Wordless and Genderless: Dance and Blas 2019

Wordless and Genderless: Dance and Blas 2019

I recently got back from my fifth trip to Ireland (the fourth year in a row I’ve spent part of my summer there). Like last year, I was primarily there to attend the Blas International Summer School of Music and Dance at the Irish World Academy, part of the University of Limerick.

Last year was a great experience that really confirmed my interest in choreography. I knew immediately that I wanted to try and come back this year. I’d only been dancing again for a year when I went before, and hadn’t been taking classes for most of that because of uni, which made the summer school a challenge. Now, with twice as much dance experience, I was ready to get as much out of it as I could.

Admittedly, I still only went for the second week of the two-week course. That was mostly an issue of money — the tuition is pretty expensive, and I couldn’t afford to do both — but also a recognition that two weeks of intense dance workshops was probably more than I could handle, and I’m not yet in a position to mix and match with music masterclasses (more on that in another post).

Returning for a second year was definitely a different experience. I learned from last year’s mistakes — crucially, I bought twice as much food. Turns out when you dance all day you burn about 3,000 calories, so I spent most of last year’s course feeling hungry: there isn’t time during the week to go shopping.

The prior experience made the whole thing less stressful. I knew where things were and where I was meant to be, which eliminated the intense anxiety I felt last year trying to navigate the building and campus. I’d also met quite a few people before — for a start, all of the dancers this year (all four of us) had been there last year, so there were familiar faces, and some of the tutors were the same.

This year I got lucky enough to be in a flat with other Blas students, rather than halfway across campus, and that definitely made it easier to socialise. I was determined to actually talk to the musicians this year, and mostly succeeded at that, making a couple of new friends as a result.

Conclusion: going to things more than once is worth doing.

It was also a less anxiety-inducing week in general. Last year, the first day of dance masterclasses revolved around sean-nós (old-style) dancing, which I’d never done before and found way harder than I expected. I was totally overwhelmed — I remember leaving the studio halfway through class to go and cry for a while in the toliets because I was sure I was the worst and least-experienced dancer on the course and I’d never be able to keep up. Which… yeah, I probably was the least-experienced dancer, but I was also being a bit hard on myself: I’d literally never done sean-nós before, of course it was difficult.

This year I didn’t leave any classes to go and cry, but I’m not sure whether that’s because I’ve got another year of dance under my belt or because none of the masterclasses were on sean-nós…

Our first two days of masterclasses were led by Ciara Sexton, who focused strongly on performance technique and approaches, drawing on her experience in Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, and Heartbeat of Home to talk about the different ways those shows work with the audience. We did quite a lot of talking and theoretical discussion of performance, including watching videos of performances that we loved and talking about what made them effective. My contribution was this:

She asked each of us to say why we’d picked the video we’d picked. I didn’t really know what to say other than, “Because I love it, and because it’s always what I have in my mind when I’m doing ballet or improvising.” I talked about how Polunin here seems poised on an intersection between desperation and utter control — throwing his body across that room but knowing exactly where it’ll land — and how I want to exist within that same contradiction, because I’ve always either been desperate or in control, and never both.

Since then, I’ve thought more about it, and this is what I should have said: I picked this video because it says things with dance that can’t be said with words. My love of choreography is a love of storytelling, but it’s also an acknowledgment that there are feelings that can’t be fully expressed on the page. Polunin’s body and Hozier’s music here are speaking the unspeakable, freed from the limitations of language.

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent month about all the things words can’t do (a side effect of becoming a Quaker, I think), and here, there’s something about dance that’s tapping directly into emotion without words to get in the way, a truth unmediated by the lies of cliché.

Also, I’m just… always ready to rewatch this video, to be honest. That’s the real reason I chose it. Because when asked for a performance that inspires me, it’s the first one I thought of. It’s my go-to for dance. It’s noticeable that it’s not Irish dance, but then, I’ve never been one for staying within one category…

The theoretical elements made these classes a little less physically intense than they’d have been if we’d danced continuously, which is good; I don’t think I’d have got through the week if they were all practical. But we did some dancing as well as talking, and learned a show-style slip jig.

Now, I don’t know if I’ve talked about my issues with slip jig much here, but… there were some Bad Gender Feels, my dudes. The slip jig is generally only danced in competition by women (though there are exceptions in some organisations). It’s a ‘feminine’ dance. It’s arguably the most balletic of Irish dances, but in a way that’s very gendered. In shows, it’s usually the one that’s meant to emphasise the femininity of the female lead dancers.

And as such, when you’re talking about performance… there was a lot of emphasis on dancing it in a ‘womanly’ way. On being ’empowered women’. And so on and so forth. And this is not Ciara’s fault — when you’re talking about soft shoe routines from Riverdance, I know the drill. But it was a bit difficult for me, having explicitly said in class that I’m a transmasculine nonbinary person who usually prefers to dance male roles, to continually be referred to as a ‘woman’ and told to emphasise this.

I always forget how bad my dysphoria about stuff like that is until someone uses words like that and it’s like my whole body seizes up momentarily, and I lose the ability to argue. Like a fight or flight type mechanism, except it’s always ‘freeze’.

I found a coping mechanism, though — pretended I was Achilles dancing for Odysseus. Have to maintain the fiction of being a woman or they’ll send me to fight in the Trojan War. It… actually worked? It made the whole thing feel more like a performance and less like a lie, however silly it seems to put it in words. I reminded myself that I was performing a woman, and that didn’t mean I was one.

And in fairness to Ciara, we had some great conversations about choreography and gender and Breandán de Gallaí and my own choreographic interests. I really appreciated the way she treated us like equals and listened to what everyone had to say, not patronising us for our ideas but seeming genuinely enthusiastic about supporting our ongoing dance journeys. But I wish the routine itself and the approach to it could have been less markedly gendered. (I’d be happy to learn a slip jig if I wasn’t always being told to be feminine about it!)

That’s probably why I felt slightly more comfortable in James Greenan’s classes over the next couple of days, even though they were intense. James Greenan was one of the masterclass tutors we had last year, too, and I really enjoyed his sessions, so I was looking forward to these — while being aware that they’d probably be super hardcore, because he has more energy than any dancer I’ve ever met and can maintain it for absurd lengths of time.

I was right. They were. I don’t think my fitbit’s ever had such high readings, unless from his classes last year…

He taught us hardshoe routines with some fusion elements, mostly influences from hip hop and tap. It was maybe a little more trad than last year’s offerings — one of those was heavily influenced by African dance styles, and another was a piece from Noctú — but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. Of course I still struggled to manage all the steps; by Thursday I was getting sick and felt like I was literally dissociating during class, which wasn’t helping. But I held my own more than last year and I had a good time doing it, which is what matters.

There were still a couple of Bad Gender Moments — he kept calling us ‘ladies’. (I think he stopped for a while after I asked him to use more neutral language, but then forgot, which… yeah, that happens a lot.) But on the whole, it was a much more comfortable environment for me. One of the other students in my class seemed less enthused about the way he was teaching what seemed to her a very masculine style of dancing, because it was quite a contrast from Ciara’s sessions, but it worked for me.

My relationship to gender in a dance context is a complicated one. It’s an environment where I think I’m far more comfortable being perceived as masculine than feminine (though, to be honest, that’s most environments these days, something I regularly try and interrogate to understand what it means for my identity). It’s also an environment where I’m most dysphoric, because of the nature of tight dance clothes and studio mirrors, and because of the significant disconnect between what I want my body to be and to do, and what my body actually is and does.

I don’t have a good solution to that. It did make me think that I couldn’t pursue dance at a high level (e.g. doing a MA, which I’ve considered) until I get top surgery. Partly for practical reasons, tbh, and partly because of external perception (would people take me more seriously as transmasculine if I didn’t have the figure I have?), but mostly because dance is about being fully present in your own body and I cannot be that while I’m constantly wanting to peel off my skin.

Dance is a way for me to feel present and grounded, but I can’t feel present and grounded when I’m trapped trying to be somebody that I’m not. For me, dance has to be truth, has to be stripped bare of the barriers between body and emotion — and how are you meant to navigate that when your own body is the barrier?

I knew this already. But it was an important reminder that this is something I’m going to need to think about and work on.

On the last day of Blas we had a student concert. It’s a chance to present our ensemble work (and I’m not going to lie, our ensemble work as dancers was… not as strong as it might have been, partly because our ensemble tutor couldn’t be there on the day due to an emergency), but it’s also a chance for people to share their own pieces. Some are group pieces they’ve put together during the week. Some are solo ‘party pieces’ they’ve brought from home.

Last year, I sang. This year, I danced:

(Spot the intertextuality between which song I chose to dance to and which piece I shared for our performance analysis…)

Is it as good as I wanted it to be? Maybe not. My IBS was flaring and I felt bloated (you can actually tell, which is one of the reasons I normally wear baggy clothes). The stage was a little smaller than the studio, so my timing was off in places.

But it felt right. It felt like I was saying something I wanted to say. I don’t know how visible it is from this camera angle and with this video quality, but there’s a smile on my face almost the whole way through, because I was getting the time and the space to say something with my body that I couldn’t say any other way, and I was loving it.

Somebody came up to me afterwards and told me it was beautiful and that they’d almost cried watching it because of the emotion present in it. And honestly? Yeah, same. I can’t hear this song without needing to dance, and I can’t dance to it without being full of something that words don’t express, that only movement can convey.

When I started this post, I was going to talk also about what Blas has meant for my relationship with music and folk in general, as well as the Irish language, but I think at this point, that’s a different post (this one is already 2.3k long). So I’ll get to that, because it’s significant too.

But for now, I’m back in England with a few main ideas in my head:

  • Dance is a way to articulate things that words can’t express.
  • Dance should be honest, should be unmediated, should be emotional.
  • Before I can feel fully present when I dance, there are some things that have to change, which aren’t currently within my power to change.
  • But here and there, snatched moments in time, I get up on a stage and something feels right that doesn’t feel right the rest of the time.

Also, pretending to be Achilles is a legit tactic for reducing dysphoria. Who knew?

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