Dance

Two Dance Books Revel in Shattering the Gender Binary

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What would you identify as the major cultural changes in your lifetime? A couple dozen people I recently asked responded in similar ways: the advent of the internet, for one, and movements toward political and sexual equity for women, gays, and people of color.

I was driven to this question by changes I’ve been noticing on dance stages, among them an increase in trans performers, and by my reading of Queer Dance, a print anthology edited and curated by Clare Croft, with an online component. A collection of bold essays by academics and performers (many identify as both) from across the world, it documents the emergence of a gender spectrum replacing the traditional binary. Back in the Sixties, when men began sporting seriously long hair and spectators entertained themselves by wondering about the genders of couples strolling in parks, it would have been hard to imagine the current moment, where university professors ask students to identify their preferred pronouns.

In academe, scholars have parsed issues of identity and sexual politics for decades, and understanding of gender fluidity among the general public — dance fans, readers, teenagers, retirees — has been rapidly growing, too. Croft’s book, which went to press after last summer’s massacre in a gay club in Orlando and includes a passionate commemorative essay by novelist Justin Torres, reaches both back and forward, grounded in her deep commitment to intersectional feminism, to the importance of social as well as concert dance, to challenging white privilege, and to the way “queerness…has always pivoted on the promise of coalition.”

Steeped in the revolution in literary-critical thinking that dates back to the mid-Seventies, Croft, a young lesbian originally from Alabama who now teaches at the University of Michigan, in 2012 convened a conference of the Congress on Research in Dance on the topic of queer dance, an event that led to her deeply political and provocative volume. Queer Dance’s seventeen essays range from the autobiographical (drag king Lou Henry Hoover’s “To Be a Showboy”) to the historical (Jennifer L. Campbell’s study of coded working-class heroes in Depression-era ballet) to the densely theoretical. Julian B. Carter’s “Chasing Feathers,” which explores the history of ballet at many levels, had me laughing out loud on a bus, even as it clarified my queasiness about the four-hundred-year-old form’s “legacies of misogyny, elitism, and imperialism.” Feathers, he notes in what is essentially a meditation on Swan Lake, “make me want to re-enact in text the cygnine idiom’s tendency to curve back on itself, and with it the power and the limit of queer temporality theory to describe these floating fluffs of down.” He loses me at “temporality theory,” and gets me back with “fluffs of down.”

Queer Dance is, Croft stresses, more than just this fat anthology; it’s also the “performances and interviews documented on the Queer Dance website” — oup.com/us/queerdance; the book provides a username and password — “and the ongoing performance series.” Coming next week to Brooklyn, Croft’s Explode! festival features appearances by contributors Thomas F. DeFrantz, DD Dorvillier, Jennifer Monson, and members of the Post Natyam Collective, among many others, and is hosted by Tufts drama professor Kareem Khubchandani, a/k/a LaWhore Vagistan, the self-described “desi drag queen” (whose chapter, about growing up queer among his Indian aunties in Ghana, is another of my favorite essays). The festival, which runs June 21–24, mostly happens at JACK in Clinton Hill, but also enfolds performances and conversations at the Manhattan headquarters of Oxford University Press and at NYU.

If you can’t make the shows, revel in the pleasures of the book’s pages of endnotes, often as illuminating as the essays themselves, and of its seven-page bibliography, which inspires a scavenger hunt through forty years of literary theory and performance scholarship. Queer Dance is a readymade curriculum for a dance history or queer studies course, its included video documentation ideal for classroom screenings and/or homework (check out LaWhore Vagistan and Auntie Kool Jams in “Sari,” inspired by the homonymic Justin Bieber song). I’d suggest it as a summer beach read, but you’ll need to bring along an electronic device, which could get messy.

Reading Queer Dance simultaneously with Dance and Gender brings into sharp focus the distance between “performance studies” and dance departments. Edited by Wendy Oliver and Doug Risner (she chairs the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Film at Providence College, and he teaches at Wayne State, researching the sociology of dance training and education among other subjects), Dance and Gender takes a much tamer, statistics-based approach to a similar set of issues. It’s still operating in a binary universe, its lens focused on the differences in career trajectory between male- and female-identifying dance students, choreographers, and company directors. It takes on attitudes toward gender in the world of competition dance and commercial studios.

Perhaps its most eye-opening chapter, Australian choreographer Gareth Belling’s “Engendered: An Exploratory Study of Regendering Contemporary Ballet,” reports on what happened a few years ago when he tried to “regender” roles in existing ballets, requiring women to “partner” and men to “be partnered,” giving over their weight when they’re used to supporting others. He collected data on dancers’ difficulties with this process and on audience responses to viewing the finished, gender-switched versions. This material feels like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic; his ship may be going down, but he’s still hoping his choreography will “express something about today’s world” and “help develop a future for contemporary ballet.”

The rest of the slim, expensive volume focuses on dance in education, on gender imbalances at major festivals and in departmental administration, and on attitudes toward presentation of self in dance departments and on competition stages. The contributors have done a lot of reading; its bibliography is twice as long as the one in Queer Dance and overlaps it to a significant degree. But what’s missing here is the bright style and rowdy, multi-focal political commitment of Croft’s book; the Gender writers whisper politely, while the Queer ones stand up and holler.

Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings
Edited by Clare Croft
Oxford University Press
315 pp.

Dance and Gender: An Evidence-Based Approach
Edited by Wendy Oliver and Doug Risner
University Press of Florida
212 pp.

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