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.

I did this

tl;dr despite teachers that insult me in their congratulations or take credit for my hard work, I am celebrating my successes as mine

It’s amazing how often teachers want to take credit for their student’s success.

 

It’s amazing how many of the compliments I’ve received from teachers in the past year have been couched either in insult or a self-congratulatory, “I did this for you”.

 

I’ve actually had teachers say “I was surprised you managed to accomplish anything”, as if their lack of faith in me, after having known me for a month, was to be expected and not a horrifying insult.

 

Here’s the thing I wish I could tell to every single one of my teachers this year: I was amazing before I came to this program. I was a good artist, a thoughtful person, and used to working rigorously. I entered this program believing that you would treat me like I was competent and, instead, you treated me like I was completely clueless. I appeared clueless to you because you weren’t looking for anything else. My success on this program came from the moment I chose to ignore you and to work on my own practice.

 

I did this.

 

In fact, my blind trust in my teachers’ experience and knowledge made me a worse artist for a long period of time. So many of my teachers told me I “found my voice” during their program, as if it was their careful guidance that helped me there.

 

Anyone who’s seen my work from before I entered the program would know that I actually already had a pretty strong artistic voice. I entered the program because I wanted to develop and stregnthen it. Instead, I lost it. In what I thought was an attempt to learn, I took my teachers’ advice too much to heart and I lost my artistic integrity.

 

I did that.

 

I regret it.

 

But what that experience did, beyond all else, was strengthen my conviction in what I do.

 

I know how to work. I know my voice. I know what to say and how to say it. I love the rigorous process of exploration and creation.

 

I had all of that before I started.

 

Now I know I have all of that.

 

Teachers don’t get to insult me for that. And they definitely don’t get to take credit for my hard work.

 

I was the one who succeeded.

 

 

 

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

Trump, military service, trans people…why this matters

tl;dr Due to the way military is linked to American society, a certain idiot’s twitter attempt to ban trans people from the military could have some pretty terrible effects, so we really need to think about how we support trans people.

[cw: Trump, transphobia, mentions of trans violence]

I’m opposed to trans people serving in the military.

 

I’m opposed to anyone serving in the military.

 

I am completely and utterly opposed to the military-industrial complex and the way military has embedded itself in our culture. Military service comes as much from coercion and oppression as it does from choice. Probably more so. Military service promotes US imperialism through violent tactics.

 

There was a lot of talk about this with DADT. Some queer people opposed anything that opened doors for more people to serve in the military because of this.

 

But we have to realize that, no matter our feelings on the military, it is deeply, deeply rooted in our society and any move to explicitly keep a group of people from serving both reflects current society and will be reflected back in society.

 

I mean, there’s a reason DADT was repealed first, before DOMA.

 

Trump and his republicans have done so many unspeakable things. The possibility of an Obamacare repeal is very real and will cost so many lives (though hurrah for our current healthcare victory, let’s hope it lasts). The travel ban has denied entry to people from muslim predominant countries and, as it continues to have life and presence in our media, it propagates racist, islamophobic nonsense that is being used to justify terrible discrimination well inside our borders. This is overwhelmingly terrifying, and it’s only two of the many things happening…

 

And yet, there’s still something particularly chilling about banning military service. People have already commented to point out the huge number of trans people that serve in the military who have effectively now lost their job. That alone should be a huge warning sign.

 

But why trans people? These assholes hate everyone. Why did a certain idiot target trans people this time?

 

Because we’re the weakest, the most vulnerable, and easiest to destroy in society. The choice reflects us, our society that we have made. If someone was on a mission to remove all marginalized groups from society (not naming any names here, but…), they’d start with the weakest, get an easy win, and then move on.

 

The position of trans people in the military is already pretty fraught. It really was only just a year ago that it became explicitly clear that trans folks could serve. And before then, there were trans versions of don’t ask, don’t tell, requirements of passing (which is so gross, I can’t even comment), trans people being barred from service because gender identity disorder was in the DSM-IV as a mental illness (and gender dysphoria still is in the DSM-V). And there’s still this underlying believe that most cis people hold that trans-related health care “frivolous” and a “commodity” as opposed to an absolute necessity, so it’s easy to go “meh, don’t really want to pay for this if I don’t have to”, which is really not a way any employer should consider their potential employees, let alone the fucking military.

 

Add that to the high rates of violence against trans people. Employment discrimination. Housing discrimination. Stupid, gross bathroom bills designed to keep us out of public spaces. Inaccessible medical costs. Sexual violence. Even the fact that many shelters turn away trans women.

 

We’re talking a highly, highly vulnerable population that is already easy to “pick off”, for lack of a more polite word for what’s happening here.

 

And this new thing – banning trans people from the military is the highest form of legitimization these assholes can give to the people killing and harming my trans siblings. Whether we like it or not, it’s the highest authority and model of behavior we have in the United States. Society will follow. The idiot tweets that medical costs for trans people are a burden. That’s the beginning of a trend of all medical insurance companies to drop their funding for trans-related medical costs. That’s the beginning of employers getting away with refusing to take on trans employees because of the burdens. That’s the beginning of more murderers being able to make use of the fucking trans “panic” defense to get off after murdering another trans person.

 

It’s already happening, and now it’s going to get worse, because the military is being told to point its finger and we are Americans.

 

This should be a wake-up call for everyone. Not like we shouldn’t already be wide awake considering the context this is happening in. We need each other and we need our allies more than ever. We need to fight this. We need to put more money into protecting trans people, on both local and national levels. We need to fund the services that provide all trans-related healthcare and ensure that health insurance will cover it. We need to create job opportunities for trans people and support trans creators. We need to establish safe and affordable housing for trans people. And we need to make sure every trans person knows they aren’t alone.

 

Because we aren’t.

 

So let’s stand together and show Trump and every other fucking asshole that wants us gone that we aren’t as vulnerable as they thought. We’re not their easy win.

 

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.

“Tradition”

tl;dr The use of the word “tradition” is often a value judgement used to validate or discredit certain styles of dance, and should not be considered a neutral term. 

 

Something that comes up a lot with my creative work, particularly because I’m an Irish dancer, is the concept of tradition. I first learned to dance within a folk dance community and, later, danced and performed in a few different folk and traditional dance groups.

 

I’ve developed my own personal questions about appropriation and respect and am now a lot more careful of how and when I partake in traditional and folk dance forms. But the question of tradition is still there with everything I do.

 

Irish dance is a competitive form of dance, but it is also a folk dance, and it is also a traditional form of dance, and I think it’s a very good example of what I’m talking about because the way the word “tradition” has been used and misused and redefined for Irish dance is blaringly obvious.

 

I’d like to start with a video. This man, Joe O’Donovan, is said to have been the last of the Irish dancing masters. In many ways, he was a keeper of Irish dance history and tradition, both in practice and as a symbol. It’s impossible to reconstruct dance, but this is one version of what Irish dance used to be, at one point in history. To be more exact – this is part of the tradition being referenced when people talk about the tradition of Irish dance, even if they don’t realize that that’s what they’re referencing.

 

Anyone’s who’s done an Irish hornpipe will probably recognize the elements of these steps (tip down, treble hop back, drums, some nice stamps and sweeps and hoppy things), but it doesn’t look anything like the clean, polished en masse unison of Riverdance, or the treble hornpipes done in competitions in ridiculously sparkly dresses and giant wigs, or even the quirky, cabaret-style coming out of Up and Over It (they became popular a few years back for the hand dance? Remember that? Hrm….go look it up if you haven’t).

 

But, we’re still talking about all of these different types of Irish step dance as “traditional”. How is that possible?

 

I know some people, usually the ones who partake in old-style sean-nos dancing, who will argue that there’s nothing traditional about competitive Irish dance today. I’ve even heard people tell me that Riverdance isn’t actually Irish dance (I call bullshit). On the other extreme, there are the people that extol the virtues of Irish step dance as a traditional dance form, as if that gives a highly competitive (vaguely soul-sucking, shhh, I’m not sour that I couldn’t handle the pressure of competition or anything) dance form more value than other forms of competitive dance (like, it’s not So You Think You Can Dance, so it’s more real ™ ?)

 

I’m not really convinced by either extreme.

 

The thing is, tradition is being used here much more as a value judgement than a describer. If something is “traditional”, it’s “good” in a way that anything “contemporary” or “untraditional” isn’t.

 

Which, of course, brings us back to my high school history classes and discussions of nationalism. Irish dance exists as it is today because of nationalism. Because the Gaelic league wanted to establish traditional Irish dance as part of defining Ireland and what it meant to be Irish. They wanted Irish dance to show off how great Irishness was. Anything considered “foreign” was removed (note: part of tradition and folk culture is that mixing happens, especially for a dance form starting in an immigrant community, as the history of codified Irish dance actually started the Irish community in London).*

 

Irish dance was codified, we could even say “purified” and, most importantly, legitimized. While odd quirks of the original dance still exist (the awkward “tip down” in the hornpipe, beautiful ankle twisty things and cross-keys, the ridiculously awkward soft jig, and of course every Irish dancer knows their sevens and their threes), it was slowly altered into a form completely distinct from its origins.

 

My dance school’s library (“the best dance library in the country” or some nonsense like that) has two books on Irish step. Both were written by Irish scholars from this time period. And the interesting thing is that both attempt to apply ballet terminology to Irish step. This is a clear example of legitimation – popular culture being rewritten in terms of high culture. But, of course, “point and point hop back two three” is very different from “tendu, jump, tendu, passé, step to sousous”, no matter how you look at it.

 

The act of legitimizing a folk tradition, particularly in a context of nationalism, reveals a deep discomfort with the original tradition. This is most obviously classist (what is often considered “traditional” is often simply the tradition of the peasant class, which becomes a mythologized entity whose culture the ruling class can exploit for their own image), but it is also important to understand that, quite often, folk and popular culture give voice to women, queer people, and people of color (to varying extents, depending on the tradition and the place). In the collection and purification process, these voices and elements are removed alongside the various dances that were deemed “un-Irish”. Nic Garreiss has some strong insight on these patterns in Irish music specifically concerning sexuality. 

Dancing at the crossroads was originally a community activity between villages, particularly for young people to meet each other. Now, committed Irish step dancers spend hundreds of dollars on solo dresses in order to compete. Both are part of the same tradition, but there’s a huge difference in interests that shows how lower classes have been removed from the picture in favour of literal shiny, sparkly things.

 

At the same time, legitimation also reveals this desperate need to preserve. After cleaning up and legitimizing tradition by redefining it in the terms of those with power, a “tradition” must be kept in a shiny glass box and never altered in order to remain “traditional”.

 

Except the folklore and traditions coming out of any nationalism-fuelled act of preservation are never going to be the source tradition. Tradition is about change. Folklore is about mutation. I love and study fairy tales because they were, and still are, a way for the “folk” to comment on their daily lives. Daily lives change. Especially in places where huge waves of nationalism are altering politics, literature, science, etc., daily lives and the world the “folk” live in is always changing and moving. The minute we try to freeze it, we’re going to lose it. It is no longer tradition. It is something else.

 

When we use “tradition” as a value judgement, as a way to say “well, it’s good, because it’s traditional”, we’re missing the point. We’ve not only removed the “tradition” from its context and forced it to become something else, we’re keeping it from following it’s natural change. We lose tradition more by trying to preserve it than by allowing it to change. So, competitive Irish dance? Definitely not a tradition I am part of. And it is definitely not the only Irish dance tradition in existence. And it cannot be disconnected from a history of nationalism and purification. But it’s still traditional.


*For those that are interested in this history, I highly recommend The Story of Irish Dance by Helen Brennan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No, letting me choose isn’t a solution

Tl;dr Asking nonbinary people to choose between two binary options instead of accommodating us, while better than nothing, is actually a way to continue to not actually support nonbinary people.

 

In a binary universe, nonbinary people are usually seen as “in between” or a “mix” of the two binary genders. This makes sense – when we’ve been conditioned to believe only two options exist, it’s really hard to not use those options as a reference when trying to understand a third (or fourth, or fifth) option.

 

And while I really hate referring to myself in terms of binary genders, there are circumstances when I will, because the person I’m talking to isn’t quite ready leave behind the references. It’s like training wheels. With some people, I can happily rip them off and they’ll happily go careening into the gender unknown, but some people really need some time to get rid of their training wheels. I mean, when I learned to ride a bike, my grandfather had to trick me into thinking he was holding me up. Brains are weird.

 

There is one trend, though, that I would really like to see squashed into the dirt, and it’s this idea that nonbinary people can choose between the two genders at whim. This can happen in a number of circumstances. Sometimes in a dance class, men and women are offered different movement options, and if I flag that with a teacher as a problem, they tell me I get to choose. Sometimes it’s when there are two unmoveable categories, I’m thinking of Asia Kate Dillon being asked to choose between “actor” and “actress” for the Emmys. That particular example is actually pretty cool, because it turned out that neither category has a gender requirement, but, at the end of the day, they were still forced to choose between two gendered options. There’s also the time I was working at a camp and, the last night, staff got two cabins – a women’s and a men’s. When I asked where I should go, the director just shook her head and told me to choose.

 

These are just examples, but really, it’s any situation in which the categorization of male/female seems absolutely and utterly necessary, to the point that no one knows what to do with someone who falls outside of that category. Instead of accommodating us, they tell us to make the decision, putting the responsibility on us.

 

Sometimes it’s necessary to choose, leave the training wheels on for another day. Choosing is better than nothing, it gives a level of freedom and power over our identity that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

 

But asking us to choose, not only puts the responsibility on us (which is really, a very twisty way to not actually accommodate nonbinary folks), it is literally forcing us to misgender ourselves. When I’m given two options and told to choose, even if it is intended in the most well-meaning way possible, what is really being asked is still “so which binary option are you really?”

 

Not only would making any choice be a form of misgendering, I feel like I’m being tricked to tell the asker things I don’t want to tell them. If I choose the male option, I fit into a pattern of trans masculinity and fulfil the cis person’s tricycle narrative of “man born in a woman’s body” (because society has decided I have a woman’s body, even though it really is just my body, and, thus, nonbinary). If I choose the female option, it’s proof that I’m not really that trans because I choose something that correlates to my assigned gender.

 

And, at the end of the day, I’m being forced into a box that isn’t mine, except with the appearance that I’ve chosen that box. And I’m all for boxes, but I like being able to choose mine, not forced to choose between two that definitely aren’t mine.

 

This needs to stop. Nonbinary people aren’t Schrodingers gender – nothing until asked to choose. We’re not secretly binary. We’re nonbinary. Whether or not we’re comfortable choosing between two binary options (and some of us are more than others), we shouldn’t have to choose unless we want to.

 

Asking me to choose is a very good way to get me to rip the training wheels off immediately. Because seriously? I’m really sick of people assuming that, deep down, I am one binary gender or the other.