Gay Men & Dance: What's the Connection

By Carman, Joseph | Dance Magazine, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Gay Men & Dance: What's the Connection


Carman, Joseph, Dance Magazine


When he was 7 years old, future choreographer Tere O'Connor donned a white V-neck tennis sweater, a pair of very short shorts, and his father's trout fishing boots and sashayed down the street of his blue-collar neighborhood in Webster, New York. That inspired act of creativity was probably his first choreographed performance. "It was like a white suburban Grace Jones look," says O'Connor. "I took it very seriously. I thought I was a real charmer."

The stereotype of male dancers automatically being gay--not to mention the myth that dancing makes you queer--is a concept that Americans, in particular, love to embrace, as if to protect their own macho image. And yet, gay men do seem to be drawn to dance (and to other creative and equally stereotyped occupations like interior design, hairdressing, couture, and musical theater) for various reasons. In the universe of the arts, gay men keep some impressive company: Marcel Proust, Michelangelo, Lord Byron, Tchaikovsky, Tennessee Williams, Montgomery Clift, and Leonard Bernstein are only a few of history's homosexuals who have made their indelible mark. (And, by the way, if you fear being around gay men, you probably should stop reading this article right now and quit dancing immediately, because you're destined to meet a few along the way.)

A 1997 study published by J. Michael Bailey and Michael Oberschneider in Archives of Sexual Behavior, titled "Sexual Orientation and Professional Dance," detailed a survey of 136 professional dancers, including homosexual and heterosexual men and women, about the prevalence of gay men in their profession. Their anecdotal responses indicated that they thought that 57.8 percent of the men in dance companies were gay, while they considered 53 percent of the men in their own companies to be gay. Even if those numbers are off by 10 points, those are still high ratios.

Gay men enter the dance field at ages ranging from 5 years old to their college years, but there are often common denominators in their motivations. Choreographer James Cunningham, who co-curates "From the Horse's Mouth" (a performed compilation of notable dancers' stories), worked with a dance and theater troupe from the age of 7. "I was not interested in cars, sports, or dating girls. I was interested in theater, dance, and music, where I could explore my emotional, sensual, sensitive side," says Cunningham. "I played everything--men, women, animals, spirits. What I was learning was that when you're a free spirit you can be everything." Cunningham talks about the yin-yang balance that gay men possess (in sexual terms, that equates to both active and passive libido). "When they call gay people 'fruits' or 'pansies,' that means they have a soft side. Well, I embrace that," he says. "To be a dancer, you have to give in to the rhythm."

O'Connor has coined a term, "feminilia," that describes the feminine creative spirit present in gay (and metrosexual) men and in women. "If gay men need to imprint the womanly element of being on earth, then it makes sense they would follow through with that at the career level," says O'Connor. It was "feminilia" that allowed him to use his neighborhood street as a catwalk and to develop his own physical, non-verbal language. "It was dangerous to say you were gay," he says. "I was developing some other language that was internalized and started to express itself through dance."

For some, the idea of a physicality that was more aesthetic than competitive--more artsy than sporty--held broad appeal. The performance artist Tim Miller confesses that, "Dance class got me out of high school phys ed. It was a life-saver that gave me an integrated, positive relationship with my body." Christopher Williams, who choreographed Portuguese Suite to highlight the taboos of a homosexual union in a conservative backwater, considers his work queer in nature. "Our sense of beauty is undeniably influenced by our sexuality," says Williams. …

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