- Coralie Ahrenskeaff
‘I am a Queer Ballet Dancer - where’s my love story?’
If mainstream ballet companies would choose to value and incorporate queer and LGBTQ+ dancers in their ballets, young queer people would feel more support and not be scared for being themselves on stage or pursuing ballet.
The dance world, specifically classical dance, is deeply rooted in stereotypes. As a queer ballet dancer, I see these stereotypes. Ballets choreographed for thin, white dancers are celebrated and popular. These ballets are different variations of a man and a woman falling in love, and then either death, suicide, marriage and eternal love, or happiness at the end. Don’t get me wrong, great choreographer masterminds created these ballets, but they choreographed with racist ideologies and straight love stories in mind. The ballet world has been diversifying over the past few years, but mainstream ballet promotes predominantly white cisgender dancers and straight couples on stage, and as a queer dancer, seeing more LGBTQ+ professional dancers would be amazing.
Ballet has progressed so much over the years, but it is based on ideas created hundreds of years ago for kings and queens. Now, ballet should be (and always should have been) accessible for everyone no matter gender, body size, skin color, or nationality because we do not live in the 16th century anymore, and we have hopefully become more progressive as a culture. However, people are stubborn and as much as we want change, we are usually overcome by cultural norms and stereotypes among other things. Queer women need more places as dancers in mainstream ballet companies, especially women of color and transgender dancers. We dance to please many audiences now, but sticking to hundred year-old traditions will not serve us any good. The discipline and rigor of ballet training that comes from the rich history of ballet is partly what inspires me to keep going. Having a goal to work towards with precise training every day makes me happy and keeps me motivated. However, there is also the appeal of history and tradition that many people cherish. We can still respect our history while discontinuing the non-inclusive practices that exclude many people from ballet, and still keep the beauty of dance going.
Let’s go over what queer signifies. The Wikipedia definition is “an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender”. In the late 19th century this word was used as a derogatory slur against the LGBTQ+ community. Nearing the end of the 20th century, LGBTQ+ people started to reclaim “queer” as a label that anyone can use no matter their gender or sexual orientation. Remember, this is a three sentence definition of the word and not a complete history. “Queer” is a label many use, but it should only be used if someone has introduced themselves with it. You may call me queer because I have accepted this label to define me.
Studies show that roughly fifty percent of men in ballet are gay, but this is not set in stone. However, this does not mean you will find two men dancing a romantic duet together in a ballet. A man and a women can, but not two dancers of the same sex. On the other hand, there are no statistics to represent lesbians or queer females in the ballet world.
Adriana Pierce, the founder of #Queertheballet, created this movement to show more visibility for queer professional dancers. She danced with Miami City Ballet for seven seasons and now works on choreography and musical theater. She choreographed a female duet danced en pointe to disrupt the gendered ballet system altogether. She says, “Queer women aren’t even on the radar in our spaces. I’m just never considered. The idea that a woman might deviate from the image we expect as a professional ballet dancer is just not even a thought people have.” I completely agree with this statement. Society expects male dancers to be gay and the women to be straight and willing to be lifted without showing any effort while being a perfect delicate female person. As a young woman, I can say from personal experience that it is impossible to be perfect. My entire life revolves around being feminine, but I do not identify with all female traits. Clothes and hair should not determine the gender expression of someone, but the only place I feel free of gender expectations is outside of ballet class. No one would guess I identify as queer and lesbian because there is no space in the ballet world to be perceived as other than cisgender. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like myself when I’m dancing, but I am perceived as a cisgender straight girl (or that’s what I think). It’s a hard feeling to tackle, and it’s something I can’t exactly place, but if there was more acceptance and flexibility in studios, I would feel more completely myself if there was more room for queer women and non-binary people. I am still the same person, just people would have new information about me, and maybe that is the only change we need.
Life can be even harder for a queer person of color, especially if you are female or identify as non-binary. We need more queer dancers of color in the ballet word on the professional level, but the visibility for these dancers is very low. Jin Xing, a transgender woman who founded Jin Xing Dance Theater and is a host of a talk show, is the first “out” transgender celebrity and dancer in China. As a dance icon, she is breaking down gender norms not only in dance, but in the world of arts in general.
In 2018, genderfluid Chase Johnsey, who uses male pronouns, became the first to dance in the all female corps de ballet at the English National Ballet in "Sleeping Beauty." He says, “When I’m being a ballerina, I’m not trying to be more feminine; I’m not trying to be more masculine. All I’m doing is being myself." This is exactly what the ballet world needs — letting students do pointe no matter their gender and teaching girls steps that are “for boys”. Not with the intention to gender these steps but just to let dancers dance. Dancers could then choose what steps feel most comfortable to them. This can help people who feel pressured into fitting one of the two ballet binaries be able to just dance and not be seen as doing “boy steps” or “feminine arms”.
Kiara DeNae Felder, a non-binary dancer with Les Grands Ballet Canadiens, said something very important in a 2019 article with Dance Magazine. They use she/they pronouns. After stating that they had some male gay friends at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, they realized they didn’t know any queer women. They say they weren’t sure queer women were welcome. And then they say, “Without representation, I started to feel this pressure and fear, could I be a ballet dancer and be lesbian?" People within the ballet community like classmates and maybe some teachers are generally more accepting, especially in my generation, but not seeing dancers that resemble us can be scary for young dancers like me. If ballet does not represent queer women, who knows what reactions will be? This is why having someone like Kiara Felder at the professional level is amazing for young queer dancers because now we have someone to look up to in a mainly classical ballet company. As one of the few Black dancers in the company, Kiara is also a great role model for young dancers of color, which is extremely important in a ballet world that is majority white. Visibility has a number of benefits, especially if your audience is conservative, explains queer YouTuber Rowan Ellis, because this can show queer youth what they can aspire to be. For non-queer youth, they can see people and diversity that differs from their norms.
If mainstream ballet companies would choose to value and incorporate queer dancers in their ballets, young queer people would feel more support and not be scared for being themselves on stage or pursuing ballet. The only way to show support is to actually represent the people’s stories we want to support. We live in an age of technology and progress. This progress needs to stretch to every corner of the world to enrich, expose, and educate people on the beauty of diversity and acceptance. There are two ballet companies that have started to deal with this: Ballez and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. In short, Les Ballet Trockadero is a troop of professional male dancers who perform a whole range of different classical styles, many of which they dance en pointe (a shoe where you dance on your toes). This company shows that men can do pointe and make it funny at the same time, but sadly there is no female version of this yet that shows that women can dress up as men and dance their hearts out. Ballez, founded by genderqueer Katy Pyle, has a mission to celebrate the queers, lesbians, gender non-conforming, trans, and all the other identities labeled unworthy of ballet. This is a welcoming place to not be seen as an outcast anymore, and this company needs more attention and visibility so their message can be heard.
One day, when I (or any other up-and-coming student) start partnering (a dance between two people), I will be asked to dance with one of my male counterparts. This is not a problem, but all of my movements will be initiated by him. Partnering is one of the hardest things to do as a dancer whether you’re male, female or something in between — synchronizing two bodies to produce something beautiful is extremely demanding. However, this partnering norm does not show that two women can be beautiful together or be in love. This norm does not accentuate the strengths of what a woman can do without a man. Women are independent and not controlled by men anymore, unlike when ballet was created. This does not mean we must diminish men, all it means is that female strength must be shown onstage just as men can show theirs. Female emotion and delicacy are shown onstage, which actually requires incredible strength, but women are not allowed to make our strength explicit. We must also show that two men can dance together, but queer female visibility in dance is almost zero.
Queer women do not fit one “look” or job; we are not someone’s fetish, and we can dance or we can become whatever it is we want. The only requirement to be gay or lesbian is to be alive and to be attracted to the same gender. Our sexuality is not defined by clothing, or certain professions or interests. Queer people exist all over the wold in every profession, and visibility is important no matter what industry we talk about. There are so many difficulties for queer people out there in the world depending on religion or country of origin, and this is only one of them.
This is the first time I have shared my identity publicly, so hopefully people will be more open to the idea that women can be queer in dance no matter how young or old you are and that us queers do not incorporate one stereotype or body.