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… Or Are We Dancers?

Back to the question of dancer-identity, and that of choreographer-identity, this morning, even though half an hour ago I was standing in the kitchen sort of floating on the idea that all this wrangling for identity is a symptom and the disease is illusion; qv Everything the Buddha Ever Said, Ever, not to mention quite a bit of what other great spiritual figures have said.


I think a great deal of this rests upon the question of legitimacy.

Most cultures have quite a bit to say about which pursuits are and aren’t legit for adults within their purview. In the United States, ballet (and probably most or all other concert/theatrical danceforms, really) is in a weird grey zone.

It seems that it’s mostly regarded as totally legit (perhaps even intimidatingly awesome) if you’re a professional dancer or someone who otherwise makes money in the field of dance, or a university-level student or apprentice preparing to do so. Meanwhile, it’s significantly less legit but probably still within the unspoken Tolerance Specification if you’re an adult student who goes to class once a week for fun (ideally as a way to pass the time while your kid(s) is/are in their class).

However, if you’re you’re a wacko who eats, sleeps, lives, and breathes ballet (or another dance idiom) and doesn’t make money from it, you’re out there in cloud-cuckooland, far from the borders of legitimacy. In short, people generally don’t get it (and aren’t sure you actually have the right to do what you’re doing).

I think it’s that sense of perceived illigitimacy, maybe, that leads so many of us to question our right to call ourselves dancers.

After all, it’s a rare bird who questions the right of an adult amateur who likes to fish to call herself a fisherwoman or an angler; likewise, anyone who plays the piano can call himself a pianist without raising more than the occasional eyebrow. Ditto guitarists, singers, cyclists, runners, car enthusiasts, birders, gardeners, and (to a lesser extent) painters and writers (I think there’s a little more policing of these last two).

I think the difference lies in the fact that the above pursuits are Within Spec in our culture, while formal dance (excepting, possibly, ballroom*?) isn’t. If you schlep over to the town square and set up your easel, almost nobody thinks you’re out of line — even if you’re a terrible painter, really. If you break out your ballet moves in the town square, meanwhile, you’d better bring the skillz, or people will definitely tell you (in one way or another) that you shouldn’t be dancing in public**.

*You guys, why does SwiftKey think badigeon is a more likely choice here than ballroom? Seriously — or, as SwiftKey belittle helpfully suggests, serially, stylishly, or sorely.

**I just realized that there’s an identity-policing component here that’s not dissimilar from saying, “People your size shouldn’t wear leggings.” It’s that whole, “You should totally be you unless I find you unattractive, in which case you should either cover up or maybe just try being someone else” thing. Feh.

Basically, adult amateur dancers experience a strange kind of pressure from both sides: the dance world doesn’t always regard us as legit, and the broader culture thinks we’re cray.

And so legitimacy becomes immensely important to us (after all, we spend considerable amounts of time and sums of money on this thing of ours, and the broader culture really kind of demands that we justify that somehow), but we struggle to determine at which point we can legitimately call ourselves dancers in the context of the medium of concert/theatrical dance .

I am, frankly, all for the notion that if you dance, you’re a dancer.

I’m all for the idea that if you dance, and you feel a desire to or see an opportunity to create a performing group, doing so is a legitimate pursuit, and you don’t have to get permission from the Powers That Be even if you’re freaking awful at dance.

In fact, there’s probably a great deal to be said for dancing badly. When you do something badly, people think, “Huh, I could do that,” and maybe they give it a try, and maybe they discover a passion and buy season tickets to the local company that’s struggling to survive in an age that isn’t sure ballet (or whatevs) is even relevant anymore. Or maybe they just get a good chuckle.

Sure, haters gonna hate — but they’re already hating away at home, and they don’t get to tell us who to be.

Likewise gatekeepers gonna gate, but I’m pretty sure that, on the whole, innovation tends to spring from the ranks of the gate-crashers.

So go assemble your dance peeps and crash some gates.

And know that if you’re dancing, you’re a dancer***.

***Full disclosure: I know that this kind of thing is much easier for me to say and do as an educated white male from a privileged background who walks around in a body that largely matches conventional ideas of what a “dancer’s body” looks like. And I also totally get how ironic it is for me to give you permission to crash the gates, amiright? Like, here I am, unintentionally acting like a gatekeeper for gate-crashers.

This stuff is complicated, y’all.

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