Finding Queerness in Unknown Places

A reflection on the 2017 Winter Institute from the eyes of a participant, Sarah Mininsohn.

To begin Saturday’s session led by Matthew Cumbie and Tyler French, we huddled around an easel pad and a purple marker to brainstorm meanings of “queer.” Participants blurted out words and images they associated with queer experiences, which seemed to be diverse yet intertwining and overlapping. The final list, which we held on to for the remaining sessions, held ideas ranging from “unknown vastness” to “disorienting” to “naked and covered in glitter.” Throughout the Winter Institute, “queer” signified the unknown, the transitory, the multifaceted, and the fantastic. It also signified that which is at times confusing, ambiguous, and uncomfortable.

As I reflect back on my experiences last weekend, I return to these meanings of queer. On Friday, Cassie and E.J. guided us through the Critical Response Process (CRP), designed by Liz Lerman as a means of constructive feedback. To begin, they asked us to raise our hands if we had ever felt discomfort giving or receiving feedback. My hand shot up, as did many others. This question fed into a discussion of CRP and its approach to discomfort in feedback. What if, instead of shying away from this discomfort, I settled into it, letting it influence me and take me in unexpected directions? CRP is a process of influence and change, forming and reforming our art and our bodies. CRP is a queer process. As we gave feedback throughout the weekend, I experienced myself form and re-form with the help of outside influence. At times, I certainly felt discomfort and disorientation. Yet these sensations led me on thrilling pathways toward the unimagined and unknown.

On Saturday, an activity called “queer constellations” incorporated outside influence that led me into a less known and cloudy space. The exercise involved connecting movement phrases to personal stories of queerness. As I translated my stories from words to movement, and then back to words, I found queerness in murky translation. The hardest part for me involved translating movement to words. What was the meaning of my movement? Why did I look up after falling down and throwing my right arm forward? I became tangled in my words, blurting out explanation with increasing openness and decreasing regard to accuracy. My story at the end of the exercise was less factual than the original, yet it felt more true. When we debriefed as a group, it seemed that others had also grappled with the murky and transitory stages between words and movements. Questions came up: What gets lost in only movement or only words, which can emerge out the space in-between? How do we deal with the multiple meanings of both words and movements? We continued to ask these questions, but never found a singular answer. This exercise created a queer space for diving into the unknown without needing to emerge with clarity or crystalized knowledge.

The last day, I disoriented myself further in the “movement metaphors” exercise, facilitated by Sam and E.J. In partners, we took turns dancing, eyes closed, and “queering” our movements, according to personal and group definitions of queerness. We then used our queered movement to choose “movement metaphors,” verbs that we would dig into by completing in twenty different ways. My partner described my queered movement with the verb, “splat” as I threw my head, torso, and limbs into gravity. So, my movement metaphor became “splat.” This posed a challenge. I had never consciously “splatted” in two ways let alone twenty. I let my body release into “splat” mode, tossing myself up, down, and sideways. I started to loose inspiration around “splat” version five, and my range of “splat” possibilities miraculously expanded around versions twelve and thirteen. When I felt uncertainty of how to continue, I attended to a body part that I would rarely focus on. I “splatted” with my face, my forearms, and the tops of my feet. I felt dizzied by possibilities, and found pleasure in my own dizziness.

Since Sunday, queerness has crept up in ways and places that I wouldn’t have noticed before my participation in the Winter Institute. Queerness surfaced in the silent conversation of bodies rearranging in the elevator, shifting to make space for others. Queerness surfaced in my decision to go braless, and the thrill of rejecting judgment for it. Queerness surfaced as I immersed my body into a cold swimming pool, disoriented yet pleasured by the cold. I strive to notice these moments more, to let them surface, to sit in them, nurturing them, making my spaces and places a little more queer than they were yesterday.

FullSizeRender.jpg-2Sarah Mininsohn is the Communications Work/Study for Dance Exchange’s 2017 Winter Institute. She is from the Baltimore area, and currently studies dance and sociology at Wesleyan University. She plans to continue moving and choreographing after she graduates in May 2017.

About Alison Waldman

Alison Waldman is Dance Exchange's Marketing & Communications Manager and a D.C.-based “entrepren-artist” consultant, performer, photographer, and collaborator.