Express Yourself: Inside the Growing Relationship Between Dance and Drag

June 2, 2021

When Myles Thatcher, a choreographer and soloist with San Francisco Ballet, was a kid, he’d dip into the costume bin he shared with his sister and pull out the dresses. “It was something I incorporated into my self-expression growing up,” he recalls. His parents were supportive, but he remembers a moment around fifth or sixth grade “of having internalized shame expressing femininity and tearing up all the photos of me in drag.” It wasn’t until his early 20s, when experimenting with makeup “as an artistic venture,” that he found his way back to drag. This time, he fully embraced it.

Thatcher is one of several prominent professional dancers who proudly present themselves on- or offstage in drag. His enthusiasm for the scene—and his belief in its potential to challenge artistic and social norms—reflects a broader cultural interest in this wacky, radical, rebellious and brazenly joyful art form.

Overwhelming credit for the current mainstream drag mania goes to the trailblazing drag queen RuPaul and the empire spawned from her television competition, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which first aired in 2009 and recently completed its 13th season. ” ‘Drag Race’ served two things,” Thatcher says. “Permission and exposure. RuPaul figured out how to invite people into this conversation—about drag but also differences between gender expression, gender nonconformity and sexual orientation, all ways to understand people better.”

That conversation informs the dance world, as well, and the relationship between the art forms has become a two-way street. Dance is a key component of drag in the way gender performance manifests through movement, and as a tool for queens to define and distinguish their characters.

“Drag Race” has seen a number of contestants with professional dance backgrounds, such as Alyssa Edwards, who runs a competition dance studio (the subject of a Netflix series, “Dancing Queen”) and Shangela, who has been a guest coach on “Dance Moms.” In the most recent season, Denali, a figure skater with ballet training, brought a dance ethos to the show. “We’re taught in skating and dance that when the lights come on, it’s time to shine,” says Denali.

One of the biggest dance ambassadors to walk RuPaul’s runway was Season 11 contestant Brooke Lynn Hytes, the drag persona of Brock Hayhoe, who often appeared in pointe shoes. Hayhoe trained at Canada’s National Ballet School and told Dance Magazine, “I’ve never enjoyed dancing the male roles. I always saw myself as that tall, glamorous soloist girl from Balanchine’s ‘Rubies.’ ” Hayhoe honed his pointe work with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the pioneering all-male comic ballet troupe.

“We bridge old drag and new drag,” explains Tory Dobrin, the Trocks’ artistic director and a former company dancer. The Trocks, founded in 1974, grew out of the subversive performance movement Theater of the Ridiculous as a way to lovingly parody ballet traditions. “We’re not doing club drag, we’re doing theater drag,” Dobrin says, referring to the tradition of men portraying women onstage, as was the case in Shakespeare’s day. (The term “drag” is thought to have originated in England in the late 1800s.)

Club drag, meanwhile, has roots in the emerging American gay subculture of the 1920s, which evolved in the following decades as a form of underground socializing and entertainment. In New York City in the 1980s, this blossomed into the celebrated ball scene depicted in the documentary “Paris is Burning” and the TV series “Pose,” where queer communities of color, including trans women, brought high fashion to the form and invented a new style of movement inspired by fashion photography that became known as “voguing.” “It’s the root of a lot of drag dance,” Denali says of voguing. “All credit to the trans and ballroom communities.”

So while the drag of the Trocks and the drag of RuPaul each have a distinct lineage, Dobrin notes that the two have influenced each other in recent years. He sees this both in his dancers and in their audience. “When I joined, we did makeup in an extreme manner, more clownish,” he says. “Now the company does more beautiful makeup” because more dancers arrive with familiarity—or experience—with club drag. “It gives them a different sensibility, which works well.”

Audiences, too, are more informed about drag culture, thanks to “Drag Race,” as well as the emergence of drag queens as social media personalities and emcees of local nightlife and popular “drag brunches.” Dobrin welcomes this ubiquity, though he has also focused the Trocks on technique to differentiate itself. “It’s caused us to be more dance-heavy,” he says. “To maintain our specialness.”

Duane Gosa, a Trock since 2013, hadn’t done drag before joining the company, but off-day outings while on tour with fellow dancers led him to explore the form further. He hasn’t created a permanent drag persona, though. “I go out as myself,” he explains. “It’s an extension of my own personality rather than creating a shtick.” His outsized public presentation is something he learned from dance by “taking emotions and displaying them in a performative way.” Likewise, he has found that the ease with which he inhabits drag in the real world has changed his stage performances by “making what I do onstage feel more natural, less put on. They feed off each other.”

Four men in romantic pink tutus and heavy makeup pose onstage
Duane Gosa (at right) with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions, Courtesy Les Ballets Trockadero

Gosa loves watching that dynamic play out on “Drag Race,” as well. “Drag queens have always danced, but the virtuosity and skill level are a lot higher,” he says of contemporary drag queens, which is evident in clubs and reflected on television.

Today, “Drag Race” features choreography challenges by top commercial dancemakers such as Jamal Sims, who landed an early job as a backup dancer for RuPaul in 1994 and has gone on to work with pop icons like Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. “Dance is a big part of a queen’s career,” Sims says, but it’s one of many ingredients that some use more than others (just as they might lean into fashion or comedy). Regardless of whether she’s a trained dancer or adept at picking up steps, physical confidence and clarity are essential, according to Sims. “You can get their story from their movement,” he says.

That fusion of dance and personal story through drag inspires many professional dancers, as well. It has “allowed more people to feel comfortable expressing themselves like this,” Gosa says. “Being a male dancer, people might have felt nervous presenting themselves as too feminine because already there’s a stigma. But a lot of that is going away.” For example, he points to the embrace of gender-neutral movement in contemporary ballet. “There will always be classical repertory, but newer stuff is a lot more fluid and loose,” he says. “The lines have blurred.”

Artists like Thatcher are explicitly exploring these ideas in their work. In 2018, Thatcher created Otherness for San Francisco Ballet, which he calls “a love letter to gender nonconformity” and which he contrasts with the narrow and negative depictions of it in the ballet canon, like Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty or the stepsisters in Cinderella.

“I’d love to see queerness represented in a three-dimensional way onstage,” Thatcher says. Drag “unlocks this permission to explore and be challenging and see the world in a new way.” In 2018, he created Second Cast, a project that brought together dance and drag to raise money for local charities. (His drag name is Prunella, but she doesn’t perform often: “I don’t want to twist an ankle.”)

Others challenging gender conventions in dance through drag include James Whiteside, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, who has been highly visible and vocal as his drag persona, Ühu Betch, and who has choreographed gender-fluid work. The nonbinary dancer Maxfield Haynes, a member of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, told Dance Magazine that they spent part of the past year “working on my makeup skills. Painting is such a meditative practice for me.”

And beyond the art of drag, this broader reimagining of gender roles has included Adriana Pierce’s #QueertheBallet initiative, which aims to give visibility to queer women and nonbinary ballet dancers and challenge the genre’s entrenched gendered movement.

The current synergy between dance and drag illustrates a profound shift in social attitudes toward the spectrum of gender expression. “When I joined the Trocks in the 1980s, it was a career wrecker,” Dobrin recalls. “The New York Times wouldn’t write about us…We had a lot of disrespect from the mainstream media.” Now, he says, “I’ve noticed a lot of kids in the audience. It’s an acceptable theatrical experience for kids, and a great introduction to dance.”

It’s an introduction that, increasingly, allows for a broader conception of gender expression onstage and in life. Which feels natural for Gosa. “Why not have dancers be at the front of this?” he asks. “We’re already expressive in using our bodies to present ourselves. Why not be more fun and free and express all kinds of gender expression? I think we should celebrate it more.”