Breaking Stereotypes

Why It Took Becoming a Ballet Teacher for Me to Come Out as Trans

Crissy Michaels as Carabosse, Photo courtesy Centennial State Ballet

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.

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