member that didn’t know me would have no clue that the piece was created by a trans person, so it really wasn’t a success for trans people at the institution, it was my personal success.

 

Final fun fact: Tranphobia is, in fact, a fucking conspiracy. Of course it is! Suggesting that I’m a conspiracy theorist for pointing out transphobia in an attempt to invalidate my feelings is just saying the truth – this is how oppressive systems work. This is what hegemony is.

 

When we have a system in which one group of people has power over another, in this case, my cis teachers having power over trans students, people in power want to keep their power and the privilege it accords them. It’s not always conscious, but the people in power construct a system that makes it very difficult for anyone without power to be heard or challenge the system. This is a conspiracy to maintain power.

 

When someone from an oppressed group challenges this conspiracy, it’s easy to invalidate our words as saying “oh, you’re just a conspiracy theorist, you’re paranoid, that’s not really going on”. That’s because the entire system has been built in favor of those in power, not because that person is wrong.

 

Yes. I’m paranoid. I have every right to be after an extreme lack of transparency and too much misinformation. Yes. This is a conspiracy. Because if the people in power had to listen to me, they would lose some of their power, and no one wants to lose their power (I get that, I really do. But it’s going to have to happen).

 

And no. Tokenizing me is not proof that the conspiracy doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s still part of a system that wants to keep me as quiet and docile as possible – give me just enough so that I don’t raise up a fuss and take away anyone’s power.

 

Thankfully, I had already raised up a pretty huge fuss by the time this happened.

Considerations for cis dance teachers: Challenging the status quo

tl;dr Cis dance teachers can support their trans students by challenging the status quo through role modelling for other cis dance teachers, challenging and working with the organizations they are affiliated with, and creating more opportunities for trans dancers. 

This is the end of my 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, and the second part, about challenging your assumptions, is here, and the third one, about how to prioritise trans people is here . This time, we end on ways you can use your privilege to challenge the status quo and make more spaces available for trans people.

 

It’s hard, but you do have to challenge the institutional transphobia, cissexism, and essentialism that surrounds you. You cannot get comfortable with how things are. If there’s inequality present, there is nothing comfortable with how things are, even if it’s comfortable for you:

 

  1. Be a role model. Tell other cis dance teachers about what you’re doing to support trans dancers in your classes. Offer them resources. Explain all the above things to them. Encourage them to make their own changes. Cis people listen to better when it’s a cis person talking. Only the best cis dance teachers are going to read this rant by a frustrated trans person, but you have the power to get the average cis dance teacher to listen.

 

  1. Notice the dance organizations you are affiliated with. Are they actively transphobic or do they rely too heavily on biological essentialism? Can they do better? If so, you have two options, depending on the situation – either you can draw problems to the attention of the powers that be in that organization and demand they start looking towards steps to alter this or you can disengage from the organization as quickly as possible, while make it Very Clear why you are doing so (if you just sneak away in the dead of night without explanation, that’s not going to give the organization the feedback they need in order to enact change. It can be exhausting to directly challenge discrimination, so there’s no reason for you to stay and challenge everything all the time, but leaving with an explanation such as “As someone that teaches trans students and wants to create a welcoming space for trans dancers in my classes, I cannot remain affiliated with an organization that promotes gender essentialism in this way” can actually make a huge difference).

 

  1. Check with examination regulations before entering students. This is more of a 2.5, but I just want to add this specific action in because it’s something concrete that I know a little about. For people in places where exams are popular, if you have the power to enter people into exams, call up and ask about policies concerning gender before a student flags it. You want to make sure that, not only will you be able to enter binary gendered trans people into exams as their gender, but also that nonbinary dancers will be granted enough options that they do not face the discomfort of having to misgender themselves in order to take an exam. This could either look like an exam that is exactly the same, regardless of gender, or where the options are defined by dancer’s preference instead of gender, or providing a third, “neutral” option. Of course the first option is the best one, but this is something dance organizations are still working on. Just like this guide is in steps, take on organizations in steps. Find what change they’re willing to make, allow them time to get comfortable with it, and then suggest the next change.

 

  1. Create opportunities for trans dancers and others involved in dance. Think about it – if dance organizations (and the exams coming with it) are still seeped in their transphobic, essentialist ways, young trans dancers do not have access to the same amount of programming, support, and mentorship that their cis counterparts do. You know all those programs to “bring youth into the arts” or “young choreographers” nights? Those are harder for young trans dance artists to take part in and, if we do get to take part, we are often caught struggling with being the only trans person present, and even sometimes having to compromise our transness in order to get the experience we need to be professional dancers. If it is within your power, make opportunities for us – choreograph a piece specifically for trans dancers, organize a young choreographers’ night for trans (or queer) voices. Training or mentorship programs can say “trans dancers/choreographers/directors encouraged to apply” and then prioritise the trans applicants. Create chances for trans dance artists to receive the same amount of exposure and experience that cis dance artists do without having to compromise their identity in order to do so.

 

 

I’m going to leave the lists at this for a moment. I’d love to open this up to other trans dancers to talk about the useful things their teachers have done or things they would like their teachers to do. And, if you are a cis dance teacher, I really encourage you to start thinking about this. You don’t have to be perfect overnight, change takes time. But the sooner you start thinking and processing, the sooner dance is going to be a more welcoming place for trans dancers.

 

And, finally, I want to bring us back to a point I made well at the beginning of this series: challenging transphobia, cissexism, and gender essentialism in the dance studio doesn’t only benefit trans students, it benefits cis dance students too.

 

Considerations for cis dance teachers: Prioritising trans people

tl;dr Cis dance teachers can start to prioritise trans dancers in dance spaces through networking with and referring to trans people, attending performances that involve trans people, and putting trans people in leadership positions. 

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,  and the second part, about challenging your assumptions, is here. This time, I’m going to write about prioritising trans people in dance spaces.

 

Why should we prioritise trans people? Shouldn’t we be trying to find an egalitarian, level situation in which no one is prioritised?

 

The fact is that, right now, treating trans dancers like cis dancers ignores the way we are disadvantaged in dance – we have less opportunities available to us due to lack of awareness, lack of safety, lack of support, and the simple fact that dance is currently controlled by cis dancers. I know it can be hard and there are a lot of other factors at play here, but we will not get even close to equalizing dancers unless we actively work to prioritise those that are currently disadvantaged. In this case, I am discussing trans dancers, but this is equally true of other marginalized dancers, such as those with mental illness or dancers of colour, so I would definitely encourage dance teachers to extend these practices beyond gender and transness, because this is one of those things that can really change the perspective and make-up of the dance world.

 

And, here is your list (short, but sweet):

1. Refer your students to trans specialists and hire them yourselves. If you have a trans dance teaching colleague, recommend them to students! If you know a trans dance physio, refer students to them! If you know a trans musician or just happen to like their music, use it in class and mention their name to your students. Or if you have the amazing ability to teach with a live musician, you can even hire them! If you know a trans director or producer or choreographer or costumer or lighting designer, refer people and hire them if you need one! Attend classes led by trans teachers.  Basically, use your power as a cis dance teacher to give trans people related to the dance world visibility and work they might not otherwise have. And, most importantly, as you continue to make use of trans resources, you will gain professional development and learn more about how to support your trans students and make your classroom more trans-friendly

2. Attend and recommend trans performances. If you know there’s a trans dancer in a show or, in a more exciting turn of events, a performance organized specifically with trans dancers in mind, go to it. Give it your money, your presence, and suggest your students go too. If it makes sense in your class structure, you can even make it a class outing or have a discussion about the piece (NOT the validity of the dancers’ genders or transness) afterwards.

3. Put trans people in leadership positions. While this might not work if you’re teaching classes out of your basement, any involvement in an organization is a chance to put this in action. Referring is important here too. It will be uncomfortable, but if you are offered a leadership position at the detriment of a fully qualified trans person, it is your responsibility to make sure that the trans person gets the position. If someone puts you in a leadership position particularly because of your trans allyship (because, if you’ve gotten all the way to this point in the guide, you’re doing pretty good), refer a trans person for that role. You should not be the expert on trans people, no matter how wonderful an ally you are.

If you have the power to choose leaders, choose trans people. Even something as small as saying “trans dancers highly recommended to apply” can promote the prioritisation of trans leadership.

Leadership also includes choreographers, directors, and producers. It doesn’t matter how many trans people are dancing if cis people are still making all the decisions. Give trans dancers decision-making powers.

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!