Willem on genderneutrality

posted in: Interviews

Willem, you recently made an interesting post on Facebook. It was about genderneutrality. What do you mean by genderneutrality?

It doesn’t mean everybody should be without gender, but it means that all the roles,etiquettes and behaviours that normally are ascribed or attached to a gender, we could also let go. In short it means that we stop seeing each other as a woman,or a man, or a gay or straight person, a sexual or a transsexual person, but as a human. We don’t focus on the differences between the genders, but we focus on the similarities between us as humans. Of course we are conditioned by society,that some behaviours are appropriate or inappropriate for certain sex or gender. With genderneutrality we challenge that old world view.

If you would consider that meaning of genderneutrality in dance, what would that look like?

In partnerdance there is an archaïc or stereotypical division of roles, where males lead and females follow. But as I mentioned in my post, there is no real physical reason why. We don’t have to lift each other, we dance together. That division of roles is based on the origin of how these dances evolved. We acknowledge that it is roleplaying, but it doesn’t have to continue to be fixed role playing. We can still have leaders and followers. But the genderneutrality challenges the notion that they are fixed on one sex or one gender. So ladies can lead, men can follow.Women can dance with women, men can dance with men. There is no fixed coupling.

So you mention stepping out of the fixed roles in dance, but you also add fluidity of roles?

Yes, during the dance absolutely. Especially in our creativity classes we use this concept a lot. We switch between the roles of leader and follower. Or at a random moment in the dance, the follower takes the lead by initiating the movement.That little game is quite inspiring. As a leader you suddenly have to follow the others dynamics, patterns and expressions of musicality. This gives you a lot of new possibilities and stimulates creativity.

Changing the roles in the classes is now standard. Even if you prefer leading over following, by following sometimes, you become a better leader. It is comparable to the concept that everybody has a male and a female part within themselves. As a male, if you never embrace your female part, it feels almost that you are a flat character. Or a caricature of yourself, like an uber macho who does not understand women at all. I think he will not be very successful in life. As a male, if you embrace your female side of yourself, this will give you the ability to connect to women on a much deeper and more meaningful level.

So you have been integrating the concept genderneutrality in your classes?

Yes, we have been integrating it for quite some time now. One of the first moments I realised that gender is really a social construct is about seven years ago. We had a beginners class and there were more men then women in the class, which was very uncommon at that time.The options for doing solo assignments were limited because they were beginners and they didn’t know anything about the dance yet. So I joined in de class as a follower. I was afraid I would lose them if I forced them to dance with a man in the first class. The men in that class were very masculine and came from boxing and football. But I danced with all of the men and everybody stayed and nobody was awkward about it! At that point I realised that the preconceived notions were purely in my head. The moment I make it normal, everybody accepts it as normal.

That got me thinking about the rigidity of our thinking and role division in partnerdance. Of course there are also nice parts about it. It is nice when you to want to lead as a man in the sense of being courteous and taking care of somebody. Or as a follower being able to let the other person take care of you and being subtle and graceful. That can also make a woman feel more like a woman and a man feel more like a man. I am not saying that we should not do that. I am saying that fluidity in roles can add to the dance and it’s useful for everybody.

You feel that it also can make you a better dancer?

I will state it this strongly: it WILL make you a better dancer. It is not a possibility, it is a fact. If you are able to follow, it will improve your leading as well. If you are able to lead, it will improve your following as well. We could even look at the roles of leading and following. It is not being totally dominant or being totally submissive. I see leading much more as the one who initiates or the one who asks. The follower is the one who propagates or the one who answers. So even the names of the roles are up for debate. Speaking of ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ gives the wrong association. It should be much more about ‘who is the initiator’.

So as a follower, you can be an initiator in your following?

Yes, that is a specific exercise we do in class. Where we let the leads determine the direction and the pattern. The follower then determines the dynamics; size, time and gravity. That really creates a conversation within the dance. I think one of the goals of partnerdance is to create that conversation. In a bar you sit down, have a beer and have a conversation with words. In partnerdance you have a conversation without words; you have a conversation with bodies.

Last year you did the show with Henry. Tell us more about that project.

We were in Holland when we prepared the piece that we performed at his festival in NYC. I must say I had a pre-conceived notion that in Holland we are much more progressive than in the US. But the US is a patchwork of communities. The zouk community in NYC is very progressive and more progressive than Holland. What I thought would be controversial, was not controversial at all and it was received very well. It didn’t create a shock effect, that was also not the objective of the piece. But there was a part of me wanting that or fearing that. When it turned out as it did, it was really nice.

This showed me that, as the example of that beginners class I mentioned, this was in my mind. If you do things sincerely, people react to it sincerely. That is the most important answer how we can create genderneutrality. Not for us as men by trying to be all dragg queens. I see this sometimes at parties where there is cross-dressing and it’s fun! But by overly sexualising this cross-dressing, we keep mocking it and we keep emphasizing the differences. I believe that if we do it sincerely we don’t have to go over the edge to make our point. We can just do it. The piece with Henry was not specifically about women. It was about leading and following, changing the roles, mixing zouk and contemporary. It was about two humans co-creating.

Do you think zouk is a good dance for this co-creation?

I think Brazilian zouk is very good for this role development, this genderneutrality. The way you can connect, the patterns you can choose, the dynamics you can choose, the wide variety of music styles within the dance. And even the vague cultural or ethnic origin point of Brazilian zouk, this all helps to go faster through the evolution of the dance. For example if you look at tango, this is a very conservative dance. The dance originally developed as a male to male dance. But now it is very strict in the rules of which music you can use and what movements to create. And the beauty is in maintaining the essence and the core of the dance as part of the culture. Brazilian zouk never had this ethnic background. So the beauty of this dance is that it is so fluid, it can change and adapted to things in society, as for example genderneutrality.

In your dance studio, the genderneutrality in thinking seems to create possibilities in other classes as well, like solo classes.

Absolutely. I am very proud that the solo classes that are considered female classes, like chairdance or burlesque, we always have a few guys joining. The teachers are strong women, they have already that male energy and I think that is essential for attracting those guys. What they don’t do is change the class so that it becomes more masculine to make the males feel welcome. The males that are joining, are joining a female empowering class. They do the moves as the women do. They actually train their fluidity and  discover their female side. We also see it in Embodying Weekends and bootcamps. We have males buying followers ticket and vice versa. Normally it would be considered the wrong ticket for them, but here it is fully accepted. We have females leading the whole weekend and males following the whole weekend.

Do you have anything to look forward to on this point?

Being inspired on what I did last year with Henry, this year we want to create an only male choreography for example and perform on stage with our students. Or work with the role reversal in choreography. We definitely want to take this concept a bit further.

That is something to look forward to! Thank you and see you on the dance floor!