"Warning: this post discusses trauma. If that’s a challenging topics for you, please consider skipping to another post.”
Note - this submission has been edited in collaboration with our Clinical Advisory Board.
Life is full of traumas. Daily micro-traumas, bigger traumas, traumas that radically shift one’s life experience. For whatever reason, these traumas can lead one’s mental health to fluctuate or shift in ways that can make life more difficult — and potentially more beautiful.
I have experienced my fair share of trauma, through childhood and adulthood all the way to this day, the 9,597th since I emerged from my mother’s womb. These have led me to be variously diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder, Major Depressive disorder, and anxiety. I could write about a lot of different experiences, but I will focus here on my experience in dance.
One of the most powerful aspects of dance as an art form, I believe, is that a dancer’s body is at stake. It is not just our ideas or artwork that are scrutinized, it is the very body we inhabit that is the object of people’s praise and criticism.
I am a trans woman. Trans bodies are the objects of scrutiny, oppression, violence, love, wonder, and admiration across virtually every culture — including this dance culture we inhabit.
You, reading this, trans or not, have probably noticed the hyper-gendered nature of contemporary dance practices. One could argue that some forms of dance are agender or gender inclusive, and yet I would still pose these questions: What company does not adhere to a specific ratio of cis men to cis women? How many casting calls do you see specifically calling for one gender? How many roles are given specifically to cis-men and cis-women?
How many trans people do you see in established companies?
This is the world in which I and other trans people make art.
Every audition I attend I approach the director beforehand to ask politely if they would please consider me for women’s roles. This has invariably been met with surprise and occasionally intrusiveness or insensitivity (with few exceptions, like Chuck Wilt! Heyo Chuck!). The last company audition I attended was two years ago. When I spoke to the director before we began, she asked me “Do you always tell the auditioner you’re trans?”
“Yes,” I said, and thought ‘if I did not say anything, I would be considered as a cisgender man. My whiskers and muscles and height and crotch all dictate that in this society I am a man by default. So yes, I have to do this.’
And I was sick of doing it. And I was sick of being cast as a man even when I specifically said “I am a woman.” Perhaps even more than that, I could not stand the idea that most people in the audience would perceive me as a man until they read my bio. Of course, humans in our culture (myself included) are conditioned to believe that one’s gender is based on the appearance of their body.
And that doesn’t make it any less painful.
To be clear, I love my trans identity. I believe that trans people have an innate power to change people’s perception of humanity. At the same time, being trans has led me to have countless traumatic experiences. In this gendered dance community, a community in which much of our value is measured in our bodies, I often feel that there is no space for me or people like me. Even when I personally know many trans artists, it often feels very lonely.
This exclusivity is a major contributor to my struggle with mental health. Much of my experience over the past twenty years of dancing has been finding ways to accept the negative impacts of these traumas in order to take power from them.
And there is SO MUCH POWER!
I am often bogged down in fear of being misgendered or forced to fulfill roles that do not respect who I am. When I am, I push myself to find beauty in my body and the art I make. I have devoted myself to improvisational practices that allow me to accept my experience and other’s perceptions of my body in order to move forward through new ways of existence. (And I go to therapy every week.)
I founded BIRDHOUSE, a physical theater company, to take this transformational improvisational practice to others, and to make activist performance works to change understandings of humanity.
Bringing my methods of coping and growing to others in the form of improvisation workshops has made me feel strong, and helped me understand that I am not alone. There are trans people everywhere, pushing to change this world to one that actively celebrates our identities. We have the power to build communities and to change culture. That’s what my mission is, and I’ve found that it is shared by people — trans or not — who are not satisfied with the way things are.
The knowledge of not being alone is what keeps me moving forward through my most difficult periods. I know that I will likely experience mental illness for years to come if not for the rest of my life, so I’m building a way to push through and use my experiences to empower others.
I have a lot of work and learning to do. And as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that the future is possible, full of hardships, and full of beauty.