This is the unabridged version of my article, if you are so interested. I was asked to expand on parts of the article, you can see how much it was reduced or altered…
The smell and look of a dance studio is one that will be part of every dancer’s life forever. The hard work is tangible in the air. The marley flooring is a plaque that marks our struggles, turmoil, failures, joys and success. These memories bond to a dancer’s core like a ballet slipper holds a dancer’s foot. Yet for me, it is where I learned to hide my transgender self.
I have identified as a trans female since I was under the age of ten. However, before coming anywhere close to self-awareness in regards to my gender identity, I found and fell in love with dancing. [can this be clarified? these two sentences seem to contradict each other] I began studying ballet dance when I was eleven; quite late compared to most dancers. My love for movement, dance and art made it easy for me to shelve my true self. Because of the rigors and strictness of my ballet training, it was easier to ignore the true inner feelings that I had.
I grew up in a very small two-bedroom mobile home with five family members. My family structure consisted of my mother, sister, stepfather, and my brother. My brother and I had to share a 7×6 bedroom with a bunk bed for nearly 15 years. Due to the confines of my living situation I never felt that I could express my gender identity openly, despite having an open-minded living environment and a welcoming, loving family. There was a few times where my mother caught me in my sisters clothes, and tried to understand. There just was not much in the way of resources for families back than. You were either gay male or gay female the information around gender expression or identity was nowhere as studied and researched as it is today. And I certainly didn’t identify as a gay male, even though my mother may have thought I was. When I found dance and movement it was an easy escape from my limited living confines and my gender identity.
I learned to thrive on the discipline and the rewards that came from hard work while training to become a professional ballet dancer. After ten years, my professional career came to an end. I ventured into massage therapy to help others with their aches and pains. I taught ballet as a cis-gendered male; or as I like to refer to it as a “drag king.” I was able to financially support myself, finding success in teaching, choreography and my massage therapy practice. As with my ballet career, massage therapy also created wear and tear within my body. Searching for relief, I soon began to explore the field of acupuncture. I opted to move across the country to pursue my Master’s degree in Acupuncture and graduated in 2017.
I was introduced to a few transgender individuals as my first year in graduate school was coming to a close. These brave souls helped inspire me to explore and dig beneath the mask of the gender binary that I had lived with for so long. At that same time, I had landed a simple but challenging teaching job at an excellent local ballet school and non-profit ballet company. For once in my life, I found myself in a safe and accepting life setting and I began to welcome in and examine my transgender self.
[can she speak a bit more to what it’s been like to come out as trans in the context of being a ballet teacher?]
Ballet Teaching and Transition:
For you to even begin to grasp the constructs of a transgender individual, you must first realize that the social norms and the cultural ignorance prevents so many transgender people from coming out. Our ability to be hired is mired with ignorance and fear. Transgender people often have a higher educated than the average individual. Yet we are more likely to be fired or let go from a job because of our gender expression or identity. That being said transitioning in such an extremely binary industry of ballet needed to have the precision of a well-executed grand pas de duex. A year and a half prior to coming out publicly I started therapy with a transgender therapist, I found group support and camaraderie. I was able to know I was not alone in the world with my gender expression or my gender identity. When I did find support it interfered with an adult ballet class I took weekly. One day I told the owner of the studio I could not attend because I need to go to a meeting. I eventually told her over dinner that I identified as transgender female, her response was one of overwhelming acceptance. Like my ballet training and career had instilled in me, I continued with therapy and my weekly gender support to give me strength and a foundation to know I was not alone in my thoughts or identity. When I came out it was wonderfully orchestrated, I had been volunteering with a local LGBTQ+ center, so we recruited them to help word my transition properly. If it were not for that organization I would not have had the strength. For reader own knowledge a common word that transgender individual’s often use when we are uneasy with our assigned gender, is referred to as “dysphoria.” Some of my dysphoria is around clothing and personally appearance, so when I taught company class opening night for our fall showcase in a long black skirt and a cute top. It was the equivalence of doing Nutcracker grand pas de duex for the first time. The nerves were tangible in the air. I know our dancers were trying to look past my gender expression that night, it took a few weeks and a few more times of them seeing me for who I was for the dancers and parents to recognize and fully accept and respect my transition. One of my pillars of strength that night was my artistic director and her resolve and compassion as an ally.
One of the challenges of coming out in ballet as transgender was the thick binary history of the art form. A male ballet dancer has very specific choreography and plays specific roles. Dance culture has long accepted the gay male community as long as they played the role established by the gender binary created centuries before. The gay male experiences a challenge in and of its self, yet this experience is vastly different from that of a transgender individual. Nevertheless, society and social media predominantly choke the already undervalued and marginalized transgender voice by aligning it with the gay male experience. It is my firm belief that the only valid commentary on transgender experience is from a transgender person.
In my classical ballet experience, I have seen a few instances where the spectrum of gender was expanded—roles such as Cinderella’s stepsisters, Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake‘s Von Rothbart. There is also aversion of A Midsummer’s Night Dream where the role of Bottom is a boy dancing en pointe. Other than those few examples, a dancer with a desire to expand the gender spectrum is very limited regardless of their passion for the discipline and art of classical ballet.
I still wonder if there are other dancers with identities outside the gender binary. I scoured the internet for others like myself; however, the information was limited and isolated. The first credible information I found was Brian Schaefer’s article in Dance Magazine. I continued my research and found a few transgender experiences, like Sean Dorsey Dance in San Francisco and Ballez in New York City. A few links were out of date or featured discontinued events or classes.
[would be great if she could suggest some specific things that the dance world could do to be more welcoming to trans people]
Specific Ideas for the dance world:
First we must recognize the numerous patriarchal binaries lines established by the ballet industry. How can we start to truly view ballet in a non-binary way without exposing its flaws? Some modern and contemporary organizations have done this rather fluidly. Yet in ballet circles we refer to the male dancers as “boys” and the female dancers as “girls.” This is a common practice. Even into the professional ranks when setting choreography in a large rehearsal. How about the terms “Ballet Mistress” and “Ballet Master,” now those terms are bright neon signs of a binary gentrification institution. How about we change it to “Ballet Assistant?” The term “Artistic Director” is the closest thing to a non-binary representation in the ballet industry.
Like a classically trained ballet dancer it starts with a strong foundation. This foundations lie in our schools and our early training as dancers, allowing for a more forgiving and flexible gender identity. Ballet schools are often narrow-minded because of the strict ballet binary code. Which instantly closes the doors to transgender individuals. This is based out of ignorance and fear. Who cares that a girl wants to take boys class and dress like a boy, and who cares if a boy is more comfortable with pink tights, black leotards and skirt. First and foremost it is the unwilling teacher or studio owner to climb out of their gender norms and recognizing their personal fear around gender expression that needs to happen. Only than can we start to see broader acceptance in the binary ballet industry. It would be most wonderful to see a transgender male doing a rock star male variation and you would never be able to question their gender. This would only be limited to the choreographer’s lack of creativity and knowledge. It is the teachers constrained view of gender, their disregard for gender expression and terror of gender identity that limits and strangles the ballet industry. Changes should happen at the beginning with education and acceptance, because changing large ballet organizations is the equivalent of trying to pirouette en dedans while being mid pirouette en dehors.
Instead of asking, “What does it take to challenge dance’s gender norms?” we need to ask classical ballet companies and organizations if the ballet binary can be broken. Is it too rigid and inflexible? Can we as classically trained ballet dancers and teachers crack the binary and expand the gifts that ballet offers to all students? My own ballet and transgender communities in Colorado are beginning to break the binary, and I challenge the rest of the ballet world to join us in evolving classical ballet into a more inclusive art form.