Let Me Hear Your Body Talk: Dancing Queer

Photo Credit: Hook by CrookPhoto Credit: Hook by Crook

Kitty Fedorec is a performer, dance maker and teacher based in London. She is a Candoco artist, with access at the heart of her approach. As a dance artist she works with artists including performance maker Luke Pell, visual artist Mary Hurrell and photographer David Quentin, as well as making solo work. She is a dancer with Subtle Kraft Company.

Stephen Pelton is an American dance maker and teacher based in London. He teaches contemporary dance technique workshops throughout Europe and at dance spaces in London such as The Place, London Studio Centre and Central School of Ballet. He is the Artistic Director of The Stephen Pelton Dance Theater Company which was established in San Francisco.

After receiving a provocation (below) by Gareth they share their thoughts and feelings on what it is to dance Queer.

The body is a space/place of meaning. It carries many knots, knots which were done by others. A Queer body, a Queer dancing body could be suggested as a body which has been excluded, ridiculed and oppressed in and out of the studio. A body lying within the margins. A body which refuses easy taxonomy and suffers the cruel fate of difference. This fluid philosophy is never fixed, it constantly moves, it writhes and jumps. It strives for community and a shared struggle.

An ethereal being which floats above the ground, gestures like a fairy queen or a dying swan. Nowhere to go but death or pink . Movements are soft, delicate and with grace.
Stylized exercises reinforce ideals and identities in and out of the classroom. What is in and what is out? Can this body ever be a true representation of itself? Can we ever be true to ourselves? Especially within the walls of an institute?

SP:Like a lot of young, gay boys (we didn’t use the word queer when I was a lad), I didn’t feel that my gay body fitted anywhere; not at school, not on sports teams, not at the family dinner table. But this lack of ease with my body was not just the product of being a budding gay boy. My mother instilled in each of us a dread of being overweight and since we were all, of course, overweight we hated our bodies and our selves. This dread was then reinforced by being bad at sport, awkward getting on and off the school bus, laughing too loudly with jokes that were just not funny.

But finding my way into rehearsal rooms for plays and musicals and then into the dance studios. I began studying jazz and ballet, my body began to feel like it was my own; it wasn’t beautiful yet, still might never be, but I felt its potential, its latent power. As I began to learn to dance, I dreamed that something like grace might actually be possible for me someday…

Perhaps its not surprising that I started having sex with my best mate around the same time that I started dancing. It only happened because he insisted that he was in love with me and that he was going to go crazy if we didn’t do something about it. (This was 1980.) I’d suspected I was gay but hadn’t had any physical experiences of it, just mad crushes on wildly inappropriate people, like jocks and other kids’ fathers. And my ballet teacher, Joel Mitchell.

So I took ballet class seriously. Very seriously. I worked hard and though I don’t think I was naturally gifted, I overcame some of my awkwardness, starved myself thin and began to believe that I might dance beautifully some day.

Of course, self-willed anorexia isn’t a long-term solution. And even as I grew more confident, I also became aware of what every dancer knows: that it’s very possible that neither grace nor peace with my body might never come to me through my dancing. You see, I will never forget coming across Joel, my handsome, muscular, dark-haired GOD ballet teacher working out on his own at the barre one day. I slipped into a far corner of the studio, pretending to stretch as I ogled his thick thighs and calves, as he did endless repetitions of one-legged plié relevés. After about fifty sets, I heard him exclaim, “God, I’m SO WEAK!” I rushed out of the studio in tears. Was there nothing I could do to convince him that he was the strongest, most beautiful being I had ever seen. Would this be my fate as well? Were I to grow that strong and beautiful too, would the dance-world see to it that I always, always found myself lacking? Would I always be weak to myself?

Thankfully, my pink prince daydreams did not last long. Contemporary dancing overtook ballet and choreographing my own dances overtook dancing in other people’s work. I made solos where I tried to use my body as it was, with its grace AND weakness, to say what I meant it to say. I’m pretty sure none of these solos were really totally successful until I made The Hurdy-gurdy Man in 1998. This queerest of my solos became my signature dance for many years.

After watching Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, I was inspired to use Hitler’s movement vocabulary to make a moving portrait of him, something that would embody both his freakish otherness as well as his undeniable humanness. I set the piece to songs by Schubert and Schumann, clad myself in the typical khaki Hitler uniform with black knee high boots and black cross belt. Only I replaced the swastika armband with the plain black armband of mourning.

Before premiering the dance, I wondered if a less specific costume would allow the piece to resonate more easily and in more ways than being confined to the Hitler image and the uniform silhouette. Though I suspected something simpler would ultimately be better for the piece, I felt, in those early performances that to not wear the uniform would be to shirk the responsibility of the found material. (This was before the musical of The Producers made dancing Hitlers an everyday thing.)

So I wore the uniform for the first few years of performing The Hurdy-gurdy Man. The piece got lots of attention good and bad. I got a lot of questions like;

“Are you even Jewish?

“What right do you have to do this?”

Or, “What is your point in doing this?”

“You must have a point to make?”

Well, yes, I was raised Jewish. But did I need to be Jewish to make it OK for me to do this dance? Wasn’t being a queer artist enough of a buy-in. Or for that matter, doesn’t just being a sensitive human being give me the right to access this material and do what I think is right with it?

My point? Without dodging that audience member’s question, even though I knew this wasn’t the answer he was hoping for, I said;

“My point is the movement, the movement its self.” I am a choreographer, after all”

KF:In contemporary dance the dancing body, as typically perceived, is that of a straight woman. A straight, thin woman. Most likely a white woman.

The act of training a dancing body can physically reshape it; if you work hard enough, long enough. To be the dancer we think of when we think of the typical dancer, the ‘real’ dancer, requires a flexibility of mind as well as of body. One must be willing to be moulded.

Queerness is tied to otherness. Queerness is all the bits that can’t fit in the mould.

When auditions call for dancers they ask in terms of binaries and specifics. For those of us who exist in more fluid terms it acts as another reminder of our inability to fit.
The straight, thin, white, non-disabled, femme dancer performs gender.

Those who fail to perform their gender, their sexuality, and their performance, within the expected norms do not fit within the dance studio, within the normative relationship, within society.Our difference of experience is driven by and carried in our bodies. It comes out in our movement.

We align our politics with our bodily experience. Our bodies carry our politics. We move and our bodies become a vector for politics in space. It becomes an effort to move for the pleasure of moving. The dance studio that exists for the joy of dancing is a straight, heteronormative space; as much as it is a white space, a middle/upper class space, a thin space, a non-disabled space. The gay male dancer is allowed in on the condition that he makes himself camp and nonthreatening. The queer dancer must dance outside.

The queer dancer dances in space that is lo-cost. The queer dancer dances on ground that is dirty. The queer venue is DIY. The queer costume is skin.

Stephen Pelton:

Kitty Fedorec: