In the Blog
Redefining ballet: A queer feminist introduction
Illustration by Beena Mistry
It had been a long February. I had powered my way through all three seasons of Dance Academy on Netflix in a single week. This voracious pace might explain why I couldn’t stop thinking about ballet. A few weeks later, at the age of 26, I bought the little pink shoes, tied my hair in a bun, and stepped to the barre for the first time.
In those first weeks of “Ballet for Absolute Beginners,” I learned to plié, tendu, rond de jambe, and fondue – with my legs instead of cheese. It was hard. During some exercises, I would watch the sweat drip down the neck of the person in front of me, even though we were “only” standing at the barre. Despite my instructor’s corrections, I struggled with back pain as I cultivated the posture and strength to hold my own body. I was somewhat dismayed to realize that I will probably never be as turned out as the girls on Center Stage or Bunheads without falling over. So yes, it was hard. But, I also giggled with delight through my entire first class.
As much as I enjoyed it, I felt silly learning ballet - something I thought reserved for middle-class little girls - so I didn’t tell many of my friends at first. But, my excitement got the better of me, and I confided to a friend how fun it was to have a hobby that wasn’t political like everything else I’m interested in - like grad school and feminist criticism of pop culture.
This apolitical hobby didn’t last long. I soon started dreaming of a queer and feminist ballet studio where I wouldn’t feel shy about my armpit hair or feel like an outsider for thinking it’s weird to have a fiancé. As it turns out, I’m not dreaming alone. We seem to be in a moment of shifting ideas about ballet, found in famous companies like the American Ballet Theater and in newer ones, like Ballez.
“I was basically kicked out of the ballet conservatory school I was attending when I was 16 because I was too muscular, too strong. My teachers told me I looked like a Mack truck because I was too powerful,” says Katy Pyle, artistic director of Ballez, a queer, feminist ballet company located in New York City.
Pyle founded Ballez in 2011. It was her way of returning to ballet after the ballet world’s narrow views of bodies and sexuality forced a break.
Unfortunately, Pyle’s experience is not unique. Ballet is notoriously exclusive, favouring a white, cis, heteronormative, thin, and able-bodied ideal. According to ballet rules, male dancers should be bulky and masculine, female dancers should be small and feminine, and anyone else is pushed to the back, alongside the people of colour forced into stereotypical side-roles.
“It is for this reason that many queer and trans people stop dancing or never try, because as queer and trans people we are constantly told that we are wrong and that we don’t belong. This way of thinking is amplified in the institution of ballet,” says Ravyn/Jelani Ade-Lam, one of the collective members of ILL NANA/DiverCity Dance Company, Toronto’s queer and multiracial dance company.
Both Ballez and ILL NANA/DCDC do things a little differently.
Ballez just wrapped its second production, Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. The show reimagined the classic ballet, Sleeping Beauty, by injecting it with stories of 100 years of queer activism on the lower east side of New York City.
“I’m not interested in propagating a super skinny white ideal of female bodies. [In Ballez], there’s a lot of different sizes and shapes of bodies, and there’s a lot of different gender expressions and that’s really important to me,” says Pyle.
ILL NANA/DCDC was borne of Ravyn/Jelani’s 2007 student choreography at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre that featured five men of colour in drag set to urban music. The collective now offers drop-in and intensive dance training, and continues to produce original work.
The collective, made up of Ravyn/Jelani, kumari giles, and Sze-Yang Ade-Lam, work hard to affirm all dance bodies in their classes. Some of the key ways they do this is by offering pay-what-you-can rates, offering many variations when teaching a movement or step, and refusing to separate movements by gender.
“We work to not say things like ‘boys do this, girls do this.’ When movement is gendered, we talk about it, and have flexibility,” explains Sze-Yang.
These small, independent companies are doing a lot to revolutionize dance and ballet, and mainstream ballet companies finally seem to be catching up. Though the first ballerina I ever encountered was the eleven-year-old, African-American Jessi Ramsey of the beloved book series The Babysitters’ Club, it’s still a significant milestone for dancers of colour to reach high positions in mainstream dance companies. Last year, Misty Copeland became the first African-American principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theater. Misa Kuranaga was the first Asian woman to become a principal dancer at the Boston Ballet in 2009. Both artists have used their platforms to share their stories of overcoming adversity and the racist norms of the ballet world. (http://pointemagazine.com/inside-pt/behind-ballets-diversity-problem/; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/06/arts/dance/06kour.html?_r=0)
The famous Copeland was a favourite of the late artist and queer icon Prince, and appeared with him in music videos and on tour. Prince had already been a ballet enthusiast, writing music for the Joffrey Ballet Company’s 1993 production Billboards. Joffrey’s queer history runs even deeper. In the 80s, the company put on a production of A Wedding Bouquet, the 1937 avant-garde ballet that incorporated the text of lesbian writer Gertrude Stein.
These queer moments in ballet history may surprise us, but they shouldn’t.
“I think we need to stop honking about queerness in opposition to dance. Dance is so queer! Queer and trans people have been dancing forever! In the same way that queer and trans people have been erased from histories, we have been erased from dance,” insists kumari.
Though Pyle reminds us that ballet comes from court celebrations of imperialism and monarchy, there have been rebellious and creative moments in even its most mainstream history. Pyle is particularly inspired by the Parisian Ballet Russes that operated in the early 20th century that she says emphasized artistry and creativity rather than athleticism.
The Ballet Russes gave the ballet world legends like Nijinksy and Diaghilev, and also provided a cultural space where a particular queer aesthetic (the white, upper-class, male dandy) could be embodied safely. So even though certain New York Times’ reviewers might dub the Ballez’s technique and choreography “thin,” Pyle knows there’s more to ballet than technical proficiency and athletic tricks – and she’s in good company. She hopes her work will make an impact.
“I want to inspire queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people to take pride in their bodies just as they are, and a way of seeing themselves and dreaming that is not as limited as what I had as a young person,” says Pyle. “And, I do hope that the ballet world overall can really change a lot.”
Ballet may be touted as a world reserved for an elite class of gender-normative, straight, white people, but its potential is much greater. We don’t have to follow these rules; we just have to keep dancing.