George Balanchine once famously said, “Ballet is woman.” He might as well have added man into that sentence. However, ballet has long been preserving its male-female binary tradition. Most ballet techniques and movements segregate itself into gender based categories. It is not a surprise, therefore, hat the dance world is not welcoming to LGBTQ+ and Non-Binary Artists, and many schools are still struggling to welcome dancers who are nonbinary, transgender, gender-fluid, gender-nonconforming or still discovering their gender identities.
In 2019, #BoysDanceToo began to trend after the hosts of Good Morning America joked about Prince George taking ballet classes. This bullying took place even though it is no secret that young boys who enroll in dance classes face bullying to an outstanding degree: 85% of male ballet students in the United States. This was when our community fought back, with dancers posting photos and videos of amazing men flying through the air showcasing the power, grace and masculinity of dance. These photos and videos showed traditionally masculine dancers who were heavily muscled, showing off incredible athleticism. The endless anecdotes about the strength of ballet dancers were rising. However, this all focused on hypermasculinity. Even though that is undeniably beautiful, it is time to explore gender beyond the male/female binary and whether dance, a deeply patriarchal institution, is adapting to today’s evolving gender and sexuality norms.
Sean Dorsey, a San Francisco-based choreographer, dancer, writer, teaching artist and cultural activist who is recognized as the U.S.’ first acclaimed transgender modern dance choreographer, immacultely captures the amusement and disappointment of this event, “Yes of course we should rise up and speak out when young cis-gender boys are bullied simply for studying ballet. But that should have only been one element of a much larger, intersectional conversation. Unfortunately, it’s about as far as the media and the mainstream dance field went. Where was the outrage for the immense bullying and harm to trans girls and boys and non-binary kids who want to or are studying dance? Where was the outrage around white supremacy in the ballet field and modern dance field (and America in general)?” He continued, “And why did the entire conversation largely REINFORCE toxic masculinity ‘hey, men ballet dancers ARE strong, tough and they’re still REAL MEN!’ rather than tackling it ‘we reject homophobic and transphobic toxic notions of masculinity! Instead, we celebrate the glorious, full range of human expression available to all of us who love ballet – we are strong, we are fluid, we are expressive, we are tender, we are vulnerable, we are beautiful!’.”
Take Scout’s story for example. As a Cleveland dancer who dreams of performing male roles in a major ballet company, he was assigned female at birth and is transitioning to male, and uses male pronouns. He was struggling to train mainly as a female up until about age 17. After he came out as trans at age 15, he considered quitting ballet altogether. Unconfident if he could train as a male at his studio, he enrolled in classes elsewhere. Even so, he was determined to be himself in the ballet world and earned a full male scholarship to BalletMet’s 2018 trainee program. He has deferred for a year while he adjusts to hormone treatment and recovers from his surgery. In the meantime, he is training with Inlet Dance Theatre, a contemporary company in Cleveland. He says, "They've been absolutely amazing with accepting me and training me as 100 percent male. Since I am so new into my transition, there's a lot of things I'm way behind with compared to other guys my age."
This might give you a sense to the elation a nonbinary dancer feels when they are finally able to dance as their true selves after fought for their authenticity. Nevertheless, these stories about nonbinary dancers are barely told.
Less isn’t always more. Katy Pyle, the artistic director of Brooklyn- based Ballez says, "My position is 'gender-expansive,' versus 'gender-neutral. I'm not interested in 'degendering' anything. I'm interested in expanding ideas about who can do what." In 2011, Pyle founded Ballez during an artist’s residency at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange in order to offer dancers a radically inclusive queer space. Even though the classes have evolved, the goal still remains the same: to offer the same exercises as a regular ballet class but with more friendliness, inclusiveness, space, and humor. She repurposes assumptions about gender roles to help students recognize and break habits.
Kait Dessoffy, a Chicago-based teacher and freelance artist, keeps the "fact" of a dancer's identity separate from the "fiction" of their movement material. "Distinctions could be much clearer between how we address people as human beings, versus as dancers or as characters onstage," says Dessoffy, who uses they/them pronouns. "I perform a lot of roles originally created for female dancers and I'm comfortable with that." A student of theirs, assigned male at birth, "likes to wear a tutu and has so much fun with it. Creating an environment where that's okay is important.”
Dessoffy suggests instead of saying "women's variation" and "men's variation," just "Variation A" and "Variation B." "Surely we could all learn both tracks," they say. Dessoffy addresses their youngest students with gender-nonspecific language, calling them "dancers" instead of "boys and girls'' and avoids making any assumptions about gender identity. They divide the room randomly and jump in immediately whenever they see aggressively gendered language being used among students.
Dorsey says that hiring trans teachers and faculty members is a powerful way to model inclusivity. "People talk a lot about 'doing the hard work' and 'the heavy lifting' of justice and equity," says Dorsey. "For me it brims with love and joy and good humor and all the most beautiful parts of humanity. It doesn't need to be some dreaded obligation. It's actually an invitation to connect with a more glorious range of human beings, to see and learn things in new ways."
On that note, here are some ways to make your dance studio more Inclusive for LGBTQ+ Dancers.
First, identify your own biases. In order to truly build an inclusive dance community, we need to take some time to reflect and see where our own personal biases and stereotypes are and how they affect our words and actions. Spending some time with questions that provide some insight into some internal biases we were unaware of is extremely important.
Second, use LGBTQ+ inclusive language. One of the quickest ways we can benign to be more inclusive is using appropriate language. Instead of ““boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen,” we can address students as “dancers”. This moves away from the binary language and allows students to build their identity as dancers also.
Lastly, integrate LGBTQ+ Topics into dance especially in teaching. We need to consider how we can imbed LGBTQ+ issues, accomplishments, and history into the lessons, especially if we are a teacher. Advocating for LGBTQ+ dancers can be done by educating students about these topics. These things will ultimately create a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.
So far, dancers who don’t fit into the binary have been quashed, and there is not a lot of lesbian, gender fluid and queer representation in dance. The dance community is finally expanding and starting to include all voices and stories, both in and out of mainstream companies, but there is still a long way to go.
Dance ED Tip #69: How to Make Your Dance Studio More Inclusive for LGBTQ+ Dancers