Dance Studio Closets and Coming Out
I hate balls. Yes, that statement has taken on a whole new meaning since my adolescent years revealed homosexual preferences. At one point, though, it simply reflected my lack of hand-eye coordination and distaste for team sports. I was literally that awkward chubby girl who was chosen last during P.E. class, made fun of for my inability to catch and throw. I could walk a mile faster than I could run it. Middle school phys ed encouraged competition and bullying disguised as sportsmanship and comrodary- all of which never failed to leave me feeling self-conscious and insecure.
Looking back on that time in my life, I realize that what made me even more uncomfortable than being judged for my athleticism was the pressure I felt to get attention from boys. All of my friends were obsessed with flirting and fussing over themselves all for the sake of attracting pimply pre-pubescent boys. These expectations of heteronormative interactions came to a head (no pun intended) in the context of P.E. class where bodies and physicality were put on display- for the pleasure, it seemed, of the boys who called the shots as team captains and group leaders. At the first chance I got, I put as much distance between myself and all fields, courts, rackets, and balls. I traded in my running shoes for ballet slippers and started to dance.
My enrollment in classes at the local dance studio began as an escape from sports. As it turns out, it was also an escape from balls of all sorts- there were virtually no boys to be found, aside from the few brave souls who tried out the occasional hip hop class. In studios, dancers tend to be more interested in themselves than anyone else, and I was finally given an opportunity to explore my own talents and abilities without the pressure of prying eyes- boys’ especially. My excitement about this sentiment of freedom faded quickly though, because even in the girl world of my dance studio I felt the pressure of boys. I would hear my dance friends say “I don’t know why more boys don’t come dance here, there are so many girls in skimpy clothes to look at!” In between classes the older girls would share stories about their crazy hookups, parties, and flings- all of which perpetuated the idea that getting attention from boys was their primary source of empowerment. To a pre-teen dealing with her own underlying issues surrounding her sexuality, this mentality just didn’t fit. For my peers, being a girl was all about being the counterpart to boys. They danced to buy into the objectification I had been desperately trying to avoid. I quickly began to see through the feathers, sequins, and air of tradition masking the dynamic of heteronormativity present even in a place without boys. While I loved to dance, that was a tradition I did not want to be a part of.
I then discovered modern dance. By that time, I had aged a few years and was settling into my high school routine, body, and identity. On the first day of my first modern class, our teacher explained the dress code, which required comfortable but appropriate attire. Shorts and sports bras, especially alone and paired together, were strictly prohibited. She also taught us that the mirror should be used as a tool but only when feeling movement within our own bodies wasn’t enough to learn or be safe- we weren’t allowed to “get lost” in our reflections, our image, and especially our flaws. Art and intention were emphasized over appearance. Attention was attracted because of our minds and emotions, not our bodies. My friends still talked about their boy-related woes, but they channeled the emotions underlying those issues into the artistic work that they did. Among this ambience of exploration, expression, and individuality I no longer felt the need to define myself, my body, and my actions in the context of gender- or heteronormative relationships at all. My modern dance environment taught me to see others and myself as unique individuals, to eliminate any sense of standards or expectations. Truth was the only requirement. As I was appreciated by my teachers and peers for being myself, I began to value the aspects of my identity that made me the person I was but also the aspects that set me apart. It was in this nurturing dance environment that my true sense of sexuality began to emerge.
After many years of exploring modern dance, I found myself constantly gravitating to the quirky and expressive comrodery this creative environment perpetuated. I had finally found my place, and began dabbling in the world of modern dance beyond the confines of my high school and even my neighborhood. I was thrilled to be invited into an apprenticeship with a local professional dance company- a company run entirely by women, many of whom are queer. The opportunity to learn and grow from these women was life changing for me as a dancer, as an artist, and as a girl interested in expressing her own identity.
One day on a lunch break during rehearsal, my friends and I had been discussing the latest happenings of our teachers and mentors- the teachers and mentors I especially looked up to for being out and proud. One of my friends looked at me and said, “Sophie, I could see you as being gay”. It was a matter of fact observation, free of judgment or the need to explain any further. It was a simple statement that no one else probably heard or would have paid attention to, but for me having that neutral validation was extremely eye opening. The most insightful part of that exchange wasn’t what she said but the way I reacted to it- for the first time, hearing a comment about my alleged sexuality did not spark discomfort or insecurity. Yeah, I could see myself as being gay too. The title itself didn’t matter actually- all that mattered was that “not-straight” was finally an option in my head. I was in a community of dancers where love was seen as universal- while this is something I had believed in all along, it took external validation from my mentors and friends to see myself as part of that universality. My body had been dancing but finally my soul could dance too.
Since those initial seeds had been planted, I have been through relationships with women, come out to my family and friends, and openly identified as a member of the gay community. While I am not a fan of labels or the expectations they perpetuate, I do choose to strongly identify as queer. This is not for my own sake, but for the sake of any little girls out there who are looking for an alternative to the hetero identity they are fed and encouraged by society to take on. Being an example to other girls out there who are struggling with their own sexual orientation is far more important to me than staying closeted for the sake of my own security or reputation. If gender, love, and relationships had been presented to me as queer and fluid at a younger age, my coming out experience would have been very different. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been anywhere to “come out” of at all.
My involvement in the dance community strongly impacted the development of my queer identity. As a growing artist and choreographer, my queer identity has come full circle and now impacts the work I do in the world of dance; these elements of myself, along with many others, are intertwined and often codependent. Following in the footsteps of my various dance mentors, I am founding and co-directing a dance company called The Defiance Project that explores socio-political issues including perceptions of gender and sexuality. I choreograph duets about love, relationships, and heartbreak and emphasize the fact that both characters are women. While this is typical of artwork in the gay community, the world of dance is extremely behind in its presentation and perpetuation of heteronormativity- an issue I personally strive to raise awareness about and change.
To this day, I squeal and flinch when a ball is thrown in my direction. Whether I have a fear of getting hit, a fear of readdressing memories of P.E. class, or a fear of exposing my lack of hand-eye coordination, I refuse to engage in anything related to sports. Luckily, dance has grown to fill that void of physicality in my life and blossomed into something so much more than just exercise. What began as an after school activity developed into a life long passion, and led to more growth in myself than I ever could have imagined.
I may still dislike balls but at least I’m finally playing for the right team.