Clare Croft’s Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings is a vital engagement with intersectionality
(This article was first published on firstpost.com as part of my fortnightly column ‘The Queer Bookshelf’.)
It seems like the law of diminishing marginal utility does not apply to Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings (2017). Every subsequent reading of this book by dance theorist and curator Clare Croft gives me more than the previous one. My heart expands with joy as I behold the centuries of queer labour it is built on. I feel the love and blessings of my queer ancestors — artists, scholars, activists — whose hardship and struggle helps me create a life of dignity and meaning.
Croft writes, “‘Queer’, as it moves in this project, is a term borne of physical, collective action. Activists recuperated ‘queer’ in the 1990s through moving with their bodies and shouting with their voices, as a group, in public. As a physical action, activism shifted what a word meant and who had the power to define the word. Language is not just a descriptor of the physical; the physical produces and changes linguistic meaning.”
Given the title of this book, and the publishing industry’s compulsion to think about readership in astoundingly narrow ways, it is likely to circulate mainly among people who consume work categorised as queer theory and performance studies. That is most unfortunate because the pedagogical potential of Croft’s work is immense. She speaks to the multiple meanings of queer, queerness and queering through a bold rejection of categories that break up knowledge into seemingly unrelated fragments. This anthology edited by her brings together scholarly articles, artist manifestos and personal essays, and it is part of a wider project that includes a live performance series and a website featuring interviews with the artists who created each work.
She says, “Most of the work in this project, as well as the artists and scholars who produced it, do not fit cleanly — nor do they desire to fit cleanly — into categories presupposed by methods drawn from other academic areas — history or ethnography, for instance. Nor do many of these people fit only into categories of writer or artist. Scholars of queer dance defy traditional disciplinary and methodological divides, refusing divisions among history, ethnography, and theory — camps that have always been underpinned by assumptions about gender, sexuality, and race that should be made visible and reimagined.”
What does race have to do with queerness? Everything, if you learn to see through Croft’s eyes. For her, ‘queer’ is not simply shorthand for LGBTQ. Challenging the gender binary and compulsory heterosexuality is not enough because ‘queer’ signals a larger call for resistance and coalitional possibilities among people questioning white privilege, ableism, the military-industrial complex, and capitalism. Though most of the scholars and artists who have contributed to this book are based in the US, Croft brings forth Black, Latinx, and Asian voices and dancing to the forefront of imagining queerness. Her commitment to “tracing queer in its global, intersectional circulation” comes from the idea that Euro-American centrism restricts the range of dance forms perceived as queer, thus focusing mostly on ballet and modern dance.
In the essay titled ‘Aunty Fever: A Queer Impression’, Kareem Khubchandani remarks, “…when you see me perform as LaWhore Vagistan, the radical-feminist-bicurious-Bollywood drag queen, I’m worried that you see someone who has nicely arrived in a good gay identity as a temporary settler in the United States. Who performs a respectable multicultural identity, diversifying the gay bar with that Slumdog-realness. But I want you to know that (some of) my queerness — the strange ways I like to move on a dancefloor, to exhibit my body on stage and in public — comes from a time before my queerness had clotted into identity…So much of what is queer about me comes from my aunties…Many of these Indian women had, in their twenties or even late teens, travelled to Accra, Ghana, from across the Sindhi diaspora, to marry their Indian husbands.”
Croft’s cautions against articulations of ‘queer’ that make space only for affluent gay white men by ensuring that the book, performance series and website engage with kathak, Bollywood performance, Irish step dance, and contemporary dance from Beijing. Her conceptualisation of ‘queer’ is fundamentally anti-establishment, and opposed to assimilationist activism in the US around allowing gay people to marry or to join the military. She reminds us that ‘queer’ is not an Instagram phenomenon, celebrating aesthetic in isolation from history. It is intertwined with feminist organising, particularly the work of black women, activists of color and trans people who put their bodies on the line to push back against white erasure of their lives and identities.
When queer folx from India travelling to New York click selfies outside the Stonewall Inn on 53 Christopher Street, are they aware of these histories? If they are not, who must take responsibility? Queer desis, even the ones who are well-read and widely travelled, need to examine the anti-blackness and transnegativity that is part of our cultural conditioning. While the rainbow flag is meant to be a symbol of pride, it can be and has been used by people of privilege to obscure the inequalities between folx under the LGBTQ umbrella. Croft advocates that anti-racism, disability rights, and postcolonial work must lie at the heart of queer questioning. In order to be inclusive, queer dance projects must emphasise feminist leadership, be in conversation with their critical political antecedents, acknowledge that social dance and concert dance hold equal import, and also recognise that queer dance happens across an expansive map not restricted to urban spaces.
How is Croft’s work relevant to us in India? Think about these questions, and you will have your answers. Who sets the agenda for queer activism in India? Among all the pride marches that take place in this country, which ones get the maximum amount of media coverage? Who defines the parameters for diversity and inclusion at workplaces? Which parties must one show up at in order to be seen and counted? How do multinational companies, hotel chains and foreign consulates control the purse strings? What is the role of caste in shaping standards of beauty and ideas of desirability? Which queer memoirs get published, reviewed and celebrated? Who feels safe in a pride march?
Croft writes, “It (queer) is not a label to be categorically applied or agreed upon, but rather it is a force of disruption that simultaneously draws on historical genealogies of queer and freshly imagines ‘queer’ in the contemporary moment…recognises the links between dance and legacies of queer activism: the work activists did in the eighties and nineties to recuperate ‘queer’ from a heckle of hate into a proclamation of power and the work queer activists are doing in the twenty-first century within, for instance, the United States’ Black Lives Matter movement and movements for trans rights.”
If we were to take Croft’s work seriously, our conversations about queer identity in India would actively engage with movements for Dalit liberation, nuclear disarmament, academic freedom in our universities, and citizenship rights for the people of Assam who are being called foreigners in their own homeland. We would refuse to let our government in Delhi pinkwash the communication blockade in Kashmir. We would investigate into the Brahminical supremacy within our dance institutions and performance spaces, and observe the meanings they transcribe onto various kinds of bodies. We would interrogate ideas of patriotism that offer impunity to cinema goers who beat up someone who does not stand up for the national anthem played before the movie. How do they uphold normative ideas of caste, gender and sexuality? These questions can be unsettling because they annoy the status quo but that is exactly what queering is all about.
In the essay titled ‘In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club’, Justin Torres writes, “People talk about liberation and that’s it, you get some rights and that’s it, you get some acknowledgement and that’s it, happy now? But you’re going back down into the muck of it every day…You know what the opposite of Latin Night at the Queer Club is? Another Day in Straight White America… “Safe space” is a cliché, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit…You can’t help but smile, this is for you, for us.”
I could go on writing about this book, unpacking every idea, and sharing what it means in the context of my own experience, but I want you to read it for yourself. It pushes us into thinking about ‘queer’ through a broader perspective, and chastises anyone who demands that respect should be predicated on complying with ridiculous norms about respectability. It urges us to try on new identities, make space with others “in a world that would ask you to be alone and quiet,” forge relationships that shield us from the misogyny of mainstream LGBT spaces, and remember that our pleasure is not incompatible with our politics. It invites us to embrace alternatives to text-based forms of knowledge production so that our knowing can flow from our own bodies.
Croft writes, “The final large challenge of dancing queerly is its potential to teach us new ways of looking, to help us see beyond the ruts in which we ride…queer performance becomes a kind of pedagogy, teaching someone what it might look like or feel like to refuse norms, particularly those related to gender and sexuality. Queer performance might be a way to promote a gay agenda! Come to our show: feel all the desires you thought you couldn’t or shouldn’t. How would you move in the world with that taste in your mouth?”
I can relate completely as I write this piece not only with my fingertips typing away on computer keys but with my whole body swaying to the songs on my playlist. Whether it is Madhubala in ‘Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya’ from Mughal-e-Azam, or Rekha in ‘In Aankhon Ki Masti Ke Mastaane Hazaaron Hain’ from Umrao Jaan, or Dimple Kapadia in ‘Yaara Seeli Seeli’ from Lekin, or Meena Kumari in ‘Chalte Chalte’ from Pakeezah, I see myself in them, dancing words into being, and dancing with all my queer siblings who refuse to dilute their love or accept loneliness as a curse that must befall the ones who transgress. I neither look like them nor dress them like them but their song is mine too.
Assigned male at birth, I am 34, hairy, curvaceous, and proud of who I am. I have been teased, shamed and rejected for carrying my body in a manner that patriarchy deems as effeminate and undesirable but that is not the legacy I want to leave behind. ‘Queer’, for me, is about loving my body regardless of what it can or cannot do, and remembering that my heart is too capacious to be crushed forever.