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Not Your Muse, Not Your Pawn, Not Your Babe

(Note: This post often addresses gender as a male-female binary, which is a wholly limited and incorrect scope of gender and I fully acknowledge that there are more than two genders; the gender binary is referenced here to address the ways in which much of the mainstream dance world addresses gender.)

Here’s what I’m tired of: gender roles in general but specifically at this moment, the male-centered narrative that allows men to wear women as their accessories, to see them as vessels to the man’s desired end.  You see this in movies, in how roles in a household are constructed, in the workplace, and, to my eternal disappointment, very blatantly in the dance world.  Many factions of the dance world, and particularly the mainstream dance world, love to care a whole lot about centering men.  And not just centering them, but idolizing them.  They are the creators, the curators, the writers of bodies.  And women are often, at best, resigned to being their muses.

I once caught a glimpse at the notes of a choreographer I was working with about the formations of the piece that was being set on us at the time.  This particular portion of the piece was a duet that the choreographer wanted to be between a man and a woman.  The note about this particular formation read, “John* + extra girl.” “Extra girl” has a name, and you didn’t bother to learn it.  I happen to know “extra girl” quite well, and she is a phenomenal dancer, with incredible talent and work ethic, but you wrote her off as disposable, as nothing more than a pawn to showcase John.  The piece was sculpted around being able to put John in this section, because his maleness was deemed essential and irreplaceable.  I got to watch this section of the piece from the wings when we performed it, and I can guarantee you that “extra girl” was integral to making that movement happen.  She is inimitable.  But all the choreographer saw was the necessary male in a sea of supposedly interchangeable females.

On a separate occasion, I was in ballet class with a room full of (very talented) women and one (also talented) man.  We were doing a jump combination across the floor, and every single woman in the room did a phenomenal, applause-worthy job.  So did the man.  The only one applauded was the man.  Valued for his maleness, praised for his masculine embodiment of movement that was at least as beautifully executed in a perhaps more feminine manner by a room full of women.

I once took a class that was taught by a woman half of the time and a man the other half of the time.  I watched all of the students in the class, but particularly the male students, frequently exhibit a gross lack of respect for the female teacher and a rather standard amount of respect for the male teacher.  Both were incredible (and, two of my personal favorite) teachers, both certainly deserve copious amounts of respect.  Only one got anything resembling an appropriate amount of respect.

A male choreographer told me more than once during my (short) time working with him that I needed to smile because my smile was the most beautiful thing about me.  He also told me I should smile for him.  I wanted to say I’m not your babe.  I wanted to say I don’t need to and don’t want to be beautiful, I am powerful without your conception of my physical appearance.  But I was silent.  I smiled a bit.  And I watched, and very tangibly perceived, everyday sexism eat its way through my confidence as a dancer and a woman.

I could go on and on.  These anecdotes aren’t anything special, nor are they anything surprising.  They stem from a long history of the dance world loving its men.  Starting in the old European courts, ballet has been a way to write social standards onto bodies.  This antiquated ballet form helped create what western dance looks like today, and as such its writing of social standards (and antiquated social standards at that) onto bodies in space is woven into western dance now.  For a very long time, as a result of dance being a way to use bodies and movement to talk about social status, men have been viewed as the writers of bodies and women as the things being written on.  And so men were, and often still are, uplifted as choreographers, and women are (often still) at best labeled as their ephemeral muses; the vessels for their somehow inherently worthwhile creative intention.  It’s almost a poetic representation of misogyny: a man telling a room full of women what to do with their bodies, and it being called beautiful.

There is a long history of male choreographers having female muses – the embodiment of the creative intention of the man, the woman whose body could be molded to fit the male choreographer’s intentions.  While choreographer is often seen as a high point in a man’s dance career, muse is often seen as a high point for women.  They get to be the vessel of creativity for “one of the greats”.  As though that’s the best a woman in dance could reach for – to be a vessel for someone else’s embodied artistry.  It’s a way of crediting a man for what a woman’s body produces, and a way of men using women’s labor to further their own careers.  Furthermore, the concept of the muse has historically privileged the white, thin, cisgender, traditionally attractive female body.  And when muse is the high point, a pawn on stage is a step down.  So many talented, hardworking, powerful women in the dance world are perceived as nothing more than bodies for their (likely male) choreographers to move around the stage.  Often, and particularly in ballet, there is a uniformity to these women (the corps de ballet).  They become interchangeable and disposable pawns for their choreographer, not unlike “extra girl.”

I’m tired of a narrative in a dance world comprised largely of women that so adamantly privileges men.  I’m tired of and angry at a dance world that empowers men to choreograph and create and tells women their bodies are meant to be choreographed on.  I challenge you to think about the household choreographer names you know.  Probably what comes to mind in the way of ballet is something like Petipa and Balanchine.  Probably what comes to mind in the way of modern is something like Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Robert Battle, and Martha Graham.  Female choreographers exist slightly more prominently in modern dance, but anywhere is up from not existing at all, which is the case in ballet.  Now think about the dance performances you have seen.  How many performers on stage have been women? Likely a majority, and almost certainly at least half.  These ratios don’t match up.  The act of dancing is a highly feminized thing, and as such a large percentage of the dance world’s participants are women.  But almost all of the well-known creators are men.  This is not to say that there aren’t female choreographers out there; on the contrary, there are a host of incredible female choreographers who create inimitable work.  But it is so often the men who are more commonly and universally known and acknowledged.  Even within a feminized activity, men are privileged, empowered, and uplifted.

So as a female dancer and choreographer, I’m saying I’m not your muse, I’m not your pawn, and I’m not your babe.  I’m ready to push back on the narrative of male choreographers and their female muses, and I’m ready to create and facilitate work that uplifts female narratives: those of women of color, queer women, trans women, and certainly also nonbinary/gender nonconforming folks’ narratives.  These people are powerful and important and deserve to have their stories told.  There are ranks of inspiring female choreographers who are working to create a more diverse narrative within dance and choreography and to empower people through movement.  I hope that this becomes the more mainstream narrative of the dance world.  I am so much more than a vessel for someone else’s creative intention.  And while executing someone else’s creative vision is valuable and necessary (and probably should be valued much higher than it currently is), it’s important to acknowledge that bodies have value in their own intentionality and don’t require an outside creative vision to produce something worthwhile.

Once (read: many times), someone told me my body was wrong for a particular dance.  I told them my body was exactly what I needed it to be.  And I’m still proud of that.

*Name changed for anonymity

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There Is Room For Equality In Ballet

 

If you’ve been following the news lately, you may have noticed that the ballet world has been getting a rather large amount of negative press.  And for good reason.  Ballet and dance writ large are built on a foundation of toxic masculinity and that has, both historically and presently, manifested in an incredibly violent rape culture.  Of course, rape culture exists outside of ballet.  But ballet is a female-dominated industry that is run almost entirely by men, which has allowed toxic masculinity and a culture of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse to fester.  The professional world has received a lot of press: for example, Peter Martins of NYCB and Marcelo Gomes of ABT.  However, this neither begins nor ends in the professional world.  Big name ballet companies get a lot of press, but this doesn’t come out of nowhere.  From the time kids enter the ballet world, they are aggressively interpolated into the gender binary with antiquated gender roles enforced both by practices in ballet class and by roles they play in performed ballets.

Ballets tell stories about ethereal women being rescued by strong, powerful men.  It’s a trope that feeds and informs the culture of toxic masculinity that allows people like Alexei Ratmansky to say things like, “There is no such thing as equality in ballet,” and still remain a highly acclaimed choreographer in residence at ABT.  Ratmansky is only one of many powerful white men in the ballet community who could have said this and who decidedly think this.  The stories that ballet tells are built on a foundation of misogyny and violence against women, white supremacy, and a gender binary and the roles that come with it.  Ballet has empowered the preexisting patriarchal societal structure.  It has fostered a culture of emotional abuse that becomes a culture of sexual abuse that further feeds the emotional abuse and the cycle is endless.  We’ve seen the sexual assault charges come forward, and for every one story that is told there are many more that cannot be for whatever reason.  And for every sexual assault charge there are dozens of stories of emotional abuse that go right along with it.

Every dancer that I know who grew up in the ballet world has a story.  I know I do.  Not long ago some friends and I sat around casually discussing the ways in which our time in the preprofessional ballet world mangled our body images.  We compared stories of teachers who told us we were too tall, too short, too fat, too heavy, you name it.  The specifics were different for all of us but the constant was that the scrutiny on our bodies was a mechanism of control.  The specific scrutiny of female bodies is a mechanism of perpetuating male power over female bodies.  It’s re-telling the same stories that are already told in ballets performed on stage.  It’s re-telling the story of the gender binary, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy.  And it’s re-telling it without criticism.

So what do we do when the works of art that are called “the greats” aren’t so great?  When the people who created them, like Ratmansky, hold oppressive views that maintain a culture of white male supremacy in ballet?  What do we do when what we present on stage objectifies women, and we call that “great”?  I often feel inclined to just discard all of it, to say that we should stop producing these shows entirely.  Culturally appropriative and racist “classics” such as The Nutcracker and Le Corsaire are produced almost universally across ballet companies and almost universally uncritically as well.  And I find that abhorrent.  And it’s made me ask frequently, what’s the point of reproducing the classics? Why recreate and relive oppression on a stage?  And I firmly believe that to do so uncritically is to perpetuate violence and oppression, and it shouldn’t be done.  But I also don’t believe we should just stop producing these entirely, as they are a part of a violent history that needs to be told in order to be reformed.

What does it mean to mask the history of ballet? To pretend like we’ve escaped racism and sexism just by no longer performing certain ballets? To pretend like rape culture is gone from the ballet world because Peter Martins no longer works for NYCB?  It’s like a band-aid on a bullet hole; it’s an attempt at a solution that doesn’t address the root of the problem.  Concrete change takes more than this.  It takes addressing the systematic issues at hand, and not just one manifestation of them.  It takes acknowledging the history that neither began nor ended with Peter Martins, neither began nor ended with American ballet.  And it requires taking that history and finding its counterhistories, all of the histories and perspectives that did not get to be written into the perspective that we tell every day, which is the perspective that has allowed white cishet men to claim power and control of the ballet world, and the world writ large.

Obviously this sounds nice in theory and is harder in practice.  I’m not pretending like we can solve all of the problematics of ballet in one fell swoop.  In fact, I’m proposing the opposite.  I’m saying we have to stop pretending that a revolution can rest on symbols and that a reckoning can be had in metaphors.  So what do we do, then? I certainly do not propose to have all of the answers, but I have some thoughts.  Namely, that we need to acknowledge that this system has many levels.  So maybe change begins on the local scale, in hometown studios, where kids learn patriarchy, heteronormativity, and rape culture in ballet class.  It takes making space for non heterosexual narratives and nonbinary gender identities both in class and on stage.  It means saying men do not always have to lift women, all duets do not have to be between a man and a woman, and you do not have to be either man or woman to participate in ballet.  It’s making space for new works that don’t center around love stories where a man heroically saves a woman, and when we perform the “classics” to tell the history of ballet, either using them to have a conversation about a history that we should work to constantly change or to turn that history on its head and twist the representations in the “classics.”  Make what was originally a heterosexual love story non heterosexual.  Make originally cis characters trans.  Make nonbinary characters.  Give people of color proper representation.  Perform the counterhistory while telling the history.

And, while it would be nice if all of these problems could be solved instantaneously, they realistically will not be.  Which means we need to give people, and especially kids, a way to advocate for themselves.  We need to be giving kids the language to talk about sexual assault, rape culture, sexism, racism, homophobia, and more.  We need to be teaching kids to love their bodies in a world that tells them they are constantly not enough.  This starts with a conversation but it also starts with action.  It starts with asking kids before you touch them to give a correction to form or posture, giving them the agency to say no and take the correction a different way.  It starts with not favoring the little boys in class just because there are less of them than there are little girls.  It starts with not separating classes by binary gender, with telling all kids that they can be strong, powerful heroes and not just the boys.

The ballet world is at a moment for change right now.  A reckoning and a revolution can happen, but we have to take it past symbols and metaphors.  There has to be systematic change, and not just at the highest level of the system but everywhere.  It’s not going to be an easy process, but there is room for equality in ballet.  And we can make it happen.

Why Does Your Computer Need A Gaydar?

Fun fact: I don’t care how accurate your algorithm is if its only clear purpose is oppression.  I don’t care how “compelling” your data is if all it serves to do is perpetuate a damaging norm.  Data is built around norms, folks.  This isn’t news.  I don’t care what “science” you think you’re contributing to or how valuable you think your inquiry is for the scientific community if the only foreseeable use for your results is endangering a group of people.

I bring this up because I recently read about a study done at Stanford that created an artificial intelligence system that claims to be able to identify gay and lesbian individuals based on their facial features.  My initial reaction after reading this was to ask what would possibly be a useful purpose for creating this? Who on earth is benefiting from being able to have immediate visual identification of (a notably very specific type of) queerness?  What purpose would this information serve, and who would it be serving? As is so historically true of science and the world in general, it would not be serving queer people.  This study is rife with naive assumptions about the neutrality and rationality of a study labeled scientific and problems, the first of which being that it will do nothing to serve the group of people which it seeks to study.

This is an issue of privacy.  If this AI becomes widely used, or even privately used, it can certainly be used to out queer folks.  Not only is this sometimes dangerous or detrimental to people’s livelihoods, it’s also just their right to have their sexuality be private information if they don’t wish to share it.  Making explicit your sexuality is something only queer people are pressured to do, as heterosexuality is constructed as the norm in our society, meaning that everyone is presumed heterosexual until proven otherwise.  So, societal norms dictate that it is unlikely that someone would ever create a system that would identify straight people, and thus they never feel like they have to hide.  Queer folks, because they have to come out for people to recognize their sexuality, often feel pressure to either hide or be out, both of which require large amounts of emotional labor.  When coming out there is always the question of how the people around you will react, and whether this will negatively affect the way they perceive you, which is never an issue for cishet people.  And the process of coming out is never done: it’s not a one-time process and then you’re done for good, rather, every time it comes up with someone new you have to go through the whole (rather laborious) process all over again.  But importantly, queer folks have a choice (unless they are unwillingly outed by someone, or some machine) to come out, and are hopefully rarely forced into revealing this information, particularly in a potentially dangerous context.  This AI forces that information out, potentially endangering queer folks and certainly taking away their right to privacy which, for a cishet person, would never be called into question.

Furthermore, the machine is far from perfect.  If we briefly operate under the assumption that this could potentially have some non-dangerous use, even then it still misidentifies sexuality at a relatively high rate.  And this makes sense!  Sexuality is a nuanced and fluid thing, and really is something that cannot and should not be placed in discrete boxes in the way this system wishes to.  An additional erroneous and reductive aspect of this is that the AI was only trained on the images of people who were perceived to be either gay or lesbian and who were white.  By reducing queerness to existing within either gayness or lesbianism and within that specifically only in white people, you eliminate a whole host of very real and very (already) invisibilized identities.  Like I just said, sexuality is fluid, but humans love labels.  And labels can certainly be useful!  But particularly when we take one or two labels to define huge categories of people, we end up erasing identities.  And by only including photos of white people in this study, the researches have further reduced queerness to something that only exists in white folks, which is just wrong.  Artificial intelligence creation, and technology in general, has a long and nasty history of leaving out people of color, and it’s incredibly negligent to make the claim that you have a system that can identify gay and lesbian folks when this system is not trained on anyone who is not white.

Similarly, who has labels applied to them is a function of systematic power.  People who are labeled as “neutral”, or people not labeled “other”, never feel the need to have a label applied to them and thus are the people that feel as though they have the right to apply labels to others.  For example, cishet people don’t feel as though they need to invoke a label when identifying themselves because their identity is conceptualized as obvious and the norm.  Because their identity is the norm, they have structural power over non-normalized identities and, as a result, are granted societal power to determine how marginalized groups are labeled and what these labels mean.  As a result, coming out is an act that places a lot of emotional labor on queer folks and (while it can be a liberating thing for queer folks because it gives visibility, among other things) is largely something that was constructed by cishet people for the benefit of cishet people.  Think about it: the closet isn’t somewhere that queer folks want to be, and they obviously didn’t place themselves there.  The closet is something constructed because of heteronormativity, which is the societal norm that causes people to assume that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise, as I said before (for an excellent article with more information on this, see here).

I feel like a broken record saying the tech industry needs to do better, but the tech industry really needs to do better, and especially do better by marginalized groups.  It is dangerous to keep thinking about technology as something that can somehow have a human element removed, and thus have human bias removed.  Technology is made by humans and is by no means free from bias.  In addition, we have to think more critically about who science is being done on, and who that is for.  What I mean by that is that science has a long history of poking and prodding at marginalized groups such as people of color, women, disabled folks, and queer folks, but science sometimes forgets to ask these groups how they actually need to be benefited.  This AI is a great example of that.  It studies queer bodies without ever being concerned about the potential harm it can do, or what would actually be beneficial to queer folks.  I firmly believe that science is an important and valuable way of understanding our world, but it’s dangerous to forget to bring the voices of the people science is being done on to the table. That’s how we end up with computers with purported “gaydar”, which is a concept rejected by lots of queer people as highly problematic because it says that queerness has a single set aesthetic and erases folks that don’t ascribe to this.

So, how do we do better?  We stop to think about why we feel the need to imbue technology with human qualities, and why we choose the human qualities that we do.  We think critically about who gets to create this technology and which voices should really be at the table.  And we stop creating technology that has a sole clear purpose of harm.

 

Your Bias is in the Details

Earlier this summer, my sister and I were wandering Best Buy and she was very excited to show me a fridge that lights up when you knock on it.  I was deeply alarmed by this (and Lauren still thinks I’m being ridiculous) and went on to ramble for a good while about what I think the perils of inserting automated gestural interfaces into household technologies like fridges are.  We then saw Amazon’s Alexa, which naturally alarmed me even more for its ability to completely innervate and surveil all of your household activities.  Technology is designed to interact with us and to be interacted with, and the more we automate the processes this technology does, the more humanized the technology will become so that its ability to interact with us and be interacted with fits smoothly into our everyday lives.  And as we design technology to be humanized artificial intelligence, we insert very real human bias into our artificial intelligence.

Our technology tends to become a habitually subconscious part of our daily lives.   In fact, it’s designed to do this.  We don’t think about holding our phones in our hands or using a computer for work too frequently because this technology has very effectively become a natural extension of our thoughts and actions.  It has become such a natural reaction for us to reach for our phones or computers to communicate, write, consume, and so many other things that this technology has snuck its way into our habits.  We no longer have to consciously make a choice to use our phones or computers, and as such they have influenced the way our habits are formed.  This manifests in things as small as we may hold our bodies differently to accommodate holding a phone, or assuming that everyone around you has similar access to a phone or a computer and similar knowledge about how to use them.  Personally, I think a particularly dangerous manifestation of this is the way that our views of technology as something inherently impartial then bleed into our habits.

Despite technology becoming such an omnipresent part of our culture and interactions, we don’t look at technology the same way that we look at other people, as is logical.  We see technology as a series of computations that has a thinking capability different than that of our own.  We recognize that when we talk to Siri on our iPhones we can’t use the same social cues we use with our friends.  The danger here is that the key difference between our perceptions of our technology and our perception of other humans is we view technology as inherently impartial.  We give technology a lot of assumed power when we allow ourselves to label judgement calls made by our technology unbiased and somehow more correct than a judgement made by a human.   We are cognizant of the inherent inability of technology to feel and perceive emotions in the same way we can, but we view this as something of an advantage for the technology.  And in doing so we not only discredit the ability of emotional decisions to be powerful and correct in their own right, but we also discredit the very real biases in technology.

Though technology can feel like a black boxed overlord that we have no capability of having human influence on, this is far from the truth.  Technology can, indeed, function as a black boxed overlord, but this is only a result of the power we’ve given its decision making.  Particularly in our present moment in which artificial intelligence is a constantly growing phenomenon, we are infatuated with creating brains in computers that we think can somehow make decisions in a more unbiased fashion than we can.  This is so far from the truth.  These machine brains are dripping with very real, very human bias.  Everything that went into creating them at every step is human.  From the human-curated data to the human-written code, from the human-designed models to the human-decided implementations, artificial intelligence can fundamentally never exist free of human input and human prejudice.  And we see this at every step of the process.

Artificial intelligence is always based off of some sort of data, whether it be images, numbers, or anything else.  The number of ways in which this data can be biased is innumerable, but perhaps most notably it can be exclusionary of certain groups of people, there can be a bias against certain groups of people in the methods used to collect the data, the data can be collected in an environment that caused a specific result to be more prevalent even if that is not indicative of the experiences of the rest of the world, etc. Our tendency to say that numbers/data do not lie and are somehow inherently correct feeds the technological bias long before the technology is even born.  Similarly, technology development is a hugely biased process and a hugely biased industry.  The tech world is a white-washed, cis male dominant field.  And the incredible amount of privilege these people have matters enormously.  The lack of diversity in tech means that it is designed for a very specific type of person, furthering the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and more that we see outside of our technology.  And this problem is so rarely addressed in tech because, in the same way that technology is viewed as the objective and unbiased, white, cishet, and male are all seen as neutral traits.  Anyone not white, cishet, or male is seen as the other.  And, of course, this is seen in our technology in the same way that this bias has become an internalized habit in our everyday interactions.

All this to say, because we have spent so many years internalizing it, prejudice and bias do not always present as huge, glaring events.  It starts in the details, and it is in every detail.  I believe it is important to be incredibly wary of anything and everything that we are unafraid to label as neutral or unbiased, because all this means is that it is what the current political climate has normalized.  And that is an eternally shifting and molding idea.  The fact that technology has become so integrated into our habits, and will only continue to become more integrated and in more ways, speaks to technology being biased in the same way our other interactions are.  In order for technology to fit so smoothly into our lives, it also must not jar with our perceptions of what is neutral.  The bias is everywhere, right down to the things we begin to view as mundane.  It’s in sensors that don’t recognize black skin, it’s in artificial intelligence trained on data sets that classify gender based on specific features deeply rooted in a false binary, it’s in artificial intelligence trained to see Muslims as inherently suspicious. It is everywhere.

Prejudice neither begins nor ends in Nazi rallies and presidential elections.  It is always the result of a long history of bias building from the details.  So, then, change also does not begin or end here.  Change in the mundane, in the details that we are not even conscious of, is an important way of fighting prejudice.  We must be able to address the ways in which our omnipresent technology feeds this bias, because otherwise its reach and ability to influence us will continue to grow and will continue to be harmful.  Being actively aware of the ways in which our environment conditions us to normalize bias is work, but it is also an important method of resistance.

My Dorky Dance Love Part 2: AKA Life Lessons I’ve Learned in Improv

Hello world, and happy National Dance Day! Today I attempt to tackle the topic of some life lessons I’ve learned from having an active improvisatory practice and how this has shaped my interactions both in and out of the dance studio. In a previous post, I talked about the positive and singular environment that improv creates. Today, I’m going to talk about how this environment has taught me a bunch of life lessons that have been useful both in a dance classroom setting and in my “real world” interactions. So often we, as dancers, abstract our “dance world” experiences from our “real world” experiences. I put these both in quotes because why can’t the dance world be a part of the real world? Certainly, the dance world can feel like its own microcosm with a unique set of guidelines for interactions, but I’d argue that these are all influenced by, and also continue to influence, our real world interactions. So, some life lessons I’ve learned from improv:

1. Allowing yourself to fail can facilitate growth, and failure can be a beautiful thing.

As a student at an elite college, I don’t often get to experience spaces where failure is safe. I love Brown and feel that the environment there is generally genuinely very positive and supportive. That doesn’t mean there’s not a tremendous amount of pressure not to fail, if for no other reason than to match pace with your peers. The same is true of much of the dance world. We spend a fair amount of time striving not to fail in class, on stage, or otherwise. Improv is one of few spaces I’ve been in where it has felt safe to fail, and I’ve failed a lot and grown so much from it. I’ve discovered a lot about what works for my body, what doesn’t work for my body, what feels good, and a lot about both my choreographic style and my natural movement style. In life, allowing myself some room for failure has shown me what I really love doing, and has helped me start to make a path that will actually work for me.

2. You can say no.

Perhaps the real life implications of this are obvious. Hopefully the real life implications of this are obvious.  I find that it is much easier to say no with body language than with words in a number of situations, be it in dance or otherwise.  Thus, for me, an improvisitory setting has been an excellent way to develop tools for saying no.  Often when you’re improv-ing with a group of people, another person will approach you to dance with you.  Clearly, sometimes this is not desirable, depending on what your intentions are/what you are feeling.  It’s easy to fall into the same habit of feeling guilty about saying no to someone as I personally fall into in my interactions outside of a dance space.  But so often my improv is a practice that I do largely for the purpose of fulfilling my own goals and doing something that is fulfilling to me and not necessarily everyone else, which means sometimes saying no to others.  Saying no with movement and body language can be as simple as turning your body the other way, or just walking away from someone in the space.  And I must say, owning my intentions like this in my improv practice has helped me develop mechanisms for being better at owning my intentions, knowing what is best for me, and sometimes saying no in my non-dance interactions as well.

3. You are constantly making choices. Being conscious of this can be a powerful tool.

Everything you do is a choice.  Whether that choice is something you are consistently aware of or not, whether it is an active or a passive decision, you are constantly making choices.  Our passive choices are a product of our habits, and our active choices are often a product of a more conscious thought process (I also think the binary of active versus passive choices is a bit reductive, but somewhat useful here at least).  Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the different utilities of subconscious decision making and conscious decision making in my improv.  I have a lot of fun existing in a sort of flow state where my body is generating movement and I’m not really bringing that movement generation to the forefront of my mind.  Rather, I’m letting my habits take hold and work for me.  On the contrary, it often feels very rewarding to play with movement generation where every motion you create, down to the tiniest unfurling of a finger, is a conscious decision that is rapidly stated at (what I envision as) the forefront of your mind.  These are two incredibly different modes of thinking, and both are definitely useful.  Being able to reach a flow state is an excellent practice in developing and honing habitual movement, which is certainly a practice in technique.  Making conscious choices about movements is more of a practice in noticing habits, and often working against them, which can be a powerful tool for creation.  Outside of a necessarily dance context, this is so important for how we notice and interact with the world around us.  Our worldview is nothing more than a habit; our biases are often so deep-seeded that they are subconscious choices that we often are unaware that we are making.  How do you even begin to work to undo bias if you cannot recognize that you have a bias? This is where being constantly conscious of making choices can be a powerful tool.  Even as you’re just walking down the street, if you heighten your awareness and attempt to articulate in your mind every decision you’re making it can be incredibly revealing about what habits you’ve formed in your daily life.  And this can be incredibly revealing about where your prejudices lie.  And this is how we start to undo them.

4. Your body and your movement are worthy and powerful as they are.

For me, personally, as a human and as a dancer, this has been the most powerful and important part of having an improvisatory practice.  I’ve struggled with both body image and knowing my worth/ability as a dancer for a very long time.  I only really started making improv an integral part of my dance practice in the past year, and I’ve noticed a huge difference both in how I perceive my body and my dancing.  In a perfect world, the goal of improv is not to create a specific aesthetic of movement, but rather to see all of the incredible things that our bodies are capable of without having to ascribe to aesthetic standards.  Naturally this doesn’t always happen, as dancers are trained in aesthetic standards and these don’t go away (and maybe they shouldn’t, at least in some contexts; honing an aesthetic can also be a powerful tool, if you don’t use it in an oppressive manner).  But even still, the idea that your body is enough to create movement without any aesthetics or techniques superimposed on it is empowering.  It helped me look at my body and my dancing in a very different way.  I think I’d spent a large number of my dancing years attempting to be something/ascribe to an aesthetic standard that my body never would be, and my current practice has helped me finally get to a place where I can be okay with having a body that will never be that.  Outside of dance aesthetics, knowing all bodies are valuable is certainly something we (as a society) could be better at in numerous ways.  In line with this, the way I think about my body and other bodies due to improv has shaped the way I talk about ableism and accessibility in other contexts.  It has helped me notice more and more when we do not value different bodies, and it has shown me the importance of changing the language around this.

5. Bodies talk. Pay attention to them and respond to them.

Improv has made me compassionate and empathetic like nothing else.  Both watching others improv and dancing in the space with them has brought a heightened awareness to what exactly people are feeling and trying to relay to me with their bodies/body language.  We spend so much time privileging the spoken and the visual ways of sensing others, but we have so many other sensory abilities that we rarely tap into on a daily basis.  You have to tap into this when you improv.  Touch, and even the absence of touch, are incredibly powerful somatosensory tools.  Without going into the neuroscience of it all, your skin has an incredible amount of sensory ability and an incredible capability to respond to touch.  Additionally, it has an incredible ability to respond to a difference in touch, meaning when you just experienced touch and are no longer experiencing touch, your skin reacts strongly to that.  This can make the slight negative space between bodies that are not quite touching each other a very powerful sensation.  All this to say, we have ways to listen to the people around us that do not involve speech in the traditional sense of the word.  One of the most important bits here is that this can be a way of giving agency to people who do not necessarily have spoken agency.  We can listen to the bodies of the people around us to understand what the world might not give them the space to say with words, and help uplift them so that they can hopefully be given the space to say this.

6. If you don’t like the environment around you, you have the agency to change it.

Someone said this to me in a class the other day, and it really stuck with me.  The caveat here is that this is very dependent on situational power.  Sometimes the world does not give people enough agency for them to be able to change their environment.  But, oftentimes we can at least change something.  In an improv setting, this can be as simple as facilitating the creation of more group movement if that’s something that you find interesting.  Or even just moving to a different space in the room where you feel like you have more room to move.  This can take any number of simple or complex forms.  And this is true of contexts outside of a dance studio as well.  Really, most of the other things I’ve said add up to this in some way or another.  They all deal in working to find the ways we can recognize what we don’t like about our surroundings, and discovering tools to change that.  So maybe improv is (among other things) a tool for facilitating change, and for bringing that change outside of the dance studio and into all of our interactions.  It’s important to remember that everything we do, whether it be in or out of the dance studio, contributes to our environment.  Nothing happens in isolation, and every action matters.  I feel as though trying to create change can feel like such a large, amorphous feat that it seems unattainable.  Remembering that the smallest decisions we make have an impact makes it feel slightly more within reach.

This is an incredibly long-winded post, but really it only begins to scratch the surface of the utility and power of improv and dance as a whole.  So on National Dance Day (and every day), let’s be more aware of our surroundings, our choices, our habits, and the people around us.  Let’s remember that bodies are never just meat sacks; rather, they are humans who are conveying ideas (be it consciously or subconsciously) constantly and who have very real and very whole livelihoods.  Let’s use today (and every day) to see dance as not just an aesthetic product, but also as a way to understand our world and ourselves.  This art has made me empathetic, compassionate, passionate, aware, strong in many ways, and so much more.  Here’s to celebrating all of that, and here’s to working towards making both the dance world and every other facet of our environment work better for everyone in them.

For funzies, and because it’s relevant, I’ve included a video of me improv-ing in Central Park after a particularly inspiring class recently.  This is playing, thinking, moving, decision making, growing, changing, and so much more.  Improv is a powerful tool, as is dance as a whole.

Stop Burying Your Gays

I’ve been watching a show called Supernatural which, despite having several levels of problematics (super white washed, heteronormative, misogynistic, etc.), has managed to keep me engaged, which is a rare thing for me in a TV show. Part of the reason I’d been committed to continuing to watch was that I’d grown attached to a number of the characters (as one does on TV shows). Particularly, a super cool badass hacker woman named Charlie was introduced as a character in a later season, and I was promptly drawn in by her spunky and (shockingly, for the female characters of this show) well-rounded character. She was intelligent, funny, and all kinds of things that female characters are often not allowed to be.  She was also a lesbian, which thrilled me even more because I was like, “Wow, this show finally has some semblance of diversity!”

Seeing as how this is a show called Supernatural, people die on a pretty regular basis due to demons, ghosts, the whole shebang. But (small spoiler alert) the main characters seem to keep miraculously coming back to life despite having died a literal million times. Anyways, I kind of expected Charlie to die a tragic death the minute she mentioned her lesbianism because of that nasty bury your gays trope in media. To my surprise, Charlie made it a lot longer than anticipated, to the point where I was starting to think maybe she’d make it through the whole show. But (spoiler alert again) I was wrong, and she died a really brutal and tragic death in an episode I recently watched. And not only was it brutal and tragic, it seemed to be one of the most permanent deaths on the show.

Meanwhile, while Charlie has just died (spoiler alert one more time), the two main characters on the show literally kill Death (who is, in fact, a character on this show) so that they can continue to live. The two main characters are, as you may have guessed, two classic white, cishet, very traditionally (and frequently toxically) masculine men. So they get to escape death in the most literal way possible time and time again, while Charlie is dead. Killing the queer character(s) on a show is not unique to Supernatural in any way; it’s so common that it’s a named trope. And it’s not like queer characters are abundant in the media, so to have such a large portion of them die, and often tragically, sends an important message about what society thinks of queer people. It feels especially drastic here, where the cishet men get to escape death time and time again. They’ve become invincible, and it’s clear that they’re intended to have some sort of happier resolution. And Charlie was not.

Think about what kind of message this sends to queer people watching this media, particularly queer children: it tells them from a young age that the quintessential “happy ending” isn’t for them, and it doesn’t give them a character who’s like them and has positive life experiences that they can connect with. When our media kills its queer characters, it’s telling queer folks young and old that their lives are not valued by society. Imagine being a young child, or someone of any age, and finding that every character who is like you is dying. Our media is, often very subconsciously, reinforcing the societal messages that demonize queerness. And that needs to change.

It’s not enough to simply have representation of a specific demographic, it has to be good representation. That is to say, it is not enough to simply place a queer character in a show, that character needs to be helping destigmatize queerness for it to be positive representation, not dying or falling into every socially constructed negative stereotype about queer people.  According to The Trevor Project, queer kids are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids.  This clearly isn’t coincidence: society feeds queer folks so many negative images of themselves, demonizes them, oppresses them, and expends a lot of energy telling them that they are wrong.  Creating poor or nonexistent representations of queer characters in the media we consume contributes to this.  We can, and we have to, do better. It is not enough to support queer folks during pride month, it’s not enough to wave a rainbow flag one day/week/month out of the year.  We have to actively work to undo negative representations, stereotypes, and stigmas surrounding queerness, and that starts with our everyday perceptions of queerness.

From watching how we portray queerness in our speech (i.e. not using “that’s gay” as an insult), to being intentional with the media we consume and the media we create, fostering a more positive image of queerness starts small.  We have a long and nasty history of hatred here, and undoing that is an active and constant process because the hate runs deep.  And this does not just apply to queerness, it applies to any type of marginalization.  People of color, women, and other marginalized groups along with queer folks need to see more positive representation in the media and deserve to be seen and portrayed as more than just a stereotype or trope.  TV shows and movies may be fictional, but that does not mean they’re free from our very nonfictional biases.  And working towards undoing hate and discrimination starts at the level of acknowledging and undoing biases.

So, yes, I’m sad and angry that my favorite character on my show is dead. But more than that, I’m angry that the one queer character on this show did not get the life and portrayal she deserved.  And I’m angry that this is commonplace.  Queer folks and other marginalized folks deserve to see themselves positively portrayed, and they deserve so much better than the way society treats them.  Maybe a good way to start is by making more positive characters, watching the ways in which we talk about queerness and other oppressed people, and actively uplifting these people in our communities, and not just on days that are designated for this.  Like I said before, it’s not enough to uplift queer folks on Pride Parade and to step out of the fight for the rest of the year.  You don’t just get to be a part of the movement when it’s a celebration; for some people this is life or death and it’s time we stepped up to the plate and did better for them.

For a great podcast on the bury your gays trope, see here.  I would also recommend Stuff Mom Never Told You as a podcast to listen to in general, for all your feminist podcast needs.

For some shows that have done better at representing queer characters, I would recommend Sense8 (despite the fact that Netflix has, frustratingly, cancelled it), and Black Mirror (warning: spoilers in link!).

My Dorky Dance Love: AKA How Improv Helped Me Find My Niche 

I’ve written a few times about contact improv, my contact improv class, and my general dorky love for improv.  My semester recently ended, so as a sort of culminating reflection, I’m going to discuss my dorky love for improv and where that comes from.  I really only started having an active improv practice this year, and it’s done me a lot of good as a human, a dancer, and a choreographer.  I started using improv as a method of devising choreography for a piece I was working on for a student choreographed concert at my school, and realized how valuable this practice is to my growth as a dancer and understanding of myself as a human.  And just how much I love to move.

As corny as it sounds, improv really made me fall in love with dance again.  I’d spent a lot of years being unsure of what exactly my relationship with dance was, in the sense that I spent hours upon hours in a dance studio every week and certainly enjoyed it, but was never really sure if that was a space where I belonged.  This was for a number of reasons, but one that’s easy to pin down is that I broke my knee when I was about fourteen and have been dealing with the physical and mental aftershocks of a pretty serious injury since then.  I’ve obviously come up with a number of ways (weight manipulation, development of other muscles, etc.) to work around the limitations this presents, but it’s always felt a bit like I’ve had to either change the way that is healthy/natural for my body to move to make the movement happen (which always felt tentative, because I felt like I was pushing the injury too far) or change the movement to fit my needs (which is often frowned upon).  Improv gave me a way to see the movement that my body naturally produces as valuable and enough, even if it doesn’t fit within the category of movement that is traditionally defined as good within dance.  Furthermore, it gave me agency to find ways to make movement impetuses from others work for my body.

And that’s part of the power of the body politics of an improvisatory practice – improv values movement without attaching it to a whole host of aesthetic/societal standards.  Dance has a rather ugly history of ascribing to highly problematic, and often appropriative, aesthetic standards.  These privilege the white, thin, cisgender bodies and perpetuate the same toxic and oppressive norms that exist throughout society.  Contact improv works to undo this in that it doesn’t seek to create one aesthetic so much as it seeks to be interested in the ways bodies interact with each other in space.  And it says this is interesting regardless of the aesthetic it creates.  There’s not one standard for what interesting movement looks like, and it allows for a lot more freedom of interpretation in what dance really is and it provides a space for working through some of the more negative aesthetic standards ascribed to by many parts of the dance world.

Importantly for me, personally, contact improv and an improvisatory practice in general helped me to a mental place where I could learn to love my body.  In a society where everything a woman’s body can be is scrutinized, surveilled, and criticized, it can be really difficult to look in the mirror and like what you see.  Naturally, this has bled into my dance practice.  Especially when I was in high school and was rather committed to training in classical ballet, I spent a lot of time looking in a mirror and fixating on what parts of me were not and would never be within the rigid and oppressive aesthetic standards that ballet has ascribed to its women.  Improv has helped me take my head out of the mirror and away from the aesthetic standards.  It’s given me a way to see my body and its associated embodied knowledge as valuable as they are.  It’s given me a space where I can be unapologetic about what my body is and, inherently, unapologetic about who I am.

Thus, improv has been a feminist dance practice for me. It’s been a practice of self love. It’s been a practice of finding agency in my movement. And for me it’s also fostered a sense of community in which people are looking out for each other in a loving, trusting, embodied sense. A contact improv jam is this beautiful environment where people come together to appreciate what our bodies can do with each other and with the space that we’re in, and it involves a mutual sense of trust that each mover will take care of both their own body and the bodies that they’re dancing with. There have been many times, especially in our current political climate, where I’ve felt like I don’t know that I can trust the intentions of people around me, and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Improv has provided me with a space where mutual trust can be bred, and that’s been such a beautiful reprieve and a way to get out of my own head.

So yeah, I’m an improv dork. I walked out of my contact class tonight feeling more fulfilled and genuinely happy than I have in a long time. Part of that certainly stems from my sheer love of moving and being active. But a lot of it stems from the positive environment that these kinds of classes and jams create. Improv gave me a way to find my niche in the dance world, to come to love and appreciate my body and its abilities, and to come to love movement in a totally new way. A couple of years ago, I enjoyed dance but was ready to slowly phase it out of my life because I was fairly certain it was a world I didn’t fit well in. Now, I can’t imagine taking it out of my life. And there are many more reasons for that than I care to list, but improv is definitively a big part of that.