Can Dance Exchange Dance Queerness?: Ellen Responds

[In the last post, Luke Williams asked if queerness could be danced. His question addressed the language of dance, the slippery indefiniteness of “queer”, and the commodification of dance as an industry. This post is a response to Luke’s reflection, and taking a leaf from his book, it poses more questions than it does answers.]


Luke brought something up that struck a resonant chord in me. In the process of global colonization, language became an extension of imperialism. As Luke said, “Once the colonized people began speaking English primarily, they could not express themselves through non-colonized methods.” In considering the popular simile of dance as language, it feels important to exhume the colonial past of dance.


Many years ago, ballet was codified. This process is traced back to 16th century French and Italian courts, where the world’s first ballet masters choreographed pathways to display the obedience of the court people to their monarchy. At its inception, ballet trained bodies to practice reverence to political hierarchy. The language surrounding ballet consolidated throughout time and became more specifically defined, allowing for a social mobility that helped a more-or-less singular form of ballet to emerge around the “developed” world. When I consider these origin stories and think of my own dance history, I must reckon with the ways that my body was colonized, how I have been a part of a long and vivid colonial project. Not only were non-cosmopolitan subjects excluded from ballet, the codification of ballet helped to reinforce visible (and invisible) subjects in times of enslavement while demarcating movement practice as a new accessory to class status (if you’re interested in this, Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste is an incredible resource). Given the creation of an industry for dance consumption, dance found a way to monetize artistry and, by effect, the bodies responsible for its performance. Dance training, by effect, is a commodity with a price tag, meaning that classically trained dancers are often those with class privilege.


So the bad news: dance, like language, has a hairy past that includes colonial applications. For me, this answers a question that Luke posed: is dance inherently queer? I say no. Or, at the very least, this claim is deeply contestable. Not only because of ballet’s origin story, but also because I think queerness resists essentialist understandings of identity or role. I stumbled across an imperfect and ironic definition of ‘queer’ that I wrote several months ago. It says that, “queer is the practice or identity of interrogating, deconstructing, challenging, or existing outside of systems, institutions, epistemologies, and ways of being that are taken for granted/normative. Not limited to but associated with sexuality and sexual practice, gender identity, race, class, etc. It is not identity politics or any system of binaries or normalized labels. It is resistant to modes of hegemonic power. Queerness could also expand or reject all or these postulates and maintain its queer sensibilities. Queerness can be read into things and/or it can name itself as queer. Queer is slippery and indefinite.”


Perhaps this helps us understand ‘queer’ as a lens, a theory, a pursuit, or a project, rather than a fixed thing. If we follow this line of thought, dancing queerness is also a contestable, slippery, messy process/project. In our time throughout the second week, as we endeavored to build a queer process and performance, we talked a lot about what we can do to queer dance. Maybe it is about muddying the normal boundaries between dancer and choreographer, dancer and audience member, and performance and normal life? We also thought about how learning and incorporating long-quieted queer histories (ours and others’) in our movement can be a queer endeavor. Maybe queering dance can wrangle with its history of colonialism, critically considering movement language that reinforces the hierarchical and exclusive understanding of dance that was concretized through history. This is, after all, the same hierarchy that inspires Dance Exchange’s question: who gets to dance? Perhaps queer dance also interrogates its position inside of capitalism and its relationship to commodification. In these and yet-unthought-of ways, I certainly believe that dance can be queer, even if it isn’t an inherent quality.


Dancing queerness is an unfinished project, one that can fail over and over and still be, in Matthew’s words, a beginning and a deepening. I’ve prepped, stretched, and primed a canvas for the portrait of queer dance and intentionally have yet to pick up a brush. If you ask me, there is no prescriptive, infallible design for queerness and queering dance, no formula for its realization. In keeping with this thought, I invite you to imagine queer performance in ways that are risky, contestable, and unlimited. Luke’s post set the pace for critical, multi-disciplinary interrogation and I’m deeply grateful for such an exciting contribution. If you’re interested in seeing a performance that engages with these and other questions about queerness and dance, mark February 24-25, 2018 in your calendar! Matthew Cumbie’s multidisciplinary and intergenerational performance project, Growing Our Own Gardens, premieres in D.C.’s Dance Place. You can read so much more about this in Tyler French’s blog posts and get information about the process 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.