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!

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?