Career

What Does It Take to Challenge Dance's Gender Norms?

For Sean Dorsey, the dance studio used to be a source of pain that had nothing to do with dancing. "I would go to the women's dressing room and change there," he says. "That was, every day, this kind of knife in my heart."

Though the classes thrilled him, having to use facilities that didn't correspond with his gender identity made him feel extremely self-conscious and ashamed. Later, as an adult, Dorsey noticed that "people like me weren't onstage. Our stories weren't being told through dance."

An increasing number of out transgender performers and choreographers like Dorsey (one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" in 2010) are working to fill that gap by challenging gender norms in dance, onstage and off. For an art form with deeply ingrained gender divisions, that's no easy task. Currently, from the moment a child steps into a dance studio, their training is often determined by gender. Ballet in particular breaks up genders into separate classes, demands gender-specific clothing, teaches gender-specific combinations and values gender-specific qualities. By explicitly addressing the politics of gender in their work and advocating for changes to these traditions, transgender artists today are helping to expand dance's representation of gender.


A self-described "physically precocious" kid, Jules Skloot began ballet early, while being raised as a girl. But at age 5, he came home and said, "It's not what my body wants to do," he recalls. "I had a sense that I wanted to dance, but not in that way." Even when he started serious Graham training, the leotards and flowing skirts felt wrong on his body as he went through puberty. "I just felt a lot of discomfort in costuming," he says. Still, he was drawn to the way modern dance involved people of all genders, shapes and races partnering each other and dancing together. "That was exhilarating to me," he says.

Jules Skloot. Photo by Angela Jimenez, courtesy Skloot.

Shortly after receiving his master's in dance, Skloot started working with Katy Pyle, a cisgender (non-trans) dancer who trained in classical ballet but was interested in scrambling the gender politics of the form. Pyle points out that, unlike some postmodern and experimental dance that tends to ignore gender, her Brooklyn-based company Ballez wants to tackle it head-on. "We're using these definitions of masculinity and femininity to create something that's not neutral, but it's layered and it's complicated," she says.

Ballez's ensemble represents the spectrum of gender identities and it doesn't adhere to traditional gender roles in casting. For example, in the company's 2013 take on The Firebird, Skloot danced the titular role, usually portrayed by a ballerina, and Pyle's character was billed as the "lesbian princess," while the "princes" were danced by women, transmasculine and gender-nonconforming individuals. Gender isn't erased, but it's intentionally and shrewdly dissected. That ethos offers a place in the ballet canon for those who, like Skloot, felt excluded from it in their youth.

Sorceress and Princes from The Firebird, a Ballez. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

The experience of valuing the body as an artistic instrument while also feeling disconnected from it can be a disorienting one. Choreographer Arrie Davidson came out as transgender three and a half years ago, though she always knew she was a girl and refers to her childhood as "when I was pretending to be a boy." As a professional dancer, she spent hours editing her bio to avoid using the pronouns "he" or "she."

Now in her 40s and undergoing hormone-replacement therapy, Davidson says that the hesitation to physically transition sooner was partially personal, "but part of it was, 'What does that mean as a dancer?' " She wondered, "If I change my body, is my career over?" She found no out transgender dancers to point the way.

"It's scary to go, 'Well, what is an audience going to think of me now? What are they going to perceive? How do I costume myself?' " Davidson says. Prominent transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner may have given people the impression that a transition can take place overnight, but it is a complex multiyear process. Davidson decided she wouldn't stop performing. "I'm on the roller coaster and I'm not turning it around," she says. Instead, she grapples with it in her work, like the recent production Wonder/Through the Looking-Glass Houses, a modern take on Lewis Carroll's Alice tales, in which she uses her character, the White Rabbit, to slyly address transgender issues.

Arrie Davidson with Cecily McCullough in Wonder/Through the Looking-Glass Houses. Photo by Caitlin Shea, Courtesy Davidson

She has also learned to take pleasure in, and laugh at, the process of dealing with a new center of gravity as her body develops curves. Fortunately, she's been able to use her well-honed physical intuition as a dancer to adjust her workouts to give her changing body what it needs. The shift has been psychological, too—losing a bit of control over her body has led to an "openness of exploration on a deeper level" because she no longer judges herself based on past expectations.

Initially, the San Francisco–based Dorsey decided not to physically alter his body. "I was really out and outspoken as trans and making work for 10 years before I chose to take testosterone," he says. "There's a spectrum of the way people express as transgender." During that time, he dealt with the discomfort of dancing with a binder, a restrictive wrap that flattens the chest. He decided to have top surgery (a chest recon­struction similar to a double mastectomy), which he calls a "massive removal of a daily, hourly stress that I lived with moving through the world." Several years later, he began to take testosterone.

The gradual transition allowed Dorsey to closely observe how his dancing changed in relation to his body. His shoulders and chest broadened, which, like Davidson, shifted his center of gravity; he noticed greater physical strength, too. As all dancers learn to do, Dorsey was checking in with his body every step of the way. "It felt very aligned and very right, every moment of that progression."

Sean Dorsey. Photo by Lydia Daniller, courtesy Dorsey

That careful attention has served him well in teaching. "I have a unique insider perspective from different parts of the gender spectrum," he says, which helps him connect with students and dancers of all genders.

Transitioning is a very personal journey, but dance is a communal art form. Transgender performers point out that most studios, schools, performance venues, companies and choreographers can do more to make transgender and gender-nonconforming dancers feel welcome. Dorsey shares that many avoid dance studios, yoga studios and gyms because "all of these spaces continue to be profoundly unsafe for trans people, both physically and emotionally."

Over the past several years, Dorsey's company has traveled around the country presenting work like The Missing Generation, The Secret History of Love and Uncovered: The Diary Project, which each address aspects of LGBTQ experiences. He says that "one of the seeds we plant" is asking venues to provide at least one non-gendered restroom.

In terms of training and performance, children who come out at a young age should be welcomed into the class that corresponds to their preferred gender identity, says Davidson. Later in their career, making transgender and gender-nonconforming dancers feel welcome at auditions is another step of inclusion. "Every audition, I put 'All Genders Welcome,' " says Davidson.

Some styles of dance, like ballet, which are more driven by tradition, seem to be less open to transgender dancers compared with contemporary and experimental dance, which tend to be more interested in challenging social norms. Still, Skloot warns choreographers against using transgender dancers just for the sake of incorporating edgy politics, which can feel "tokenizing." "There are so many other parts of me," he says. "And so many other things I want to explore artistically."

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

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Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

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Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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