Queerly We Roll Along - Part 2
From dancing to forget, I am now dancing to remember.
Following the period of reflection that my last blog depended on I realised, after sending the draft to my editor, what I had done. From the corners of my mind, or extruded like an ether from the air between me and my therapist, my most personal story had been willingly exposed. Laid bare for the readers of DANZ to muse over, a pang of second thoughts crept in as I acknowledged that what was once private was now forever public.
As quickly as any regrets arose, though, I found myself agreeing that being honest was for the best. Sitting down to write the second part of this blog I am admittedly anxious yet encouraged by this same notion: that being honest about one’s experiences can alleviate the dread of seeming isolation.
Having already told a part of my own story, I will take some time here to ask in what ways might future experiences of queer male dancers in New Zealand be different, and in doing so collate a few ideas for educators, family, and friends.
In this, a process of remembering. A searching of myself in hopes that my experiences may, in fact, be poignant, or even mildly interesting. A looking back in desperate query: am I qualified to write this? Do I have anything worth sharing? Should I, at this point in my career, be allowed to advise my fellow educators and dance enthusiasts? Will this be enough?
In fact, this is already not enough. I am not enough, and nothing I produce will ever be ‘enough’. It is, frankly, impossible: a fiction of society, thinking that we might achieve profundity in honesty as if the latter was not, of itself, already inherently profound and worthwhile. That is, to be enough is to be measured, and I reject being measured outright.
I cannot offer you great pedagogical stories of how I triumphed over homophobia in my own teaching of dance, nor can I provide a bullet-pointed list to ensure that the male dancer in your care will avoid my myriad mistakes (“Step 1: Simply stop hating yourself and start stretching!”).
If you are hoping for a positivist roadmap then I can only promise the opposite: moments from my memories that refuse to form a coherent guide, but may shape a conversation.
To begin, I remember designing a costume. My childhood dance teacher, whom I am extraordinarily grateful to know and to have learned from, noticed that I had arrived early to class one day. Our studio show was coming up, so my teacher provided me with a task: to draw up any ideas I might have for myself and the other boys to wear. I went with the radical combination of suspenders and a bowtie. Naturally, I was completely enamoured by my own good taste (this from a boy who attended the birth of his sister wearing a glittered waistcoat and tiger-shaped party hat) and was thrilled to have been given such a prestigious say in the costuming process.
Doug Risner describes this kind of ‘special treatment’ in his 2009 book on men in dance. “Teachers,” he notes, “frequently emphasise the need to make boys and young men in dance 'feel more comfortable' by inviting them to take leadership roles and to contribute ideas for movement, music, costumes, and choreographic theme” (p. 27).
I have in past been in two minds about this special treatment, and continue to question the tacit privileging of men over women and other gender minorities in dance, but am forced to agree with it somewhat given my own experience.
Specifically, and as in my story above, try your best to avoid gendering this treatment. It is my hope that anything you do to encourage and champion the male dancer in your life, regardless of sexuality, is based around their individual sense of difference, or what their interests might be beyond what society deems appropriate. My dance teacher knew that I loved to draw and dress-up, and by developing a relationship with me my teacher recognised my individual needs and therein attended to these directly.
Other more ‘blanket’ treatments seem less conducive. For example, we no longer need to draw parallels between sport and dance to cling to wavering males, as John Crawford (1994) suggests. We do not need to blatantly empower males in studio spaces, over women or other gender minorities, simply to stop them from leaving as Risner discusses. We should be careful who we highlight as role models for young male dancers (a cursory glance of Sergei Polunin’s Instagram captions providing ample cause for alarm/disgust) and who we venerate as ‘acceptable’ idols of masculinity.
Yes, being a male dancer is difficult both socially and culturally within Western Theatre Dance, but the actions we take as a community to mitigate homophobia and bullying, and the attrition that follows, should not revolve around binaristic concepts of gender, reinforcing patriarchy, and hegemonic masculine culture.
Instead, I encourage you to do away with the ‘noise’ that surrounds the male dancer and actually listen. I encourage you to do this with all of your students—not just the men—as it is my opinion that in order to change dance culture in New Zealand we must begin with compassionate relationships.
In hand with compassion, both unto others and the self, I encourage young queer and non-queer male dancers, their teachers, and support network, to embrace their ‘not enough-ness’. It feels strange writing this, partly because of the journey of self-love that I am currently on, but I stand by it in echoing Jack Halberstam’s thesis of queer failure (2011).
In their writing, Halberstam underscores the socio-cultural equation between queer people and failure by examining patriarchal precepts for success. In part, as ‘non-reproductive’ entities, queer people do not contribute to the perpetuation of society and hegemony through the development of a traditional family unit. Thus, we fail and thereby disrupt the norm.
In accepting failure (our ‘not enough-ness’) though, we are able to reject the system that success is contingent upon, both queer and non-queer alike. We are able to step outside of the evaluative scaffold and search for connection and meaning; for compassion that is otherwise marred by the omnipresent distraction of ‘having potential’ and not living up to it. So long as we surround ourselves with measuring sticks, and obsess over these within and without dance, we will never be enough.
Embrace failure, then, and marvel at the peculiar and incomparable wonder that you are. Teachers, avoid using potential-oriented language: we are not baking breads that are sure to rise—we are nurturing individuals who are already complex, fabulous, and intelligent beyond the duality of failure and success.
For, in the years that follow, those who danced like me to forget may begin to dance to remember: to reflect and realise that there could have been another way. It is my hope that we work to make this alternative, full of compassion and relationships, failure and queerness, a reality.
Crawford, J. R. (1994). Encouraging male participation in dance. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 65(2), 40-43. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1080/07303084.1994.10606854
Halberstam, J. (2011). The queer art of failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Risner, D. (2009). Stigma and perseverance in the lives of boys who dance: An empirical study of male identities in Western theatrical dance training. New York, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.