Dance culture promotes heteronormativity, so let’s raise the barre

Courtesy of Margot Heron/The Occidental

At the age of six, equipped with a velvet leotard and size four jazz shoes, my blonde baby hairs tucked into a tight bun, I attacked my first jazz piece to the Whitney Houston classic, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Concluding the cute and clumsy choreography, I spun into a male partner’s arms, he dipped me with his four-foot frame and the crowd went wild.

This was the first time I partnered in a dance. It wasn’t a coincidence that our teacher chose to end the dance with a moment between a little boy and girl, as the lyrics “I wanna feel the heat with somebody” and “with somebody who loves me” blared in the background.

I trace back the heteronormative and gendered role I internalized as a dancer to the years I spent at studios from 2 to 12 years old. As a female, dance teachers, choreographers and studio owners taught me through technique, choreography, partnering and production that I could only feel or express attraction to men.

I’ve come to love the ways dance allows me to explore my feminine and sexualized side, but that should not limit the way I express it in terms of partnering. As an individual who is sexually and romantically attracted to women, I am frustrated that the art form I love often restricts me and many others from engaging and exploring this part of ourselves. Representation in dance hasn’t come far enough for homosexual or gender non-conforming individuals. The dance community’s lack of effort to create more spaces for non-hetero dancers is harmful.

Teaching technique based on made-up limits of gender is antiquated and exclusionary. It limits growth and creativity of movement. Costuming is often, if not always, different for boys and girls. For the year I dabbled in ballroom dance, this was most apparent: partners were to be of different genders and women were expected to wear heels with skirts or dresses, while men wore pants and button-downs.

The hit Fox reality show “So You Think You Can Dance” (SYTYCD) has been a favorite of both my mom and me for years. Unfortunately, SYTYCD is the perfect parable for the wider dance community and experiences I’ve had. Lately, SYTYCD has made strides in diversifying as a platform: widening genres of dance beyond contemporary/hip-hop, casting a racially diverse group of dancers and openly critiquing oppressive politics. This past season, Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe made an impassioned speech on the season finale while introducing Travis Wall’s choreography that played on themes of gender expression. Lythgoe emphasized the power of dance to make social statements and stated, “Acceptance is the greatest achievement that mankind can hope to ascend to.”

Contradicting many of Lythgoe’s proclamations, SYTYCD operates on the exclusive binary of male and female dancers during the casting process and has never included choreography that portrays a same-sex partnership in a romantic or sexual way. Year after year, the choreography of two women or two men will tell stories of friendship, family or fantasy-like storytelling — never romance. Heteronormativity prevails.

When you dance, you are acting: telling a story through movement and expressing emotions that can’t be articulated with words. The expectation that dancers play roles they don’t identify with doesn’t feel so unfair. Many dancers are comfortable playing roles that don’t always overlap with their personal identities because they’re aware that it’s a role. Being out of your comfort zone is part of the challenge. The problem is the same expectation is not placed on heterosexual dancers. Sean Dorsey, founder and artistic director of Fresh Meat Productions, a transgender and queer arts company, spoke to this paradigm in the San Francisco Weekly.

The opposite of being gay for pay in porn is being straight for pay in dance. So many men are bi, queer, or gay in dance, and they all have to play straight on stage. Every single ballet duet on stage by any ballet company is heterosexual, and it floors me in 2018 that that’s still true,” Dorsey said to the SF Weekly.

Since my jazz debut, I’ve stopped tucking my hair into tightly-wound buns and ditched the jazz shoes for a pair of Reebok sneakers. I’ve purposefully sought out informal dance platforms where norms are easier to question, such as drop-in classes and low-pressure performance groups, as opposed to the oppressive standards competitive and formalized dance companies often promote. Choreographers, dancers, teachers and producers all play their roles in being complicit to the system that keeps non-heterosexual dancers limited in their expressions. We don’t all “feel the heat” with someone of the opposite gender, so let’s stop confining dancers to that expectation.

Dance is the art form I love most dearly, which is why we all need to engage our authority to make these changes. As dancers, we must question all movements, partnerships and requirements placed on us that feel confining. As choreographers/teachers/owners/producers or as viewers of dance, be critical of the kind of romance being portrayed and the dominant themes of sexuality you’re absorbing.

Stella Ramos is a sophomore religious studies major. She can be reached at