Performing, selling out, and toxic masculinity

As many of you know, I grew up dancing. My mom half-jokes she first enrolled me because I was a clumsy kid (fact check: this is entirely true), and when my first progress reports came in, my teacher’s primary remark was “she’s so graceful!” To this day, if you put me on marley or wood floors in dance shoes or bare feet, I’m far more coordinated than anywhere else in the world, where I frequently trip over my own shoes. But coordination aside, dance class was the first time I was able to fall in love with being on a stage. And I fell hard—even now, my relationship with the stage remains far deeper than my connection with any human. It was a defining moment very early in my life, one I wouldn’t change for anything.

Along with my quickly-developing stage presence came a broader, less easily defined love: an undying passion for performing. While I know most musicians also list that among their great loves, mine was introduced far differently. Mine was ushered in with the abject excitement of the day we were fitted for costumes, a dozen tiny girls anxiously glancing from our barre exercises to the side of the room where an eternally patient dance mom sat, cloth tape measure in hand, moving alphabetically down the roster. It was heralded by the visceral, almost tangible joy of the day costumes arrived. That tended to cement things every year—the recital was real, we were going to be presented in looks that matched the choreography and the music, oh my goodness the costumes are here it’s time to work. We were given reason after reason—dress rehearsals with the whole studio! dancing in the finale! flowers after the performance!—to be unapologetically, aggressively excited about what we were doing. And even though I was a slow learner, even though I took two or three classes a week and not the five to fifteen others did, I was allowed to be exactly as in love with the art and the stage as my friends who spent their lives en pointe or dashing from hip-hop to tap to modern to jazz to ballet.

So I grew up craving a full and complete product, a show, an experience, a stage presence intentionally and carefully curated to enhance the performance. Maybe as an eight-year-old I didn’t have the words to talk about what heartbreak should look like, but I knew what a bowed head and slumped shoulders and wobbly knees meant. I learned the movement languages of emotions, knew when to use them and why. I understood how to use vulnerability and strength as tools. I learned how to smile so big you could see it from the back of the second balcony.

And then, when I got to college and started to treat music as a career, I found out I was doing it all wrong. All of a sudden, moving while performing was excessive, except in certain situations. Smiling was strategically acceptable, but I had to look like I was taking this seriously. Wearing clothes and makeup I actually enjoy got a lot harder—no more dresses above the knee, and definitely nothing shiny. Appealing, maybe subtly or effortlessly sexy, sure. But not . . . honest.

And that was hard. In dance class, I didn’t always get to be myself, but I was always supposed to be someone. The professional music world, it seemed, would prefer not to acknowledge that there was a person behind the horn unless it was absolutely necessary. So I shrouded myself in apathetic shrugs and elitist comments and concert black and tokenist trips out into the spotlight. I dulled my shine.

I still do.

It’s a hard thing to break out of, especially now that I’m well-entrenched within multiple musical communities. I’m lucky enough that I have friends who will follow me into my own projects—the deep darks and the less deadly serious ones—but coaxing them anywhere beyond “I will sit or stand here and play my instrument” is a chronic challenge. And yes, asking my friends to do backbends while playing and develop entirely new sonic languages (albeit over long spans of time) is a big thing. I’m fully aware. But there’s a barrier of entry beyond the major but relatively simple concept of “I’m going to spend years working on this thing.”

It’s summed up, I think, pretty well by a discussion I witnessed a couple weeks ago (roughly a month ago by the time you’re reading this). Some friends (and bandmates, I think) of mine were bemoaning pop gigs, which in itself is always a curious thing for me because I grew up being allowed to love pop and have never managed to shove myself into the academic-musician box of “this music isn’t intelligent enough/complicated enough/sophisticated enough so we don’t like it.” But, at any rate, my friends were bemoaning pop gigs, spurred on by one’s recounting of performing an entirely-too-well-known, so-requested-it’s-tacky song atop a table after midnight. A couple friends mentioned they couldn’t imagine him doing that. He laughed. “I’m pretty good at selling out, when I have to.”

I’m sure I’m not remembering that verbatim—try as I might, I have a horrible memory for exact phrases in conversations—but the “selling out” was what stuck with me. Someone who so frequently is on all the same wavelengths I am can look at something I’ve always longed for (performing on top of a table? yes please) and see it as so fundamentally incompatible with his art and training that it feels like giving up his musical integrity. I understand the critical difference between performing that feels like performing and performing that feels performative, but I think when we’re taught to hide behind apathetic shrugs and elitist comments and tokenist trips out into the spotlight, we’re taught to dim our sense of play, of innocent joyful discovery, of fun for fun’s sake. Mine remains mostly intact because mine was born in a (somewhat) healthy dance studio, but that’s not true of everyone.

Because I remember how few boys were in my dance classes growing up, how they were bullied for what they love; I remember the news anchor who mocked boys who dance on national TV last month; I remember how closely my guyfriends connect to my work until I want it to involve them; I realize the men I love so dearly have been taught to access joy so entirely differently from how I have that for them it’s screwing their eyes shut and leaning into their instrument and for me it’s turning myself upside down and spinning and leaping and having the boldness to take up space and be seen.

And I remember texting a friend late at night—same friend, actually—and saying “a dance floor is the one place I can tap into joy, which is weird because it means I end up sharing the very top of my emotional range with people other than those closest to me.” And he pushed back against that, said he found it in my music, and all I could think was you haven’t seen me really dance.

This isn’t a fully-fleshed-out analysis piece. It’s not one of those moments where I can be prescriptive and say, “boys should be allowed to be vulnerable and joyful and exuberant and wondrous too,” even though I really really want to. It’s not one of those moments because I understand that when I ask my friends to dance with me, when I point at something body-oriented and interdisciplinary and say, “hey! we could do this,” when I dare them to be happy and blissful and silly and maybe a little bit bad at something without being drunk, I’m poking at a soft underbelly they’ve been taught to minimize, to treat like something that shouldn’t exist. It’s not one of those moments because it’s clear now that some of the people who tell me not to pay attention to what anyone else thinks actually care very much about those opinions—they just respond to attacks by shutting down that part of them, not pushing through. It’s not one of those moments because I am a person who feels entirely too much, whose closest friends feel entirely too much, and sometimes it’s best to comfort and gently coax instead of insisting they’ll be fine (even when it’s true). It took me awhile to realize that, but I get it.

I’d be remiss not to mention that this deeply ties into my post from earlier this year about gendered affection and physical contact. I am the person who finds solace in a hug from a close friend, the one who responds really well to a quick hand squeeze in a stressful moment, the strong advocate for platonic cuddling. Combine that with my dance background, and I’m really just someone with super-thought-out ideas about physical trust and communication. Sometimes that’s dancing, and sometimes it’s not, but sometimes it’s in the sticky middle ground, like when I want to grab someone’s hands and swing them around when something’s gone really well. I spend most of my time in male spaces, but it’s the physical comfortability that’s so easy to find with other women that reminds me this experience is largely gendered.

There’s a lot more to unpack here, but I need to do some thinking before then. I wanted to publish this to get the ball rolling, though, because it’s a jumping-off point that ties into two issues that matter deeply to me: how do we dismantle patriarchal structures in music? And in gendered spaces, how do we communicate the emotions that matter? (How do we tell people we love them?) It’s one of those moments of “do not poke the bear,” only in this case the bear’s stomach is covered in bug bites and you know they’ll bite your hand off if you touch them—even if they don’t mean to.

Which, I guess, is a lot of what I do now. It’s just time to wait and see what happens. ♦

Thanks for reading! I blog frequently about the intersections of music, gender, sexual assault, and activism. Like what you’re reading? Check back every Saturday at 8:00PM MST! To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.