Growing up as a dancer was never easy for me, regardless of my gender. But, as a bisexual woman, I have come to explore some of the inequalities in the dance world. It’s no shock to any dancer, dance lover, or dance teacher that the industry could do better about accepting more communities. However, it is clear that the LGBTQ+ community lacks representation. 

Lack of diversity

When I was just starting to learn about my own sexuality, I began to wonder why the dance world relied on gender so much. Classical ballet partner work also referred to as “pas de deux”, is traditionally a pairing of a man and woman. This left me baffled. What about representation for same-sex loving relationships in dance? Surely they should be included! Yet, I missed an even bigger question. 

Where does this leave dancers who have a gender identity that does not fall between the binary of man and woman?

Talking to a non-binary dancer

I decided to speak to someone who understands this topical intersection of gender expression and dance via Zoom last weekend. I had the pleasure of speaking with Zackery Torres (they/them). They are a non-binary dancer currently attending the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kauffman School of Dance. You may know Zackery from their young adolescent appearances on Dance Moms and Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition. Zackery is also active on Instagram and TikTok, speaking out about their reality TV experience, dance, and gender.

Zackery uses the pronouns they, them, and theirs, and identifies as gender non-binary. Gender non-binary can be described in many ways, but the simplest explanation is that Zackery does not identify as a man or a woman. This means that they do not conform to the binary gender norms set by our society. To identify as non-binary is already a hard realization to come to, but an even more complicated one as a dancer. For Zackery, they have been dancing since they were 10 and are now 21.

Where non-binary dancers belong in dance

“Right now, my relationship with dance is a bit tricky,” said Zackery during the Zoom interview, “I don’t know if it is a positive or negative thing… it’s changing.”

As Zackery is coming to understand where they belong in the dance world, their relationship with the sport is “changing as [they] change and grow.” 

One thing that stood out to me was how Zackery explained the idea of fulfilling a role during rehearsal and performance. While they often perform the male role in repertoire, they desire more options in the dance world. Specifically, they described how they “thrive when [the gender of the role] is not set in stone.”

More gender roles in dance

This reminded me of so many dance conventions I had been to growing up. Many times during a master class, the choreography is given in a way that segregates dancers by their gender. Girls might be told to flourish their arms softly, while boys are told to do strong movements to highlight their stereotypical masculine strength. Why are the boys being given different directions for the exact same dance? Is there truly a need for such a separation?

Zackery furthered this by explaining their experience with toxic masculinity in the dance industry. As someone who performed male-identifying roles growing up, they were constantly being asked about the partnering and lifts they were performing, something alluding to their strength. While strength is an admirable trait for a dancer of any gender, why is it so prevalent in male-identifying roles? On someone asking them about their lifts in male-identifying roles, Zackery said “I’m wondering why you feel the need to overcompensate my strength and talk about that when I tell you I’m a dancer.” The male-identifying role includes more than just partnering and lifting, so why do people choose to focus on this? They continued to explain that “you shouldn’t have to justify a male body in dance by talking about how strong they are.” 

Personally, I am lucky to have attended studios where everyone strong enough to lift was taught to lift. However, I am left wondering if this was taught due to a lack of male-bodied dancers as opposed to deliberate gender inclusivity. 

Gender inclusive language in dance

On the topic of partnering, Zackery posed a fair point about gender-neutral language; something that choreographers need to start adopting in their classrooms. As opposed to calling the person performing lifts “the male” and calling the person being lifted “the female”, teachers can utilize language such as “base” and “flyer” to provide a more gender-inclusive learning environment. This isn’t exclusive to lifts. They continued to explain how it is better to refer to dancers as “those performing the male or female role,” so there is no assumption that the dancer’s gender identity aligns with the part they are dancing. Furthermore, dancers shouldn’t have to feel like they are confined to roles that align with their gender. As an example, there is absolutely nothing wrong with women performing lifts.

Of course, this continues to contribute to a need for more inclusive roles in dance. Why is choreography so rooted in heteronormative and gendered storytelling when dancers come from so many backgrounds? Whose story is left to be told?

Gender inclusive careers in dance

Gendered casting is the most prevalent in classical ballet. Some of the most popular ballets chronicle love stories between a man and a woman. This being said, professional dancers looking to be hired in ballet companies are forced to accept jobs portraying the sex they were assigned at birth… if they don’t, there are very few options. Thankfully, other genres of dance have slightly more wiggle room for diversity, but it is still a work in progress. 

Zackery is currently in their senior year of the dance program at USC, which brings the prospect of career finding on their radar. They are interested in dancing with a company after graduating, but are left with the question of finding their “place in the dance world.” Zackery has strayed from classical ballet with no intention to perform it anymore, due to the way it makes them feel. In classical ballet, dancers are generally relegated to the sex they were assigned at birth given the binary restrictions on the style. It is clear that many classical ballet institutions do not appreciate all gender identities. This has become an inspiration for Zackery’s advocacy.

A commendable trait of Zackery is their authenticity to their gender identity – they won’t perform roles that make them feel uncomfortable or triggered. However, they worry about the options available, if the dance industry does not continue to grow more inclusive. “It’s scary… the dance world is still so binary.” Despite their fear, they still break down the barriers they face. Zackery continues to educate others with hopes that dance communities evolve in a positive direction.

Dancers, is this really the community we want? One where dancers are ostracised by their gender and lose roles over it? Let’s do better.

What can you do to help make the dance world a more gender-inclusive industry?

  1. Stop using gendered language. Talk about dancers in terms of their roles instead.
  2. Choreographers – utilize more gender-neutral roles. Don’t rely on gender to tell your stories.
  3. Ask people about their pronouns. Don’t just assume.
  4. Teachers – make sure your students are comfortable. Ask them about their desires before casting, costuming, and performing.
  5. Educate yourself. Find resources online or on social media. Zackery has a website for their community explaining gender inclusivity. There are even some videos about gender and dance as well as a book they wrote. 
  6. Ask questions and open up the conversation about gender in your dance communities.

Unfortunately, there is still a long road before the dance world includes all genders in the capacity they deserve. In my opinion, these binary roles are getting boring. Let’s tell more stories that are rooted in things other than gender and heterosexual relationships. Here’s to dancers like Zackery. Hopefully, the dance world begins to find a stable place for their talent.

Read Also:
Let’s Normalize This: Stating Pronouns
In Female-Dominated Ballet, The Men Hold The Power
How Toxic Masculinity Harms The Very Gender It Serves