Book Review: Clare Croft’s ‘Queer Dance’ is a deep dive of queer theory in the dance world

How do I even go about condensing Clare Croft’s “Queer Dance” into a review that you can read on your half hour lunch?

This collection of artistic and (mostly) scholarly writings provides such a detailed and comprehensive snapshot of queers in contemporary dance, and queer contemporary dance. I could write an individual review of each article that just might honor the depth of research and curation that went into this collection. And if 300 pages isn’t enough for you, Queer Dance grants readers access to a (rather clunky and academic, but useful nonetheless) website via Oxford University Press hosting hours of performance footage, interviews, and supplemental information.

Croft provides an incredibly thorough — albeit too long for my taste — introduction in which she addresses the vast and complex nature of both what is “queer” and what is “dance,” and lays out a set of broadly inclusive goals for what queer dance then might be:

(1) that women and feminism are central to any queer project; (2) that social dance and concert dance hold equal import; (3) that, through anti-racist and anti-colonial labor, queerness must always work to challenge white privilege; (4) that queerness has to challenge the entrenchment of the gender binary, and (5) that queer dance happens across an expansive map both global and regional.

Here I have written a super brief summary of a few of the 17 articles as they relate to each of the above goals. Of course each article does not fit cleanly or exclusively into one goal or another, but I’m hoping this framework serves to structure my summary and give you an idea of the diversity of content found in Queer Dance.

The Feminist Approach

In “Oh No! Not this Lesbian Again:” The Punany Poets Queer the Pimp-ho Aesthetic, Columbia College Chicago associate professor of dance Raquel L. Monroe writes about two black female performers, erotic dancer Punany Pearl and Lucky Seven. In their various performances, the duo subverts the heterosexual male gaze by blurring gender roles and seducing women in the audience alongside the men. Monroe’s article delves into misogynist music videos, sex positive sex education television appearances, a call to the dance community to respect and value the labor of sex workers, and so much more. Alongside Monroe’s article, about half the pieces are written by women in this female-edited collection.  This feminist approach is refreshing in a field that lauds white, cis, gay men whose acceptance into the community at times overshadows the struggles faced by queer women, trans dancers, and people of color who are not as readily welcomed into the fold.

Aside: A bonus for Chicago folks, Columbia College has not one, but TWO professors published in the anthology alongside Chicagoan Anna Martine Whitehead, who I’ll get to later. My summary doesn’t prick the surface of Monroe or Whitehead’s piece, and Peter Carpenter’s essay about cowboys and Ronald Regan is an excellent read. Chicago representation! Exciting!

Social v. Concert Dance

Croft is vague in her definition of what constitutes social dance. Rather than defining types of performance – drag, ballroom, square dancing – she focuses on the politics of social dance spaces in discussing how lesbian bars can become places for straight male voyeurs and the racial segregation that occurs in gay bars. Justin Torres’ In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club celebrates the freedom and resilience of communities like the one attacked during the Pulse nightclub mass shooting. While Torres’ piece is the only one that focuses solely on a social dance space, many articles reference practices that are commonly associated with social dance spaces such as drag and cruising in bars.

Queer Dance could stand to hear more from social dance. While many articles reference drag and cruising, the reference is made within the greater context of a concert dance performance. To claim to consider social and concert dance of equal value, yet only include one piece that focuses specifically on social dance feels unbalanced. Alternatively, Croft could expand her definition of social dance to include the styles themselves rather than the spaces in which they take place.

Challenging White Privilege

“’Queer Dance’ keeps race central; there are no parts of this project that are ‘about race.’ Here queer is always about race.”

Croft actively resists the common pitfall of associating “queer” with “white” and maintains that we cannot talk about queerness without acknowledging race.

Expressing Life through Loss: On Queens that Fall with a Freak Technique by Anna Martine Whitehead speaks of their experience as a genderqueer person of color. To paint with broad strokes here, Whitehead speaks of freedom and collapse. In dancing and living unharmed by police violence, racism and homophobia, people are free. However, that freedom is neither sustainable nor guaranteed. People trip and fall, police are biased, people are homophobic and racist. A cycle emerges: people are free, that freedom collapses; people fall, and they get back up. Using this distinctly Black and queer choreographic structure, Whitehead creates their dances.

In Aunty Fever: A Queer Impression, author Kareem Khubchanandi describes his Indian Auntie’s influence on his performance practice in drag. Khubchanandi talks about how his upbringing in Indian culture both influenced and conflicted with his gay identity and drag persona.

Conversely, a few of Queer Dance’s articles written by white authors acknowledge their privilege. In Futari Tomo: A Queer Duet for Tiako author Angela K Ahlgren questions whether she has a place in Taiko, an art that is culturally centered on Asian Americans. Ahlgren deliberately states she did not think of her question as one of white privilege or cultural appropriation, but one of respecting the boundaries of a company that made art specifically for Asian Americans. Ahlgren’s question reminds me of so many unintentionally racist performances of West Side Story or Aida with all white casts (my white self has been in both). Rather than diving in and putting her white body center stage, Ahlgren takes the time to question her place in the art form. She talks to the Asian Americans in the group and finds a way to participate respectfully.

Challenging Gender Binary

Alongside Whitehead, genderqueer writer Doran George’s The Hysterical Spectator: Dancing with Feminists, Nellies, Andro-Dykes, and Drag Queens covers just about every flavor of sexual and gender identity all while unpacking a mysterious onset of hysteria triggered by watching a dance performance.

In Lou Henry Hoover’s To be a Showboy, Hoover writes about creating drag king performances that portray the unity of the human experience whether that experience is queer or otherwise. While Hoover’s primary drag character is a drag king, Hoover has enjoyed success as a drag queen as well and finds joy (as do I) in the fact that a butch dyke can be hired to perform in a line of queens on the PBS Special Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek Live!

Expansive Global and Regional Map

One of my personal favorite pieces in Queer Dance is Our Love was Not Enough: Queering Gender, Cultural Belonging, and Desire in Contemporary ‘Abhinaya’ by Sandra Chatterjee and Cynthia Ling Lee. Choreographer Shyamala Moorty, and Lee, a performer, develop distinctly queer kathak performances while maintaining the form’s traditional Indian structure. I like this writing so much because it documents the hard work of queering a traditional form, rather than scrapping tradition altogether and running to the postmodern world, where the Lee acknowledges her queerness would be more readily accepted. While the expected few articles in Queer Dance set themselves in the American gay mecca (New York City) we also hear from places like Minnesota, China, and Ireland.

“Kathak Expressions” | photo credit: Chatterjee, S. (2012, March 22). Retrieved from Flickr (Creative Commons)

So, what?

My main critique of this anthology is that a few of the pieces felt unnecessarily academic and convoluted. I understand that this is primarily a collection of scholarly work, but a few of the pieces were so dense it took hours of rereading and sentence analyzing to understand what the author was actually talking about. I question the audience these authors intend to impact. Is it the queer dance community at large, or only those of us with degrees and the patience to diagram paragraph-long sentences?

As a queer dancer and occasional choreographer, I found some of this writing really useful. In Chatterjee and Lee’s Our Love was Not Enough, the women go into great detail of how they developed a queer version of a traditional dance. As a queer dancer who is most familiar with western styles, I drew a lot of ties between the queering of the kathak and a potential dismantling of gender stereotypes in ballet. Ballez is making some headway in this arena, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been playfully queering ballet since 1974, but I think there is a lot of progress to be made in refusing to allow ballet to rest in heteronormativity that will, ultimately, make it more accessible. Hearing that another dance maker shares my sentiment is both empowering and inspiring.

On the other hand, some of the articles left me feeling like they only contribute to the scholarly audience of Queer Dance. What good are analyses and advancement of queer dance if they are only available to those in the upper echelon of academia? Sure, there are plenty of dancers and dancemakers in academia, but a good portion of the community doesn’t get paid to wax poetical about dancing. If everyone in the queer dance community had the time and energy to get through some of the tougher articles in Queer Dance, they could build off the work presented in the anthology to make their own queer dancing even stronger. But not everyone, myself included, is about to carve time out of our busy lives to get one smart person’s opinion about dancing. This isn’t an issue with all the articles in Queer Dance, but overall I would rather writers use language and a writing style that is more broadly accessible. When ideas are only available to a few people, only a few people benefit. When ideas are available to a wider range of the community, the whole movement is strengthened.

Despite moments of my brain melting into a conceptual gay puddle on the floor, reading Queer Dance gave me a sense of connection to a larger, global community that I honestly didn’t realize existed. This anthology is so thorough and well compiled, and the addition of the website and performance series make it a critical resource to anyone looking to learn more about queer dance.

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Author: Guest Contributors