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 Jennifer Meckley, Assistant Professor of Dance at Ball State University. 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 a gender non-conforming pansexual dance teacher in higher education, I have been conversing with colleagues and students about the challenges LGBTQIA and genderqueer students experience in academia and ways we can create safer and more inclusive spaces for these students. I will offer tips on how I have been proactively creating these spaces and will provide some insight on how everyone can contribute to creating healthy environments for our queer students to flourish. I will provide examples specifically for dance classes and theatre productions. However, I believe these concepts can be implemented in other areas as well. This information is based on my experiences as a queer person and the experiences of some of my students. Some of this information may be obvious or information you have heard before, but there are various approaches, opinions and perspectives on the correct pathway to obtain an inclusive environment. These suggestions I am offering were developed from common themes and struggles, and are based on traditional practices and requirements found in the classroom that can easily be changed and are a starting point for larger conversations.
Clothing: Dance studios in America have traditionally followed a Western approach to teaching and structuring studio technique classes. Applying Ballet standards to all styles of dance has perpetuated a binary perspective by requiring specific dance attire based on gender, such as pink tights and a black leotard for women. This has proven to be harmful for genderqueer and transgender individuals. While many recent teachers request form-fitting clothing to observe body alignment rather than an aesthetic preference or gender-specific requirement, it can often trigger genderqueer students who experience body dysmorphia due to their insecurities about their gender. Moreover, our transgender and non-binary students often feel pressured to wear requested dancewear specific to their perceived gender based on their physical appearance rather than their true gender identity. This request can be harmful to their transition and overall gender discovery. Some helpful tactics I have implemented into my technique courses include eliminating gender-specific clothing requests and providing varying examples and options for students to select from regardless of their perceived gender. Below is the attire policy I use.
“Students are required to wear comfortable athletic or dance clothing. Students may wear leotards, tights, shorts, pants, t-shirts, and tank tops. Clothing must not be too baggy to allow a clear view of body alignment. No jeans are allowed. Personal attire requests will be accepted on an individual basis.”
Gender roles: The conversation about attire leads me to my next point, gender roles. Often in the classroom we provide the opportunity for our students to practice partnering techniques, which traditionally are limited to binary gender roles, male and female. Some examples include ballet partnering, specific movements, and social and ballroom dances. One common practice I have seen implemented in various spaces includes avoiding gendered terms to identify these roles and using words such as the lead, the follow, the lifter, the lifted, etc. While this is a great step towards including non-binary genders, allowing students the freedom to decide which role they feel the most comfortable in will continue that progress even further. This concept of choice also involves casting in productions, which can easily be solved by allowing students to audition or execute the role of the gender they chose to avoid projecting personal biases or assumptions. As a choreographer or director for a production, it may also be possible to re-evaluate the necessity of a gender-specific role. Identifying if a production’s narrative or message is reliant on the gender of a character can provide more freedom for those roles to shift and opportunity for genderqueer performers to feel comfortable in a role they identify with.
In terms of specific movements, conversations I have had with my students suggested that, for example, many ballet classes require males to execute higher jumps while the women focus on developing intricate pointe work. While I understand the need for tradition and history in some of these classes, opening up the space for students to decide which movement they would like to do immediately makes the opportunity more inclusive. Unfortunately, this also brings up a larger conversation about movement and what we deem as gendered movements. For example, if we identify movements as masculine or manly, this could have a negative effect on male-identifying dancers who have been bullied for being a dancer. In turn, this could suggest they are not “manly enough.” If we encourage our students to execute movements deemed as masculine or feminine regardless of their gender, this could help to eliminate those negative perspectives.
Terminology: Understanding language surrounding gender and sexual orientation and the terms that could potentially be harmful to queer students are the of utmost importance. If you are using gendered terms, define your use of those terms, but also be aware of characteristics that we often limit to specific genders. For example, various attributes, such as strong, dominant, and aggressive are often considered masculine qualities and are commonly linked to the male gender. Moreover, it is suggested that bisexual women feel pressure to be less masculine and simultaneously labeled as too feminine due to their attraction to both the female and male genders, which results in not fully embracing their sexual identity. Making comments such as “Dance like a man” or “Be more feminine” can reinforce common stereotypes associated with specific sexual orientations and genders and, in turn, creates unhealthy spaces for these students.
Pronouns: A common theme in many places, even outside of dance and academia, has been asking people to share their pronouns. While I encourage this and love the effort of those implementing it in their classrooms, offering this as an option rather than a mandatory introduction is the better route. Those students who are in the process of self-discovery or do not want this information to get back to their unaccepting parents may feel pressured to identify themselves, which may halt their path to self-discovery.
Additionally, eliminating binary pronouns in your syllabi and vocabulary, in general, will also contribute to creating a more inclusive environment. Get rid of gendered introductions such as “Ladies and gentlemen” or “Hey guys” and use other approaches, including “Hello Everyone” or “Welcome All”. When sending an email to a student or writing a letter of recommendation, use “Dear Mz. Meckley” rather than Ms. or Mr, unless the gender preferences are specified elsewhere.
Transparency and honesty: The common theme I noticed throughout my journey is a request for conversations, transparency, and honesty. While we are in our dance classes to dance, move, and train, setting aside time to simply discuss your expectations, teaching style, background and to learn the perspectives of your students, will show them you are willing and open, and concurrently offers space for them to be heard.
Above anything else, it’s also important to recognize that we are all humans. We make mistakes. If you make a mistake, use the wrong pronoun, or unintentionally offend someone, own it, apologize, and grow.
Schippers, Mimi. “Recovering the Feminine Other: Masculinity, Femininity, and Gender Hegemony.” 2007, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4501776. Accessed 2022.
Sarah M. Steele, Lisa Belvy, Cindy B. Veldhuis, Kelly Martin, Robyn Nisi & Tonda L. Hughes (2019) Femininity, masculinity, and body image in a community- based sample of lesbian and bisexual women, Women & Health, 59:8, 829-844, DOI: 10.1080/03630242.2019.1567645
In 2010, Jennifer (she/they) obtained a B.A. in Dance from Slippery Rock University and a M.F.A in Dance in 2013 from The Ohio State University. She has served as a faculty member at West Chester University, Cuyahoga Community College, Northampton Community College, and the University of Dayton. Jennifer currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Dance at Ball State University and actively pushes the boundaries of physicality through performance as a founding member of the modern dance company, Abby Z and the New Utility, directed and choreographed by Abby Zbikowski. The company has performed at venues including Jacob’s Pillow, New York Live Arts, The American Dance Festival, Bates Dance Festival, Judson Church Movement Research, and more. As a performer, teacher, choreographer, and practitioner of hip-hop, street dance, club dance, and contemporary dance forms, Jennifer has made it her goal to emphasize the benefits of training in African American vernacular dance techniques and spread knowledge of appropriation in academia. Her choreography explores the fusion of movement from breaking, house dance, waacking, and vogue with contemporary dance while attempting to incorporate other live elements such as DJing and graffiti. Moreover, her identify as a gay woman motivates the content for her work.
Featured Photo: Kip Shawger and Ball State University Theatre
Head Shot: Nick Fancher Shutter-think Photography