Huffpost Arts
Lightsey Darst Headshot

Dance and Love 4

Posted: Updated:
Print

Whatever happened to "Dance and Love 4"?

Last fall, I wrote three installments of a series on dance and love: one exploring how audience members relate to dancers, another giving a dancer's perspective on the dancing body and love, and finally one covering collaborative partnerships, long-term love among dancers. I marked the third "3 of 4". And then -- nothing.

What happened is that I waded into territory I didn't know enough about. Normally this isn't a problem for a journalist. Journalists, unlike scholars, are willing to publicly plumb ignorance; often, by the time I know a subject well, I'm done with it.

But in this case I realized I needed to slow down, to listen and think, before I spoke.

*

Here's what I wanted to write about: lesbian women in contemporary dance. Everyone knows dance is gay, but by this most people mean gay men in ballet. Whether or not that stereotype's true (there are a lot of gay guys in ballet, but also more straight ones than you might imagine), it overlooks something: women. And there are plenty of lesbian women in dance. It's just that they don't usually wear tutus. In fact, at least in this community, they cluster in one form: contemporary dance. (Contemporary dance, also called avant-garde or post-modern dance, is hard to define; generally, if it doesn't fit neatly into another category -- ballet, Kathak, flamenco -- it might be contemporary.)

So I interviewed a dancer/choreographer and wrote a piece: the short version of her life in dance and love. I told it like this: "alternative" sexuality = "alternative" dance, two desires intertwining, both pushing against a mainstream. Simple, right? Gertrude Stein in a leotard. Only I misrepresented my subject in a way that she could not put her finger on but that profoundly disturbed her. This shook me -- and when I tried to start over with another artist, I couldn't get over the feeling that I was missing something big.

Worse, I couldn't help noticing that the artists I was interested in mostly stayed quiet about the interplay between sexuality and contemporary dance. They weren't in the closet, but they didn't foreground their sexuality, and this made me nervous. What if I were somehow on the verge of "outing" a whole dance scene? So I stalled.

*

Of course, I was missing a lot, as I began to understand when I talked to more people. For one thing, I had to update my lingo: queer instead of lesbian because, as my sources helpfully explained, many younger artists identify as queer and make work in the context of this broader spectrum of men and women (including some who love the opposite sex). Also, even if artists weren't themselves queer, their dance could be. In fact, as one source said and later observation seemed to prove, all contemporary dance is in some way queer -- that is, all contemporary dance challenges traditional ways of making meaning of bodies.
New word, broader field, but same argument, right? I was stuck on the idea of queer dance as a critical force, opposing the desires most people look to dance to satisfy. So I trudged on, writing elegiac paragraphs about the beautiful along the lines of yes, I love ballet too, but we need to grow up now... never mind that at night I went out to see buoyantly queer contemporary work in which women romped in orange plush landscapes (Judith Howard), mermaids smuggled real fish in their iridescent lady-bits (Mad King Thomas), and foul-mouthed she-beasties wore body stockings, skyscraper heels made of pointe shoes, and absurd plastic dildos (Trajal Harrell). Glitter, mischief, but also love, heart, and yes, beauty: I'm thinking of Penelope Freeh's nostalgic sailor solo for Nic Lincoln ("Paper Nautilus"), or the spell-binding work of Chris Schlichting, which is naughty and indulgent in an utterly abstract yet nearly physically gratifying way, like watching ever-more gorgeous colors splash over a crystal curtain behind which your beloved is taking a long shower.

*

I took notes. Queer became Q, a curly tail proliferating across my pages. I began to think of Q as an element or a dimension; once you saw it, you couldn't unsee it, and now I saw it everywhere. Not that this cleared anything up: I felt like I was trying to map a cloud.

And then, last week, something clicked for me. Q's not a narrow band of critique or a puritanical reaction to hetero hegemony. Q is a cloud, and it can't be mapped because it is everything else, all but the imaginary middle, the ideal. Q stands in opposition to models of perfection like classical ballet (which one source called "the racist grandma of dance"), but it also stands just beyond that perfection, just before it. What Q opposes isn't beauty or transcendence but equivalence: the stage lie that this dancer is all of us, this pas de deux is how we all love. Q reinstates flesh -- as quandary, quintessence, quirk. Q is the difference between a marzipan fruit-basket and the real thing.

"No, we're not like you. And thank god! and fuck you! and welcome to the club!" exclaims T, one of my sources.

*

We're a long way from "Are dancers better in bed?" now, aren't we?

Or are we? Dance is still where we look to see beautiful bodies, beautiful couplings. (Witness the multiplication of images of skinny women wearing pointe shoes and draping themselves in semi-ballet poses across Tumblr and Pinterest--especially on sites devoted to eating disorders.) What we see affects our ability to find ourselves beautiful and our ability to see our own couplings clearly. T says, "Some people aren't interested in accessing the parts of themselves that are strange or awkward"--which means that they will never see the beauty, the sexiness, the individuality of what's strange or awkward about themselves.

Q is, among other things, a lens through which anyone can learn to see. Look through the queer eye and details formerly overwritten by labels appear: the ballet princess is gawky as a boy; the heroic modern lifter is fey and falling. In this expanded spectrum of bodies that dance and love, there is room for us all.