The Dance World Isn't Welcoming to Non-Binary Artists—And It Starts With Audition Notices
During a period when I was intentionally taking a step back from performing, I was especially sensitive to the question, "So, are you auditioning for things?" Besides the insecurity of being a freelancer not hustling in that way, I also rankled at the complexity of what it means for a non-binary performer to audition.
To put it bluntly, there aren't many safe opportunities for us. That's because so many audition listings include gender-exclusionary phrases, so trans and non-binary artists either aren't eligible to show up or aren't sure whether or not they'd be welcome.
To be fair, sometimes breakdowns are intentional and important. If a work is narrative-driven, the choreographer might be seeking dancers to embody specific genders, races, abilities, etc. In these cases, employers can save a dancer time if they're not the right fit.
Nguyen modeling in Audio Helkuik's designs at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Hannah Cohen, courtesy Nguyen.
Even so, an explanation as to why a work is seeking a specific gender could clarify for everyone involved what the work's priorities are. Plus, irrespective of gender identity, anyone could and should be free to explore and challenge what "masculinity" and "femininity" mean. (Unlike race, which is also a social construct but not a costume that anyone can try on—that's cultural appropriation.)
Here are some problematic phrases I've found in researching audition notices and some easy tweaks to make them more inclusive:
Don't say: "Male and female," "men and women" or even "all genders" as a catchall for all dancers
These phrases can feel careless and problematic if they're meant to include everyone. The first two reinforce the gender binary—the idea that a person should be either male or female. They also contribute to the erasure of non-binary people who are neither male or female. Also, some people don't have genders.
Instead say: "All or no genders" or even just "dancers" or "performers"
Nice and simple.
Reconsider: "Male" or "female" dancers
Without explanation as to why an artist is seeking one or the other, this phrase can also be exclusionary. Trans men are men and trans women are women, but is this project open to trans folks? And what about non-binary, genderqueer, agender, gender-nonconforming, genderfluid, two-spirit and dancers of other gender identities? Is your work interested in these folks?
How about: "Femme" or "masc" dancers
These terms shift the focus from gender identity to gender expression, including all kinds of queer people who present more feminine or masculine if that's what you're interested in.
Don't: Look for token trans or non-binary dancers
It's hard to deny that "diversity" and "inclusion" are some trendy buzzwords. Audiences and organizations are increasingly prioritizing the work of historically under-represented artists in programming. But diversity isn't an aesthetic. Choreographers can hire queer/trans artists but still make cis-heteronormative work. Bringing in queer dancers without considering our real bodies and histories risks perpetuating the same erasure as not having us in the work at all.
Do: Think about the kind of work you make and the dancers you employ
What drives you to create a certain project and hire folks of certain identities for it? Is it to check off boxes for your grant application or broaden the conversation around what dance can do? Audition notices are just one part of this question.
Nguyen (left) in Monstah Black's Hyperbolic! (the Last Spectacle). Photo by Peter Yesley, courtesy Nguyen
Non-cisgender representation is still alarmingly low in the dance world. This is in part because it's largely not safe to be trans or non-binary in America. Being a queer artist onstage can be risky but full of possibility. Dance has the potential to create safer spaces by upholding gender-inclusive values and practices—and it can start with who is welcomed into the audition room.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.