Editorial: Dancing around the glass closet

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by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

During gay pride parades in June there was the usual spirited dancing in the streets, but this year proved an even more jubilant occasion for GLBTQ Americans with the US Supreme Court ruling that made marriage equality legal in every state. While there is indeed, much to celebrate with this victory, the fight for equality is far from over.

Shockingly, the anti-gay backlash is in full swing, with anti-gay organizations, politicians and clergy hell bent on rolling back any initiative that would advance any defined government protections for gay people. As absurd a notion as that is, their hate messages still go far in perpetuating negative myths, lies and stereotypes about gay people. They want to erase 50 years of the gay civil-rights movement and return to a time when it was not discussed outside of the closet.

This backlash might seem far removed from the performing arts world, and in many ways it is. The dance world, in particular has longstanding traditions going back probably centuries, of accepting of GLBTQ artists. And on a person-to-person level, there is unquestioned widespread support. But, it is equally true that there also exist vestiges of homophobia and industry perceptions that buy into negative gay stereotypes.

It is indeed ironic that even while gay dancers can rely on industry acceptance and private support, public acknowledgement of that industry support is rare and a code of silence among gay dancers is often expected. However innocuous, this duality still has the power to inhibit, censor and intimidate GBLTQ people as being ‘less than’. There is a glass closet of visibility and invisibility.

I was reminded of this social disconnect at the recent “Together We Dance” concert at the Painted Bride earlier this year, featuring the joyous performances of the accomplished apprentice companies of Philadanco (D/2) and Pennsylvania Ballet (PBII).  It occurred during the audience talk back hosted by the company directors, Donald Lunsford of D2 and Frances Veyette of PB.

The talk focused on the goals of these two companies, one predominantly black and the other predominantly white. Everyone in agreement that the main goal was to break down racial divides that still exists in dance. Indeed, a discussion that should continue industry wide, until, as Philadanco director Joan Myers Brown eloquently stated from the audience, all dance companies “… look like America.”

The audience discussion then switched when someone asked why there were not more male dancers choosing go into dance, which led to a seemingly robust discussion of ‘the stigma’. Even without ‘the stigma’ being spelled out, everyone in the room understood that it referred to male dancers being tagged and often bullied, i.e. –in a hetero-dominant culture, if you are a male and want to dance, you must be gay. Several male audience members related their stories, both as dance students and professionals, coping with ‘the stigma’.

And, disappointingly, as it usually does, this is where the discussion ends. The discussion encapsulated the coded language of a glass closet. Nothing extraordinary about it, just that here we are in 2015 and the same discussion is not moving forward with the logical next point- What about those male dancers who are in fact gay?

There was not one word from the audience that included many members of the dance community, or the stage full of young dancers, speaking to what facing the ‘stigma’ is like for gay male dancers growing up in the same hetero-dominant environment as their straight counterparts.  A gay dancer has obviously had to deal with the same ‘stigma’ and most likely even more aggression to transcend the manifestations of homophobia within and without the dance world.

And, stupidly, I too sat in silence, deciding it was not the time or place to bring up such a big topic on top of the main group discussion. Later, I had to admit that my silence was a huge cop-out.  So I would now like to open up this topic.

The past decade has been remarkable for GLBTQ civil rights and it is definitely an era where we get to define ourselves and our lives, despite entrenched bigotry and the maneuvers of those who blindly hate us. There has been a huge cultural shift, unthinkable a decade ago, where GLBTQ Americans can now serve openly in the military and marriage equality reliable polls, it has the majority support in America. Even gay athletes are coming out challenging the stereotypes and defying the usual push-backs from an aggressively homophobic sports culture.

Under the cover of an outwardly diverse dance community, it is ironic that there is no apparent collective will to change its status quo of gay silence and invisibility. In 2015, this is a shockingly, deliberately missed opportunity to champion inclusion, not ‘otherness.’

A 2003, survey among dance scholars and industry professionals largely confirmed that the ‘stigma’ and negative stereotypes about male dancers still persists. The responses full of demoralizing gay slurs. A lot of good this survey did in changing attitudes, as the deafening silence continues.

Every few years the issue re-emerges in the dance press, but the focus is typically to bolster a macho image of straight male dancers  A 2013 piece, “In and Out: Bolle, Gomes, Stiefel- how easy is it to be an openly gay ballet dancer?” on Gramilano.com, is a snapshot of how dodgy the issue still is among elite danseurs.

A wonderful exception was Rachel Zar’s inspiring 2012 Dance Spirit Magazine (www.dancespirit.com) article “I’m Gay/ I’m Straight” in which dancers Brandon Cournay, a gay dancer and Kyle Robinson a straight dancer, both Juilliard grads and both with successful careers, candidly discuss their experiences dealing with dealing with and transcending the bullying and harassment.

It is unfortunate that any gay dancer would keep any negative effects from ‘the stigma’ to themselves, and simply focus on their desire to continue dancing at all costs. But, as many will attest, silence and invisibility does not solve the issues of true diversity and acceptance. Whether a gay dancer chooses to come out publicly or remain private about it, they need to be treated with respect and judged solely on their ability and artistry. In or out, their presence, perspectives and well- being should always be part of the dance dialogue.

What would the history of dance be without the contributions of gay male dancers and choreographers? No Rudolf Nureyev, no Alvin Ailey, no Jerome Robbins, no Bill T. Jones or Mark Morris, just to mention a few from an endless list. It is long overdue that the work, passion and artistry of GLBTQ artists need to be acknowledged as central to the dance world.

Gay civil-rights pioneer Harvey Milk believed that coming out and being visible is our most powerful tool to shatter the myths about GLBTQ people and mostly to shatter the suffocating silence of the closet.

Part 2 of this commentary will look at gay aesthetic in dance and the sparse representation of GLBTQ themes on the dance stage.   

 

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2 Comments

  1. Jeff sincere thanks for your comments & yes, the open dialogue is essential in changing the myths and stereotypes. Great that you are working directly in this area with young dancers. Time for a new, more realistic and openly inclusive environment.

  2. Lewis,
    I very much appreciate your broaching this subject regarding male dancers and specifically gay male dancers in regards to homophobia and heterosexism in the dance field. These issues are very important and more dialogue can only help. I want to mention that there is a relatively new (2-3 years old) dance company in New Jersey titled 10 Hairy Legs which explores the range of the male dancer in contemporary society. The works are commissioned from both male and female choreographers and the main company is all male dancers (there is another 10 Hairy Legs Projects which produces works with both male and female dancers). They recently may have performed in Philadelphia and I hope you and others had a chance to see them. As an artistic advisor of the company, I’ve been working with their dance education staff to develop appropriate ways to engage young students in these issues, based on the educational research of Dr. Doug Risner (Wayne State University) who does wonderful research on boys and men in dance (see: “Stigma and Perseverance in the Lives of Boys Who Dance”, his recent compilation of 10 years of research on these topics). What can we do to engage these important topics more fully?
    Jeff

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