The potent intersection of queer theory and dance. Reflections on the queerness embedded in Deborah Hay's dance practice
© Shannon Stewart (2017)
Author's Note: I first wrote this paper as an invitation to "create theory" in and advanced queer theory course and then submitted it for presentation at the Dance Studies Association conference at Ohio State University in 2017. My simplification of dance history was written first to contextualize my field to an audience of non-dance readers. In the few years since writing this, the field has dramatically shifted and changed to include many proposals for intersectional feminism, queer theory, and disability or "crip" theory in conversation with dance making and practices. Of course they were always there but perhaps are finally able to be more visible, nuanced, and so the field as a whole is evolving.
I position myself as an active artist invested in research as a powerful tool for creative process and for reimagining how dance contributes to larger conversations. Writing is a significant part of my metabolizing process but for the sake of clear labels, I have an MFA and not a PhD.
Throughout the course of my graduate study, I have noticed many parallels with the evolution of feminist, gender, sexuality, and queer theory and the evolution of concert dance history and dance studies in the United States and Western Europe. I’ve noticed conceptualizations of the body in gender and queer theories that correspond with improvisational and somatic practices I have done, teach, and use in my dance practice. As my studies have progressed, I’ve become increasingly interested in the potentialities for animating gender and queer theory within physical practice and creative process. Similarly, I’m interested in how gender and queer theory when viewed through the lens of dance-- contain the possibility of embodied and kinetic practices for deconstructing, reconstituting, and reimagining the body and perception.
In this paper I will briefly go over the analogous developments between the disciplines of feminist, gender, and queer studies and dance history and practice. I will look specifically at the intersection of one postmodern choreographer’s work with Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomenology and Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. I will then use this example of overlap to propose what I’m calling Body Based Theory Practice or BBTP. For the sake of this paper, my attempt to “create theory” is in the proposal of a counter-normative knowledge approach that disrupts the prioritization of reading, writing, and linear understanding.
Dance, Feminism, and Deconstruction as a Fragmenting Moment
What is considered modern dance began at the turn of the 20th century and took root in the United States and Europe by the 1940s. Like first and second wave feminists making important strides in revealing gender asymmetry, modern dance was a rejection of patriarchal and representational ballet. The early forebears of modern dance (mostly women) took the bodily shapings, narrative structures, and the male-centric, heteronomative form and turned it on its head. Feet were bare instead of in pointe shoes. They were flexed instead of being pointed. Legs were parallel and inwardly rotated instead of “turned-out.” Women made and performed their own work and representation of heterosexual love gave way to abstract expression.
One of the most lasting effects of modern dance is the idea that the body’s movement is capable of expressing some essential qualities of humanity in their purest forms. Techniques focused on unconditioning the body in certain ways and rigorously reconditioning it in others. Graham technique is the most well known example of this, created by seminal choreographer Martha Graham, which evolved into a highly specific vocabulary that she believed turned the body into a vessel for expressing pure emotion. Though this idea has been taken up and modified by hundreds of other choreographers, the underlying belief and the accompanying style and vocabulary of dance flows through to what is labeled as modern concert dance today.
The post-modern turn in dance, came earlier than the deconstructionist turn in feminist theory (in the 60’s rather than the 80’s) but can be seen as a pivotal moment for a queering of the field. Yvonne Rainer wrote the pivotal “No Manifesto,” declaring a war against the spectacle of dance, the frontal facings, the bodily contortion, the pandering to the audience, and the emotional dramatization. Out of this emerged a new kind of dance performance--somewhat minimal, even more abstracted, often including “pedestrian” movement. During this period, formative practices such as contact improvisation, and other alternative and somatic movement practices were born.
Queer potentialities, hegemonic realities
Essentializing beliefs about the body wove their way into postmodern dance too as a leftover from modern dance and also in alignment with second wave feminism. Postmodern choreographers focused on the innate wisdom of the body they felt was often was overlooked by western notions of knowledge acquisition and dance training that focused on athletic feats. I’m particularly interested in what I consider “a queer turn,” to borrow terminology from Sara Ahmed, embedded in practices that came out of this time frame, and why or why not they have been taken up. I will look primarily at American postmodern choreographer Deborah Hay, a white, Brooklyn born woman, that has evolved a radical practice over many decades she still engages with today. This is a personal inquisition as well. I studied with, practiced and performed a dance co-authored by myself and Deborah for a number of years.
In my pursuit of an MFA and interweaving dance studies with theory from gender and sexuality studies, I’ve repeatedly thought of Hay’s practice at the intersection between these fields. Like cotemporary queer theorists, Hay has been seriously questioning how we engage with ideas of the body and how that is shaped by our perception. By illustrating the paralallels with Sara Ahmeds theories in Queer Phenomenology and Deborah Hay’s improvisational practice, I’m creating grounds to propose Body Based Theory Practice or BBTP.
I admit outright that these questions parallel philosophical and spiritual inquiries into consciousness long associated with non-western movement and mindfulness practices that have been appropriated and taken up by contemporary dance artists. As intersectional gender and sexuality theorists have built upon and critiqued the deconstructionist turn, contemporary choreographers today grapple with postmodern lineage and how the everyday physical practice of being a dancer is carried out. Classes in almost every city are still centered on ballet or classical modern techniques (like Graham). Historically, the field has rarely legitimized traditions of jazz, tap, hip hop, and various west African and Caribbean dance forms as techniques worthy of academic study or as forms to be presented as contemporary art. Only in elite circles do you get to access experimental ways of engaging with physical practice or having in depth intellectual conversations practice, privilege, and cultural production. Acknowledgement of the history of modern and contemporary dance exploiting Africanist and eastern influences while excluding non-white choreographers and dance artists from resources and access that provide them meaningful influence in the field is minimal at best.
I bring up the inherent racism, class privilege, and appropriation in contemporary dance, not because a discussion of Deborah Hay can address or undo the biggest challenges of the field but to create a bed for these ideas to lie in. It is not my desire to propose an obscure practice done by mostly white middle class women as a source of bodily liberation. Nonetheless, I want to examine the potentialities of these lines of thinking and practice making. For the sake of cohering a focused paper, I will limit my conversation to Hay’s practice in relation with queer phenomenology, my personal experience with it and in proposing a new theory of practice. A further development of a proposal for BBTP should examine intersectionality more explicitly, bring in critical race and "crip" theories, and work to avoid hegemonic and elitist pitfalls of the early postmodern dance pioneers.
Deborah Hay and “What If. . . ?”
“What if my whole body at once is my teacher?
“What if dance is how I practice relationship with my whole body at once in relationship to the space where I am dancing in relationship to each passing moment in relationship to my audience? What if the depth of the question is on the surface?”
“What if my choice to surrender the pattern, and it is just a pattern, of facing a single direction or fixing on a singularly coherent idea, feeling, or object when I’m dancing is a way to notice where I am not? (Hay, 2-3).
These questions comprise the fundamental framework for Deobrah Hay’s improvisational practice. The idea is that a person starts to move and continuously cycle through these questions (and about 20 other similar mental puzzles). Hay says, “Ready. Fire. Aim,” to the questions of “what kind of movement?” or “move how?” One just starts and asks the questions and refines as they go.
In my residency with Hay in Findhorn, Scotland she explained that the first question “what if my whole body at once was my teacher” came to her during a period of time living as a single mother in a tent in Vermont. She had fled from New York, traumatized, bored and dissatisfied by trying to be a professional dancer. She became part of an alternative dance community, adopting a sort of survivalist mentality and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. She wanted to strip away the superficiality of dance to get to something more engaging and fulfilling. She is careful to clarify that this is not a belief system--it’s not a kind of romantic body-based spirituality even though you could say she practices it religiously. To her it’s “a set of assumptions” to play with, to make things more interesting and “anti-establishment.” Deborah is in her mid seventies now. Asking these questions is at the heart of every dance she makes and performs.
Along with open-ended, impossible to answer questions, Deborah has some strict ideas about how to engage with the practice.
“Remove hesitation and reconsideration from your dancing.
Remove sequencing from the sequence. Do not progress by moving forward.
Do not lose command of how you use your weight. Arms do not hang or swing casually. There is no room for rest.”
Within the frame of this material, avoid the impulse to:
Be unique, or original, and/or creative and
Illustrate language through movement
Instead dis-attach from those impulses by:
Noticing the whole body at once as your teacher, thus assuming the cellular knowledge of your body, and
Include your visual field, which includes what you can and cannot see. . . in a prescribed area near, mid-range, and far at any given moment. [This is] a means by which movement arises without looking for it.
It’s not what you do, it’s how you perceive.
Don’t edit the [audience or other performers] out of your experience [when performing].
Shorten the distance between attending to perception and dis-attaching from the seduction of the experience.”
Influenced greatly by avant-garde artists of her earlier years, Deborah uses chance operations to arrange bits of material that will comprise a dance she makes. Once she has randomly arranged an order (of things like: “enter walking something like a duck” and “you cross the stage following a path that contains a perfect circle”), the score becomes set and she commits to rehearsing the dance every day for a year. The practice entails asking the questions and engaging in her improvisational practice while following the score. Anyone who agrees to perform the work must do a similar practice.
Deborah has written a number of books that build on how she understands her practice as she engages with it over time. These include, my body, the buddhist and Lamb at the Alter, titles that reference a spiritual inquiry into her understanding of her body and practice. Again, these are terms used to exemplify a kind of devotion to her inquiry, but according to her, do not comprise a spiritual practice. The question – “what if the depth of the question is on the surface?” is useful here.
Orientation, lines, directions
In Queer Phenomonolgy, Sara Ahmed uses the principles of Phenomenology as a discipline to propose a way of understanding normativity on different social levels--at the bodily level, at systemic level of compulsory heterosexuality, and at the global level of white, western patriarchal supremacy. She begins by asking, “What does it mean to be orientated? How it is we come to find our way in a world that acquires new shapes depending on which way we turn?”
From this simple and foundational point of inquiry, Ahmed uses seminal phenomenological texts to explain facings, the shape of the body, orientation towards objects and away from others, the body shaping space, and the difference of being oriented around something versus oriented toward something to make apparent her most compelling proposal – normativity is a process by which things are brought in line (straightened out). The process can offer resources and privilege if you are online or can be on the line, and makes visible some objects (or orientations, systems, and power structures) and invisibilizes others.
“The lines that allow us to find our way, those that are “in front” of us, also make certain things, and not others, available. What is available is what might reside as a point on this line. When we follow specific lines, some things become reachable and others remain or even become out of reach. Such exclusions – the constitution of a field of unreachable objects, are the consequences of following lines that are before us: we do not have to consciously exclude those things that are not “on line.” The direction we take excludes things for us, before we event get there (14-15).”
The normative line of conditioning in dance
As person that has been engaged in a conscious bodily training for over 30 years, the idea of how orientation and space shape the body and vice versa, feels palpably real to me. My orientation around dance and towards spaces and objects that facilitate my career bring me into contact with certain kinds of experiences and resources and out of touch with others. The practice of certain techniques physically and visibly changes my body as well as how I sense it. Movement is shaped and timed differently when I’m inside a small shotgun house converted into a studio dancing with a group of professional dancers versus when I’m moving in a large university studio surrounded by students.
The line of normativity also presents itself quite clearly. Most dancers are chosen, not self-selected at a young age based on the “natural” attributes of their bodies (arched feet, short torsos, flexible hips, backs and legs). They rigorously train in western traditions such as ballet, modern, and sometimes jazz and tap. Their professional careers begin between ages 16 and 22 and end around 30, unless they are men. Dancers are awarded for the display of their physical feats, the attractiveness of their physical features, and their ability to walk the line of being “unique” without being too different. Contemporary dance choreographers are awarded for composing dancers in time and space along those standards and creating work that is “cutting-edge” without being controversial.
The opportunities to veer off this line of normativity are manifold, which brings interested dancers into proximity with alternative opportunities and modes of existing as dance artists. This turn takes them away from the possibility of financial independence and institutional support. The people who are on line with other kinds of privilege (whiteness, masculinity, wealth, heterosexuality) have the most opportunity to challenge the normative line while still maintaining recognition and financial support. When artists of color are supported in making provocative work, it is often seen by white artists as an act of affirmative action.
Because the institution of concert dance exists inside systems of white supremacy, heteronomativity and capitalism, these things are far from surprising. Asking questions about how to “fuck with” the system and go offline is really no different in this field than in any other. Where there are unique openings in dance is in the space created for alternative ways of engaging with the body. Dance scholars, artists, and activists have an opportunity to manifest the ideas queer theorists (or “quare theorists such as E. Patrick Johnson) propose – practices of reconceiving perception, understanding of the body and how that is connected to and shaped by environment, institutions and hegemonic systems.
The continuity of your discontinuity
“Dynamic” is a solo choreographed by Deborah Hay that I learned, practiced, adapted and performed between 2012 and 2014. Over the course of the two years I documented the process in various ways--blog posts, photos of my daily rehearsal, etc. Below is an excerpt from a post on the first day I met Deborah and started to learn her practice. The score for “Dynamic” was printed on an 11-page document:
Deborah begins, “I thought we could read [the score for the dance] through. I mean, just for the record, this is the worst title I have ever had for a piece. It was called “A Figure, A Sea” originally and then one day. . . “ She goes on to tell us how she re-discovered the concept of dynamics in dance making and performing. We joke about different ways to say it--kind of dramatically, like you have botox freezing the muscles of your face, etc--and a week later decide to officially add the turning of the fucking head to the title (more on turning your fucking head later).
From the score - [Instructions for how to say the title for this dance when addressing a person(s): first turn your head right or left before turning back to say “dynamic.”]
We read through the choreography and I’m psyched. Anticipating. Already practicing. Thinking I have somehow already grasped it.
After lunch the practice begins. “The whole body at once is the teacher. It’s not linear so there are no goals except to shorten the distance between perceiving and dis-attaching (not detaching) from the seduction of the experience.”
As I partake and observe, I’m intrigued and also have the judgmental thought, we look like dancers trying not to dance. Hands in the air sort of zombie like slowly walking through space or else doing a sort of cut-jump, A.D.H.D, slightly frenetic thing. I’m not letting anything take hold or saturate which makes me initially feel that I am not having a sensual experience. I’m trying really hard not to follow desire. I bring this up in the discussion that follows, when she asks how it’s going. It is one such question of many of the ‘are-we-dancers-trying-not-to-dance variety?’ Over time this will start to become a pointless question. . .
Deborah looks at me squarely and says, “my sort of smart aleck remark to that is it [desire] takes too much fucking time. Desire is linear.”
My blog posts document the process of getting comfortable, then uncomfortable, then comfortable again with the Hay’s practice and the performance of “Dynamic.” Deborah said that over the years she realized that the process of doing the practice had different steps. First you notice the “continuity of your continuity.” By this, she explains, you notice your identity, behavior, and the ways bodies have been choreographed. Then you notice the “discontinuity of your continuity”--that your improvised movement choices are a sort of script being regurgitated-- and finally you reach the “continuity of your discontinuity”—that is, in the practice of asking the open-ended questions, not being seduced by the physical capacities of the body (or linear desire), and dis-attaching, you create a state of fluidity. Sometimes she says, “learning without thinking.”
When I think about this in relation to Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, I find potent overlap. Identity is not fixed or given. The discontinuity of continuity is seeing the falsity of believing in the fixity of your identity or believing your body’s movements are somehow your own instead of patterns written into it that approximate copies of gendered, racialized embodied practices. The continuity of your discontinuity is the possibility of perceiving your body and its relationship to the space and objects around it, through its endless quotations, it’s fluidity, it’s non-fixity.
Deborah would regularly say that doing the practice was “anti-establishment behavior,” but never elaborated on it. She would just let the statement hang in the air for people to interpret as they would. In general she didn’t expound upon her personal life (aside from describing the context out of which her practice arose), her political beliefs, or if she had any hopes that this practice was a part of some kind of social transformation.
Turning Your Fucking Head
One of the most obvious alignments with Ahmed’s theory of queer phenomenology in Hay’s practice is the prompt to change your focus. She jokingly says “turn your fucking head” to make fun of the way dancers get frontally fixed in their gaze but also to add a level of severity in order to point out all the things one misses by not changing focus. She invites dancers to “be served by what you see,” and let the movement arise in the process of changing your focus and asking the questions. When I’m in this process, I find that I get comfortable with moment to moment disorientation. I make the assumption that I’m letting my body perceive, react and process before my mind can consciously straighten out and fix a “correct” movement choice.
In order to be able to perform “Dynamic” for a public audience, one agrees to practice the solo everyday for nine months. We were to approach each rehearsal as if it was no different from the performance and the performance as if it was no different from a rehearsal. We could make aesthetic adaptations and omit parts of the score, but could not add anything to it. We had to perform it in a context that let the solo exist by itself (not in a festival or showcase setting) and we had to credit every one of the soloists and the supporters who helped all of us get to Scotland to work with her.
I practiced “Dynamic” for nine months, took a break and practiced again for about four months. I performed it eight times in Seattle and Portland and decided I would revisit it every five or ten years as I grow into middle and old age. How I approach dancing and performing has shifted as a result of this practice. This brings to mind Bourdieus’s concept of “habitus” that Mimi Schippers and other theorists connect into developing theories of normativity--the possibility for rewriting “somatic experiences felt as natural” (Schippers, 144). In doing this improvisational practice for a number of years, I feel I have developed a state of being that feels natural but markedly different from what I considered to be “natural” in my improvisations before.
Though there are many tangible things that have changed—I veer away from codified dance vocabulary, I give myself a lot more room for error or for being boring or controversial in strange ways--the less tangible things are of most interest to me. How I pay attention to things has changed and so has what I do as a result. In phenomenological terms, I can almost viscerally feel the presence of space, objects, and others and how they shape what I am doing and how I in turn shape everything I am around. I can similarly sense external things exerting pressure to straighten out what I’m doing, and how I myself want to straighten things I make, even in an improvisational moment. I constantly notice the process of wanting to straighten my thinking into a line and how that aligns with linear being and doing.
Body based theory practice (BBTP)
As I stated earlier, it is not my intention to propose Hay’s practice as the way to queer one’s process of perceiving and to think that this will therefore cause a massive social shift. Her work is hugely influential to myself and other dance artists who have sought her out, but for decades Hay’s practice and work have come under fire for its inaccessibility, the problem of addressing “the body” as a singular, and particularly for the lack of awareness of how race intersects with ideas of “the body.” Also, the performance of her work is not widely considered successful. I believe that it has had a lasting and important impact on the field of contemporary dance, within the scope of people interested in post modern dance and improvisation. However, most audiences without prior knowledge do not enjoy watching it. They find it boring and elusive and often pretentious. In this way, the promise of what her “cultural production” can do for queering hegemonic systems within culture making is limited.
I do believe, however, that using a practice like Hay’s in concert with and modified by specific proposals that tie an individual’s bodily experience and attention to perception as part and parcel to conversations about how systems are shaped, bodies are brought on line or excluded, and privilege is invisibilized has the potential to create experiences for theories to exist materially, in an embodied experience or practice. In this way, the body could be put concretely into the process of grappling with particular theories and dance scholars and artists have the potential to create manifold methodologies based in generations of somatic exploration. I’m calling this Body Based Theory Practice or BBTP.
In a sexuality and queer theory course at Tulane University, I reshaped a sensory-awareness practice as an introduction to queer phenomenology, asking students to take a silent walks in pairs with no proposed agenda or map. This conversation lent itself easily to discussing what is “on line and offline” as well as a host of other related concepts. Perhaps with more time, more advanced concepts evolved from Hay’s conceptualization of open-ended mental puzzles that put the body ahead of the mind, while trying to make sense of phenomenological questions could be played out. Similarly the ideas of queer phenomenology and other queer theories could be concretely brought into the context of training and working with the body in fields of dance, theater and performance studies.
In a special workshop I teach, What does this body make?, I guide participants with a durational practice of disorientation followed by extensive attempts at copying the movement of other bodies through noticing how they use perception (focus, touch, rhythm/sound, etc.). This is a way to bring awareness to inclinations in focus and how those things shape what we do. I’m interested in the potential for turning this into an intentional conversation about heteronormativity, white supremacy, mononormativity and other theories. How might these blended theory practices lend themselves to cultural production that can make ripples beyond the post-modern improvisational dance pond?
Thinking in terms of Halberstam’s analysis of the important role subculture’s can and do play in creating change, I do believe that even an obscure dance scene can have powerful influence but that this “riot queer dance movement” hasn’t really cohered or is in an early process of emerging. I want to propose that artists working at the intersection of somatic practices with queer theory (and critical race theory and crip theory) make an intention to embed BBTP across disciplines. Without consciously attending to the simultaneity BBTP, their work has the potential to be compartmentalized on the “avant-garde” shelf, absorbed temporarily into high art institutions and plagued with similar problems of sexism, racism and appropriation that post modern dance was and still is.
In cross-pollinating queer theory with physical practice, it is my intent to propose that the practice is the theory itself and the theory is the practice --that it is in the doing/experiencing that the theory is manifest and activated. I have demonstrated the clear and potent overlap between Deborah Hay’s improvisational practice and Sara Ahmed’s theory of queer phenomenology as one of many examples of potential cross-pollination. Putting body-based practices into queer theory challenges normative, western, linear ways of building knowledge. Embedding queer theory into dance studies and practices and opens up more ways for theory to be connected to cultural production. Scalability, context, and development remain unanswered questions to be taken up by more artist-theorists interested in BBTP.
Ahmed, Sara 2007. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).
Halberstam, Judith. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press).
Hay, Deborah, 2012. “Dynamic.” Written score for dance.
Hay, Deborah, 2012. Lecture and notes. Findhorn, Scotland.
Johnson, E. Patrick. 2001. “’Quare’ Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother.” Text and Performance Quarterly 21(1): 1-25.
Schippers, Mimi. 2016. Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: New York University Press. Pp. TBA.
Stewart, Shannon, 2012. “SPCP 2012 Part I - WHAT YOU THINK YOU NEED,” www.feetlikebirds.blogspot.com. Accessed May 2, 2016.
 Somatic as it is used in dance refers physical practices focused on sensation, awareness and usually improvisation and is differentiated from a technical practice focused on mastering certain shapes and movements. There is often overlap between the two.
 While performance studies problematizes the history making’s focus on text and archives versus histories of bodies in time and space, I do not know of practices that are born out of or interwoven with other theories. Furthermore, the field has primarily focused on theater and performance art, leaving dance out altogether.
 It is arguably more appropriate to say that mostly white artists took principles and ideas from non-western dance traditions (which had been happening throughput the course of modern dance development already), appropriated them, reconstituted them into new dance forms written into dance history books with credit given to white, western dance artists.
 To this end, I’m interested in how the politics of articulation (Evelyn Hammonds), and the potential of the erotic (Audre Lorde) provide for an understanding of creating intersectional dance theory and how contemporary artists of color negotiate making postmodern work, or how they do or don’t identify with the term.
 For 14 years, Hay hosted a program called the Solo Performance Commissioning Project. She would spend 2 weeks with dancers who had applied to work with her teaching them a solo that they would later adapt and perform.
 Whereas detach would entail practice a state of not associating with or connecting to the environment, Hay uses dis-attach to describe a process of noticing where you are but not fixating on it.
 Even so, sticking with her practice and work as an artist feels like a counter-normative performance practice. It challenges perceptions of time, space, and that value of what is considered performance, who should be doing it and how.
 Queer theorist Judith Halberstam illuminates the power of queer subcultures (riot grrl and homohop for example) in In a Queer Time and Place and differentiates their contribution to cultural production from male dominated, better-known subcultures like punk rock (155-187).