Last month a Member of Congress joined Fox News to claim President Joe Biden is “robbing hard working Americans to pay for Karen’s daughter’s degree in lesbian dance theory” in response to the announcement that the President was providing $20,000 in debt relief for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for many other borrowers. A few days later the same Member of Congress shared her belief that “Joe Biden now wants to pay for Lesbian Dance Art degrees” at a campaign event. As far as I know such degrees are not in the official academic catalog of any accredited American institute of higher learning, but I may be wrong. Perhaps new programs in Lesbian Dance Art and/or Theory are emerging as you read this right now? The Congresswoman’s use of the “lesbian dance” as a stand-in for a useless degree and as a cover to lambast academic and artistic freedom and the humanities by and large is not new (Ben Shapiro has been using it to troll and mock since at least 2015), nor a uniquely Republican tendency in American politics.
While “Lesbian Dance Theory/Art” may not be a real undergraduate degree, theorizing about lesbian dance and art is real, and it is certainly not useless, frivolous, or wasteful. Creating art and thinking about art are inherently valuable exercises: they improve our lives and broaden our understanding of ourselves and our world. For those of us lucky enough to practice, study, and teach in the arts, we see this every day. And while the Congresswoman’s remarks were most likely meant to denigrate and belittle (trafficking in homophobic and anti-intellectual tropes), Lesbian Dance Theory/Art offers us unique insight into the past and new paths into our future.
“Creating art and thinking about art are inherently valuable exercises: they improve our lives and broaden our understanding of ourselves and our world.”
Over a century ago in a Parisian suburb, a young American woman and her friends dared to imagine a Lesbian Dance Art, a uniquely queer choreography of their loves, relationships, fantasies of queer pasts, and dreams for a queer future. This woman, Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) used her verve, artistic sensibilities, connections, and inherited wealth to host private spaces for lesbian women to come together, discuss art and life, and perform poetry, music, and dance. They did this at a time when public discussion of what it meant for women to love women outside of narratives of psychological pathology was relatively new, nebulous. Beginning around 1900, Barney and her dancing friends (including at various points, Mata Hari, Liane de Pougy, Isadora Duncan, Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, Penelope Duncan, and Marie Rambert) used dance to perform in the present an imagined ancient past where women were free to love women. As I discussed in my book, Performing Antiquity, they would dress in ancient Greek costumes, plucked reproductions of Sappho’s lyre, sang invented ancient Greek hymns, and danced invented ancient Greek dances as they sought to define a lesbian future where you didn’t need a man to lead. The reliance on millennia-old models (the Archaic Greek lyrics of Sappho of Lesbos, for whom lesbianism is named) was the only model Barney and her peers knew that allowed them to reimagine dance for lesbians. But they used this past to imagine a future.
As Natalie Barney’s reimagination of ancient lesbian dance art illustrates, while lesbians have been dancing for millennia, lesbian dancers and lesbian dance has historically received little theorizing or documentation. Barney had no models of lesbian dance to look to, no one to teach her the steps. This erasure of lesbian dance persists. Peter Stoneley’s 2007 book, A Queer History of the Ballet all but ignores queer women altogether focusing almost exclusively on queer male identification in ballet. More recently, Clare Croft’s 2017 edited collection, Queer Dance: Meanings & Makings takes important steps to theorize queer dance. “No single entity marks something as queer dance,” Croft asserts, “but rather it is how these textures press on the world and against one another that opens the possibility for a dance to be queer.” Lesbian dance, as part of the project of queer dance challenges and disrupts, disorients and reorients audiences, and that is perhaps its greatest power and threat. As Croft writes, “Queer performance can thwart an audience’s assumptions about bodies, desire and sex… In this way, queer performance becomes a kind of pedagogy, teaching someone what it might look like or feel like to refuse norms, particularly those related to gender and sexuality.”
“Lesbian dance… challenges and disrupts, disorients and reorients audiences, and that is perhaps its greatest power and threat.”
Take Adriana Pierce’s choreography for Daphne Willis’s pop ballad, “I Am Enough” featuring New York City Ballet’s Georgia Pazcoguin and Broadway dancer Skye Mattox. Pierce places the dancers on either side of a suspended tangle of leather ropes and straps that serves as both a permeable barrier and visual bars separating the two women. Pazcoguin watches as Mattox arabesques. They dance for each other until Mattox reaches out her hand through the tangle of ropes to make contact with Pazcoguin. They are kept apart until the second verse of the song. In the second verse of the song the dancers perform a series of turns, spinning away from the tangle of ropes and straps and into each other’s arms. They partner, following the curve of the other woman’s twisting torso with their arms, embracing, and then joining together in synchronized arabesques and pirouettes, but the classical ballet vocabulary breaks down after the song’s bridge for the final chorus as Mattox presses Pazcoguin’s hands to her heart before Pazcougin goes in for a real and passionate kiss. After all the balletic performing of passion and intimacy, the gestures of love forbidden/blocked, the metaphoric spinning out and away from the tangled ropes, the two women do something rarely done in ballet. They stop doing ballet and kiss: necks craning, backs arching, shoulders rising, hands grasping faces. In that moment this piece of Lesbian Dance Art embraces and blasts open the conventions of ballet.
While Lesbian Dance Theory might not be a real major, the work of making sense of uniquely queer ways of moving, and knowing, and claiming space, provide creative spaces to reimagine our connections to each other through movement. The very vilification of Lesbian Dance Art and Theory is a testament to its important function in upsetting norms and creating spaces for bodies to create new meanings.
Featured image: A gathering of women including Eva Palmer, Natalie Barney, and Liane de Pougy in Barney’s garden in Neuilly, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain