Queering Dance, at Last

By Melissa TempletonJanuary 24, 2018

Queering Dance, at Last

Queer Dance by Clare Croft

ON A WEDNESDAY EVENING last January, the week of the 2017 American presidential inauguration, a group of protestors associated with DisruptJ20 and WERK for Peace held a dance party on the street in front of Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s house in the suburbs of Maryland. Holding rainbow flags and boldly singing the lyrics of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” they put their bodies into a political arena to speak irreverently and powerfully against homophobia in American politics. Watching footage from this event, I can’t help the overwhelming urge to sport a cheeky grin every time I see the jubilant bodies, the pulsing crowd, and the signs reading “love is love” that surged around the home of this conservative political figure.

The event articulates so beautifully the many ways dance and queerness speak to one another, often on a political level. The connection between dance and performances of queer identity might seem like an obvious one to make. Dance has, after all, been an important part of queer nightlife for decades, and the professional dance field has long been a place of acceptance for many gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships. Some of history’s most well-known dancers — Loïe Fuller, Vaslav Nijinsky, Ted Shawn, and Alvin Ailey, to name a few — are today identified as queer pioneers. Yet, despite these connections, there has been relatively little written on queer dance, save Dancing Desires, a 2001 anthology edited by Jane Desmond.

Clare Croft’s Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings provides just the sort of field-breaking effort we’ve needed. Bringing together the work of dancers and scholars, the volume surveys the many facets of queerness and dance in the 20th and 21st centuries. Queer Dance emphasizes the plurality of queer studies, honoring its indebtedness to black feminist activism (in her introduction, Croft explicitly mentions the influence of literary critic Hortense Spillers on this project), and affirming its alliances with anti-racist and anti-colonialist social movements. While Queer Dance focuses prominently on concert dance, Croft and her contributors have also made a valiant effort to think more broadly of dance as a practice that lives in the theater, in nightclubs, cabarets, studios, and music videos. In the end, the anthology offers a more holistic view of dance and queerness than its predecessors.

For example, over the last decade, hip-hop has attracted substantial attention in critical dance studies, yet the genre has a fraught relationship to queerness. Although it is constantly changing, mainstream hip-hop music still traffics in homophobic lyrics and masculinist fetishization of lesbian relationships. Raquel Monroe’s piece, on the Oakland-based spoken word/music/dance collective The Punany Poets, explores how a growing number of women and LGBTQ artists involved in hip-hop are working within the genre to reflect on the intersection of hip-hop and queer aesthetics. Monroe focuses on a performance by the poet Lucky Seven and dancer Punany’s Pearl called Cucumber Cu Cum Her. Lucky Seven, dressed in baggy pants, reiterates the advice Ice Cube gives in “Look Who’s Burnin’” to “put a sock on the pickle,” while Punany’s Pearl, in a G-string and bikini top, moves suggestively with a cucumber in hand to accentuate and sometimes play ironically with Lucky Seven’s words. The two women, alluding to lesbian intimacy and female pleasure, provide an opportunity to contemplate black female sexual agency, a task sometimes still met with resistance. Yet the Punany Poets challenge not just heteronormativity in hip-hop, but also the tendency to see queerness as a white, middle-class, and male phenomenon.

The anthology also examines the junctures of disability, dance, and queer studies. Patrick McKelvey’s essay, “Choreographing the Chronic,” considers the role “virtuosity” plays in evaluating dance in the era of TV dance competitions, as well as the ways in which illness and disability are often seen as anathema to dance (popular interest in dance tends to focus physical capacity while bodily limitations are ultimately seen as undesirable). McKelvey’s exploration of how we think of illness in dance (and in society more broadly) homes in on the difficulty of reading ability and disability on the surface of the body, asking how identity might be reimagined in these moments of indeterminacy. Reflecting on Octavio Campos’s 2007 The BugChasers, a piece that explores the subculture of predominantly gay men who intentionally seek out sexual encounters with HIV-positive partners, McKelvey challenges the rhetoric that positions “disability” as passively acquired and undesirable, suggesting a more complicated relationship to “abled” and “disabled” bodies that puts pressure on that binary. Campos’s choreography begins with two men, nearly naked and wrapped in plastic, slowly circling the stage while one attempts to spit into the other’s mouth — a powerful opening metaphor that captures the intimacy and risk involved in bug chasing. Later, the dancers encourage the audience to guess their serostatus (HIV positive, HIV negative, undetectable, or unknown), and offer a campy prize for those who guess correctly: a Chili’s gift certificate. The audience’s expectations are thwarted when individuals who play one serostatus on stage claim the opposite serostatus for their off-stage identity. Such work addresses the complexity of identity for those living with HIV and encourages the audience to contemplate these nuances beyond simply framing bodies as “sick” or “well.”

Several essays in Queer Dance focus on historical recuperation of queer identities and affects, opening up possibilities for reading queerness in famous dance works where it hasn’t been overtly read before. Jennifer L. Campbell’s essay explores how Lincoln Kirstein’s ballet, Filling Station (1938), offers benign plot lines colored with a subtle homoeroticism. Though ostensibly about the quotidian escapades of a gas station attendant, Filling Station references burlesque performance, features campy costumes, and displays suggestive choreography that, as Campbell carefully demonstrates, all allude to queer New York nightlife of 1930s in ways that would have been clear to the era’s gay audience members. Campbell argues that this queer subtext has always been a part of American ballet, slipped in with a surreptitious codedness that reflects the double life so many gay men of the era found themselves living. Similar attempts to queer the dance history canon appear throughout the Queer Dance anthology. Hannah Kosstrin’s chapter considers the ambiguous sexual yearnings in Anna Sokolow’s Rooms (1954) during the Lavender Scare, a possible subtle indication of solidarity with the gay men and women facing certain political persecution at that time. Another example comes when Julian B. Carter, in discussing French ballerina Veronique Doisneau’s retirement performance, takes the reader on a beautiful detour through the historical stagings of Swan Lake, including a look at Rudolf Nureyev’s queering of Prince Siegfried. These retellings of dance history exemplify what contributor thomas defrantz describes as a historical approach to queer ontology in dance: an attempt to identify how “being queer” is not new in dance but has rather been a central, defining point of dance for generations, even if it was not always acknowledged.

Many of the essays also articulate how queerness is sometimes pitted against nationalism and nationalist politics — an idea that resonates with the protest in front of Vice President Pence’s house in early 2017. Peter Carpenter’s discussion of his choreography for Last Cowboy Standing (2006) fiercely scrutinizes Ronald Reagan’s anti-gay politics during the HIV/AIDS crisis that defined the heartless homophobia of a presidency that excluded gay men from its vision of the American citizen. Carpenter pushes back against Reagan’s discriminatory position by reappropriating the cowboy ideal so central to the former president’s political image and demonstrating the cowboy’s reinvention in queer culture. Based on his experience at Oil Can Harry’s, a gay country-western bar in Los Angeles, Carpenter melds line dancing with modern dance while moving hauntingly to sound bites of Reagan’s voice speaking about American heroism. The juxtaposition of Reagan’s forceful words articulating a conservative vision for the American people and the solo of this tall, lithe man performing solemn, supple movements that never line up with the enthusiasm of the text, disrupt the optimism of Reagan’s words. The work is both captivating and eerily disruptive, compelling the audience to consider moments of discontinuity between populist American idealism and queer identity.

Of all the qualities I admire in Queer Dance, I am most struck by its intimacy. In line with the autobiographical style increasingly central to the writing of queer theorists, many of the authors in this anthology incorporate their own experiences into their discussions — a way to validate and communicate solidarity with their queer readers. We see it in Angela Ahlgren’s confessional discussion of her and her partner’s taiko drumming practice and the erosion of their relationship. We see it in Kareem Khubchandani’s discussion of the influence his aunties had on him as a child and, subsequently, on his career as drag performer LaWhore Vagistan (her music video, “Sari,” is well worth watching). It’s also apparent in the shifting authorial voice of Jennifer Monson’s essay about her piece RMW (A) & RMW, which oscillates between biting honesty and lyrical, Sapphic fragments as she speaks about her lover. We also see it in Anna Martine Whitehead’s invention of their own “freak technique,” a term they use to describe the practice of embodying experiences of loss through the bodily metaphor of falling that recuperates collapse as a time of recovery. These authors reveal themselves, exhibiting the vulnerability that paradoxically gives strength to their cause.

Taken as a whole, Queer Dance is quite innovative in its structure. It offers new possibilities for analyzing bodies as a kind of living text and successfully sidesteps the expected format of an academic anthology. This is in large part due to the online video content, available on the Oxford website, that accompanies the book. Rather than relying solely on hefty words, lofty claims (though there are still plenty of these), and still images that fail to account for the vibrancy that comes to mind when we think of dance, this project takes on a life outside of the written word with supplemental web materials — interviews, performances, and dance on film — that attempt to speak to the liveliness of moving bodies. The meticulously curated online content mainly documents the performances from the 2015 Queer Dance performance series Confetti Sunrise (held in Ann Arbor, Michigan), and many of the essays in this anthology, though not all, speak directly to this event. In effect, the online content is a bit lopsided in its focus on dances made for the concert stage, but the recorded dance performances and interviews with the artists are an invaluable addendum to the book’s content. I should also mention that the performance series documented in this book was not a singular event, but instead continues on an annual basis. The most recent iteration of the series, EXPLODE! Queer Dance, took place this last June in New York, New York, and featured many of the artists discussed in the book (as well as some emerging artists). While the book documents significant moments in the life of queer dance, and the online content adds to the dimensions of this documentation, the annual performance series perpetuates a legacy for the future of queer dance and opens up the possibility for its meanings and relevance to change over time. True to the concept of “quare,” the book differs from other writings in queer studies, as its online material and affiliation with the Queer Dance performance series ties the book’s written words to bodies in performance on the screen and on the stage. More than an anthology, Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings should be understood as an ongoing project that brings together queer theory and dance performance in a book, on the web, and in the theater.

In Queer Dance, the personal and the political continually intersect, reminding us of the centrality of pleasure and desire in the formation and circulation of social identities. Whether carving out a space for new queer representation, speaking to nationalist discourses, or finding ways to work through the loss and trauma that too often shapes queer experience in contemporary life, Croft and the authors she has assembled in this book capture how our bodies animate these meaningful moments when we dance — especially when we dance queerly.


Melissa Templeton completed her PhD in Critical Dance Studies at the University of California, Riverside, in 2012 and was the recipient of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellowship.

LARB Contributor

Melissa Templeton completed her PhD in Critical Dance Studies at the University of California, Riverside, in 2012 and was the recipient of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellowship. She has taught courses in Dance History and Theory at Texas A&M International University, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and University of California, Riverside and her research has appeared in Dance Collection Danse Magazine and Dance Research Journal.


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