Queer Belly Dance
Or…how to be more welcoming and inclusive to dancers of all body types.
A lot of attention has been on the trans community recently. There was my own coming out to the belly dance community, the reveal of Caitlyn Jenner, the death of Holly Woodlawn, etc. For some, this sudden-seeming change can be confusing. I have gotten some questions about inclusiveness, and I have seen others starting to come out of the woodwork asking about inclusion for queer people in the belly dance world.
First, what, exactly, do I mean by queer and trans? It is out of the scope of this blog and this post to give you an entire run down on these terms, but I will sum up. These words are umbrella terms, and so have many meanings to many people. Queer is a term that is often used to describe the entire LGBTQ+ movement, but does still have some negative connotations to some people. Not all LGBTQ+ people will want to be called queer (though the “Q” in the alphabet soup does stand for “queer”), and that’s fine. It can refer to either a person’s sexual orientation (who they are attracted to sexually or romantically) or to their gender identity or expression (which are not always the same). Personally, I am genderqueer, which means that my gender is neither male nor female. Trans (sometimes written as trans*, though this is falling out of favor) is actually a chemical term meaning across (cis is the corresponding term for something that is on the same side, so cis gender people are those whose gender identity/expression corresponds to the body they were born into). In general, a trans person is someone whose anatomy doesn’t always match with the gender they are. Sex and gender are two different things. There are more than two sexes (look up intersex). Not all trans people are “trapped in the wrong body” and not all trans people will “transition.” Gender identity and expression are HIGHLY INDIVIDUAL, which is what makes this all so confusing for many people.
For the purposes of this article, I will mostly be talking about trans and genderqueer people.
So what does that mean for you, reader? It depends. If you are a student, it may mean that you will share studio space with a queer or trans dancer. If you are a professional performer, it may mean that you will share dressing room space, take classes with, and possibly tour with a queer or trans dancer. If you are a teacher, it may mean that you will be teaching a queer dancer. The needs of the queer dancer will depend on your relationship to them and how open (or out) they are about their identity.
How do we go about creating a more accommodating space for queer and trans dancers? I’ve outlined some tips below, though this will not be exhaustive. Again, every queer and trans person is different. Just as though you have to accommodate for dancers with bodies of different sizes and shapes, so you will have to accommodate us in your spaces. Some people won’t like it, and that’s unfortunate. But the tide is changing, and you can decide to stand against it or go with it.
This is the big one. Recently, Houston lost its Equal Rights Ordinance due to hate groups spreading misinformation (and downright lies) that the ordinance allows men to go into women’s bathrooms in order to assault women and girls. Of course, no one wants that (and assault in bathrooms was, still is, and always will be illegal). But trans women are not men, just as trans men are not women. It is not your job to police the bathrooms. Let me repeat that. It is not your job to police the bathrooms. If you find someone who “appears” to not belong in the bathroom, it’s not your business. They are merely using the bathroom that they feel most comfortable in. Believe me, they are there to pee and that’s it.
For studio owners, you will probably have to check your city or state’s laws regarding bathrooms. Some states or cities allow for “one-holers” (bathrooms that do not have stalls, but are self-contained bathrooms like the one you have at home) to be labeled as unisex. Obviously, this is probably the best option, since it alleviates the discomfort of gender non-conformists in forcing them to choose a bathroom (and risk being called out for using the “wrong” one). If you do have bathrooms with stalls, they usually must be labeled “Men” and “Women.” If that is the case, please be aware that the people who are in that bathroom might have different plumbing than you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong there or that they are there to stare at you (or assault you). They are there for the same reason you are.
Or you can defy state law like Etsy has…
I’m going to get a little judgmental here, and I’m only a little sorry about that. If you are a professional dancer (or are aiming to become one) you really should get used to having dressing rooms that are unisex. That’s show biz: small changing rooms, fast changes, no time to look at other peoples’ junk. Dancers are not there to ogle other people’s bodies. They are there to get changed and maybe warm up. I find it a little disturbing and outrageously unfair that so many of our male dance friends are forced into broom closets or bathrooms (which a female dancer would rightly pitch a fit over) to get changed because the women are not comfortable getting changed in front of them. I understand that to some degree…but if you are a professional, you should act like one. Changing rooms are rarely designated by sex, and it’s been that way since the beginning of theater. Get used to it. That said, most queer and trans dancers would probably feel more welcomed if we didn’t think we were going to be judged on our bodies or relegated to a bathroom stall to get changed. So some people might be more comfortable with a changing space where they can be alone. If you have space to offer a choice, that is probably ideal.
Of course, not all trans or queer people will want to be forced to change alone, but be allowed to change with everyone else. We should be willing to accommodate that. It is cruel to force someone to change alone, away from the camaraderie of the dressing room. How would you feel if you were asked to change somewhere else because of the way your body looked? We, as a dance family, should get used to the idea that people have different equipment. We claim to be a body positive movement, and we should act like it. People have different bodies. There is nothing wrong with that.
There are a few things that can be done to make queer and trans people more comfortable in class. First of all, use the name they give you, even if it’s different than the one on their credit card or ID. Dancers have no problem referring to each other by stage names, so it really shouldn’t be a stretch to refer to someone by the name they give you, even if it is not their birth name. Don’t give out their birth name (or their sex assigned at birth!) if you know it. That is horribly invasive and rude.
Generally speaking, it is best to refer to them by the pronouns that match their gender presentation. However, with some queer people it may be difficult to determine just by anatomy (and, to be honest, that’s a creepy way to determine someone’s gender anyway). Some trans people do not medically transition (take hormones or have surgery) and our dance wear usually leaves little to the imagination. If you are not sure if someone is a “he” or “she” (or a “they”), either politely give them your own pronouns and see if they are willing to give you theirs or discreetly ask. Most queer and trans people are okay with this, but there will be some people who will get offended that you have to ask. Be prepared and be polite.
Try to avoid “gendered language.” Instead of addressing a class as “Ladies!” try “Dancers!” instead. Not only is this more welcoming to our male students, but also to genderqueer and other gender non-conforming dancers who may feel left out or offended at being called a lady.
Also avoid saying things like “Women’s bodies are built this way.” Actually, this is an untrue statement even completely ignoring the erasure of male and gender nonconforming dancers. Not all AFAB (assigned female at birth) women’s bodies are built the same. I have fallen afoul of this way of speaking myself, and it just isn’t true. So don’t erase your AMAB (assigned male at birth) female dancers by saying something like this.
These all seem like small changes, but you would be surprised at the push back I have seen for being more accommodating of queer and trans dancers. I have heard dancers flatly state that men do not belong in belly dance, and that trans women are men and don’t belong. This is horribly near-sighted and offensive. If we want belly dance to be the body positive community we claim it to be, then we really need to walk the walk. If we want belly dance to succeed as a dance form, to be accepted by the mainstream as an art form, we should be looking forward not clinging to “traditional” forms of thinking. These days, many young people are throwing off out-dated ideas of gender and are choosing not to identify as male or female. I have seen many belly dancers lament that no young people are coming to their classes, that belly dance is aging and dying out. If you want to attract young people, you are going to have to be willing to move with the times, and that means being accepting of queer and trans people.
If you have any thoughts or questions, or suggestions, please comment below. But know that I have a comment policy. If you disagree and want a discussion, that’s fine. But if you hurl obscenities and insults your comment will be deleted and not acknowledged.
How to be a good audience member
Many bloggers (including me) write primarily about how to be a good dancer, how to improve yourself, how to stretch and reach for the stars. But not too many write on how to be a good audience member, especially if you are a dancer. We think, hey, I’m a dancer, and I know how I want an audience to behave. But what might be acceptable to you may not be to another dancer. Here are some tips for being a good audience member.
- Never show up in costume to another performer’s gig. This is just about as rude as you can get. If you want to see another dancer perform, and you have a gig afterwards, show up in your street clothes (or dressy clothes, whatever is appropriate for the venue) and change once you get to your gig (and not in the dressing room of the other dancer)
- Even if you are capable of this or this, DO NOT zill through another dancer’s set, unless she has specifically asked you to. It’s great that you know how to zill, and it’s wonderful that you want to participate in the show, but keep it to your own set. You may distract the dancer (and the audience) or cover up the accents she is trying to hit, or, horrors, not be playing the right rhythm! I’ve had this happen to me too much, ruining sets and video because someone was zilling through my set.
- If you do not like the dancer, don’t bad mouth her before, during, or after her set, especially in the hearing of other audience members. When she is performing, it is her stage, her moment, no matter how much you don’t like her. Let her have her time on the stage. And, to be fair, if you don’t like a dancer, you shouldn’t bad mouth her ever. Keep it to yourself.
- If you do not like a performer’s set, song, style, or skill level, also keep it to yourself. Clap politely (or not) at the end. Please do not loudly proclaim how you can do so much better, or wave your hands wildly in dismissal, or cluck unappreciatively. I’ve seen all three of those from other belly dancers, and it is so rude. This is childish behavior and will reflect more on you than on the dancer.
- Please do help get a dead crowd going. Most Americans are taught to sit quietly and politely through a performance, and this can kill the energy of a belly dance show. Help a girl out and show the audience that it is okay to clap, make noise, and tip the dancer. The dancer should be the one to handle this, but there are some crowds that need more help than others.
- And finally, the best thing you can do to be a good audience member is…show up! If you have no intention of going, don’t reply with a “yes” on Facebook (this can give the dancer higher expectations and when no one comes, be a big disappointment). Support other dancers in your community by going to their events, even if you are not performing.