Career Advice

What Does It Take to Challenge Dance's Gender Norms?

For Sean Dorsey, the dance studio used to be a source of pain that had nothing to do with dancing. "I would go to the women's dressing room and change there," he says. "That was, every day, this kind of knife in my heart."

Though the classes thrilled him, having to use facilities that didn't correspond with his gender identity made him feel extremely self-conscious and ashamed. Later, as an adult, Dorsey noticed that "people like me weren't onstage. Our stories weren't being told through dance."

An increasing number of out transgender performers and choreographers like Dorsey (one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" in 2010) are working to fill that gap by challenging gender norms in dance, onstage and off. For an art form with deeply ingrained gender divisions, that's no easy task. Currently, from the moment a child steps into a dance studio, their training is often determined by gender. Ballet in particular breaks up genders into separate classes, demands gender-specific clothing, teaches gender-specific combinations and values gender-specific qualities. By explicitly addressing the politics of gender in their work and advocating for changes to these traditions, transgender artists today are helping to expand dance's representation of gender.


A self-described "physically precocious" kid, Jules Skloot began ballet early, while being raised as a girl. But at age 5, he came home and said, "It's not what my body wants to do," he recalls. "I had a sense that I wanted to dance, but not in that way." Even when he started serious Graham training, the leotards and flowing skirts felt wrong on his body as he went through puberty. "I just felt a lot of discomfort in costuming," he says. Still, he was drawn to the way modern dance involved people of all genders, shapes and races partnering each other and dancing together. "That was exhilarating to me," he says.

Jules Skloot. Photo by Angela Jimenez, courtesy Skloot.

Shortly after receiving his master's in dance, Skloot started working with Katy Pyle, a cisgender (non-trans) dancer who trained in classical ballet but was interested in scrambling the gender politics of the form. Pyle points out that, unlike some postmodern and experimental dance that tends to ignore gender, her Brooklyn-based company Ballez wants to tackle it head-on. "We're using these definitions of masculinity and femininity to create something that's not neutral, but it's layered and it's complicated," she says.

Ballez's ensemble represents the spectrum of gender identities and it doesn't adhere to traditional gender roles in casting. For example, in the company's 2013 take on The Firebird, Skloot danced the titular role, usually portrayed by a ballerina, and Pyle's character was billed as the "lesbian princess," while the "princes" were danced by women, transmasculine and gender-nonconforming individuals. Gender isn't erased, but it's intentionally and shrewdly dissected. That ethos offers a place in the ballet canon for those who, like Skloot, felt excluded from it in their youth.

Sorceress and Princes from The Firebird, a Ballez. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

The experience of valuing the body as an artistic instrument while also feeling disconnected from it can be a disorienting one. Choreographer Arrie Davidson came out as transgender three and a half years ago, though she always knew she was a girl and refers to her childhood as "when I was pretending to be a boy." As a professional dancer, she spent hours editing her bio to avoid using the pronouns "he" or "she."

Now in her 40s and undergoing hormone-replacement therapy, Davidson says that the hesitation to physically transition sooner was partially personal, "but part of it was, 'What does that mean as a dancer?' " She wondered, "If I change my body, is my career over?" She found no out transgender dancers to point the way.

"It's scary to go, 'Well, what is an audience going to think of me now? What are they going to perceive? How do I costume myself?' " Davidson says. Prominent transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner may have given people the impression that a transition can take place overnight, but it is a complex multiyear process. Davidson decided she wouldn't stop performing. "I'm on the roller coaster and I'm not turning it around," she says. Instead, she grapples with it in her work, like the recent production Wonder/Through the Looking-Glass Houses, a modern take on Lewis Carroll's Alice tales, in which she uses her character, the White Rabbit, to slyly address transgender issues.

Arrie Davidson with Cecily McCullough in Wonder/Through the Looking-Glass Houses. Photo by Caitlin Shea, Courtesy Davidson

She has also learned to take pleasure in, and laugh at, the process of dealing with a new center of gravity as her body develops curves. Fortunately, she's been able to use her well-honed physical intuition as a dancer to adjust her workouts to give her changing body what it needs. The shift has been psychological, too—losing a bit of control over her body has led to an "openness of exploration on a deeper level" because she no longer judges herself based on past expectations.

Initially, the San Francisco–based Dorsey decided not to physically alter his body. "I was really out and outspoken as trans and making work for 10 years before I chose to take testosterone," he says. "There's a spectrum of the way people express as transgender." During that time, he dealt with the discomfort of dancing with a binder, a restrictive wrap that flattens the chest. He decided to have top surgery (a chest recon­struction similar to a double mastectomy), which he calls a "massive removal of a daily, hourly stress that I lived with moving through the world." Several years later, he began to take testosterone.

The gradual transition allowed Dorsey to closely observe how his dancing changed in relation to his body. His shoulders and chest broadened, which, like Davidson, shifted his center of gravity; he noticed greater physical strength, too. As all dancers learn to do, Dorsey was checking in with his body every step of the way. "It felt very aligned and very right, every moment of that progression."

Sean Dorsey. Photo by Lydia Daniller, courtesy Dorsey

That careful attention has served him well in teaching. "I have a unique insider perspective from different parts of the gender spectrum," he says, which helps him connect with students and dancers of all genders.

Transitioning is a very personal journey, but dance is a communal art form. Transgender performers point out that most studios, schools, performance venues, companies and choreographers can do more to make transgender and gender-nonconforming dancers feel welcome. Dorsey shares that many avoid dance studios, yoga studios and gyms because "all of these spaces continue to be profoundly unsafe for trans people, both physically and emotionally."

Over the past several years, Dorsey's company has traveled around the country presenting work like The Missing Generation, The Secret History of Love and Uncovered: The Diary Project, which each address aspects of LGBTQ experiences. He says that "one of the seeds we plant" is asking venues to provide at least one non-gendered restroom.

In terms of training and performance, children who come out at a young age should be welcomed into the class that corresponds to their preferred gender identity, says Davidson. Later in their career, making transgender and gender-nonconforming dancers feel welcome at auditions is another step of inclusion. "Every audition, I put 'All Genders Welcome,' " says Davidson.

Some styles of dance, like ballet, which are more driven by tradition, seem to be less open to transgender dancers compared with contemporary and experimental dance, which tend to be more interested in challenging social norms. Still, Skloot warns choreographers against using transgender dancers just for the sake of incorporating edgy politics, which can feel "tokenizing." "There are so many other parts of me," he says. "And so many other things I want to explore artistically."

Show Comments ()
Dancers Trending
Petra Conti in "L'Altro Casanova," choreographed by Gianluca Schiavoni. Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti.

As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.

Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti

Keep reading... Show less
Giveaways

It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Dancers want you to vote! Screenshot via Dance for Democracy video.

The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!

But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.

Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
The right tools can keep your body in peak shape. Photo courtesy Hugger Mugger

Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?

We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods
via capezio.com

As of today, there are only 13 nights until the spoOoOokiest evening of the year—and just 1 week left, if you're planning to dress up over Halloweekend. Do you have your costume(s) yet?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Eduardo Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with Gaditanía, his first work utilizing multiple dancers. Photo by Paco Lobato, Courtesy Guerrero

With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.

Keep reading... Show less
Playlists
Bobbi Jene Smith, photographed by Jayme Thornton

At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
STEEZY's web player has options for tempo and viewpoint. Photo by Sam Caudle, courtesy STEEZY

Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Paul Taylor choreographed a solo for Alex Clayton in his March 2018 world premiere, Concertiana. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.

Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Scottish Ballet in Cinderella. Photo by Andy Ross via Scottish Ballet

Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.

In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Precious Adams performing Harlequinade pas de deux for English National Ballet's Emerging Dancer competition 2018. Photo by Laurent Liotardo via ballet.org.uk

Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.

It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
"This type of creative work is not just about waiting for the duende to arrive, but rather a lot of work with fantastic people," says Rocío Molina of her process for Caída de Cielo, which is documented in the new film IMPULSO. Photo by Javier Fergo, Courtesy Jerez Festival

Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.

Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Joseph Gordon, here in "Diamonds," is New York City Ballet's newest principal dancer. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.

Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Social media validates extremes over clean, solid technique. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash

The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."

My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:

"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."

Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Instagram tags don't pay the bills. Photo by Andrei Lazarev/Unsplash

Earlier this week, a friend of a friend reached out to me seeking recommendations for a dancer/choreographer to hire. She wanted someone who could perform a solo and talk about their process for an arts-appreciation club. After a few emails back and forth, as I was trying to find out exactly what kind of choreographer she was looking for, it eventually emerged that she was not looking to pay this person.

"We are hoping to find someone who would be willing to participate in exchange for the exposure," she wrote.

Why do people think this is an okay thing to ask for?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Members of RIOULT check out the construction site. Photo by Penelope Gonzalez, Courtesy RIOULT

For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Photo by Ed Flores/MFA candidate Kara Madden rehearses undergraduate dance majors Gregory Taylor and Joe Ogren

In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods
San Francisco Ballet soloist Koto Ishihara stretches in her warm-up boots. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Dance Magazine.

With cooler weather finally here, it's time to talk warm-ups. And while your dancewear drawer is probably overflowing with oversized sweaters, leggings and enough leg warmers to outfit the whole class, warm-up boots are often forgotten. To keep your feet and ankles cozy in between rehearsals, we rounded up dance warm-up boots that suit every style.

Bloch Inc. Printed Warm-up Bootie

via Bloch Inc.

Created by Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, this collection comes in a variety of tie dye, floral and even butterfly prints.
blochworld.com, $48

Rant & Rave
Many of the dancers of 10000 Gestures weren't wearing much clothing when they started climbing on audience members. Photo by Ursula Kaufmann via nyuskirball.org

Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.

A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
This high school dance team's Harry Potter routine has gone viral. Screenshot via ThePac Walden Grove's YouTube channel.

What happens when you mix two really good things together? Sometimes, it can be magical. It's practically guaranteed when one of those elements is the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and the other is—wait for it—dance-team–style hip hop.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Adam McKinney's HaMapah/The Map. Photo by Lafotographeuse, Courtesy McKinney

When the Bible spoke of the "ingathering of the exiles," it didn't have dance in mind. Yet, this month, more than 100 dancers, choreographers and scholars from around the world will gather at Arizona State University to celebrate the impact of Jews and the Jewish experience on dance. From hora to hip hop, social justice to somatics, ballet to Gaga, the three-day event (Oct. 13–15) is "deliberately inclusive," says conference organizer and ASU professor Naomi Jackson.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

You Might Also Like

476,651 likes

Sponsored

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways