As dancers, what are we without dance?

 Well…

We are artists.
We are athletes.
We are performers, teachers, leaders, educators, activists.

The list goes on…

From performance, body image, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, age, and more: dancers may end up feeling lost in their own skin due to the preconceived expectations that the industry presents.

My best advice right off the bat? Be authentic and know who you are.

We know that humans are complex, dynamic beings with multifaceted identities, and by nature multi-hyphenates. Nothing says we can’t pursue multiple passions at once, not solely dance. However, it may be easy to wonder: what am I without my passion?

Questioning oneself in the dance world is something we all know too well. Am I good enough? Is my technique strong enough? Did the audience notice me miss my turns? But it goes even deeper than that. From the time of baby ballerinas, we are conditioned to believe that in order to be successful in dance, we need to eat, sleep, and breathe it. Dance becomes our identity. The practice of becoming a dancer is so all-consuming that it eventually becomes the lens through which we see the world and, moreover, ourselves.
 
Although true for some, one sole identity encompassing one asset of our full self is inauthentic and presents difficulty when meeting expectations from others and the industry.


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To start this conversation, it is important to understand a few key terms that will be used throughout this dialogue: identity and intersectionality. In this context, identity refers to a person’s sense of self, established by their individual characteristics, affiliations, and social roles. Moreover, identity has continuity, as one feels to be the same person over time despite many changes in their circumstances.

Next, intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations like race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group. It is a framework for understanding how an individual’s identity and background encompasses certain advantages and disadvantages.

Personally, it is important to start by acknowledging my own privileges in regard to identity and intersectionality. As a cis, white man who identitifies as a musical theatre performer, dance captain, and swing: my experiences vary drastically from those in underprivileged  and marginalized communities. To combat a skewed lens, I look to a number of diverse artists to share their experiences and insight.

With varying performance, race, ethnic, gender identity, and sexuality backgrounds: Xavier J. Bush (he/they), Joel Kaimakani Libed (he/him) and Madison Eve Graham (she/her) come together to share their experiences with identity and intersectionality in the performance world.

Xavier J. Bush

Actor, Singer, Dancer, Choreographer, Director - Starting out, Xavier (he/they) is a performer, choreographer, and director originally from Detroit, Michigan, but currently based in San Diego, California. Xavier grew up participating in every performance opportunity they could get their hands on before moving to NYC to further their training; and eventually heading to Southern California to perform professionally, with a focus and passion for creating representation and breaking stereotypes of minority groups in the entertainment industry.

Dancer Xavier J. Bush performing on stage
"I am happy to be alive in a time where we are starting to see art reflect more of the actual world with different identities being put on stage." - Xavier J. Bush

How has the entertainment industry hindered your identity? How has it supported it?

Xavier: The world as we know it is built upon white supremacy and heteronormativity. The entertainment industry is no different. This means growing up and learning I was taught how to be pallitable for a cis, white audience both on stage and in rehearsals/auditions. I am happy to be alive in a time where we are starting to see art reflect more of the actual world with different identities being put on stage. I look forward to the day where that is the norm rather than a marketing tactic or a way to say “We did it! We’re inclusive.

How do you see the intersectionality of identity and performance in the future? What does this ideal look like? How can it be authentic for you to know who you are?

I think in order for the intersectionality of identity and performance to be authentic we need to be creating more stories that include all kinds of people. Rather than only sticking people of certain identities into stories that weren’t written for them or with them in mind, we need to be creating stories with different identities in the room.

What part of your identity is the most important to you?

For me, all parts of my identity are important to me. If I did not have all parts of my identity I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

Joel Kaimakani Libed

Singer, Actor - No stranger to the stage, Joel (he/him) is an Asian-American singer/actor originally from Oahu, Hawaii who made the move to NYC at a young eighteen years old. Since then, he has been performing professionally for ten years. He has traveled to fifty two countries with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines as a Mainstage Singer plus has countless Off-Broadway tour and regional theater credits. Navigating intersectionality in the performance industry as an “ethnically ambiguous” identity has presented many challenges for Joel, but not always in a negative light.

Performer Joel Kaimakani Libed in Newsies
"The problem wasn’t with me, it’s with the industry not having more representation to reflect the true melting pot of culture our country has." - Joel Kaimakani Libed

How has the entertainment industry hindered your identity? How has it supported it?

Joel: One of the hardest parts about performing is constantly searching for a role or show where I feel seen. For years I felt like I needed to change who I was to fit into a mold that was already in place for me. Starting out in my career I didn’t like people knowing what I was because I didn’t want to get judged off of how I look. I liked to remain “ambiguous.” In a lot of cases, I never felt Asian enough or white enough for most of my roles. The problem wasn’t with me, it’s with the industry not having more representation to reflect the true melting pot of culture our country has. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to embrace what I am and the insignificant need to fit into boxes.

Have you ever felt like you had to search for a sense of belonging in the performance industry?

Absolutely. What’s interesting about performing is the shows are usually made by individual artists. You don’t hire the same 25 people and put on a different show. Each performer has to showcase their talents separately to become part of the group. As for most, certain jobs make you feel like you belong or make you feel successful. Some book Broadway shows, some book TV shows but there isn’t a correct path you need to go down to make you feel like you are a part of something. The performing industry is this huge beautiful umbrella that welcomes all those people who want to be part of something wonderful. For me, performing from community theater into professional theater never felt different because I always felt like I was right where I belonged. I needed to search for the right path and discover what and who I wanted to be.”

What part of your identity is the most important to you?

My cultural upbringing and ethic background are the most important to me. Working in a predominantly white industry I rarely saw roles and characters that were made for  me. I often used my background as a way to be different, when in reality it’s what gave me the confidence to know that I’m worthy and special. I don’t meet many people who have left their life and moved over 5,000 away from home to pursue an industry like this.

Madison Eve Graham

Dancer, Singer, Actress, Aerialist - From swinging and performing in many shows, to choreography and aerialist performance, Madison (she/her) is a professional performer in the entertainment industry with a current concentration in theatre. She grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where she studied dance and was first introduced to theatre through a production of Pippin. From there, she went on to receive a BFA in Dance from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and has since performed up and down the east coast. Most recently, she was seen in Rock of Ages with Prather Productions where she combined her love of theatre/dance with the beauty of pole dancing.

Performer Madison Eve Graham in Rock of Ages
"I am whole — a collage of everything I’ve done and everywhere I’ve been. Despite every up and down." - Madison Eve Graham

How has the entertainment industry hindered your identity? How has it supported it?

Madison Eve: Not much has been hindered— but I’d say the entertainment industry has definitely made me question my identity. Which in turn has made me question my worth and my talent. Leaving myself to wonder If I have anything important to give or gain from the ups and downs this industry relentlessly offers. I think that’s something we’ve all gone through from time to time. It’s easy to doubt and lose sight of yourself. I do feel extremely lucky though. This industry is one that has naturally supported my specific identity. Like I said I crave change. And having the opportunity to understudy and step into dance captain responsibilities has provided an outlet for those parts of me. Not to mention working in a Covid world— where swings are being used almost everyday— has absolutely put my chameleon nature to the test.”

Do you consider yourself an empathetic person? Do you think this empathy comes from your performance background? Why/why not?

I do, and absolutely. I feel I’ve always been a very empathetic person and working in this industry has only strengthened that. Growing up in a competitive dance environment came with its own heavy bag of trauma. Adolescence is already a difficult time for anyone but let’s go ahead and add aqua net and bullying. Seeing and experiencing verbal abuse at such a young age from peers and instructors alike does one of two things. Turns you into [that same person] or shows you how to [do the opposite and] give grace and spread kindness. I'm grateful to be the latter. Transitioning into the adult world and seeing how these issues still persist at a professional level is of course disappointing. But I’ve noticed more and more people in varying levels of authority breaking that cycle of abuse — finding the compassion and empathy our little world of entertainment needs.

Have you ever felt like you had to search for a sense of belonging in the performance industry?

I could write you a book on this one. The word “belonging” alone carries so much weight being that it lives on Maslow’s pyramid. I feel that I’ve always belonged to the world of entertainment. Specifically the world of dance and theatre. Pieces of me belong to every floor I’ve danced on, every theatre I’ve stepped foot in, and every set of eyes that have ever watched me perform. I will never belong to just myself. These places and people live with faint memories of me. In return, I keep pieces of those places and moments too. And maybe that’s why, in a sense, I don’t typically search for a sense of belonging in the industry itself. I am whole — a collage of everything I’ve done and everywhere I’ve been. Despite every up and down.

The practice of becoming a dancer is so all-consuming that it eventually becomes the lens through which we see the world and, moreover, ourselves.

Considering this idea that many identities are calling for representation, the dance world still hinders this, built upon gender norms and gendered language. For example, the pas de deux (a duet, typically referred to as a dance between a man and woman) is an overarching example of the strict gendered roles in ballet, not to mention the gendered dance attire usually required. This rigid and socially constructed divide leaves limited space for flexibility or the inclusion of those whose gender identity may not fit within the traditional cisgender roles upon which ballet is built. To combat this, the simplest way to approach a gender-neutral dress code is to take gender out of it, and give options, allowing for gender inclusivity and identities outside this constructed binary to exist fully and unapologetically.

When considering identities and intersectionality, meeting expectations from both the industry and society can be daunting. Both on and off the stage, we must strive and propel ourselves toward true, accurate representation of racial, class, and gender identities, by staying authentic to yourself, your identity and your beliefs. On and off stage, the most important thing is to allow yourself to be honest in your own skin.

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