Why It Took Becoming a Ballet Teacher for Me to Come Out as Trans
The smell and look of a dance studio is one that will be part of every dancer's life forever. The hard work is tangible in the air. The marley floor is a plaque that marks our failures and success. Yet for me, the studio is where I learned to hide my transgender self.
I have identified as a trans female since I was under the age of ten. However, before coming anywhere close to coming out about my gender identity, I fell in love with dancing. I began studying ballet when I was eleven. Because of the rigors and strictness of my training, it was easy to ignore my true feelings.
I learned to thrive on the discipline of being a ballet dancer. But after ten years, my professional career came to an end. I ventured into massage therapy to help others with their aches and pains. I taught ballet as a cis-gendered male; or as I like to refer to it, as a "drag king." But as with my ballet career, massage therapy created wear and tear within my body. Searching for relief, I soon began to explore the field of acupuncture.
Michaels in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Photo courtesy Centennial State Ballet
I was introduced to a few transgender individuals as my first year in acupuncture school was coming to a close. These brave souls inspired me to dig beneath the mask of the gender binary that I had lived with for so long. At that same time, I had landed a simple but challenging teaching job at an excellent local ballet school and non-profit ballet company, Centennial State Ballet. For once in my life, I found myself in a safe and accepting setting and I began to welcome my transgender self.
When I taught company class for the first time after coming out, I wore a long black skirt and a cute top. For me, it was the equivalent of doing The Nutcracker grand pas de deux for the first time. The nerves were tangible in the air. I know our dancers were trying to look past my gender expression that night, but it took a few weeks and a few more times of them seeing me for who I was to fully accept and respect my transition. One of my pillars of strength that night was my artistic director and her compassion as an ally.
Michaels as Drosselmeyer, Photo courtesy Centennial State Ballet
One of the challenges I faced in coming out as transgender was the binary history of ballet. A male dancer has very specific choreography and plays specific roles. Dancers are divided into boys and girls; teachers are ballet masters or mistresses. I have seen a few instances where the spectrum of gender is expanded, in roles such as Cinderella's step sisters, Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake's Von Rothbart. There is also a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream where the role of Bottom is a boy dancing en pointe. Other than those few examples, a dancer with a desire to expand the gender spectrum is very limited.
Like becoming a classically trained ballet dancer, welcoming more trans dancers into ballet starts with a strong foundation. This foundation lies in allowing for more flexible gender identities in early training. Changes should happen at the beginning with education, compassion and acceptance, because changing large ballet organizations is the equivalent of trying to pirouette en dedans while being mid-pirouette en dehors. My own ballet and transgender communities in Colorado are beginning to break the binary, and I challenge the rest of the ballet world to join us in evolving classical ballet into a more inclusive art form.
On August 20, pop goddess Lizzo tweeted, "Someone do a ballet routine to truth hurts pls," referring to the anthem that's been top on everyone's playlists this summer. Lizzo might not know it yet, but ballet dancers are not known for shying away from a challenge. In the past two days, the internet has exploded which responses, with dancers like Houston Ballet's Harper Watters and American Ballet Theatre's Erica Lall tagging the singer in submissions.
Below are a few of our favorites so far, but we're guessing that this is just the beginning. Ballet world, consider yourselves officially challenged! (Use #LizzoBalletChallenge so we know what you're up to.)
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
New York City–based choreographer and director Jennifer Weber once worked on a project with a strict social media policy: " 'Hire no one with less than 10K, period'—and that was a few years ago," she says. "Ten thousand is a very small number now, especially on Instagram."
The commercial dance world is in a period of transition, where social media handles and follower counts are increasingly requested by casting directors, but rarely offered by dancers up front. "I can see it starting to show up on resumés, though, alongside a dancer's height and hair color," predicts Weber.