The Dancing-Sexing Body

A painting by Jean Béraud of ballet dancers in the wings of the opera house in Paris, 1889. Paris Opéra Ballet at the time functioned not too different from a “high-class brothel,” where many but not all ballerinas made their income by “socializing” with wealthy patrons. (Credit: Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

The dancing-sexing body terrorizes the fantasy of an asexual beauty that the concert dancing body aspires to. The concert dancing body purges itself of sex, of the mundane, of the fleshy, and literally of flesh, in order to attain the precarious status of (white) Art, that which is classy, sublime, pure, and innocent. The concert dancing body does not want to be associated with its shameful sibling, the sexing body.

The dancing-sexing body makes explicit that to dance is to drench oneself in sex — sexuality, sexual relations, sexual movements, sexual orgasmic force; and vice versa, every single sex act is always already a choreographed dance. The historically manufactured distance between dance and sex is very real, but two seemingly disparate activities still find creative ways to bleed into one another and become each other.

I feel compelled to write about the dancing-sexing body in the wake of the many sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault accusations that New York City Ballet (NYCB) was responsible for, and subsequently failed to deal with. To start with, NYCB’s former ballet master for more than three decades, Peter Martins, had to resign earlier this year in the wake of the #MeToo movement, after many dancers came forward with their personal stories, shaking up the ballet world the same way Harvey Weinstein’s case shook up Hollywood. Most recently, one male principle dancer resigned and two others were suspended after student-dancer Alexandra Waterbury calls the company a “breeding ground for sexual exploitation,” detailing the nasty things her colleagues communicate while secretly exchanging sexual images of her.

Certainly, Waterbury is a victim of an intensely patriarchal and misogynistic (ballet) culture, one that thrives on the extreme objectification, submission, and silence of the female body. But there is more to the situation, something that marks concert dance as a much more sexually exploitative space than many other entertainment/performing arts industries. In concert dance, the body is rendered more or less asexual, that which pursues the noble goal of producing shapes, lines, motion, and emotion, thus emptying itself of any social-sexual relations. It supposedly becomes incapable of inhabiting and signifying the orgasmic, and in turn, of committing and suffering from sexual violence.

Because the concert dancing body along with its materiality is constantly guarded from the contamination of sex, sex is simply not part of the discourse in the concert dance world — not in training, not in rehearsing, and barely in performing either. In the studio, our bodies are the most efficient physical instruments of movement execution with little to zero orgasmic capacity; our clothes are uniform, of neutral color and texture to wash out our sexual singularities; our touches, if any, are reduced exclusively to the kinetic, as if kinesthesia and sexuality can somehow be separated from each other. On stage, sex is at best an open secret, a whisper, suggestively hinted at as the flirtatious, the erotic, that which is classy but naughty enough for the white bourgeois audience members.

When sex is explicitly forced to be part of the discourse thanks to the exceptional events of sexual violence, sex becomes just that — an exception. It is Pete Martins’ problem, NYCB’s problem, but rarely do people admit that sex is always there mediating body-to-body relationships in the dance studio and on stage. This prevalence of sexual relations, coupled with patriarchy and misogyny, creates a rather sexually precarious environment for female bodies. If only (male) choreographers and dancers are required to confront their inherently predatory position over other bodies with less agency; if only (female) dancers are encouraged to explore their sexual potential/vulnerability; if only larger institutions stop looking at sex as a problem to be removed, and at once start acknowledging that sex is a problem to be addressed.

One can only hope.

Recuperating Sex in/and Dance: On Whiteness and Choreography

The dancing-sexing body is not just a conceptual framework, but more importantly, it is a highly personal issue for me. I began my formal training in modern dance around when I came out as queer and experimented with my sexuality. Thus, dance and sex have always exerted an entangled presence in my life: dance was a powerful tool I used to experiment with my erotic desire in the nightclub (and at times in the studio also), and sex was at the core of my drive to dance — to get in touch with my body, my pleasure, and frankly, with many other queer “men.”

However, it was not long before I realized that the sexual energy of my dancing-sexing body had no place in the formal dance world. My desire wasn’t exactly repressed per se, but I just had to mask it with certain acts of conformity to desexualize my movement and presence: wearing plainly “normal” clothes, putting on unremarkable make-up, holding my chest up to exude an asexual propriety, tucking my pelvis slightly to restrict its erotic articulation, refraining from displaying overt affection to someone I am interested in or even having a sexual relationship with.

And yet, the countless sexual adventures I have had at different dance companies, dance studios, and dance festivals fundamentally betray this neutral facade. At first, I questioned myself whether or not I was a pervert, but that would also mean the many people I engaged with must have also been perverts. And then I started seeing intra-company romantic partnerships, hearing about my dancer friends’ numerous sexual encounters with other dancers/teachers/choreographers, and at times also tales of sexual harassment and violence. Now, I have to ask myself: is sex so prevalent that it is the norm in dance?

All that is to say, the concert dance setting is a sexually charged environment, even if many people try to tell me or show me otherwise. In this article, I will briefly outline two fundamental elements that are essential to this complicated masking of social-sexual relations : (1) whiteness and (2) choreography.

(1) Concert dance is invented by white bodies, for white bodies, and dispersed universally as for every body. It has participated, but not without resistance, in the Western culture of white supremacy as a mode of aesthetic colonization, propagating multiple sexually “proper” dance forms. As critical race theory shows me, this sanitization of white sexuality and this ability for whiteness to define itself as sexually unremarkable become possible only through the rendering of black and brown bodies as hypersexual (think about the excess of sexuality of Black and Latinx social/commercial dances), or in my case of an Asian male body, as hyper-unsexual and lacking a presence down there (i.e., the process of racial castration as theorist David L. Eng would say). This effort to uphold the facade of sexual propriety in concert dance is quite ironic, considering the history of prostitution in Paris Opéra Ballet in the 19th century, where many ballerinas had to maintain social-sexual relationships with their wealthy patrons in order to survive and climb up the rank.

(2) Choreography captures the act of dancing, and hence, lifts the dancing body outside of the social-sexual realm into the flow of kinetic-aesthetic mobilization.

Choreography is a quite recent (white) invention, appeared in printing for the first time in the 16th century as orchesography — the writing down of movement and dance. Choreography did not come to signify the idiosyncratic act of arranging/commanding movement until the early twentieth century when the emergence of modern dance demands this new language of individual expression. Which is to say, choreography, in its two very simplified and historically dominant meanings as the writing down or the ordering of dance and movement, both render dance as that which is too ephemeral, too anarchic, and thus, needs to be captured and pinned down, needs to be disciplined and put in order. In other words, choreography is a modern tyrannical technology that attempts to yank dance out of its many social-sexual becomings — dancers are no longer social-sexual beings, but aestheticized (i.e., normalized) kinetic beings.

It is certainly pointless to try imagining dance and its relationship to sex before the emergence of choreography. However, in current spaces where choreography is present but does not exert itself too forcefully such as the nightclub or the ballroom, it is not difficult to see how the sexual is very much in excess. Each dance step is not only a negotiation with the kinetic demand of choreography, but also an improvisation with the interpersonal, the social that inevitably instigates the sexual. How, then, can we make visible this overflow of social-sexual relations of the dancing-sexing body in the concert dance body?

To conclude, if dance and sex are intimately inseparable, does that also mean that the labor of the dancing body is not so different from that of the sexing body (i.e., sex work)? Socially speaking, they are clearly not the same because of the stigma attached to the latter, but essentially, both dance and sex work depend on an intimate mobilization of the laboring body vis-à-vis other laboring bodies as well as the consuming bodies. It is not a coincidence that ballet has an explicit history of prostitution, and that sex workers (and also dancers) often dance in the nightclubs as part of their hustling, further blurring the line between dance and sex. What are the implications for concert dance which is historically considered as the lowest form of “high” art? By making explicit dance’s proximity with sex, can we lower dance even further to implode this category of “high” art and subsequently the pretentious “high” culture altogether?