When I was growing up, dance was my everything, my lifeline, my first love. I had the extreme privilege of being a studio kid that got to travel to competitions and conventions galore. I was immersed in dance 7 days a week. When I wasn’t at the studio, I was taking every dance class offered at my school. From the age of 14 on, I competed in at least 15 dances every year. Growing up as a Queer and gender-expansive person in Oklahoma was far from easy, and the studio felt like the only place where I could express my full self...at least, this is what I’ve told myself.
The truth is, while the dance studio may have been a more accepting place than outside its doors, it still perpetuated the very harmful heteronormative, transphobic narratives that are pervasive in our society. How could it not? I think we all want to believe that dance is the last place marginalized folks would experience any kind of harm such as racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism, etc. While it is indeed the last place it should happen, it does happen, and until we can admit that within our dance communities and industries, we can’t change it.
Looking back, the dance studio expected me to be cisgender and heterosexual just like everywhere else. Teachers picking out dresses as costumes was an all too familiar experience for me, one that I absolutely despised. Girls and boys were always paired together for partnering, and if there weren’t enough boys in comparison to girls, then the girls dressed up as boys because God forbid we had girls partnering with other girls. It’s very common in the midwest and South to be referred to as sir or ma’am by teachers, further reinforcing that gender can always be assumed. These are just a few examples of my personal experiences that further ingrained in me that being Queer in any way was absolutely not okay.
Moving to Los Angeles to pursue dance as a career proved to be no different. If I learned combinations in class that had two different variations, they were always referred to as the “girl part” and “boy part”. It was not uncommon for girls and boys to be called out in separate groups to perform the combination in class. I remember having to do partner work on certain jobs. Once again, only perceived-men could be partnered with perceived-women, and I longed to be able to lead. All auditions were split between men and women, with no room for any other gender or expression. Almost every job I booked expected me to be a stereotypically sexy “woman” and I found myself dressing the part everywhere I went. While it may have looked like I was confident wearing bras, sequined jackets, thigh-high heels, and dark purple lipstick, this was not the authentic expression of me. I was celebrated for being so flamboyant. There was no room for me to explore my gender or my unique expression of it. If I was going to book jobs, I had to be what they wanted me to be.
While my Queerness as it relates to my sexual orientation was fully accepted, honored, and celebrated in LA, I was still seeing heterosexuality displayed everywhere I turned. It was very rare to see two perceived-women or two perceived-men partnered together in class or on jobs. On TV shows, we always had to cater to TV ratings that predominantly came from the Midwest and the South, ironically the very place I was from. Even though there were obviously Queer and gender-nonconforming kids and adults in these areas, it felt like no one wanted to see a story about gay lovers told through the powerful art form of dance, and that cut me deep like a knife.
I do need to mention there were a few jobs that honored my preferred androgyny and those were sweet whispers that told me there was space being made for people like me. The progress is slow and in the meantime dance studios, conventions, competitions, and classrooms harm Queer, Trans, and all gender non-conforming kids and adults. The more people that become aware of this and actually start to do something about it, the better. The work needed is vast and it is urgent. Movement is meant to be liberating, a place that fosters a person’s deeper understanding of who they are, in a community that celebrates whatever becomes of each individual’s self discovery.
Becoming affirming to all LGBTQIA+ people takes time, consistent learning, and persistent action. A beautiful place to start is to challenge the assumptions you make about people and how that infiltrates into your language. Studies have shown that using gender-inclusive language, as well as people’s correct pronouns and names, decreases mental health risks drastically. Something so simple has a profound outcome that literally saves lives. A few examples include replacing “boys and girls” with “kids” or “everyone,” eliminating the use of “sir” or “ma’am,” and describing the essence of dances and combinations without gendering them.
Adjusting your language is the very first step to being an active part of creating a better world for Queer, Trans, and gender non-conforming people, but the work doesn’t stop at language. Being in learning spaces that foster the widening of your lens beyond your own lived experience is a must. Beyond adjusting language, it cannot go without mentioning that there are over 100 anti-Trans bills being introduced (some having already passed) across 33 states that predominantly attack our Trans youth. It must also be acknowledged that levels of discrimination and persecution within the LGBTQIA+ community are much higher for those that hold other marginalizations. For instance, Black Trans women are murdered at alarming rates every year in comparison to white Trans women. From language to policy, there are changes that need to be made in a fury to ensure the consequences don’t go any further than they already have, the outcomes of which trickle down to affecting Black, disabled, and all other community members of color the most. This means your support of all Queer, Trans, and nonbinary folks must go beyond just incorporating new language, but needs to also include other actions, such contacting your local legislators about these bills, supporting mutual aid funds, and getting involved in local grassroots organizations to ensure change is happening for your dancers outside of the walls of your space.
True, lasting change is possible and requires ALL people to be a part of it, not just those that need the changes in order to survive and thrive. Through LGBTQIA+ equity-inclusion education and integrating what’s learned into affirmative action, dance can become a place it should’ve been all along: where people go to be loved, celebrated, supported, and uplifted aside from the world outside that constantly reminds them that their differences are not worthy of being seen or honored and are further met with bigotry and injustice. Shifting our dance culture is a start. We must all be involved in the realization of a world where all Queer, Trans, and nonbinary children and adults have the ability to thrive. Our dance industry will be much better for it, too.