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.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.