Growing up, I quit ballet as soon as the schools where I was training no longer required it. Because of ballet's adherence to a strict gender binary, I often felt excluded and frustrated by the art form, even before I had the language to identify how it heightened my gender dysphoria. Midway through college, I quit dance altogether, except for the occasional class, and took up weight lifting instead. But at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began taking virtual ballet as a way to stay strong and exercise inside my apartment.
A friend of mine was taking classes on Zoom from a teacher who she said was particularly kind and thoughtful, and she invited me to join her. I agreed because I needed a distraction and my muscles craved fatigue. Ballet still made me anxious, and I even cried after class for the first few weeks.
But overall, ballet felt much more casual. Nobody had a barre at home, many people weren't wearing leotards, and the main focus was on dancing together as best as we could during a time of crisis. Soon, my previous associations with the technique started to fade. Ballet began to ignite joy in me, and I started taking up to five virtual classes a week from New York City studios, like Ballet Arts, Peridance and Broadway Dance Center. In doing so, I've caught glimpses of what inclusive, gender-expansive ballet could look and feel like.
I didn't come to understand myself as nonbinary until I was 20, but when I did, my frustrations with my dance training began to make sense. I remember being 14, looking through the studio windows at the boys' ballet class and longing to be in there myself, working on leaps and turns and strengthening my shoulders. At home, I practiced tours and could consistently land a clean double. But during class, even when we were given the option to do either tours or turns from fifth, I felt self-conscious, like everyone was looking at me if I chose the "boy" step.
Now, even though I take virtual classes with my camera on, there's much less scrutiny from my peers or teachers when I, a feminine person, do a typically masculine step. Alone in my apartment, no spotlight catches me, nobody laughs, and my choice isn't perceived as a statement. I can do tours and mess up. I can be mediocre, because I don't have to justify why I'm choosing a step that doesn't match the gender I was assigned at birth.
During virtual classes I feel more comfortable dressing in gender-affirming dancewear. If I go to a studio wearing leggings and a T-shirt, traveling across the floor between women in their beautiful leotards and skirts can make me feel like I don't belong or like I'm doing something wrong. It also helps that I don't have large mirrors at home, and while that's frustrating for self-correcting my alignment, it alleviates the dysphoria of looking in a mirror for an hour and a half, knowing that everybody in the room perceives me as a woman. On Zoom, I can put my pronouns in my screen name.
In a 1988 article titled "Performative Arts and Gender Constitution" in Theater Journal, queer theorist Judith Butler posits that "gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self." Virtual classes have given me the opportunity to explore how to do ballet like a nonbinary dancer, like myself. Dancing alone has taught me how to break out of the ingrained training of performing the bodily gestures, movements and enactments of womanhood in ballet.
Instead of focusing on maintaining a delicate quality, I might explore working with a lower center of gravity. Instead of moving my arms like they're floating, I might move them as if they're underwater, resisting the space they move through. Or I can combine these qualities, blending masculinity and femininity as much as I want. And isn't this blend part of what makes ballet interesting? Ballet combines masculine, feminine and genderless movements into a dynamic performance showcasing the farthest limits of the human body.
Recently, I took an outdoor, socially distant ballet class from Katy Pyle, who founded the company Ballez to emphasize LGBTQ+ representation in ballet. I danced with 13 or so other queer dancers, about half of whom used "they/them" pronouns. No rules were assigned for how we moved. The groups we waltzed and leapt across the basketball court in weren't divided by gender—even if we'd been asked to try, the question wouldn't have made any sense. The freedom I've felt at home can exist in person, too, and it doesn't only have to happen in classes taught by genderqueer dancers. All teachers can work on using more-inclusive language and offering choices about movements to people regardless of gender.
I hope that when we return to studios I am able to carry this freedom with me. I hope I will continue to dance without being aware of my perceived gender, that I will wear my gender-affirming outfits with confidence and pride, that I will place less emphasis on how I look in the mirror and more on how strong and fluid I feel moving across the floor or through the air. I hope that inclusivity in the ballet world will continue to expand so that, once it's safe, more people can experience the joy of ballet in a studio—not just from behind a screen.