NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Michael Montoya, Independent Dance Consultant. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
As we train dancers, how often do we stop to think about the gender and sexual identity roles we are promoting? Are we acknowledging the individual or are we reinforcing stereotypes? Are we creating a space of safety or one of exclusion?
I recently had the opportunity to interview fellow LGBTQIA+ dancers about traditional gender and sexual identity roles in dance and, although the dancers represented a broad range of training, age, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, all had similar experiences with cisgender heteronormative stereotypes and the damages they inflict.
To start with, the image of the female dancer generally fits one of three molds: vulnerable waif, hypersexualized doll, or angry villainess. Women who do not conform to these roles are often bullied and ostracized, forcing many gender-expansive women out of the profession.
With an extreme emphasis on the idealized hyperfeminine figure, there is a culture of body shaming in dance that can have severely negative effects on gender-expansive women. Control over costuming, which is often ultrafeminine, revealing, and hypersexualized, is so rigid many are inhibited from expressing their desire to present more masculinely or to ask for accommodations.
In contrast, the image of the male dancer is hypermasculine, muscular, confident, powerful, and exclusively heterosexual. His emotional range is narrow, consisting primarily of anger, supplemented with limited amounts of sadness or pain.
Dancers are often separated into “male” and “female'' classes, and when in the same class, often trained in different skills and styles of movement. While female training primarily focuses on flexibility and feminine expression, male training features powerful athletic jumps and turns, and complicated sequences of both. Regardless of their gender or sexual identity, biological females are expected to be soft and delicate, and biological males to be strong and masculine.
Although homosexual men have long been tolerated in dance, they are expected to train in the male track and exclusively portray heterosexual roles on stage. Just like biologically female dancers, biological males who are uncomfortable often feel just as inhibited and unsafe speaking up to express their concerns.
Transgender roles are nonexistent and if a trans dancer is cast, it is often for comedic, or political value. Most often we are required to train with those of our assigned birth gender, and even if we can switch to the other track in our transition, we are still at a disadvantage due to gender-based training. People often see two different genders, or a body that doesn’t match with the gender stereotypes associated with it. Facing strong expectations to match the idealized image of “male” or “female”, many of us experience anxiety in class. In addition, gender specific attire and costumes designed for cisgender bodies may be ill-fitting and trigger dysphoria and/or dysmorphia both before and after transition. It is also not uncommon for teachers and choreographers to be oppositional and unsupportive of our transitions. Many trans dancers feel they must choose between dance and life as their true selves since they have been told the two cannot coexist.
Few forms of dance offer training or roles that are genderless, leaving limited options for nonbinary dancers. Most audition notices contain gender exclusionary phrases, and most productions feature heteronormative characters and relationships, affording no room for nonbinary dancers, unless, like lesbian, homosexual, or transgender dancers, they play stereotypical heteronormative characters. If a nonbinary artist is cast, they are often criticized for having taken a role from a more deserving dancer and charged with diminishing the artistic integrity of the piece. This is a criticism faced by transgender dancers as well.
Not surprisingly, the rigid expectations regarding the way their bodies look and move, and the rigid binary division of “male” and “female” is an area of great concern for nonbinary dancers.
Choices in casting, choreography, staging, setting, and storytelling are almost exclusively heteronormative and are made to appeal to cisgender heterosexual audiences. Rarely are LGBTQIA+ dancers provided the opportunity to portray LGBTQIA+ characters on stage, leaving them with no other option but to perform in roles which are out of alignment with their personal identity and, as children, often without their prior consent. For many young LGBTQIA+ dancers this causes such trauma that they quit dance altogether, the stress of the experience often leaving them with long lasting detrimental psychological effects.
In terms of our relationships with other dancers, although homosexual dancers are considered commonplace, lesbian, transgender, and nonbinary dancers are not. They are often the recipients of disrespect, ridicule, and disdain. It is not uncommon for others to refuse to share a dressing room or to partner with us, to intentionally misgender us, or to assume we are attracted to them based solely upon our sexual preferences.
Clearly changes need to be made, starting with stripping away all our preconceived notions about gender and sexuality, separating them from what is technically necessary for teaching dance. All movement and qualities of movement can and should be referenced using appropriate and accurate terminology free of gendered terms. This also includes eliminating gendered references to students, instead opting for gender neutral terms such as “dancers”, using the pronouns preferred by each individual, and offering all training and all class attire options to all dancers without any distinction for assigned gender at birth.
The importance of creating a safe space for LGBTQIA+ dancers cannot be overemphasized. This includes allowing students to express themselves and to present in class or onstage as the gender of their choice, including genderless, whether it is a permanent or a temporary decision. Students should not be required to play genders they don’t identify with, and choreographers need to expand their repertoire to be more inclusive, embracing all dancers, including those who perform in nontraditional roles.
Teachers need to facilitate open conversations about gender, sexual orientation, and identity so that all dancers have an opportunity to speak up if they are uncomfortable. It should not be the responsibility of the LGBTQIA+ dancer to make other people feel comfortable with who they are.
Representation matters. Visibility matters. Inclusiveness matters.
Michael Montoya is a professional dancer, choreographer, and dance educator with over 30 years’ experience in the field and performance experience in both commercial and concert jazz dance. In addition, Michael is also a fully certified teacher with a Master’s of Education in Cross Cultural Teaching with over 25 years’ experience in the field of academic education. His interest in doing research on gender roles in dance and their effects on the LGBTQIA+ community stems from his own experiences first as a female, lesbian identifying dancer and now as a trans male dancer.
Photo credits: Top photo by Tomo Swan, Headshot by Briana Bena