Can Dance Exchange Dance Queerness?: Luke Williams Weighs In

[The following is another wonderful reflection from a co-participant. Luke tackles the conundrum of communication and power dynamics in this piece, unearthing the often-uneasy relationship between languages/education and colonizing forces. Throughout this reflection, he touches on some of the themes I have encountered in the Summer Institute and raises insightful questions about the unstable nature of performance and queerness. As with Marcie’s writing, Luke’s warm, inquisitive, and precise spirit shines through. Enjoy his musings and check out his other work, I will be responding to his questions in a blog post to come.]



Can Dance Exchange Dance Queerness?

After leaving New York City and the Schomburg-Mellon Institute last week, I arrived in Takoma Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., to collaborate on a dance piece with the group, Dance Exchange. The piece, “‘[Growing our own] Gardens,’ unearths hidden histories and personal stories of the spaces sought out and created in the LGBTQ+ community – queer worlds – and how to come together across age and difference to build towards resilience and positive change.” Dance Exchange attempts to make meaningful dances that include community members of all kinds and many “communities.”

My first encounter with the group came in spring 2017 when they completed a residency at the University of Virginia. I had been struck by a piece they performed in Dallas, called “Bricks and Bones,” which was a dance that meant to reflect on the racial landscape of Dallas. But on my way to the studio for day one, I found myself asking, “Can Dance Exchange Dance Queerness?”

What does queerness look like?
How does queerness move?
What is it?

The core facilitators of Dance Exchange have been wrestling with these questions for several years already, so by the time I entered the work in summer of 2017, there had already been several renditions and workshops “about queerness.” Material was created using Dance Exchange’s “tools” for excavating movement from abstract ideas. The tools are really just a set of games and drills that help dancers build movement into phrases, pieces, and collaborations.

Something about “excavating” movements about queerness seemed a bit strange to me. Occasionally, the tools are identified as frameworks that allow dancers to fill the open space. But in our conversations, queerness became that which defies boundaries—that which can’t be reduced to the scope of a framework. The ideas of frames, boundaries, and structures seem eerily reminiscent of sexual and racial norms that directly contrasts with queerness as it is defined in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens” by Cathy J. Cohen.

During this week of dance making, however, I had an interesting talk with a man I met during an Uber ride. My friend was a dark-skinned, Guyanian-American, Muslim consultant who had a knack for literature. We talked about Baldwin, black-consciousness, and Sufi poets, to name only a few topics, but the most interesting thing he said was that the two best weapons the colonizing British employed were religion and language. Once the colonized people began speaking English primarily, they could not express themselves through non-colonized methods. The English language, stemming from a patriarchal, capitalistic, and ostensibly white culture, is infused into the very framework of English-speaking people.

But I wonder if dance might be a mechanism for thwarting this dynamic. Dance, in general, is an art form that does not require a particular language to understand. It is expressed corporeally, and through the body, others are invited to watch, participate, and to feel. By extension, I wonder, is dance inherently queer? Does dance defy category and norms? I’m not entirely convinced that it does.

Dance, after all, tends to be incorporated (key word) into mechanisms of, cultivation, display, and evaluation. The process by which dance is enacted as art is the intervening process. The commercial market of dance is perhaps what alienates it from queerness. The audience ceases to be a pure observer and interpreter of the dance semiotics and instead is turned into a mark to be anticipated, positioned, and included in the commercialization process.

A distinction that deserves to be made is that this says nothing about individuals who identify as sexually queer and the community/culture that arises in those spaces. The distinction between danced “queerness” and the dance of individuals identifying as sexually queer is something that deserves further exploration.

Luke Williams is a student of Political Social Thought at the University of Virginia. He studies black dance, African-American history, and performance theory. You can follow his blog at



About Ellen Crooks

Ellen is a loud and curious movement artist with roots in Virginia. She comes to Dance Exchange as a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, having earned interdisciplinary degrees in Political Theory, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Dance. She’s here to experience and notice, her favorite things.