individuals. Gender isn’t erased, but it’s intentionally and shrewdly dis-
sected. That ethos offers a place in the ballet canon for those who, like
Skloot, felt excluded from it in their youth.
The experience of valuing the body as an artistic instrument while also
feeling disconnected from it can be a disorienting one. Choreographer
Arrie Davidson came out as transgender three and a half years ago,
though she always knew she was a girl and refers to her childhood as
“when I was pretending to be a boy.” As a professional dancer, she
spent hours editing her bio to avoid using the pronouns “he” or “she.”
Now in her 40s and undergoing hormone-replacement therapy, Davidson says that the hesitation to physically transition sooner was partially
personal, “but part of it was, ‘What does that mean as a dancer?’ ” She
wondered, “If I change my body, is my career over?” She found no out
transgender dancers to point the way.
“It’s scary to go, ‘Well, what is an audience going to think of me
now? What are they going to perceive? How do I costume myself?’ ”
Davidson says. Prominent transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner may
have given people the impression that a transition can take place
overnight, but it is a complex multiyear process. Davidson decided she
wouldn’t stop performing. “I’m on the roller coaster and I’m not turning it around,” she says. Instead, she grapples with it in her work, like
the recent production Wonder/Through the Looking-Glass Houses, a
modern take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice tales, in which she uses her character, the White Rabbit, to slyly address transgender issues.
She has also learned to take pleasure in, and laugh at, the process of
dealing with a new center of gravity as her body develops curves. For-
tunately, she’s been able to use her well-honed physical intuition as a
dancer to adjust her workouts to give her changing body what it needs.
The shift has been psychological, too—losing a bit of control over her
body has led to an “openness of exploration on a deeper level” because
she no longer judges herself based on past expectations.
Initially, the San Francisco–based Dorsey decided not to physically
alter his body. “I was really out and outspoken as trans and making
work for 10 years before I chose to take testosterone,” he says. “There’s
a spectrum of the way people express as transgender.” During that time,
he dealt with the discomfort of dancing with a binder, a restrictive wrap
that flattens the chest. He decided to have top surgery (a chest reconstruction similar to a double mastectomy), which he calls a “massive
removal of a daily, hourly stress that I lived with moving through the
world.” Several years later, he began to take testosterone.
The gradual transition allowed Dorsey to closely observe how his
dancing changed in relation to his body. His shoulders and chest broad-
ened, which, like Davidson, shifted his center of gravity; he noticed
greater physical strength, too. As all dancers learn to do, Dorsey was
checking in with his body every step of the way. “It felt very aligned
and very right, every moment of that progression.” That careful atten-
tion has served him well in teaching. “I have a unique insider perspec-
tive from different parts of the gender spectrum,” he says, which helps
him connect with students and dancers of all genders.
Transitioning is a very personal journey, but dance is a communal art
form. Transgender performers point out that most studios, schools, performance venues, companies and choreographers can do more to make
transgender and gender-nonconforming dancers feel welcome. Dorsey
shares that many avoid dance studios, yoga studios and gyms because
“all of these spaces continue to be profoundly unsafe for trans people,
both physically and emotionally.” Over the past several years, Dorsey’s
company has traveled around the country presenting work like The
Missing Generation, The Secret History of Love and Uncovered: The
Diary Project, which each address aspects of LGBTQ experiences. He
says that “one of the seeds we plant” is asking venues to provide at least
one non-gendered restroom.
In terms of training and performance, children who come out at a
young age should be welcomed into the class that corresponds to their
preferred gender identity, says Davidson. Later in their career, making
transgender and gender-nonconforming dancers feel welcome at auditions is another step of inclusion. “Every audition, I put ‘All Genders
Welcome,’ ” says Davidson.
Some styles of dance, like ballet, which are more driven by tradition, seem to be less open to transgender dancers compared with contemporary and experimental dance, which tend to be more interested in
challenging social norms. Still, Skloot warns choreographers against using transgender dancers just for the sake of incorporating edgy politics,
which can feel “tokenizing.” “There are so many other parts of me,” he
says. “And so many other things I want to explore artistically.” n
Brian Schaefer writes for The New York Times, OUT magazine,
newyorker.com and other publications.
• Declare yourself an ally by
putting a rainbow sticker in your
studio or venue (the symbol of
an LGBTQ welcoming space)
or a sign that says you are trans
• Hire transgender teachers and
• Consider whether a role or
spot in the company must be
conventional casting may
inspire fresh ideas.
• In audition notices, specify that
all genders are welcome.
• If unclear on a dancer’s
preferred gender pronoun,
politely ask in private. Or, ask
each dancer individually before
starting to work.
• Respect boundaries: Don’t
ask personal questions of
transgender dancers that you
wouldn’t ask of cisgender
• Choose studios and venues
with non-gendered restrooms
and changing rooms. If none
exist, ask to designate one.
• Examine your directions and
corrections: Do you only ask
women to be “light” and men
to be “strong”? Is it always
the men who lift the women?
Breaking ingrained habits can
unleash creativity. —BS
Want to Welcome All Genders?
the Looking-Glass Houses