Dance like your body’s not watching: Fear of the feminine in dance

I never learned to move through the world like a ‘real man.’ Growing up with lesbian parents and two sisters, I wasn’t aware until I hit school that I was conducting myself in ways the world had coded feminine. One of my earliest memories of the school playground is being told not to rest one leg across the other: “That’s how girls sit.”

Learning, as men, to embody the fullness of ourselves can only be done in and with our bodies.

Our individual embodiment codes us into an infinitely complex set of hierarchies and expectations. ‘Body language,’ which is often disloyal to our conscious intentions, reveals emotional histories, whether by divulging trauma and shame or flaunting privilege. Everything my body does is under social surveillance – from the way I move my wrists and hips, to whether I choose to engage in dance or mixed martial arts, rugby, yoga or all of the above.

Learning, as men, to embody the fullness of ourselves can only be done in and with our bodies. It’s a process which unfurls from an initial intention, and then grows through work and grace. It can’t be fast-forwarded. No matter how much you long for self-acceptance, self-policing dies hard.

I was a bookish and uncoordinated boy, living in my head, unable to imagine any possibility for my male body other than violence or competition. Learning about feminist politics from an early age, I came to understand how ‘men’ stereotypically behaved in the world, and I was determined not to be like ‘them.’ But I was one of them, and so I felt there was something bad inside me that I couldn’t express.

When a stranger asked if I got my curly hair from my father, I replied: “I don’t have a man.”

Community (which I’d never found in school, where I was bullied mercilessly for having lesbian parents) is one way we can find a little relief from these strictures. Subcultures can be a lifeline. I felt there was something dark both inside me and in the world outside, something that others refused to see but that wasn’t necessarily bad or wrong in itself. So in my teens, I became interested in a dark aesthetic, and found an expression of it in the goth scene.

The gothic aesthetic expressed something that felt right to me. As an outsider, I’d always loved a glamorous villain (The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, say, based on notoriously filthy drag queen Divine). Goth subculture provided a place where assumptions about sexuality were delinked from the way bodies moved and the way they were adorned; where being a pale and skinny man wearing makeup and fishnets, dancing fluidly to synthpop, was not considered a statement about sexuality.

I found a fluid, weaving and stepping motion influenced by psychedelic rave hands and lip sync dramatics. And it felt right.

It was not a gay scene (though gay-friendly), but it was a place where it was possible to explore doing gender differently. And, through the club and especially the dancefloor, to create worlds where that was not only possible, but even desirable.

The abuse I’d get in public was sometimes literally patriarchal: “You freak, look what you’ve done to yourself, your father should give you a good belting!” But on the dancefloor, moving to the melancholy music in a haze of dry ice, none of that applied. My own style, and the style of most men there, was a universe away from stereotypical male dancing with shoulders forward, hands bopping at thighs, side to side shuffle. Instead, I found a fluid, weaving and stepping motion influenced by psychedelic rave hands and lip sync dramatics. And it felt right.

I’d found a space in which movement felt safe. But I wasn’t able to embody that space within myself and thereby without; to express those essences in their fullness, to know completely the possibilities that my body was still refusing. I drifted between movement systems, from Feldenkrais to Butoh, looking for something that would feel true and free, noticing every so often my tendencies to push too hard and to choose angles and straight lines over curves.

And after a time I drifted away from the scene. But that didn’t end the catcalls, because I was still inescapably, physically myself.

Moving through space, I read men’s body language on the street for danger – for the ‘policeman’s strut,’ an aggressive taking up of space, a performance of hypermuscularity.

The need to police the masculinity of others can only be a symptom (in all senses) of a stricter internal policing.

Because of the way I move and dress my body, I am subject to slurs. When I’ve ignored these insults, I’ve beaten myself up about it – internalising the bully, the emasculator. But when I decided to take them up, I always wondered whether it was worth the risk. Now I find myself able to engage and walk away. For the first time I feel genuine sympathy for my abuser, because the need to police the masculinity of others can only be a symptom (in all senses) of a stricter internal policing, one without end.

It’s not only words, though. Because of the way I move and dress, I will also be subject to physical violence. You don’t have to be a queer man to be at risk of homophobia (though sadly, it helps). In a world of maleness-as-competition and performance, every man has something to prove and something to lose.

I once started practicing aikido, a ‘non-violent’ martial art, because I was nervous about how I might respond to being physically attacked, yet I also shied from the concept of violence. In the dojo I was instructed that if you rely on strength to win, there will always be someone stronger. What’s needed is to flow, to take one’s opponent’s energy and redirect it harmlessly into the void.

Flow is beautiful. But knowing that one has the right to exist in space is important, too. Growing up ashamed of a physicality constantly judged as wrong, I unconsciously shrank into myself as if my gut was a vortex into which the rest of my body was slowly collapsing. The job that patriarchy starts, internalised shame continues. But here I am, still judging myself, when no movement is inherently good or bad!

Soft, ‘bent’ figures can also express fierceness.

The West has a depressing history of an imagined (often military) ‘good posture,’ understood to be linked to moral character and success. In order to maintain the patriarchal system, it’s vital that men value being ‘straight,’ in all senses. And this straightness needs to be recognised in the eyes of other men, proven before the invisible chorus of patriarchs who judge our constant social dick-measuring contest. From retro-patriarch Jordan Peterson’s “stand up straight with your shoulders back” to Amy Cuddy’s debunked ‘power posing,’ this trend is alive and well.

Here, once again, we’ve valorised hardness and erectness, against the possibilities of softness and curve. Softness need not be solely linked to passivity and submission (which is often mistaken for weakness, but can also be reinterpreted and valorised as care and empathy). Soft, ‘bent’ figures can also express fierceness. In our amorphous reality, these two tendencies inevitably coexist. We will express ourselves, as we move in the world and (if we) move with a lover, in ways that combine the soft and the hard, tenderness and urgency, both receiving the world and extending ourselves into it through the most porous of boundaries.

Speaking of lovers, after a long period of being single, followed by another of relationships with men, I was hyper-conscious of my feminine mannerisms on dates with women – despite the fact that women who’d been attracted to me in the past had been so because, and not in spite of, who and how I was. Observing myself, I had a slow, unfolding revelation that this was just one of many ways in which I wasn’t living freely. And worse, I’d been guilty of taking these frustrations out on those around me. I knew I had to do better.

I explored my body through yoga, meditation, consideration of what I ingested and its effects. I looked for ways in which I could express my aggressive and competitive urges in outlets that were healthy – but also accept, even find pride in my femmeness. I made halting fits and starts in martial arts both soft and hard, and in other movement methodologies. But again, the dancefloor was the place where the doorway opened to movement, allowing me to truly inhabit the totality of its possibilities.

It was my intellectual openness to the feminine, and my interest in different ways to do masculinity, that found me watching Paris is Burning, the now-famous documentary on the vogue scene in New York in the ’80s, and happening across a Facebook invite to a vogue class. It was when I ended up in a vogue dance workshop that a way to feel and express ‘soft and cunt’ (as it’s known in the ballroom scene) brought itself to my awareness. While the tension I felt through my body and movement had seemed a curse, the work it ‘engendered’ led me somewhere beautiful.

Vogue emerged from US drag ‘balls.’ When Black, Latino and trans participants were judged inferior at events dominated by white men, they created their own scene, and vogue was born – along with vogue battles: one-on-one dance competitions to snatch a trophy as an MC chants encouragement. While the early vogue style (‘Old Way’) was sharper, influenced by martial arts, Egyptian hieroglyphs and breakdancing, over time it evolved into Vogue Femme, a performance of exaggerated femininity including five ‘elements’: a sashaying catwalk; bouncing duckwalk; hands forming intricate patterns at breakneck speed; erotic floor moves; and ‘dips,’ a dramatic drop to the ground with arms extended, head thrown back, chest arched to reveal the throat and leg bent or in a histrionic pointe.

Gender is performative, and in the ballroom world the performance of a stereotypical gendered way of being, by someone not categorised into that identity at birth, is called ‘realness’ (the term can also encompass other performances: ‘military realness,’ for example, or ‘schoolboy realness’). Personally I’m not seeking to be, look like or pass as a cisgender woman, but ‘realness’ resonates when I think of what this pliable way of movement allows me to express.

As a voguer, you ‘walk’ as feminine, but also with pride and fierceness.

Learning vogue femme, I learnt to value my femininity, and to see very clearly the ways in which my body had been strictly patterned and rigidly encoded, a suit of armour that defended me from a hostile society but became a prison. As a voguer, my limp wrists needed to be even looser, and I had to learn to move my hips in planes other than the sagittal. I wasn’t feminine enough!

As a voguer, you ‘walk’ as feminine, but also with pride and fierceness, ‘serving face,’ with the willingness to enter into competition where there’s no guarantee of fairness or victory, embracing one’s opponent at battle’s end. This I am slowly learning to carry into everyday life, to challenge my fear of conflict and of not being good enough, my dread of being humiliated or cast out, my need to shrink from a world where I perceive my presence as always only on sufferance. “I wanna see a bitch let it all out” became an MC chant to live by.

I am continually dancing the world into existence. There is no endpoint to the process; I am restless, I don’t know where this exploration will lead. In vogue, I am alive to the dangers of cultural appropriation, and conversely to the paradox of ballroom as a safe space centred around competition, judgment and a system of categories and identities formed in an earlier era. And I must combine these revelatory practices with ways to find meaning in heritages (English, Anglo-Australian, Aboriginal) which are historically my own.

I’ll never be a legendary voguer – that’s for those with more natural coordination, and dance training before their thirties. And my days on goth dancefloors are over, excluding the occasional boogie for old times’ sake. But the aspect of myself that I’d sometimes thought of as the jacket of a 1950s pulp novel – I was a prisoner of my own fear of femininity! – that book is closing.

Boys don’t need male role models in their immediate families. But they do need to see, in the world at large, ways to be that go beyond being a ‘good bloke,’ ways that are about not being a ‘bloke’ at all. And they need a diversity of these, a pantheon not only of flamingly camp and confident gay men, but also soft and femme-y straight or straight-ish men, along with all the other expressions of masculinity that trouble stereotypes and blur boundaries (let me put in a personal word here for the importance of David Bowie.)

Effort makes way for relief and tension leads to release.

Along with this, we need to learn how to be sensitive, to experience rejection without being embittered, to feel emotional rage at the spoils patriarchy seems to provide to other men. And to accept that sometimes the nice guy comes last and sometimes he doesn’t, but being nice, if indeed we are nice, is a value in itself. We need to do this without turning these seemingly overwhelming feelings outwards or inwards, just by holding them, gently and with firmness, working – or rather, dancing – through it. “Neither a Chad nor an incel be,” a present-day Polonius might say to his son Laertes.

Learning to move into our own masculinity, and the femininity that’s a part of it, is something that’s worth doing for others, in order to be better men in the world. It’s also for ourselves – to relax, to find what our bodies want to do, free from social preconceptions. Effort makes way for relief and tension leads to release. Let it all out, bitch. Let it all out.

Header photo by Karla Rivera

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